Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami fans all over the world are waiting with bated breath for the translation of his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage which should hopefully be published sometime next year. I still have 1Q84 to get through so I’m happy to wait although I was tempted to try and read it in Japanese. But many of my Japanese friends have and so I present to you my lovely friend and fellow reader Eriko who will give you a glimpse of what Murakami has in store for us.

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Since the new book by Haruki Murakami came out, I’ve been on trains and passed by bookstores bursting with ads for this book. This has made me feel a bit uneasy, as reading a book, especially Murakami’s, is a very personal experience for me and often I forget that it is written by a famous author and not just for me.

36 year old Tsukuru Tazaki works as a railway station planner in Shinjuku,Tokyo. He has always felt that there might be something abnormal about himself hidden beneath his very ordinary, dull persona – a feeling that he is different from others.

His new girlfriend, Sara, is a few years older than him and a smart professional working for a travel agency. They have just started seeing each other and Tsukuru is obviously very attracted to her although things are still quite polite between them – his attraction is still on a level of dreamy yearning from a slight distance, being unsure whether she will really become his.

One night, Tsukuru ends up talking about an incident that occurred 16 years ago which changed his life. While at university in Tokyo, he was suddenly expelled from his group of high school friends back in his hometown of Nagoya for no obvious reason. Until that point, their group of two girls and three guys including Tsukuru had maintained a spotless harmony and exclusive closeness which Sara now sees as unnatural and constructed. Because he was tormented, Tsukuru never tried to find out why this happened and just let it sink.

Sara gently suggests that Tsukuru should face his past split with his high school friends and find out the reason behind it. She says that there is a certain aloofness about him that prevents her from developing a serious relationship with him. Thinking upon it, Tusukuru begins to understand that he may have commitment issues stemming from his past.

With Sara’s help, Tsukuru reconnects one by one with his old friends, Mr. Blue, Mr. Red, Ms. White and Ms. Black, to find out the truth and finally finds redemption by sharing their emotional wounds from their past.

In this novel, you find lots of real people with ordinary jobs and lives in which things are seemingly pretty sane. They all seem to be out in the world and properly connected with society, compared to say the protagonist in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle who has just quit his job at a law firm and stays at home alone when he starts to receive weird phone calls from a strange woman, or the 15-year-old runaway boy in Kafka on the Shore who travels to Shikoku and settles in a local library as a total stranger. Yet with Tsukuru, we are led through metaphysical and symbolic dreams or perhaps dream-like reality, catching glimpses of people’s inner longings and agony urged by very strong sensations of both life and death.

This time, it is Liszt’s melody Le Mal du Pays that is played and mentioned repeatedly in the story and outlines the vague melancholy Tsukuru carries within himself.

Like the other novels by Murakami, I find it difficult to summarize what went through me while reading this story as every line contains details that grasp your imagination or trigger an inner dialogue between you and the narrative.

Overall, it was an easy read, concentrating on human emotions such as friendship and love, with a twist of mystery. The story left me with a rather warm feeling as well as hope, not yet promised, for a happier future for Tsukuru as he seems to find himself a renewed person after the pilgrimage.

In a closed memorial lecture and interview for late psychologist, Hayao Kawai, held at Kyoto University in May, Murakami reportedly referred to his work as follows:

Stories lie at the very bottom of human souls. Because they are at the deepest spot of people’s heart, they can connect people at their roots. The role of a novelist is to provide a model for the stories people have. If the readers sympathize with the novel and react to it, something like a network of souls will be constructed. This is what I feel like doing – constructing a network of souls via my novels.

I am certain that Murakami was successful in touching my mind and heart at a deep level with his new novel again this time and made me react to it in many parts. Probably even more so because it had to do more purely with human relationships as well as life and death. Particles of Tsukuru’s story still remain quietly resonant within me.

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Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Murakami’s new novel, Eriko.

Eriko is of mixed Japanese and German origin and lives in Tokyo.

Intrigued by the thought-provoking title of Murakami’s new work, she got a copy as soon as it was published. She also reread her favorite dialogue between Murakami and the late Jungian psychologist, Hayao Kawai, Haruki Murakami goes and meets Hayao Kawai, which helps her gain new perspectives in experiencing Murakami’s work. Murakami says that Kawai was the only person who truly understood what he was trying to do in his work.

Murakami Kawai

So I really enjoyed reading Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami’s debut novel, and went on to read its sequel, Pinball, 1973 straight away. It’s set three years on from the events in the first book and our narrator, still nameless, has set up a successful translation business with a friend, translating everything from manuals to adverts. The work isn’t too hard and there’s plenty of time to chill after he’s done his day’s worth. Still in his twenties, he hasn’t quite found his niche in life. One day he wakes up in bed with two girls, twins, and so starts their strange life together. And out of the blue comes a chance to reconnect with his favourite pinball machine, a legendary make that seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. Back in his home town, his friend Rat is still going to J’s Bar and is still unhappy with his life, dropping out of university and several relationships until he too must make a decision about the direction of his life.

