Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Tsukuru couldn’t fathom what this substance was. He couldn’t accept or reject it. It merely settled on his body as a shadowy swarm, laying an ample amount of shadowy eggs. Then darkness would withdraw and twilight would return, bringing with it the birds, who once again slashed away at his body.

  He was himself then, but at the same time, he was not. He was Tsukuru Tazaki, and not Tsukuru Tazaki. When he couldn’t stand the pain, he distanced himself from his body and, from a nearby, painless spot, observed Tsukuru Tazaki enduring the agony. If he concentrated really hard, it wasn’t impossible.

  Even now that feeling would sometimes spring up. The sense of leaving himself. Of observing his own pain as if it were not his own.

  After they left the bar Tsukuru invited Sara to dinner again. Maybe we could just have a bite nearby? he asked. Grab a pizza? I’m still not hungry, Sara replied. Okay, Tsukuru said, then how about going back to my place?

  “Sorry, but I’m not in the mood today,” she said, reluctantly but firmly.

  “Because I went on about all that stupid stuff?” Tsukuru asked.

  She gave a small sigh. “No, that’s not it. I’ve just got some thinking to do. About all kinds of things. So I’d like to go home alone.”

  “Of course,” Tsukuru said. “You know, I’m really glad I could see you again, and talk with you. I just wish we’d had a more pleasant topic to talk about.”

  She pursed her lips tightly for a moment and then, as if coming to a decision, spoke. “Would you ask me out again? As long as you don’t mind, I mean.”

  “Of course. If it’s okay with you.”

  “It is.”

  “I’m glad,” Tsukuru said. “I’ll email you.”

  They said goodbye at the subway entrance. Sara took the escalator up to the Yamanote line and Tsukuru took the stairs down to the Hibiya line. Each of them back to their homes. Each lost in their own thoughts.

  Tsukuru, of course, had no idea what Sara was thinking about. And he didn’t want to reveal to her what was on his mind. There are certain thoughts that, no matter what, you have to keep inside. And it was those kinds of thoughts that ran through Tsukuru’s head as he rode the train home.

  In the half year when he wandered on the verge of death, Tsukuru lost fifteen pounds. It was only to be expected, as he barely ate. Since childhood his face had been full, if anything, but now he became wasted and gaunt. Tightening his belt wasn’t enough; he had to buy smaller trousers. When he undressed, his ribs stuck out like a cheap birdcage. His posture grew visibly worse, his shoulders slumped forward. With all the weight loss his legs grew spindly, like a stork’s. As he stared at his naked self in the mirror, a thought hit him: This is an old man’s body. Or that of someone near death.

  But even if I do look like someone who is nearly dead, there’s not much I can do about it, he told himself, as he stared at the mirror. Because I really am on the brink of death. I’ve survived, but barely—I’ve been clinging to this world like the discarded shell of an insect stuck to a branch, about to be blown off forever by a gust of wind. But that fact—that he looked like someone about to die—struck him again, forcefully. He stared fixedly at the image of his naked body for the longest time, like someone unable to stop watching a TV news report of a huge earthquake or terrible flood in a faraway land.

  A sudden thought struck him—maybe I really did die. When the four of them rejected me, perhaps the young man named Tsukuru Tazaki really did pass away. Only his exterior remained, but just barely, and then over the course of the next half year, even that shell was replaced, as his body and face underwent a drastic change. The feeling of the wind, the sound of rushing water, the sense of sunlight breaking through the clouds, the colors of flowers as the seasons changed—everything around him felt changed, as if they had all been recast. The person here now, the one he saw in the mirror, might at first glance resemble Tsukuru Tazaki, but it wasn’t actually him. It was merely a container that, for the sake of convenience, was labeled with the same name—but its contents had been replaced. He was called by that name simply because there was, for the time being, no other name to call him.

  That night he had a strange dream, one in which he was tormented by strong feelings of jealousy. He hadn’t had such a vivid, graphic dream in a long time.

  Tsukuru had never understood the feeling of jealousy. He understood the concept, of course—the sensation you could have toward a person who possesses—or could easily acquire—the talents or gifts or position you covet. The feeling of being deeply in love with a woman only to find her in the arms of another man. Envy, resentment, regret, a frustration and anger for which there is no outlet.

  But he had never once personally experienced those emotions. He’d never seriously wished for talents and gifts he didn’t have, or been passionately in love. Never had he longed for, or envied, anyone. Not to say there weren’t things he was dissatisfied with, things about himself he found lacking. If he had to, he could have listed them. It wouldn’t have been a massive list, but not just a couple of lines, either. But those dissatisfactions and deficiencies stayed inside him—they weren’t the type of emotions that motivated him to go out, somewhere else, in search of answers. At least until then.

  In this dream, though, he burned with desire for a woman. It wasn’t clear who she was. She was just there. And she had a special ability to separate her body and her heart. I will give you one of them, she told Tsukuru. My body or my heart. But you can’t have both. You need to choose one or the other, right now. I’ll give the other part to someone else, she said. But Tsukuru wanted all of her. He wasn’t about to hand over one half to another man. He couldn’t stand that. If that’s how it is, he wanted to tell her, I don’t need either one. But he couldn’t say it. He was stymied, unable to go forward, unable to go back.

