Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  Haida was a short but handsome young man. His face was small and narrow, like an ancient Greek statue, but his facial features were, if anything, classical, with a kind of intelligent and reserved look. He wasn’t the type of pretty young boy who immediately grabbed people’s attention, but one whose graceful beauty only became apparent over time.

  Haida’s hair was short and slightly curly, and he always dressed casually in the same chinos and light-colored shirts. But despite his simple, ordinary outfit, he knew how to wear his clothes well. He loved reading above all else, and, like Tsukuru, he seldom read novels. His preferences ran to philosophy and the classics. He enjoyed reading plays, too, and was a big fan of Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. He also knew Noh and bunraku well. Haida was from Akita Prefecture in the far north of Japan. He had very white skin and long fingers. Like Tsukuru, he couldn’t hold his liquor well, but unlike Tsukuru, he was able to distinguish between the music of Mendelssohn and the music of Schumann. Haida was extremely shy, and when he was together with more than three people, he did his best to stay invisible. There was an old, deep scar, about an inch and a half long, on his neck, like he’d been cut by a knife, but this scar added a strange accent to this otherwise serene young man’s appearance.

  Haida had come from Akita to Tokyo that spring and was living in a student dorm near campus, but had not yet made any friends. When the two of them discovered that they got along so well, they started to spend time together, and Haida began dropping by Tsukuru’s apartment.

  “How can a student afford such an expensive condo?” Haida asked in wonder the first time he visited Tsukuru’s place.

  “My father runs a real estate business in Nagoya and owns some properties in Tokyo,” Tsukuru explained. “This one happened to be vacant, so they let me live here. My second sister used to live here, but after she graduated from college she moved out and I moved in. The place is in the company’s name.”

  “Your family must be pretty well off?”

  “You know, I’m not really sure. Maybe—I have no idea. I don’t think even my father would know unless he assembled his accountant, lawyer, tax consultant, and investment consultant together in one room. It seems like we’re not so badly off now, which is why I can live in this kind of place. Believe me, I’m grateful.”

  “But you’re not interested in the sort of business your father does?”

  “No, not at all. In his line of work you’re constantly shifting capital around—from one side to another and back again. The whole thing’s way too restless for me. I’m not like him. I much prefer plugging away at building stations, even if it isn’t very profitable.”

  “Your one set interest,” Haida commented, a big smile on his face.

  Tsukuru ended up staying in that one-bedroom condo in Jiyugaoka even after he graduated from college and began working for a railway company headquartered in Shinjuku. When he was thirty, his father died and the condo officially became his. His father had apparently intended to give it to Tsukuru all along and unbeknownst to him had previously transferred the deed to his name. Tsukuru’s eldest sister’s husband took over his father’s company, and Tsukuru continued his work in Tokyo building railroad stations, without much contact with his family. His visits to Nagoya remained few and far between.

  When he was back in his hometown for his father’s funeral, he half expected his four friends to show up to pay their condolences. He wondered how he should greet them if they did. But none of them showed up. Tsukuru felt relieved, but at the same time a little sad, and it hit him all over again: what they had had really was over. They could never go back again. All five of them were already, at this point, thirty years old—no longer the age when one dreamed of an ordered, harmonious community of friends.

  About half the people in the world dislike their own name. Tsukuru happened to run across this statistic in a newspaper or magazine. He himself was in the other half—or, at least, he didn’t dislike his name. Perhaps it was more accurate to say he couldn’t imagine having a different name, or the kind of life he’d lead if he did.

  The first name “Tsukuru” was officially written with a single Chinese character, though usually he spelled it out phonetically in hiragana, and his friends all thought that was how his name was written. His mother and two sisters used an alternate reading of the same character for Tsukuru, calling him Saku or Saku-chan, which they found easier.

  His father had been the one who named him. Well before Tsukuru was born, his father had already decided on his name. Why was unclear. Maybe it was because his father had spent many years of his own life far removed from anything having to do with making things. Or maybe at some point he’d received something akin to a revelation—a bolt of unseen lightning, accompanied by soundless thunder, searing the name Tsukuru in his brain. But his father never spoke of where he’d gotten the idea for the name. Not to Tsukuru, and not to anybody else.

  When it came to which Chinese character he would choose to write out “Tsukuru,” however—the character that meant “create,” or the simpler one that meant “make” or “build”—his father couldn’t make up his mind for the longest time. The characters might read the same way, but the nuances were very different. His mother had assumed it would be written with the character that meant “create,” but in the end his father had opted for the more basic meaning.

  After his father’s funeral, Tsukuru’s mother recalled the discussion that had taken place when her husband had chosen the name. “Your father felt that giving you the character for ‘create’ would be a burden to you,” she told Tsukuru. “The simpler character was also read as ‘Tsukuru,’ and he thought it was a more easygoing, comfortable sort of name. You should know, at least, that your father thought long and hard about it. You were his first son, after all.”

  Tsukuru had almost no memories of being close to his father, but when it came to his father’s choice of name, Tsukuru had to agree. The plainer, simpler form of tsukuru indeed fit him better, for he barely had a creative or original bone in his body. But did any of this lighten the burdens of his life? Maybe because of his name, these burdens took on a different form. But whether that made them lighter, Tsukuru couldn’t say.

  That’s how he became the person known as Tsukuru Tazaki. Before that, he’d been nothing—dark, nameless chaos and nothing more. A less-than-seven-pound pink lump of flesh barely able to breathe in the darkness, or cry out. First he was given a name. Then consciousness and memory developed, and, finally, ego. But everything began with his name.

  His father’s name was Toshio Tazaki—“Toshio” spelled out in characters that meant “man who profits,” “Tazaki” literally meaning “many peninsulas.” The perfect name for a man who indeed profited handsomely in many fields. He’d gone from poverty to a distinguished career, had devoted himself to the real estate business and ridden the era of high growth in Japan to brilliant success, then suffered from lung cancer and died at age sixty-four. But this came later. When Tsukuru met Haida, his father was still in good health, tirelessly and aggressively buying and selling high-end Tokyo residential properties as he puffed his way through fifty unfiltered cigarettes a day. The real estate bubble had already burst, but he had anticipated this risk and had diversified his holdings to lessen the financial effects on his bottom line. And the ominous shadow on his lungs still lay hidden away, yet to be discovered.

  “My father teaches philosophy at a public university in Akita,” Haida told Tsukuru. “Like me, his favorite thing is mulling over abstract ideas. He’s always listening to classical music, and devouring books that no one else ever reads. He has zero ability to earn money, and any money he does earn goes to pay for books or records.

  He rarely thinks about his family, or savings. His mind is always off in the clouds. I was only able to study in Tokyo because my college has pretty low tuition, and I’m in a dorm so I can keep my living expenses down.”

  “Is it better, financially, to go to the physics department than the phil
osophy department?” Tsukuru asked.

  “When it comes to their graduates not earning anything, they’re about even. Unless you win the Nobel Prize or something,” Haida said, flashing his usual winning smile.

  Haida was an only child. He’d never had many friends, and relied on his dog and classical music to keep him company. The dorm he lived in wasn’t exactly the best place to listen to classical music (and of course you couldn’t keep a dog there), so he’d come over to Tsukuru’s apartment with a few CDs and listen to them there. Most of them he’d borrowed from the university library. Occasionally he’d bring over some old LPs of his own. Tsukuru had a fairly decent stereo system in his apartment, but the only records his sister had left behind were of the Barry Manilow and Pet Shop Boys variety, so Tsukuru had hardly ever touched the record player.

  Haida preferred to listen to instrumental music, chamber music, and vocal recordings. Music where the orchestral component was loud and prominent wasn’t to his liking. Tsukuru wasn’t very interested in classical music (or any other music, for that matter), but he did enjoy listening to it with Haida.

  As they listened to one piano recording, Tsukuru realized that he’d heard the composition many times in the past. He didn’t know the title, however, or the composer. It was a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations. Tsukuru looked up from the book he was reading and asked Haida what it was.

  “Franz Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays.’ It’s from his Years of Pilgrimage suite ‘Year 1: Switzerland.’ ”

  “ ‘Le mal du …’?”

  “ ‘Le mal du pays.’ It’s French. Usually it’s translated as ‘homesickness,’ or ‘melancholy.’ If you put a finer point on it, it’s more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.’ It’s a hard expression to translate accurately.”

  “A girl I know used to play that piece a lot. A classmate of mine in high school.”

  “I’ve always liked this piece. It’s not very well known, though,” Haida said. “Was your friend a good pianist?”

  “Hard to say. I don’t know much about music. But every time I heard it I thought it was beautiful. How should I put it? It had a calm sadness, but wasn’t sentimental.”

  “Then she must have played it well,” Haida said. “The piece seems simple technically, but it’s hard to get the expression right. Play it just as it’s written on the score, and it winds up pretty boring. But go the opposite route and interpret it too intensely, and it sounds cheap. Just the way you use the pedal makes all the difference, and can change the entire character of the piece.”

  “Who’s the pianist here?”

  “A Russian, Lazar Berman. When he plays Liszt it’s like he’s painting a delicately imagined landscape. Most people see Liszt’s piano music as more superficial, and technical. Of course, he has some tricky pieces, but if you listen very carefully to his music you discover a depth to it that you don’t notice at first. Most of the time it’s hidden behind all the embellishments. This is particularly true of the Years of Pilgrimage suites. There aren’t many living pianists who can play it accurately and with such beauty. Among more contemporary pianists, Berman gets it right, and with the older pianists I’d have to go with Claudio Arrau.”

  Haida got quite talkative when it came to music. He went on, delineating the special characteristics of Berman’s performance of Liszt, but Tsukuru barely listened. Instead, a picture of Shiro performing the piece, a mental image, vivid and three-dimensional, welled up in his mind. As if those beautiful moments were steadily swimming back, through a waterway, against the legitimate pressure of time.