I have to confess I didn’t enjoy Pinball, 1973 as much as Hear the Wind Sing even though it has more of a cult following (probably because it’s much harder to get hold of outside Japan) mainly because the minutiae regarding the workings and the narrator’s obession with pinball machines somehow went straight over my head. Never played pinball and am not going to start now. And I wasn’t too tickled by the notion of the narrator, again nameless here, having a threesome with twins. There’s nothing really salacious in Murakami’s novel. It’s just….what is it with men and twins? I mean, would twin girls really want to share a boyfriend? Wouldn’t they want one just for themself? It’s just a bit icky. I’m not a twin so I can’t really understand how true fictional portrayals are although I suspect they tend to be rather extreme and fantastical.

Saying that, I did enjoy reading Pinball, 1973 just because of Murakami’s laconic style which always reminds me of a late summer’s afternoon, full of promise and languour. In some way’s, it’s a very geeky book and I suspect Murakami is a geek. The detail he goes into about translation work and pinball machines, the names of English songs and books. I read somewhere that Japanese critics have accused his novels of smelling like butter, meaning they’re too Westernised, but what’s wrong with writing about what you are into? And you can tell Murakami is totally in love with American culture because it shows in his writing. And I say, bully for him. I see echoes of the American style and vision that was prevalent in Japan when I was growing up there just as it is in his books. Japanese people may be falling out of love with America and its culture, but in the 70s and 80s, it was all the rage.

Murakami captures life in your twenties perfectly. It’s nostalgic and slightly romantic, something I yearned for in my twenties when I was busy studying and getting way too drunk. But looking back, it was a magical time.

Like with Hear the Wind Sing, I had no issues with Alfred Birnbaum’s translation of Pinball, 1973 and found it very easy to immerse myself into the book, although I know there have been many criticisms.

And do check out Stu and Tony’s posts on Pinball, 1973 too.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5 and the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011.

So, the mega best-selling 1Q84 is being published as I write this and what better way to celebrate all things Murakami than by going back to read his first novel. More a novella at only 128 pages in the small Japanese paperback published by Kodansha International, Hear the Wind Sing is an easy reading book and holds many of the themes which Murakami returns time and again in his more famous novels, in particular Norwegian Wood.

The un-named narrator is on a Summer break from university and has returned to his home town from Tokyo where he hangs out in J’s Bar and befriends another student called Rat. The novel is essentially a slow summer’s tale, something which reminded me of my own summer holidays as a student where time slows down and it’s hot and lazy and Murakami captures this period that is lost once you become a working adult. We find out about what the narrator likes to read, how he is coming to grips with the world he lives in, his past three loves whose memories are slowing evaporating and his friendships with Rat, who is at a cross-roads in his life and waxes lyrical while drinking at J’s Bar, and a four-fingered girl who works at a record shop and who is recovering from some kind of trauma.

Many have said this isn’t Murakami’s best (it is his debut, after all) and that Murakami is reluctant to have it published outside Japan (the Kodansha International edition is primarily for Japanese students learning English), yet I liked this book. There is something about an author’s hype where you feel that you ought to like their writing even though you don’t. I get a fleeting sense of trepidation every time I start a book by Murakami, but I am always overwhelmed by a feeling of familiarity and how much I am enjoying the experience of reading the book as I turn the pages.

It’s a skeletal version of the themes important to Murakami, as though he is putting out feelers, not yet ready to fully discuss what it is to be alive and to belong. The themes of alienation, dissociation, making your own way into the world and leaving your home behind are all there. But it’s not as harsh and stark as in his later books. There aren’t any fantastical elements here, but I’m a fan of his more realistic novels and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Pinball 1973.

Alfred Birnbaum’s translation was easy to read and pretty good and there was nothing that particularly jarred.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5 and the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011.

Terrible Twos

14 July, 2011

Not me, silly, but my blog. Yes, chasing bawa is TWO this year and I’m as shocked as you all that I’ve sustained my interest and enjoyment at this book blogging business. In fact, my interest hasn’t waned at all but has increased as I’ve made some wonderful friends and found some extremely well-written, funny and lovely blogs. The book blogging world is indeed a very genuine and warm one and I’m glad to be a part of it. So to celebrate I have a particularly brilliant giveaway, if I say so myself.

