Life Reading

What about Haida?

This post contains major spoilers for the novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. My interpretation is based on the English translation of the novel. It’s possible that in its original Japanese, what Haida said has a different meaning. You might 100% disagree with this interpretation, which is 100% okay.

Yesterday afternoon, I checked out the book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I had read Murakami’s memoir and was curious about his novels. Generally I have trouble paying attention to audiobooks, but I found myself absorbed and not twenty-four hours later, had finished the book.

The lingering question in my mind, as I sat tear-streaked at the kitchen table listening to the last notes of a classical piece that followed the recording, was what happened to Haida? His story line was a maddening loose thread, and I was annoyed that such an intelligent and thought-provoking book would leave such a question unanswered.

But as the minutes passed and I continued thinking about it, I realized that Murakami had given us all of the information we need in order to piece together what happened to him.

We have to go to Finland first.

Toward the end of the book, Tsukuru travels to Finland to visit Kuro, one of three still-living childhood friends, to gain more information about his exile from their friend group sixteen years earlier. Among other things, Kuro confesses that she had been in love with him in high school, but despite all of her efforts, he never realized her feelings. She was never able to get through to him, no matter what signals she gave him.

We never saw that part of their lives in depth. The group’s high school relationship was summarized at the beginning of the novel, and since most of the book takes place when Tsukuru is 36, we never get to see the day-to-day interactions of the friends when they’re young, including the interactions between Tsukuru and Kuro. We could take Kuro’s word for what happened, but we don’t have to. We got to witness it in Tsukuru’s relationship with Haida.

Alternate cover with the five colors-slash-friends (Aka, Ao, Shiro, Kuro, and Haida) and Tsukuru, represented by the train map

He and Haida hit things off right away. Haida—whose name means “gray field”—is just that, a neutral backdrop for the “colorless” Mr. Tazaki, the one color he can feel vibrant against.

The book says “natural friendliness grew between them and they began to open up to each other.” They regularly meet up to swim. Haida helps Tsukuru improve his swimming (similarly, Tsukuru once tutored Kuro), and later their relationship evolves past hobbies. Tsukuru describes Haida as handsome, having a “graceful beauty” that becomes apparent over time. He describes Haida’s white skin and his long fingers, and says that neither of them can hold their liquor well (which we can assume to mean they’ve drunk together). He also says that Haida is “extremely shy” and gives the description of a scar on his neck, like he’d been cut by a knife.

Haida begins to visit Tsukuru’s apartment so he can listen to music. Tsukuru is free with information about his family and their finances—demonstrating the level of intimacy and honesty they have with each other. They spend evenings listening to music, notably Liszt’s Le mal du pays, which is mentioned so often in the novel it felt like a character in its own right.

Although Haida is said to be shy (becoming invisible in crowds greater than three), he isn’t when they are alone. One evening, he talks enthusiastically about Liszt for about a page. But instead of paying attention to what Haida says, Tsukuru thinks about Shiro. He even tells us that he “barely listened.”

Following that conversation, Haida asks if he can leave the LPs at Tsukuru’s apartment. He gives the excuse of not being able to listen to them in his dorm, but the moment has the feeling of someone asking to leave an important item in a lover’s apartment—especially since Haida has been glancing at him.

Beyond listening to music, Haida often cooks for him. Tsukuru, who calls him “a wonderful cook,” assumes this is done in thanks for letting Haida have a place to listen to music. Two to three times a week, the two “would listen to music, talk, and eat the meal Haida had prepared.” They spend holidays together—how many, we don’t know, only that Haida makes more impressive food than usual. And “holidays” is plural, so at least two. The way they spend their time together makes them seem like a couple. While I was reading, I wondered if they’d actually started dating and I’d missed it because the book was subtle.

And then…there is the turning point in their relationship. One night, Tsukuru wakes, believing Haida has come into his bedroom. He tells himself it must be some sort of projection and that the real Haida is asleep on the sofa. Tsukuru has the feeling that Haida wants to tell him something but doesn’t know how to put it into words. Contrary to his claim that this is just a projection, before Haida disappears, Tsukuru hears him breathing.

