Life by the Book

Life by the Book

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel is a reflection on platonic friendships.

Book: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Secker (Random House)
Pages: 304
Price: Rs 699

By: Manjula Padmanabhan

Early in the book, there’s a description of five school friends, as inseparable as the fingers of one hand. With no warning however, just as they enter college, four members of the group, two boys and two girls, evict the fifth friend, a boy. There are no explanations. No meetings. No e-mail messages. Aside from a single curt conversation on the telephone, there’s nothing but silence.

This simple-seeming hook reels the reader in with all the intensity of a murder mystery. We soon understand that a murder has taken place: what should have been a deep and enduring friendship has instead been butchered in plain view, with no apparent motive. For Tsukuru Tazaki, the one who is cast out of the group, the suddenness with which the event occurs is as brutal as an axe to the heart, thrown from an empty doorway.

For years thereafter, he stumbles along. He earns a degree in engineering and he follows his passion for railway station buildings by specialising in their design and construction. Then, in his mid-30s, he meets Sara, two years older than him and worldly-wise. She tells him that he cannot be complete as a human being until he knows what happened to that once-perfect friendship. She Googled Tazaki’s former friends and suggests ways in which he can get in touch with them. She does all this while letting him know that, until he follows up and makes himself whole, he will not be a suitable life partner for her.


Yes, they are romantically involved, but no, that does not mean they are bound to remain together. Tazaki and the sophisticated, impeccably dressed Sara are well-matched intellectually and financially. They have sex after their fourth date. They talk like long-term intimates. Nevertheless, their lives may well be like trains than run alongside each other for miles, doomed to diverge eventually. Sara flies around the world as part of her job in the travel industry, while Tazaki is distracted by his past, his future and his “colourlessness”. His sense of being transparent or invisible is exaggerated by a simple coincidence involving the meanings in Japanese of his friends’ names. Whereas each of their nicknames refers to a colour, his own name, Tsukura, means only “to make or to build”.

Tazaki may think of himself as colourless, yet he holds our attention by the sheer force of his unhappiness. He has a macabre dream life that provides him with an alternative existence. In college, he makes one new friend, an extremely attractive young man called Haida. They seem on the verge of a homosexual relationship when, with no explanation, Haida also vanishes from Tazaki’s life. Before he leaves, however, he narrates a haunting story about a mystical encounter with a brilliant jazz player, an old man who appears to have made a pact with Death.

It’s hard to convey, in the space of this brief review, how very masterfully this story of betrayed friendships and parallel realities is told. It flows effortlessly even though it is by no means a straightforward tale of wrongs that will be righted or truths that will be told. It weaves sideways and plunges down unlikely chasms while leaving some of its most urgent questions unanswered. There is a resolution to the original murder mystery, but only at the price of opening up another murder and another mystery. The narrative concerns itself with romance and sexual longing, but its true subject is platonic friendship.

The language is spare and uncluttered, like a perfectly empty room that is nevertheless beautiful in the view it offers, and in the aesthetic sensibility with which it was constructed. Though the edition I read was priced in GBP, the spelling and vocabulary are very clearly American (“Colorless” in the title for instance). I wished I could know, from someone fluent in Japanese, English and American, whether the language of the book is an accurate reflection of modern Japanese idiom; whether there is now a form of Japanese, like Hinglish, that reflects a deep hybridisation at the level of language. I found it slightly annoying, but not so much as to affect my enjoyment of the novel.

I should also mention the small bonus awaiting those who buy the print edition. There’s a sheet of stickers neatly attached to the end papers of the book. The images on the stickers pertain to scenes and events in the story. They do not appear to have any purpose other than, perhaps, causing readers like me to wonder whether this is a standard practice in Japanese books, a method to encourage the purchase of print editions, or a random bonus: a pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake, with no purpose greater than to celebrate the simple fact of existence. Rather like the book itself.

Manjula Padmanabhan is an author, cartoonist and playwright