Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

“I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t,” Tsukuru said. “I guess I’m basically not very outgoing. But don’t get the wrong idea—I wasn’t a shut-in or anything. This was the first time I was living on my own, free to do whatever I liked. I enjoyed my days. The railroad lines in Tokyo are like a web spread out over the city, with countless stations. Just seeing them took a lot of time. I’d go to different stations, check out how they were designed, pencil out some rough sketches, jot down anything special I noticed.”

  “It sounds like fun,” Sara said.

  The university itself, though, wasn’t very exciting. Most of his courses in the beginning were general education classes, uninspiring and numbingly boring. Still, he’d worked hard to get into college, so he tried not to cut class. He studied German and French; he even went to the language lab to practice English. He discovered, to his surprise, that he had a knack for learning languages. Yet he didn’t meet anyone he was drawn to. Compared to his colorful, stimulating group of friends from high school, everyone else seemed spiritless, dull, insipid. He never met anyone he felt like getting to know better, so he spent most of his time in Tokyo alone. On the plus side, he read constantly, more than he ever had before.

  “But didn’t you feel lonely?” Sara asked.

  “I felt alone, but not especially lonely. I guess I just took that for granted.”

  He was young, and there was so much about the world he still didn’t know. And Tokyo was a brand-new place for him, so very different from the environment he’d grown up in, and those differences were greater than he’d ever anticipated. The scale of the city was overwhelming, the diversity of life there extraordinary. There were too many choices of things to do, the way people talked struck him as odd, and the pace of life was too fast. He couldn’t strike a good balance between himself and the world around him. But there was still a place for him to return. He knew this. Get on the bullet train at the Tokyo station and in an hour and a half he’d arrive at an orderly, harmonious, intimate place. Where time flowed by peacefully, where friends he could confide in eagerly awaited him.

  “What about now?” Sara asked. “Do you feel like you’re maintaining a good balance between yourself and the world around you?”

  “I’ve been with this company for fourteen years. The job’s fine, and I enjoy the work. I get along with my colleagues. And I’ve been in relationships with a few women. Nothing ever came of it, but there were lots of reasons for that. It wasn’t entirely my fault.”

  “And you’re alone, but not lonely.”

  It was still early, and they were the only customers in the bar. Music from a jazz trio played softly in the background.

  “I suppose,” Tsukuru said after some hesitation.

  “But you can’t go back now? To that orderly, harmonious, intimate place?”

  He thought about this, though there was no need to. “That place doesn’t exist anymore,” he said quietly.

  It was in the summer of his sophomore year in college when that place vanished forever.

  This drastic change took place during summer vacation of his sophomore year, between the first and second semesters. Afterward, Tsukuru Tazaki’s life was changed forever, as if a sheer ridge had divided the original vegetation into two distinct biomes.

  As always, when vacation rolled around he packed his belongings (though he did not have very many to begin with) and rode the bullet train back home. After a short visit with his family in Nagoya, he called up his four friends, but he couldn’t get in touch with any of them. All four of them were out, he was told. He figured they must have gone out together somewhere. He left a message with each of their families, went downtown to a movie theater in the shopping district, and killed time watching a movie he didn’t particularly want to see. Back at home, he ate dinner with his family, then phoned each of his friends again. No one had returned.

  The next morning he called them again, with the same result: they were all still out. He left another message with each family member who answered the phone. Please have them call me when they get back, he said, and they promised to pass the message along. But something in their voices bothered him. He hadn’t noticed it the first time he called, but now he sensed something subtly different, as if, for some reason, they were trying to keep him at arm’s length. As if they wanted to hang up on him as soon as possible. Shiro’s older sister, in particular, was curt and abrupt. Tsukuru had always gotten along very well with her—she was two years older than Shiro, and though not as stunning as Shiro, still a beautiful woman. They often joked around when he called—or if not a joke, at least they exchanged a friendly greeting. But now she hurriedly said goodbye, as if she could barely wait to end the conversation. After he had called all four homes, Tsukuru was left feeling like an outcast, as if he were carrying some virulent pathogen that the others were desperately trying to avoid.

