A local train in Japan: Murakami's new novel concerns a malaise-filled Japanese railway engineer. Photo: Getty
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Strange, stark and sentimental: Haruki Murakami’s winning fictional formula

Although it won’t finally rank among his most accomplished works Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, will be happily consumed by his fervent readers.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 
Haruki Murakami
Harvill Secker, 304pp, £20

I like reading Haruki Murakami novels in public. I like the approving looks that come my way at downtown cafés, from people in skinny jeans and severe glasses working on their leather- and wood-clad iPhones. They know that Murakami is an infallible marker of bookish cool, of literary sophistication and intellectual irony so advanced, you’re capable of enjoying stories and situations from him which you would otherwise dismiss as the stuff of drugstore paperback cliché, high-dork fantasy fiction, daytime TV melodrama. Indeed, across 13 novels – with the original Japanese publication of each, in recent years, causing a nationwide hysteria of book buying – Murakami has made a brilliant, Nobel-pending career out of effortless-seeming combinations of the strange, stark and sentimental.

Although it won’t finally rank among his most accomplished works – namely Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 – Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will be happily consumed by his fervent readers. It comes three years after his most ambitious novel, 1Q84 – a 1,000-page effort set in parallel and intersecting worlds, about a paid assassin, a writing teacher and the malevolent miniature people and sex-and-violence-filled religious cult they get mixed up with while trying for a romance that first sparked when they were schoolchildren – and it suffers by comparison in terms of its scale and originality. But then what recent novel doesn’t?

The premise of this new book is far more straightforward, at least by Murakami’s standards. The title character is a malaise-filled Japanese railway engineer in his mid-thirties. “Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour,” we learn early on. The most notable thing that has happened to Tsukuru is his failure to commit suicide while in college, after an inexplicable falling-out with his closest friends, two men and two women.

Since then, he’s lived a life of indifferent desperation, working a good enough day job and dating now and then, mostly wondering why he didn’t kill himself years ago and what went wrong with his friends – though he never wonders enough to do anything about either problem. Taking up much of the book’s early sections, this is classic Murakami: few authors are so intent on ostensibly dissuading us from expecting much of great interest in their work.

And yet we know that at any given moment shocking revelations, outlandish events and exchanges full of fine and fraught feeling are liable to break through the placid world, unfolded in clear and simple prose. Which is just what happens at the end of an early chapter exploring the protagonist’s life in his early twenties: “As Tsukuru lay in bed in his pyjamas, he heard water rushing by in a mountain stream. But that was impossible, of course. They were in the middle of Tokyo. He soon fell into a deep sleep. That night, several strange things happened.”

These strange things take the form of an extended four-person sexual encounter involving Tsukuru, the two women he was close to until they suddenly dropped him a few years earlier, and an affable young man he subsequently befriended while at college, who is supposed to be sleeping in the next room. The encounter – silent, precise, bizarre, erotic – warps all sense of time and space and logic in terms of who and what’s involved, but, in Murakami’s handling, it is far more than a mere strange dream. Instead, it sends Tsukuru into “a different sphere of reality, where – at a special time and place – imagination had been set free”.

He emerges on the far side greatly troubled by the experience because he senses that it was somehow more than just a very intense dream, but then he decides it’s inexplicable and best forgotten for a return to his muted daily life.

Unsurprisingly, even years later Tsukuru can’t entirely efface the lingering effects of this episode, or of the strange rupture in his youthful friendships, and a woman he is dating in the present senses as much. She tells him they cannot become more serious until he finds some kind of resolution for whatever went wrong with his four college friends, and encourages him to seek them out.

The remainder of the novel follows Tsu­kuru as he visits the three who are still alive. They now lead comfortable middle-class lives, the two men in Japan and one of the women in Finland. The second woman, who was the least stable in the group, has been murdered in mysterious circumstances, in keeping with a murky rape allegation she made against Tsukuru when they were at college, the allegation that led to his immediate ousting from the group.

Tsukuru is stunned to learn about this and calmly outraged that he was never given a chance to prove his certain innocence. His friends are contrite and apologetic, and also hopeful of making amends by resuming their connections as adults, especially Eri, the woman living in Finland, who once had a crush on Tsukuru but had to abandon that feeling because of her friend Yuzu’s accusations. Open enough to reconciliation, and glad to listen to Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage while sharing long and tender embraces with Eri in her wintry Finnish home, Tsukuru nevertheless finds himself newly troubled about Yuzu’s life and death. He “couldn’t escape the feeling that, in some indefinable way, he was responsible. And not just for her rape, but for her murder. On that rainy May night something inside of him, unknown to him, may have slipped away . . . and strangled that thin, lovely, fragile neck.”

Murakami then stages this very event in vivid detail, and it is neither a guilty memory nor a conscience-addled imagining, but some combination that is never fully clarified, just as the author never substantially explores or explicates the novel’s governing ideas about the dangerous traffic that can pass between our interior and exterior lives, and all the many collisions to which this leads. Instead, he tacitly justifies the novel’s baseline opacities with one of Tsukuru’s closing thoughts: “Our lives are like a complex musical score . . . Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing.”

So, too, Murakami’s latest novel, which may prove a little too colourless for readers who are new to his work, if exactly the right kind of vibrancy, as ever, for his millions of devotees. 

Randy Boyagoda’s novel “Beggar’s Feast” is published by Penguin (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist