There’s something quite wonderful about the cult of Murakami. As Patti Smith writes in her review of his latest release in the New York Times, “A devotional anticipation is generated by the announcement of a new Haruki Murakami book.” Each new release harbours a sense of excitement rarely seen for literature: the fandom seems much more apt to music or film where celebrity is far more revered, and the face a lot more public than that of a novelist. When we do see fame in literature, it is more often tied to the characters than the author - fans who lined up for new Harry Potter instalments were lining up for Harry, not for J.K. Rowling. Billed as a return to the realism of Norwegian Wood, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has once again seen his fans line the streets waiting for it’s release. It sold one million copies on the day it went on sale in Japan alone. The problem here, of course, is that all of this hype builds such great expectations around a book, that the author has to work extraordinarily hard to deliver.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the story of a group of close-knit high school friends who all have a colour within their names - Miss White, Miss Black, Mr. Red, Mr. Blue - except for Tsukuru Tazaki who’s name is a comparative blank slate. Away at university, leaving his hometown and friends behind, Tsukuru is abruptly shunned from the group without explanation and left to forge his life as a perennial outsider. But the actions of his group continue to haunt him until a girlfriend urges him to confront his old friends and uncover the mystery of what caused them to ostracise him fifteen years or so earlier. Sara tells Tsukuru “You can hide memories, suppress them, but you can’t erase the history that produced them.” And so Tsukuru heads on a journey to find his friends and the truth.
There are many familiar plot elements to Murakami fans (play along with Murakami bingo!) - confronting sex, classical music, lap swimming, a love of trains - though in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki Murakami takes these to the extreme. I think it’s only fair to warn potential readers that the references to sex are particularly dark. And whereas Murakami’s novels often take place on the boundary of mythical and real, the realism of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki makes this central plot point even more confronting.
However there are some truly beautiful moments throughout the novel, too. There is the familiar serenity I find to Murakami’s writing: he has an ability to move quietly that is not found in many writers’ work. By sharing little moments of his characters’ days - quietly cooking at home, gentle lap swimming, attentively listening to classical music - he creates a calm around the book which allows him the space to shock the reader like flashes of lightening: small, concentrated blasts that are highly effective and moving.
There is a wonderful exploration of how the cities we live in give us a sense of place that shape who we are. Tsukuru leaving his hometown of Nagoya for Tokyo is an alienating experience, and it leads him to experience what many of us who have moved away from our homes discover: in making a new home somewhere else, we lose our sense of place with our origins. We have to - to a certain extent - in order to engage with the new, let go of what we’ve left behind. But we’ll never not be from where we’re from either. And so we become a duality, which feels normal to us, because that’s who we are. Chances are, if you live in a big city, you also know a lot of other people who are from somewhere else, but call the city their home. So it feels normal. But it doesn’t stop you from wondering how those at home feel about that place you’ve left behind. It doesn’t stop you from wondering how life might have been different if you’d stayed. Tsukuru’s search allows him a rare opportunity to find this out. To see the people he’s left, and their connection to his home, with a fresh lens.
‘I know you’re aware of this,’ Aka said, ‘but although Nagoya’s one of the largest cities in Japan, in a way it’s not all that big. The population’s large, industries are doing well, and people are affluent, yet the choices you have are unexpectedly limited. It’s not easy for people like us to live here and still be honest with ourselves and free … Kind of a major paradox, wouldn’t you say? As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.’
Murakami chooses to leave many of the threads of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki unresolved, which leaves the reader to decide whether it’s intriguing or infuriating. There are also several patches of text which don’t quite sit right. Whether this is a fault in the translation or the result of a novelist no longer subject to rigorous editing, it’s unclear to the English speaking reader. (Bethanie Blanchard, in her review of Tim Winton’s Eyrie, proposed that as a writer who has reached a certain level of fame and assured sales, he was no longer subject to the same editing processes.) And I fear that is what has happened in the case of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. It has all the hallmarks of the Murakami we rush out to buy, but somehow it feels a little undercooked. With another English language release due out before Christmas, I hope this is proves to be a one-off. The delight that Murakami and his readers bring to the world of words is just too special to lose.
Recently, knowing I was heading to the National Young Writers Festival and having a little time up my sleeve, I headed north and made my way to Newcastle via Brisbane and Sydney. In Brisbane I spent four wonderful days exploring the city and spending time with two very dear friends I hadn’t seen since we all left our shared house in Adelaide three years ago. The weather was stunning: long, warm, sun filled days, perfect for gentle walks along the river or sitting under a tree with a book. On Saturday afternoon, having just done both of these things with my friend Naizy, she took me to a cafe tucked away in a place that only locals could find, a sure sign of a good spot. And indeed it was. Sitting in the shade I drank a lemon and ginger tonic and ate a beautiful big salad, balanced with crunchy sprouted buckwheat and creamy hits of goats cheese. Back home and having another long, lazy Saturday, I made a salad inspired by the one eaten at Brisbane’s Sourced Grocer, with plenty of crunchy vegetables (fennel, radish and cucumber), buckwheat, almonds and goats cheese. With a sharp, citrusy dressing and plenty of dill, it’s a perfect summer dish that could easily be bulked out with smoked trout or chicken for a light summer supper. Perfect for carrying under a shady tree with a book, making the most of the long, light filled day.
I read so much while I was away that for this week and the next, I’m going to add a couple of very quick reviews to these posts:
Fittingly, the first of these is Ronnie Scott’s Salad Days. A fantastically readable and eloquent essay on our obsession with food, Scott ties his experience of dining at the world’s number one restaurant, Noma, to Melbourne’s obsession with food and food culture.
The second was the highly publicised Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen. This interview with Geraldine Doogue on Radio National gives a great overview of Jensen’s process and relationship with Cullen, but the skill in this brilliantly delivered book comes from Jensen’s ability to distance himself from the emotional entanglement with the subject. Quotes such as “Adam Cullen shot me in the leg and threw me from a motorbike – and it wrecked me when he died” - the kind of headline thrown around during the publicity of this book - fails to show how nuanced Jensen’s writing actually is. Acute Misfortune avoids easily written sensationalism and gives a thoughtful, researched and open discussion of Cullen’s life, both his artistic and imaginative genius, as well as his incredibly disturbed personality. A stunning achievement.
In this beautiful essay for The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith (who's short story The Embassy of Cambodia I reviewed here) talks about finding your beach - in her case, it's being able to write in Manhattan. But there's a wider emphasis which cannot be said enough - the importance of finding what brings you happiness and makes you feel at home, and embracing it.