  The Yamaha grand piano in the living room of her house. Reflecting Shiro’s conscientiousness, it was always perfectly tuned. The lustrous exterior without a single smudge or fingerprint to mar its luster. The afternoon light filtering in through the window. Shadows cast in the garden by the cypress trees. The lace curtain wavering in the breeze. Teacups on the table. Her black hair, neatly tied back, her expression intent as she gazed at the score. Her ten long, lovely fingers on the keyboard. Her legs, as they precisely depressed the pedals, possessed a hidden strength that seemed unimaginable in other situations. Her calves were like glazed porcelain, white and smooth. Whenever she was asked to play something, this piece was the one she most often chose. “Le mal du pays.” The groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape. Homesickness. Melancholy.

  As he lightly shut his eyes and gave himself up to the music, Tsukuru felt his chest tighten with a disconsolate, stifling feeling, as if, before he’d realized it, he’d swallowed a hard lump of cloud. The piece ended and went on to the next track, but he said nothing, simply allowing those scenes to wash over him. Haida shot him an occasional glance.

  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to leave this record here.

  I can’t listen to it in my dorm room anyway,” Haida said as he slipped the LP back in its jacket.

  Even now this three-disc boxed set was still in Tsukuru’s apartment. Nestled right next to Barry Manilow and the Pet Shop Boys.

  Haida was a wonderful cook. To thank Tsukuru for letting him listen to music, he would go shopping and prepare a meal in Tsukuru’s kitchen. Tsukuru’s sister had left behind a set of pots and pans, as well as a set of dishes. These were his inheritance—as well as most of his furniture, and the occasional phone call from one of her ex-boyfriends (“Sorry, my sister doesn’t live here anymore”). He and Haida had dinner together two or three times a week. They’d listen to music, talk, and eat the meal Haida had prepared. The meals he made were mostly simple, everyday dishes, though on holidays when he had more time, he’d try more elaborate recipes. Everything he made was delicious. Haida seemed to have a gift as a cook. Whatever he made—a plain omelet, miso soup, cream sauce, or paella—was done skillfully and intelligently.

  “It’s too bad you’re in the physics department. You should open a restaurant,” Tsukuru said, half joking.

  Haida laughed. “That sounds good. But I don’t like to be tied down in one place. I want to be free—to go where I want, when I want, and be able to think about whatever I want.”

  “Sure, but that can’t be easy to actually do.”

  “It isn’t. But I’ve made up my mind. I always want to be free. I like cooking, but I don’t want to be holed up in a kitchen doing it as a job. If that happened, I’d end up hating somebody.”

  “Hating somebody?”

  “The cook hates the waiter, and they both hate the customer,” Haida said. “A line from the Arnold Wesker play The Kitchen. People whose freedom is taken away always end up hating somebody. Right? I know I don’t want to live like that.”

  “Never being constrained, thinking about things freely—that’s what you’re hoping for?”


  “But it seems to me that thinking about things freely can’t be easy.”

  “It means leaving behind your physical body. Leaving the cage of your physical flesh, breaking free of the chains, and letting pure logic soar free. Giving a natural life to logic. That’s the core of free thought.”

  “It doesn’t sound easy.”

  Haida shook his head. “No, depending on how you look at it, it’s not that hard. Most people do it at times, without even realizing it. That’s how they manage to stay sane. They’re just not aware that’s what they’re doing.”

  Tsukuru considered this. He liked talking with Haida about these kinds of abstract, speculative ideas. Usually he wasn’t much of a talker, but something about talking with this younger man stimulated his mind, and sometimes the words just flowed. He’d never experienced this before. Back in Nagoya, in his group of five, he’d more often than not played the listener.

  “But unless you can do that intentionally,” Tsukuru said, “you can’t achieve the real freedom of thought you’re talking about, right?”

nodded. “Exactly. But it’s as difficult as intentionally dreaming. It’s way beyond your average person.”

  “Yet you want to be able to do it intentionally.”

  “You could say that.”

  “I don’t imagine they teach that technique in the physics department.”

  Haida laughed. “I never expected they would. What I’m looking for here is a free environment, and time. That’s all. In an academic setting if you want to discuss what it means to think, you first need to agree on a theoretical definition. And that’s where things get sticky. Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. So said Voltaire, the realist.”

  “You agree with that?”

  “Everything has boundaries. The same holds true with thought. You shouldn’t fear boundaries, but you also should not be afraid of destroying them. That’s what is most important if you want to be free: respect for and exasperation with boundaries. What’s really important in life is always the things that are secondary. That’s about all I can say.”

  “Can I ask you a question?” Tsukuru said.


  “In different religions prophets fall into a kind of ecstasy and receive a message from an absolute being.”


  “And this takes place somewhere that transcends free will, right? Always passively.”

  “That’s correct.”

  “And that message surpasses the boundaries of the individual prophet and functions in a broader, universal way.”

  “Correct again.”

  “And in that message there is neither contradiction nor equivocation.”

  Haida nodded silently.

  “I don’t get it,” Tsukuru said. “If that’s true, then what’s the value of human free will?”

  “That’s a great question,” Haida said, and smiled quietly. The kind of smile a cat gives as it stretches out, napping in the sun. “I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. Not yet.”

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