  A horrendous pain lashed out at him, as if his entire body were being wrung out by enormous hands. His muscles snapped, his bones shrieked in agony, and he felt a horrendous thirst, as if every cell in his body were drying up, sapped of moisture. His body shook with rage at the thought of giving half of her to someone else. That rage became a thick, sloppy ooze that squeezed out from his marrow; his lungs were a pair of crazed bellows, while his heart raced like an engine with the accelerator slammed to the floor. Darkish, agitated blood pulsed to all his extremities.

  He woke up, his body quaking. It took a while before he understood that it had been a dream. He tore off his sweat-soaked pajamas and dried himself with a towel, but no matter how hard he wiped the sweat away, he couldn’t rid himself of that slimy feeling. And he came to a realization. Or maybe felt it intuitively. So this was jealousy. The body or the heart of the woman he loved, or maybe even both, were being wrested from him by someone else.

  Jealousy—at least as far as he understood it from his dream—was the most hopeless prison in the world. Jealousy was not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily, locked the door, and threw away the key. And not another soul in the world knew he was locked inside. Of course if he wanted to escape, he could do so. The prison was, after all, his own heart. But he couldn’t make that decision. His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy.

  Tsukuru grabbed a carton of orange juice from the fridge and drank glass after glass. His throat was bone dry. He sat down at the table and, watching through the window as the day slowly dawned, willed himself to calm down. This surge of overpowering emotion that had struck him had his heart and body trembling. What in the world could this dream mean? he wondered. Was it a prophecy? A symbolic message? Was it trying to tell him something? Or was this his true self, unknown to him until now, breaking out of its shell, struggling to emerge? Some ugly creature that had hatched, desperate to reach the air outside?

  Tsukuru Tazaki only understood this later, but it was at this point that he stopped wanting to die. Having stared at his naked form in the mirror, he now saw someone else reflected there. That sa
me night was when, in his dreams, he experienced jealousy (or what he took for jealousy) for the first time in his life. And by the time dawn came, he’d put behind him the dark days of the previous five months, days spent face-to-face with the utter void of extinction.

  He speculated that, just as a powerful west wind blows away thick banks of clouds, the graphic, scorching emotion that passed through his soul in the form of a dream must have canceled and negated the longing for death, a longing that had reached out and grabbed him around the neck.

  All that remained now was a sort of quiet resignation. A colorless, neutral, empty feeling. He was sitting alone in a huge, old, vacant house, listening as a massive grandfather clock hollowly ticked away time. His mouth was closed, his eyes fixed on the clock as he watched the hands move forward. His feelings were wrapped in layer upon layer of thin membrane and his heart was still a blank, as he aged, one hour at a time.

  Tsukuru gradually began to eat again. He bought fresh ingredients and prepared simple, decent meals. Still, he regained only a little of the weight he’d lost. Over nearly a half year’s time his stomach had drastically shrunk, and now, if he ate more than a fixed amount, he threw up afterward. He started swimming again early in the mornings at the university pool. He’d lost a lot of muscle, got out of breath when he went up stairs, and needed to regain his strength. He bought new swim trunks and goggles, and swam the crawl every day, between 1,000 and 1,500 meters. Afterward he’d stop by the gym and silently use the machines to train.

  After a few months of decent meals and regular workouts, he’d mostly recovered. He had the muscles he needed (though he was muscular in a very different way from before). His posture became erect, not slouched, and the color returned to his face. For the first time in a long time, he even had stiff erections again when he woke up in the morning.

  Around this time his mother paid a rare visit to Tokyo. She found that Tsukuru had started to act and speak a little oddly, and, after he hadn’t been home for New Year’s, she decided to go to check up on him. When she saw how much her son had changed in the space of a few months, she was speechless. But Tsukuru attributed it to “normal changes you go through when you’re my age.” What he really needed, he told her, were clothes that actually fit him now, and his mother totally accepted his explanation. She’d grown up with a sister and, after her own marriage, was more familiar with how to raise her daughters. She had no idea how to raise a boy, and so Tsukuru convinced her that his changes were normal developments. She happily took him to a department store to buy new clothes, mostly Brooks Brothers and Polo, the brands she preferred. His old clothes they either threw away or donated.

  His face had changed as well. The mirror no longer showed a soft, decent-looking, though unthreatening and unfocused boy’s face. What stared out at him now was the face of a young man with cheekbones so prominent they looked as if they’d been chiseled by a trowel. There was a new light in his eyes, a glint he’d never seen before, a lonely, isolated light with limited range. His beard suddenly grew thicker, and he had to shave every morning. He grew his hair out, too.

  Tsukuru didn’t particularly like his new looks. Nor did he hate them. They were, after all, just a convenient, makeshift mask. Though he was grateful, for the time being, that it wasn’t the face he’d worn before.

