The Long and Short of It: How Haruki Murakami Teaches Us About Life

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" is out now.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Revered Japanese author Haruki Murakami returns to the English literary world today with his latest story, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a spare, tightly-executed novel focusing on a simple man who carries a complicated sadness. Murakami has earned acclaim for past novels like Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which also placed a peculiar spotlight on mundane or unexciting characters. However, Murakami's tales are notable because of their ability to show us how the simplest truths are often the most meaningful. His latest novel is no exception. 

Near the end of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the titular character makes an observation on love: "There are countless things in the world for which affection is not enough. Life is long, and sometimes cruel," he says. The line shouldn't necessarily be shocking for anyone. It's an idea that has been spoken, written, and communicated before. For anyone who has ever been dumped, or has broken-up with someone they love, it should sound familiar. Sometimes, love falls short. Sometimes, it surprises us by how far it left us from where we wanted to go. And with Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki​, Haruki Murakami reminds us how jarring it can be when we first make that discovery, and how it can be paralyzing. Especially in cases when this realization catches us completely off-guard.

But, like so much of Murakami's work, the quote is deceptively simple. It's a cliché, but it's one that has to be earned in order to be understood. It's a lesson that reminds you how any observation becomes well-worn: enough people found it to be true through their own personal experience. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki focuses on that journey toward discovery, as its protagonist pulls on the loose threads of an unresolved trauma that has been silently guiding his life for nearly two decades. The root of the trauma is an event that takes place in mere moments. In the summer after his sophomore year of college, Tsukuru Tazaki is abruptly and inexplicably exiled from his tight-knit group of high school friends. He is given the news over the phone. After Tsukuru hangs up, his relationship with these friends is effectively over. The impact of his loss is dispersed over the next 16 years of his life. Only at the behest of a woman who Tsukuru loves is he eventually forced to confront these issues and resolve them in some fashion.

'You can hide memories, but you can't erase the history that produced them. You can't erase history or change it, it would be like destroying yourself,' —​Haruki Murakami 

Sixteen years sounds like a long time to hold onto your grief but, when you think about it, people internalize loss all the time. It's easy to cut yourself off from another human being, especially today, when erasure feels like it can be accomplished by simply unfollowing your ex on Facebook or Instagram. Poof. They're gone. In 2014, it's almost compulsory to believe that our memories have been out-sourced to digital media. We can remove every photo, favorite, or friend with a simple data wipe. But, of course, we all know that at some point, we have to come to terms with our loss, whether by reconciliation with another person or within our own mind. 

I bring this up for two reasons: A) I recently graduated from college, and B) I'm newly single. The two are closely related. After I left school in May, my then-girlfriend went to one part of the country and I went to another. Last week, after a couple months spent trying to negotiate this distance, she called me and broke the news. And that was that.

In the immediate aftermath, I was angry, as most people would be. We had been together for most of college, and to see our relationship end in conjunction with our graduation made me feel like a phase. It was as if I was something she had grown out of. That's what I told myself anyway. It seemed like an easy explanation. After all, college is a weird sort of thing; it's a bubble. It's a separate reality made up of stress and parties and an uncontrollable desire to figure out what the fuck we're doing with our lives. Or maybe the "real world" that we step into after is what makes it feel so strange. Either way, you're going to be changed by the process of transitioning from one to the other. It just happens.

Murakami is particularly attuned to these subtle changes and invisible boundaries in life. Whether he's taking us across time or into dreams, nothing is ever as simple in his stories as his clean, spotless prose might suggest. Nothing is what it appears to be. There's always another story lurking behind the one that you're reading. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Tsukuru often reflects on his past, and the friendship that he once enjoyed with his high school companions. Prior to the dissolvement of the group's friendship, their hometown of Nagoya was an "orderly, harmonious, and intimate" place for Tsukuru. But then the bubble bursts, and suddenly the town no longer feels warm and comforting for him. He shuts himself off from it, rarely returning, even for the sake of seeing his family. 

In this way, Murakami creates a sort of realistic fiction, one whose origins you can trace. The transformation between the Nagoya of Tsukuru's past and that of his adult life is subtle yet significant. It's something felt, not something you see, and it's a change that could happen to anyone. Because of its relatability, you can connect with the quiet trauma that makes up Tsukuru's life and, in turn, can make up our own. You can see how loss or pain can spur creation, both good and bad. One phone call can completely change how we look at the world. It can make a new one. As a result, we can't physically return to that place or state we once knew. As Tsukuru tells us, "That place doesn't exist anymore."

After I got off the phone last week, I underwent a similar process. Angered, I unfollowed my ex on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There was no place in my life for friendships or lingering feelings. I really just wanted to forget all of it. I felt like I knew myself enough to know that this was what I needed to do in order to receive closure.  

But, while reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Murakami reminded me of another important yet simple lesson: "You can hide memories, but you can't erase the history that produced them," he writes. "You can't erase history or change it, it would be like destroying yourself." 

I read that line, paused, read it again, and underlined it.

I don't know that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is Murakami's best novel; it doesn't possess the winding brilliance of Kafka on the Shore, nor the intricate history of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But I do know that it caught me at the perfect moment. It contextualized some of the very drastic changes taking place in my life as I was pulled out from the world where I had been comfortable for the past few years. I'm in a few new places right now: the work place, New York City, the single life. Having lived in Michigan for all of my life, it's strange to be so drastically uprooted all at once. Break-ups and new jobs are what make the city feel impossibly large. 

But, if you're at all like me, then Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki will remind you that you never lose everything in the process of a new beginning. Your past always guides you somehow. Nothing is completely swallowed up in a shift, even if you momentarily feel like you're better off without the baggage. It will all eventually re-appear, one way or another.

If anything, we can look at the return of this baggage as an opportunity to reclaim our past selves and experiences. At the very least, we can make them into something that we can agree with again. Maybe an ex can become a friend. Or maybe you're just better able to come to terms with your memories of them. Regardless, I'm at a point where I want to take the opportunities to do those things when I have the chance. Why should I want to lose any of my past? Life is already too short.  

Gus Turner is a News Editor at Complex. He tweets here.

Latest in Pop Culture