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Searching for driftwood

shougat dasgupta | Updated on October 18, 2014

Colourless TsukuruTazaki and HisYears of Pilgrimage:Haruki MurakamiHarvill Secker(Random House)Fiction₹699

Savvy and cosmopolitan readers flock to Haruki Murakami in millions because of the particular ‘Americanness’ of his novels

Haruki Murakami is that most contemporary of things — a global brand. ‘MURAKAMI’ is emblazoned in large type across the cover of his new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, like Prada or Versace across a shopping bag. So famous is Murakami that like a Brazilian footballer he only needs one name; after all, which other Murakami (certainly not Ryu) could the savvy, cosmopolitan bibliophile possibly be reading?

As with the release of, say, the iPhone 6, Murakami’s fans, and there are millions, will queue in front of bookshops for several nights to be first in line to get their hands on his latest book. 1Q84, the novel before Colourless Tsukuru, was so relentlessly hyped that the marketing of the book was as much the subject of awed early reviews as the book itself. Colourless Tsukuru, like its predecessor, went straight to the top of The New York Times bestseller list upon release. In Japan, Murakami’s books are reported to sell as many as a million copies in a single month.

What explains this astonishing, universal popularity? One argument is that Murakami, a lover of jazz and American literature, a translator of JD Salinger and Raymond Carver among others, appeals to American readers (and by corollary British readers) because he is familiar, provides an admiring, flattering mirror of their own culture. And where American (and British) readers lead, Anglophile Indians dutifully follow. Much has been made — particularly by Horace Engdahl member of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize for literature — of the parochialism of American publishing, the lack of translation and the pronounced indifference to the world outside its own admittedly capacious borders. Murakami, with his unabashed fondness for American pop culture, for Western classical music, for European food, fares well in translation. In a BBC documentary about Murakami, the presenter Alan Yentob remarks that Murakami’s fabled work ethic, his self-discipline, his obsession with routine, is a “Japanese trait”. It strikes me as rather American: all that running, all that self-improvement.

But what about Murakami’s legions of Japanese readers? Perhaps it’s Murakami’s ‘Americanness’ that they too find appealing, or rather what that Americanness denotes — modernity, individuality. Murakami’s rejection of a certain kind of ‘Japaneseness’, the nationalism of a writer like Yukio Mishima, submission to authority, the refusal to confront the horrors of Japanese imperialism in China, the disavowal of tradition and responsibility to tradition, must feel liberating to his readers. What Murakami holds out to all readers, American, Japanese, or Indian, is the profound appeal of personal liberty. We are free to construct our own identities. He also reflects his readers’ feelings of intense solitude, of feeling apart from, even alienated by community.

Murakami’s appeal is so widespread because to read Murakami is to understand something of what it is to live in the world as it is, or rather the global city as it is, vast global conurbations such as New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Delhi. The alienation of a typical Murakami character is an urban alienation, the feeling of being adrift in a vast sea with not even driftwood to latch onto, with which to anchor yourself.

In Murakami’s new novel, the eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki has left his provincial home city of Nagoya for Tokyo to study engineering. A dedicated trainspotter, Tsukuru is preparing for a career building train stations, or rather designing improvements and additions to existing stations. He wants, he says, to make things people can see. The solidity of the stations is at odds with Tsukuru’s personal life, which seems ephemeral, intangible, almost indistinguishable from his dreams. Back in Nagoya, in high school, Tsukuru was part of a close, almost claustrophobic group of five friends, two of them girls. Having left to study in Tokyo, he finds himself arbitrarily, brutally cut off by his friends in his second year at university. For months, all Tsukuru “could think about”, Murakami writes, “was dying”. He does not understand why he has been abandoned and doesn’t have the courage to ask his friends why they’ve rejected him so summarily, so finally. The wound is lasting enough that 16 years later his girlfriend tells him she can only consent to a serious relationship if he seeks out his erstwhile friends and resolves the pain of their rejection.

On the surface, Colourless Tsukuru, is one of Murakami’s most accessible novels, without the surreal comedy, the flights of magical realist fancy, the sometimes cloying whimsy of work such as 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or A Wild Sheep Chase. But this is a peculiar, unsettling novel. Tsukuru’s quest appears successful, almost too successful, easily finding the (shocking) answer to the question of why the group shut him out and able to explain it away to his satisfaction. Life for Tsukuru appears whole again, with the prospect of fulfilling love glimmering on the horizon. Tsukuru is a nice guy, his friends attest, polite, handsome, from a rich family. He has set up a simple life for himself: a small inherited apartment in the centre of Tokyo; a job at which he is competent, even good; he is lonely, a condition not unknown to the denizens of large cities, but has had a number of meaningless affairs and is now embarking on a promising relationship.

By the end of the novel, Tsukuru appears to have put the past behind him and is prepared to be happy. But the reader is left puzzled, unconvinced by the too-pat resolutions and disturbed by the mysteries of Tsukuru’s dreams. Moral resolution is not why you read Murakami. Contemporary life, in Murakami’s novels, is not easily explained but in its shallows are uncomfortable questions, which author and reader both seem unprepared to confront.

(Shougat Dasgupta is a freelance journalist)

Published on October 17, 2014

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