Considering what a short book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is, it shouldn't have taken me this long after getting it to finish it. There are multiple reasons why! I was already deep into S, and that story was sufficiently complex that I worried I would lose the thread if I took a break partway through. Also, new Murakami novels are rare and precious things, and I wanted to savor this treat as much as I could.
Colorless Tsukuru is a great little book. In fact, it might become one of the books I recommend to people asking how to get into Murakami: not because it's one of my favorites, but because it's a low-investment way to get a taste of his beautiful writing style while easing into his odder elements.
I should declare my prejudices up front: I'm a huge fan of Murakami's more bizarre books, and enjoy his quieter, human ones. Colorless Tsukuru definitely belongs to the latter category; I've been hearing a lot of comparisons to Norwegian Wood, and I think it's a good comparison, although South of the Border, West of the Sun may be a better one.
The writing is, of course, wonderful. I think he's always a good writer, but the quieter books like this let me focus more on his excellent craftsmanship, instead of focusing on the strangeness of the story and the setting. I think he's particularly good in crafting his characters here. Murakami characters have historically tended to be either enigmas or blank slates, often combining cryptic pronouncements with a few vividly-sketched personal affectations. The cast in Colorless Tsukuru is very believable, and even though the novel isn't very long, we get a good look at not only these characters but their relationships with one another and how they changed over time, growing up from childhood to the cusp of middle age. There's a fantastic economy of prose in the way Murakami creates these people and uses them in this small story.
One aspect that rang particularly true to me was Tsukuru's self-image. As the title states, he is "colorless": the other four members of his close-knit circle of friends each have names that include colors (Black and white for the girls, red and blue for the boys), but Tsukuru's name just means "builder" and he is therefore colorless. He accepts this as a metaphor for his life: in contrast to his friends, who each have talents and personalities that distinguish them, he sees himself as just sort of present, without anything special to contribute. Only much later, decades after the group split apart, does he learn from multiple people that he did have a role: he was considered "the handsome one", and was broadly liked by all.
Anyways, that felt very realistic to me, and probably does to a lot of people. I know that I always think (and have thought) of myself as a very boring person, and am genuinely surprised whenever people say that they think of me as "X". Again, though, this is probably very natural. Each of us can only see the world through our own eyes, and our own experiences are our always-present baselines. We don't see what's remarkable in our own lives, because it isn't remarkable to us, because we live with ourselves all the time.
Even when Murakami is restraining his stranger impulses, he retains a latent potential to create magical environments, and I think some of that feeling suffuses even his more "realist" novels like this one. There are no miracles, no supernatural phenomena: but you still get the sensation that some other forces might be at work behind the scenes, tugging at the seams of our reality. This comes across through vivid dreams, second-hand anecdotes, and other deniable but non forgettable sources.
Although Colorless Tsukuru is a fairly tame novel by Murakami standards, it still is a Murakami novel, and one of its many aspects I love is his embrace of ambiguity. Certain mysteries are solved over the course of the novel, but they raise other questions that can never be answered. Some specific and horrific crimes remain open, with no worldly culprit in sight: one gets the impression that the criminal(s) could only be identified by investigating behind the fabric of the world. Tsukuru has caught a few glimpses of that world, but unlike some other Murakami protagonists, he doesn't travel into it.
The stuff about Shiro's rape and eventual murder was, of course, profoundly disturbing. I'm not exactly sure what to make of it, but it's hard not to think about Tsukuru's repeated "erotic" dreams of her. He considers and rejects this possibility, but it does make a certain kind of Murakami-sense: the souls of the five friends were so tightly joined, they may have been able to visit one another even across vast distances while they dreamed; and, since Shiro had no control over what happened to her in Tsukuru's dream, she was a victim of his (unconscious but real) lust. I wonder if we might be seeing a mirror image of this in Tsukuru's dream-encounter with Haida: is Tsukuru appearing in Haida's dream, the same way Shiro may have appeared in Tsukuru's?
And, while I'm even less certain of this, what if Tsukuru's brief unwilling fantasy about strangling Shiro near the end of the book caused her murder many years before? That happens in broad daylight, in Finland, while in the middle of another conversation, so it doesn't seem like it could possibly follow the same dream-power from before. Still, it's a creepy idea, that simply visualizing an ill act on another person, across time and space, could cause it to happen.
Tsukuru is certainly not the only potential suspect, though. Late in the novel, we catch our first mention of "bad elves", creatures of Finnish folklore who wreak havoc on innocent humans. They're a tempting explanation for the unexplained stories we've encountered before then: Midorikawa the jazz pianist, six-fingered people, and of course the central problem of what happened to Shiro. Tsukuru himself is certainly not a bad elf, and the various misfortunes visited on his group may be the result of some mischievous spirits.
After the weighty, dense and bountiful 1Q84, you can see Colorless Tsukuru as a piece of relief. The language is beautiful, and it paints a striking scene that manages to be haunting while not being openly supernatural. In one important way, it does continue from 1Q84 in creating vivid, human-seeming characters. While their lives overlap with small amounts of trademark Murakami oddness, for the most part they feel very relatable: the struggles they undergo are the same ones most of us endure as we grow up, drift apart, define ourselves, and make our way in the world. This won't become my favorite Murakami novel, but it's one that resonates very strongly with me, and I'm sure I'll continue reflecting on it for a long time to come.