  Something must have happened, something had taken place while he was away to make them create this distance. Something inappropriate, and offensive. But what it was—what it could possibly be—he simply had no clue.

  He was left feeling like he’d swallowed a lump of something he shouldn’t have, something he couldn’t spit out, or digest. He stayed home the whole day waiting for the phone to ring. His mind was unfocused, and he was unable to concentrate. He’d left repeated messages with his friends’ families, telling them he was in Nagoya. Usually his friends would call right away and cheerfully welcome him back, but this time the phone remained implacably silent.

  Tsukuru thought about calling them again in the evening, but then decided not to. Maybe all of them really were at home. Maybe they didn’t want to come to the phone and instead were pretending to be out. Maybe they had told their families, “If Tsukuru Tazaki calls, tell him I’m not here.” Which would explain why their family members sounded so ill at ease.

  But why?

  He couldn’t imagine a reason. The last time the five of them had been together was in early May, during the Golden Week holidays. When Tsukuru had taken the train back to Tokyo, his four friends had come to the station to see him off, giving him big, hearty, exaggerated waves through the window as the train pulled away, like he was a soldier being shipped off to the ends of the earth.

  After that point, Tsukuru had written a couple of letters to Ao. Shiro was hopeless with computers, so they normally relied on letters, and Ao was their contact person. Tsukuru always addressed the letter to Ao, who made sure that the letters circulated among the others. That way Tsukuru could avoid writing individual letters to everyone. He mainly wrote about his life in Tokyo, what he saw there, what experiences he had, what he was feeling. But always, no matter what he saw or did, he knew he would be having a much better time if the four of them were there to share the experience with him. That’s how he really felt. Other than that, he didn’t write anything much.

  The other four wrote letters to him, jointly signed, but there was never anything negative in them. They just reported in detail on what they’d been up to in Nagoya. They’d all been born and raised there, but they seemed to be enjoying their college lives. Ao had bought a used Honda Accord (with a stain on the backseat that looked like a dog had peed there, he reported, the kind of car five people could easily ride in, as long as none of them was too fat), and all of them piled into the car to take a trip to Lake Biwa. Too bad you couldn’t go with us, Tsukuru, they wrote. Looking forward to seeing you during the summer, they added. To Tsukuru, it sounded like they meant it.

  That night, after he still hadn’t heard from his friends, Tsukuru had trouble sleeping. He felt agitated. Random, senseless thoughts flitted around in his head. But all these thoughts were just variations on one theme. Like a man who has lost his sense of direction, Tsukuru’s thoughts endlessly circled the same place. By the time he became aware of what his mind was doing, he found himself back where he’d started. Finally, his thinking process got stuck, as if the folds of his brain were a broken screw.

  He remained awake in bed until 4
a.m. Then he fell asleep, but he woke up again shortly after six. He didn’t feel like eating, and drank a glass of orange juice, but even that made him nauseous. His lack of appetite worried his family, but he told them it was nothing. My stomach’s just a little tired out, he explained.

  Tsukuru stayed at home that day, too. He lay next to the phone, reading a book, or at least trying to. In the afternoon he called his friends’ homes again. He didn’t feel like it, but he couldn’t just sit around with this baffling, disconcerting feeling, praying for the phone to ring.

  The result was the same. The family members who answered the phone told Tsukuru—curtly, or apologetically, or in an overly neutral tone of voice—that his friends weren’t at home. Tsukuru thanked them, politely but briefly, and hung up. This time he didn’t leave a message. Probably they were as tired of pretending to be out as he was tired of trying to contact them. He assumed that eventually the family members who were screening his calls might give up. If he kept on calling, there had to be a reaction.

  And eventually there was. Just past eight that night, a call came from Ao.

  “I’m sorry, but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore,” Ao said abruptly and without preface. No “Hey!” or “How’ve you been?” or “It’s been a while.” I’m sorry was his only concession to social niceties.