  In any case, the boy named Tsukuru Tazaki had died. In the savage darkness he’d breathed his last and was buried in a small clearing in the forest. Quietly, secretly, in the predawn while everyone was still fast asleep. There was no grave marker. And what stood here now, breathing, was a brand-new Tsukuru Tazaki, one whose substance had been totally replaced. But he was the only one who knew this. And he didn’t plan to tell.

  Just as before, he made the rounds sketching railroad stations and never missed a lecture at college. When he got up, he’d take a shower, wash his hair, and always brush his teeth after eating. He made his bed every morning, and ironed his own shirts. He did his best to keep busy. At night he read for two hours or so, mostly history or biographies. A long-standing habit. Habit, in fact, was what propelled his life forward. Though he no longer believed in a perfect community, nor felt the warmth of chemistry between people.

  Every morning he’d stand at the bathroom sink and study his face in the mirror. And slowly he grew used to this new self, with all its changes. It was like acquiring a new language, memorizing the grammar.

  Eventually he made a new friend. In June, nearly a year after his four friends in Nagoya abandoned him. This new friend went to the same college and was two years younger. He met the man at the college pool.

  He met the man at the college pool.

  Like Tsukuru, the man swam by himself early every morning. They began to have a nodding acquaintance, and eventually, they started to talk. After changing in the locker room, they went out for breakfast together in the school cafeteria. The man was two years behind Tsukuru in college, and was majoring in physics. They were in the same engineering college, but students in the physics department and the civil engineering department were like beings from different planets.

  “What exactly do you do in the civil engineering department?” the student asked him.

  “I build stations,” Tsukuru replied.


  “Railroad stations. Not TV stations or anything.”

  “But why railroad stations?”

  “The world needs them, that’s why,” Tsukuru said, as if it were obvious.

  “Interesting,” the man said, as if he truly felt that way. “I’ve never really given much thought to the necessity of stations.”

  “But you use stations yourself, I imagine. If there weren’t any, you’d be in trouble when you ride the train.”

  “I do ride the train, and I see your point.… It’s just that I—well—never imagined there were people in the world who had a passion for building them.”

  “Some people write string quartets, some grow lettuce and tomatoes. There have to be a few who build railroad stations, too,” Tsukuru said. “And I wouldn’t say I have a passion for it, exactly. I just have an interest in one specific thing.”

  “This might sound rude, but I think it’s an amazing achievement to find even one specific thing that you’re interested in.”

  Tsukuru thought the younger man was poking fun at him, and gazed intently at his handsome face. But he seemed serious, his expression open and straightforward.

  “You like making things, just as your name implies,” the man said, referring to the fact that tsukuru meant “to make or build.”

  “I’ve always liked making things that you can actually see,” Tsukuru admitted.

  “Not me,” the man said. “I’ve always been terrible at making things. Ever since I was in grade school I’ve been hopeless with my hands. Couldn’t even put together a plastic model. I prefer thinking about abstract ideas, and I never get tired of it. But when it comes to actually using my hands to make something real, forget about it. I do like cooking, though, but that’s because it’s more like deconstructing things than constructing them.… I guess it must seem a little disturbing for someone like me, who can’t make anything, to go to engineering school.”

  “What do you want to focus on here?”

  The man gave it some thought. “I don’t really know.

  I don’t have any set, clear goal like you. I just want to think deeply about things. Contemplate ideas in a pure, free sort of way. That’s all. If you think about it, that’s kind of like constructing a vacuum.”

  “Well, the world needs a few people who create a vacuum.”

  The other man laughed happily. “Yeah, but it’s different from people growing lettuce or tomatoes. If everybody in the world worked their hardest to create a vacuum, we’d be in big trouble.”

  “Ideas are like beards. Men don’t have them until they grow up. Somebody said that, but I can’t remember who.”

  “Voltaire,” the younger man said. He rubbed his chin and smiled, a cheerful,
unaffected smile. “Voltaire might be off the mark, though, when it comes to me. I have hardly any beard at all, but have loved thinking about things since I was a kid.”

  His face was indeed smooth, with no hint of a beard. His eyebrows were narrow, but thick, his ears nicely formed, like lovely seashells.

  “I wonder if what Voltaire meant wasn’t ideas as much as meditation,” Tsukuru said.

  The man inclined his head a fraction. “Pain is what gives rise to meditation. It has nothing to do with age, let alone beards.”

  The young man’s name was Haida, which meant, literally, “gray field.” Fumiaki Haida. Another person with a color, Tsukuru mused. Mister Gray. Though gray, of course, was a fairly subdued color.

  Neither of them was very sociable, but as they continued to meet, a natural friendliness grew between them and they began to open up to each other. They decided to meet every morning and swim laps together. They both swam long distances, freestyle, though Haida was a little faster. He’d gone to a swim school since he was a child, and his swimming form was beautiful, without a single wasted motion. His shoulder blades moved smoothly, like the wings of a butterfly, barely skimming the surface. After Haida gave Tsukuru some detailed pointers, and after Tsukuru had done more strength training, he was finally able to match Haida’s speed. At first they mainly talked about swimming techniques, but later branched out into other topics.

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