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Is Haruki Murakami the Thelonius Monk of Fiction?

From 1974 through 1981, Haruki Murakami ran a jazz club in Tokyo, Japan, and wondered what direction his life would run. After long soul searching, his life ran in the direction of becoming a novelist. He hasn’t stopped running since, producing 13 novels that not only have won international awards, but also have been translated into over 50 languages, thus making him the most well-known Japanese novelist in the world. His latest novel to be translated into English, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, adds to his oeuvre one more tale of dreamy, surreal, puzzling, yet oddly beautiful human existence. Despite his success, Murakami (shown above) still faces criticism for his writing style, which some see as overly simple and occasionally downright ugly—criticisms once aimed at the Murakami beloved bebop jazz, the style employed by the enigmatic, brilliant pianist Thelonious Monk. Is Haruki Murakami the Thelonius Monk of fiction?

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’s title character, like so many of Murakami’s characters going all the way back to his first great novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, can’t shake the past, specifically a traumatic moment from the past he’s tried to forget. In Tsukuru’s case, that hinge in his personal history happens when his four closest friends in the world—two young women and two young men with whom he’d formed a pentagram of perfect communion during their high school years—suddenly call him to tell him that they no longer wish to have him in their lives with no explanation. After a brief, near-suicidal period, Tsukuru regains his equilibrium but never finds a new relationship of the same depth or intimacy. Sixteen years pass before a woman enters his life and challenges him to confront his old friends and solve the mystery of the breakup so that they might consider a life together free of his emotional baggage. Tsukuru sets out on a pilgrimage to find his former friends and to find inner peace with the person he’d become after his abandonment.

For those who’ve read Murakami’s previous novels, all his familiar tropes appear: snippets of classical, jazz, and even pop music that trigger powerful memories and emotions; elaborate descriptions of even the simplest activities such as a bachelor’s dinner or a cup of coffee; passages of explicit sexual content that range from sad to blissful; surprising moments of violence that spike through the placidity of all around it; dreams so intensely visceral they blur the line between the real and unreal. For those who haven’t read Murakami before, he can often be an acquired taste, but often an addictive one, as proven by his fiercely loyal fan base in Japan (which bought over 1 million copies of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki in the first week after publication) and around the world.

The “colorless” quality suggested by the title comes from the colorful names of Tsukuru’s former friends, whose Japanese names mean red, blue, black, and white. Only Tsukuru (whose name means “to build”) lacks color, something he internalizes psychologically to the point that it drains the color from his entire life, rendering him devoid of emotions and passions of any strength, at least until Sara splashes onto the scene. Before Sara, the only part of Tsukuru’s life approximating passion is his life-long attraction to train stations, which he eventually learns to build, thus fulfilling the meaning of his colorless name. “Unceasing crowds of people arrived out of nowhere, automatically formed lines, boarded the trains in order, and were carried off somewhere,” Murakami writes of Tsukuru’s reverie at one station. “Tsukuru was moved by how many people actually existed in the world… It was surely a miracle, he thought.” In response to the 1995 Aum Shinrikyosarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people and injured over 1,000—the most horrific domestic terrorist attack in modern Japanese history—Murakami wrote the nonfiction work Underground, yet clearly the wonder of the Tokyo transit system, both its tremendous efficiency as well as its tragic vulnerability, lingers in Murakami’s mind and resurfaces in this novel. Murakami weaves these two metaphors of color and movement throughout the novel in an understated but omnipresent manner.

Murakami’s detractors, however, see his handling of language as one muddle of ideas with little form and less facility with language—the curse of someone who turned to writing at a late age, or at least that’s the narrative they use. The New York Times’ Jennifer Szalaiaug recently addressed the question of whether Murakami’s a bad writer or merely the victim of bad translations. “When reviewing Murakami’s new novel for The Atlantic,” Szalaiaug points out, “Nathaniel Rich puzzled over why ‘no great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does,’ enumerating a litany of sins that include ‘awkward construction,’ ‘cliché addiction,’ ‘lazy repetition’ and dialogue that ‘is often robotic, if charmingly so.’” Philip Gabriel, the translator of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and past Murkami novels, has won awards for his translations of Japanese authors. When Gabriel translates Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe, for example, no complaints are raised. Also, Murakami knows English well enough to translate and publish works from English into Japanese, so he’d surely know if the English translation of his work reflected poorly on the original Japanese.

I don’t think the Murakami style in English results from something lost in translation or an accurate translation of a paradoxically “bad” good writer. I believe Murakami in English (and most likely in the original Japanese, too) sounds the way he does for a specific purpose and to convey a specific mood. (In his Atlantic review, Rich almost grudgingly suspects the same thing.) When a mysterious jazz pianist appears in in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and begins to play Thelonious Monk’s signature piece, “’Round Midnight,” the connection between Murakami and Monk became clearer. Murakami listed Monk among his favorites in his essay collection Portrait in Jazz and specifically cited Monk’s “Jackie-ing.” (You can hear the whole playlist from that essay collection here.) Instead of “’Round Midnight” or “Jackie-ing,” however, the Monk song that came to mind in the context of Murakami was “Misterioso.” Playing around with his reputation for mysteriousness personally and musically, Monk begins “Misterioso” with an almost childish tune played with a beginner’s awkwardness, disarming the listener before the full attack of dissonance and percussive chords fall upon your ears and open your eyes to the sophistication and rough beauty of that simplicity and awkwardness. Just as you learn that “colorless” Tsukuru is anything but, Murakami and Monk both contain colors and shades of meaning in a variety of complex moods that standard issue virtuosity often can’t.

“Some things in life are too complicated to explain in any language,” one character tells Tsukuru as he juggles multiple languages during his multinational pilgrimage. I won’t be giving away the ending of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage in saying that there’s really no ending, just as most other Murakami novels slip away like the dreams he loves to write about. For Murakami, telling the story and engaging in the process of the story is the point, like the endlessly riffing of a great jazz musician on a theme. Murakami’s novels found an audience more quickly than Monk’s music did in its day, but we may not yet have heard every trick and message this great author has to offer.


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