Feast your eyes on these:

Oh yes, it’s a Haruki Murakami twosome, kindly sent to me by my lovely friend Y all the way from Japan. One lucky winner will get a spanking new set of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 in English. As most of you will probably know, these are the first two of Murakami’s books to be translated into English and start the Trilogy of the Rat which culminates with A Wild Sheep Chase and later Dance, Dance, Dance both of which are available internationally.

With these, you are in fine form to join In Spring It Is The Dawn‘s Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge to celebrate the English release of 1Q84 (I cannot wait for this!) and also Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 5, if you haven’t already. I haven’t read my copies yet and will be doing so for the two challenges. Very exciting! And you can read an interesting piece on why Murakami is so popular here.

I’m sad to hear that Kodansha International is no longer in business and both books are increasingly difficult to get hold of (although they are available on Amazon Japan), so I’m offering this twosome as a big THANK YOU to all of you who stop by, read and comment on my blog. I like comments but I like lurkers too!

So tell me which book you are most looking forward to read this summer and I’ll pick a winner in the old fashioned way (names in a mug) in a week’s time. And I’ll send it anywhere too. Good luck everyone!

* Thank you all for participating but the giveaway is now closed. *

Kafka on the Shore

I always fret long and hard when writing Japanese names: do I do it the Japanese way with the surname first or the English way (i.e. Murakami Haruki or Haruki Murakami)? In my first post about Japanese authors I did it the Japanese way but as I blogged on I’ve switched back to the English. What to do? I guess my western education has come through and won. So, I think I’ll just go with the flow. If in my mind I’m thinking in Japanese, then the Japanese way it is. If not, tough. So if you do get annoyed, I apologise in advance.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the serious stuff. I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore last night. It took me about a week or so which is quite a long time for me to finish a book, but then I wasn’t reading every hour of the day. I got snatches in on my commute and before going to bed.

Kafka on the Shore. What can I say? It was pure Murakami. It had mystery, whimsy, darkness and a lot of soul searching. There were some choice of words in the translation that jarred, but overall it was easy to get into and kept me hooked. And a significant part of the book was about books and set in a library. What’s not to like?

The novel begins with an inexplicable happening during WWII in the mountains of Shikoko, one of the southern islands of Japan. A group of children collapse on an outing leaving one boy in a coma. They do not remember anything and the doctor and teacher are forbidden by the military to speak of the incident.

We then come to the present day where fifteen year old Kafka Tamura and his mysterious friend Crow have run away from his father in Tokyo. He has been cursed since birth, his father claiming that Kafka will kill him and sleep with his mother and sister. So naturally, Kafka wants to defy him and break free from his Sophoclean fate. But Kafka’s mother and sister disappeared when he was four. This complicates things because Kafka seeks them in every female he meets, but due to his youth and hormones cannot escape from sexually fantasising about them. Kafka ends up in Takamatsu in Shikoku and is befriended by first Sakura, a hairdresser, and then Oshima, a long-haired boy who works in the Komura Memorial Library, a private library which becomes a refuge for Kafka. Here he meets beautiful Ms. Saeki who still carries a torch for her long-dead lover.

Elsewhere in the novel, we follow Nakata, who is unable to remember anything since the incident during the war and cannot read or write. But he can talk to cats. While looking for a missing cat, Nakata is led to a sinister being, one Johnnie Walker who collects the souls of cats, who persuades him to commit murder. Nakata goes on the run and is helped by Chunichi Dragons fan Hoshino, a once-delinquent truck driver.

Murakami cleverly entwines the two strands of the novel, keeping the reader guessing until the end. The characters in his novel are charming, troubled, naive yet strong. They are trying to figure out their destiny, and although they do not go through life in the easiest way, we are glad to follow in their footsteps.

Kafka on the Shore is very different to a lot of novels currently out there. Although Murakami doesn’t provide a definitive answer he does provide some sort of closure in Kafka’s story. As in After Dark, Murakami’s novel is peopled by the displaced. Alienation is a theme that runs through this novel, yet we also encounter people who are willing to stretch out a hand and help. Murakami leaves you pondering about the nature of life and people and that’s always a good thing.


I started reading Kafka on the Shore last week for the Japanese Literary Challenge 3 and I’m enjoying it very much. I’m taking it slowly as I want to savour and think about it as I go along. Also, there is a character in the novel with the same name as mine! Yay, bonus! While I was at my sister’s this weekend, I caught sight of After Dark on her bookshelf, and as it was quite a slim volume, I took it down and couldn’t resist taking a peek. I normally go to sleep with a couple of books by my pillow (kind of like a security blanket – I always feel safe when I’m surrounded by books) and before I knew it, I had started reading it. And I finished it the following morning. I did say it was a slim volume.