  Tsukuru took a breath, and silently repeated Ao’s words, quickly assessing them. He tried to read the emotions behind them, but the words were like the formal recitation of an announcement. There had been no room for feelings.

  “If everybody’s telling me not to call them, then of course I won’t,” Tsukuru replied. The words slipped out, almost automatically. He had tried to speak normally, calmly, but his voice sounded like a stranger’s. The voice of someone living in a distant town, someone he had never met (and probably never would).

  “Then don’t,” Ao said.

  “I don’t plan on doing anything people don’t want me to do,” Tsukuru said.

  Ao let out a sound, neither a sigh nor a groan of agreement.

  “But if possible, I do want to know the reason for this,” Tsukuru said.

  “That’s not something I can tell you,” Ao replied.

  “Then who can?”

  A thick stone wall rose. There was silence on the other end. Tsukuru could faintly hear Ao breathing through his nostrils. He pictured Ao’s flat, fleshy nose.

  “Think about it, and you’ll figure it out,” Ao said, finally.

  Tsukuru was speechless. What was he talking about? Think about it? Think about what? If I think any harder about anything, I won’t know who I am anymore.

  “It’s too bad it turned out like this,” Ao said.

  “All of you feel this way?”

  “Yeah. Everyone feels it’s too bad.”

  “Tell me—what happened?” Tsukuru asked.

  “You’d better ask yourself that,” Ao said. Tsukuru detected a quaver of sadness and anger in his voice, but it was just for an instant. Before Tsukuru could think of how to respond, Ao had hung up.

  “That’s all he told you?” Sara asked.

  “It was a short conversation, minimalist. That’s the very best I can reproduce it.”

  The two of them were face-to-face across a small table in the bar.

  “After that, did you ever talk with him, or any of the other three about it?”

  Tsukuru shook his head. “No, I haven’t talked to any of them since then.”

  Sara’s eyes narrowed as she gazed at him, as if she were inspecting a scene that violated the laws of physics. “None of them?”

  “I never saw any of them again. And we’ve never spoken.”

  “But didn’t you want to know why they suddenly kicked you out of the group?”

  “I don’t know how to put it, but at the time nothing seemed to matter. The door was slammed in my face, and they wouldn’t let me back inside. And they wouldn’t tell me why. But if that’s what all of them wanted, I figured there was nothing I could do about it.”

  “I don’t get it,” Sara said, as if she really didn’t. “It could have been a complete misunderstanding. I mean, you couldn’t think of any reason why it happened? Didn’t you find the whole thing deplorable? That some stupid mistake might have led you to lose such close friends? Why wouldn’t you try to clear up a misunderstanding that might have been easily rectified?”

  Her mojito glass was empty. She signaled the bartender and asked for a wine list, and, after some deliberation, she chose a glass of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Tsukuru had only drunk half his highball. The ice had melted, forming droplets on the outside of his glass. The paper coaster was wet and swollen.

  “That was the first time in my life that anyone had rejected me so completely,” Tsukuru said. “And the ones who did it were the people I trusted the most, my four best friends in the world. I was so close to them that they had been like an extension of my own body. Searching for the reason, or correcting a misunderstanding, was beyond me. I was simply, and utterly, in shock. So much so that I thought I might never recover. It felt like something inside me had snapped.”

  The bartender brought over the glass of wine and replenished the bowl of nuts. Once he’d left, Sara turned to Tsukuru.

  “I’ve never experienced that myself, but I think I can imagine how stunned you must have been. I understand that you couldn’t recover from it quickly. But still, after time had passed and the shock had worn off, wasn’t there something you could have done? I mean, it was so unfair. Why didn’t you challenge it? I don’t see how you could stand it.”

  Tsukuru shook his head slightly. “The next morning I made up some excuse to tell my family and took the bullet train back to Tokyo. I couldn’t stand being in Nagoya for one more day. All I could think of was getting away from there.”

  “If it had been me, I would have stayed there and not left until I got to the bottom of it,” Sara said.

  “I wasn’t strong enough for that,” Tsukuru said.

  “You didn’t want to find out the truth?”

  Tsukuru stared at his hands on the tabletop, carefully choosing his words. “I think I was afraid of pursuing it, of whatever facts might come to light. Of actually coming face-to-face with them. Whatever the truth was, I didn’t think it would save me. I’m not sure why, but I was certain of it.”

  “And you’re certain of it now?”

  “I don’t know,” Tsukuru said. “But I was then.”

  “So you went back to Tokyo, stayed holed up in your apartment, closed your eyes, and covered up your ears.”

  “You could say that, yes.”

  Sara reached out and rested her hand on top of his. “Poor Tsukuru,” she said. The softness of her touch slowly spread through him. After a moment she took her hand away and lifted the wineglass to her mouth.

  “After that I went to Nagoya as seldom as possible,” Tsukuru said. “When I did return, I tried not to leave my house, and once I was done with whatever I had to do, I came back to Tokyo as quickly as I could. My mother and older sisters were worried and asked me if something had happened, but I never said anything. There was no way I could tell them.”

  “Do you know where the four of them are now, and what they’re doing?”

  “No, I don’t. Nobody ever told me, and I never really wanted to know.”

  Sara swirled the wine in her glass and gazed at the ripples, as if reading someone’s fortune.

  “I find this very strange,” she said. “That incident was obviously a huge shock, and in a way, it changed your life. Don’t you think?”

  Tsukuru gave a small nod. “In a lot of ways I’ve become a different person.”

  “How so?”

  “Well, I feel more often how dull and insignificant I am for other people. And for myself.”

  Sara gazed into his eyes for a time, her voice serious. “I don’t think you’re either dull or insignificant.”

  “I appreciate that,” Tsukuru said. He gently pressed his fingers agai
nst his temple. “But that’s an issue I have to figure out on my own.”

  “I still don’t follow,” Sara said. “The pain caused by that incident is still in your mind, or your heart. Or maybe both. But I think it’s very clearly there. Yet for the last fifteen or sixteen years you’ve never tried to trace the reason why you had to suffer like that.”

  “I’m not saying I didn’t feel like knowing the truth. But after all these years, I think it’s better just to forget about it. It was a long time ago, and it’s all sunk within the past.”

  Sara’s thin lips came together, and then she spoke. “I think that’s dangerous.”

  “Dangerous? How so?”

  “You can hide memories, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.” Sara looked directly into his eyes. “If nothing else, you need to remember that. You can’t erase history, or change it. It would be like destroying yourself.”

  “Why are we talking about this?” Tsukuru said, half to himself, trying to sound upbeat. “I’ve never talked to anybody about this before, and never planned to.”

  Sara smiled faintly. “Maybe you needed to talk with somebody. More than you ever imagined.”

  • • •

  That summer, after he returned to Tokyo from Nagoya, Tsukuru was transfixed by the odd sensation that, physically, he was being completely transformed. Colors he’d once seen appeared completely different, as if they’d been covered by a special filter. He heard sounds that he’d never heard before, and couldn’t make out other noises that had always been familiar. When he moved, he felt clumsy and awkward, as if gravity were shifting around him.

  For the five months after he returned to Tokyo, Tsukuru lived at death’s door. He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss. A perilous spot, teetering on the edge, where, if he rolled over in his sleep, he might plunge into the depth of the void. Yet he wasn’t afraid. All he thought about was how easy it would be to fall in.

  All around him, for as far as he could see, lay a rough land strewn with rocks, with not a drop of water, nor a blade of grass. Colorless, with no light to speak of. No sun, no moon or stars. No sense of direction, either. At a set time, a mysterious twilight and a bottomless darkness merely exchanged places. A remote border on the edges of consciousness. At the same time, it was a place of strange abundance. At twilight birds with razor-sharp beaks came to relentlessly scoop out his flesh. But as darkness covered the land, the birds would fly off somewhere, and that land would silently fill in the gaps in his flesh with something else, some other indeterminate material.

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