After Dark isn’t as whimsical as some of Murakami’s other novels. If I had to compare it, it is more in the vein of Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun rather than A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance. The novel follows one night in the life of Mari Asai, a nineteen year old university student studying Chinese and running away from her cracked home life. She has a beautiful older sister Eri who is deep in a coma-like sleep watched over by a mysterious man. Mari has missed her last train home and is killing time reading a book in a family restaurant. There, she encounters Takahashi, a one-time classmate of her sister’s. He is on his way to an all night band practice. From there, events take a strange turn as Takahashi’s friend Kaoru, a former pro-wrestler and now manager of a love hotel asks for her help. She has a beaten up Chinese prostitute crying in the love hotel and needs Mari’s interpreting skills. Mari is drawn into the shadowy underbelly of Japanese nightlife as she meets characters who do not normally exist in her conventional suburban life.

Nothing much happens as this novel only covers about seven hours or so in Mari’s life. But we get a snapshot of the lonely hours between the last and first trains that leave Tokyo into the suburbs. The 24 hour family restaurants, convenience stores and love hotels as well as the night shift of IT workers all make an appearance when most ordinary folk are fast asleep in their beds. In contrast, Mari’s sister Eri who is fast asleep at home is stuck in an uneasy place between life and death. We hear stories about the various displaced characters who are all running away from something in their lives. Like in all of his novels, there is a thread of alienation running through After Dark. And although Murakami doesn’t try and explain or give an answer to life’s problems, the novel left me not with a sad, depressed sense of futility, but a snapshot of modern life in Japan. It’s not a happy novel, but he leaves us with a small nugget of hope in the myriad problems faced by ordinary people.

A lot of focus has been given in the past few years to the dark, visceral nature of Japan and the East, not mainly due to the violence and sex prevalent in films, novels and manga that is increasingly available in the West. Like in any country, there is a light and dark side to Japan. I feel it mistaken to think that you can define a country just by a selection of artistic work. Having lived in Japan, I feel that the traditional and modern, culture and vice all complement each other and build a fuller picture of such a complex nation.

After Dark isn’t my favourite Murakami novel, but I liked it. There isn’t a definitive conclusion to the story, but you come away from reading it with a little more understanding of Japanese society.

Favourite Writers: Fiction

15 August, 2009

Everytime I am confronted with articles or questionnaires about favourite books and writers, I decide to make my own list and give up after a few minutes. It’s not that I don’t have enough to fill a list, I have too many favourites and I fear that I have forgotten some of the ones I particularly loved. I want to do justice to that list. In author interviews, this is one of the most frequently asked questions and I can almost visualise their quavering when they have to announce to the world their favourite books and authors. They always start or end by saying that this is by no means absolute and it could change tomorrow. That is how I feel too. But there are a number of titles I will always love because of their impact on my thinking at a particular point in my life, and I thought it would be a good exercise to give it a try. Put it down on paper, so to speak.

I generally read a lot of mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction and fantasy and general/literary fiction and of course, some classics, once in a while. When I was a student I went through a French phase where everything had to originate from the Latin Quarter: Sartre, Beauvouir and Camus. I grew up with the refrain ‘maman est morte’ as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in English) is my father’s all time favourite book, a remnant of his student days at the Sorbonne in the late ’60s.

letranger theoutsider

I will be putting up lists divided by genre in the coming weeks but will start with the most general. It’s not a reflection of which is the most important genre for me. I’m open to and have favourites in all. I tend to mix my reading and have several books on the go, but sometimes I find that I need to concentrate on one book just to see it through and do it some justice.

So, let’s start with the following:

General/literary fiction

Donna Tartt (A Secret History)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age)
Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars)
Michelle de Kretser (The Hamilton Case)
Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger)
Romesh Gunasekara (The Match)
Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens)
Douglas Coupland (Generation X)
Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Kaori Ekuni (Twinkle Twinkle, Calmi Cuori Appassionata – Red (in Japanese only))
Agota Kristof (The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie – Three Novels)
Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost)

You will notice that I have quite a few Sri Lankan writers in the mix: Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Everytime I go back to Sri Lanka, I always feel a need to read about the country, to immerse myself in the culture and history of the place. And I also stock up on a lot of books there that aren’t available abroad. Perera Hussein Publishing House publishes Sri Lankan authors writing in English and their blog can be found here.

My favourite book of all time is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I first read it as I was revising for my first year undergrad exams. Even though my mind was busy trying to grasp the intricacies of maths and physics, Tartt’s novel gripped me from the start and I spent every moment I could away from my studies burrowed in her book. I haven’t read it in a while so I might give it a go when the mood takes me. Her second book The Little Friend was much anticipated but didn’t have as big an impact and took me a while to get into. There is something about her writing that invokes a feeling within me that I cannot find anywhere else. I finished it still believing she is a great writer even though I didn’t love it as much as The Secret History, and I can’t wait for her next book.