Tsukuru then has an erotic dream involving Kuro and Shiro. In the dream, the girls transform into Haida, and Tsukuru comes in his mouth.

The following morning, Tsukuru wakes up to find that his shorts are miraculously semen-free, but even so, he writes off what happens as a dream. Haida is already awake. They have coffee and go out, but then Haida makes an excuse to go to the library and vanishes for ten days in the middle of the semester, giving a vague excuse about a family issue on his return.

They resume their routine: eating together, sitting together on the sofa, listening to music, talking about books and music, “or else they’d simply be together, sharing an amiable silence.” Haida stays over on weekends, but they never sleep together again.

Then Haida disappears for good. He moves out of his dorm and takes a leave from school without letting Tsukuru know. Tsukuru has no way to contact him, having neither an address nor phone number—only the information that Haida came from Akita (and an ignorance of how the internet works). Haida completely disappears from Tsukuru’s life and the book.

Why were we given all of this detail about their day-to-day life only for Haida to disappear? So we can feel worse for Tsukuru? No. Because we needed to witness what Tsukuru does to other people, what he did to Kuro, and why she had been able to cut him so absolutely out of her life.

Tsukuru and Haida were essentially in a relationship. Tsukuru didn’t realize it, even when it turned sexual. And they did have sex. We know this because at other points in the book, Tsukuru has to clean his shorts following an erotic dream. We watch him scrub them. But after the “dream” with Haida, his shorts are clean—the only time in the book that this is the case—letting us infer that the sex must have happened.

Despite the fact that they sort-of lived together, ate their meals together, had shared interests, and even slept together once, Tsukuru is completely ignorant of Haida’s feelings for him—the same way he was ignorant of Kuro’s feelings, of Shiro’s mental health issues and her later death, and that Aka is gay. Tsukuru is so caught up in his impression of himself that he doesn’t really know the people around him. This is a theme in the book, highlighted in this passage: “We live in a pretty apathetic age, yet we’re surrounded by an enormous amount of information about other people. If you feel like it, you can easily gather that information about them. Having said that, we still hardly know anything about people.”

Ironically, he knew a lot about Haida, and Haida about him in return.

Haida left because he realized that despite all of the signs, Tsukuru was never going to realize his feelings. Like Kuro, he needed to walk away. Haida is shy—it’s not a surprise he doesn’t say anything directly. We watched him struggle with that as he stood inside of Tsukuru’s room. (I wonder about the injury on Haida’s neck, if he once said something to the wrong person.) And he did make a move—they slept together. Who knows what it seemed like from his end, if he believed there was consent or not (I like to think he did, but we can’t know). Ostensibly, Tsukuru was awake enough to see him but oblivious the next morning, convinced it was a dream despite the evidence otherwise. Imagine being in Haida’s position. It’s no wonder he left for ten days, and eventually forever.

Haida probably knew, as he tried to insert himself into Tsukuru’s life, that much of what he said went unheard. Once, he tells a story about a jazz musician being given a death token and two months to live. That musician learned the importance of living in the present. But Tsukuru, who lived for an entire year wanting to die after his friends abandoned him, doesn’t learn this lesson until the end of the book, trapped in the past for sixteen years.

Haida says something else in a conversation about cooking that I think is the key to his disappearance. After Tsukuru says Haida’s cooking is good enough for him to open a restaurant, Haida says, “I always want to be free. I like cooking, but I don’t want to be holed up in a kitchen doing that as a job. If that happened, I’d end up hating somebody.”

At first, I thought this meant he didn’t want to be tied down by things like jobs and relationships, and that it was this desire for freedom that ultimately made him leave. And that probably is a major part of it. But I think Haida might have been indirectly testing what their relationship meant to Tsukuru—his way of asking, “Why do you think I’m cooking for you? Do you really see this as a transaction? What am I to you?”

If read that way, this was an indirect warning, one Tsukuru never picked up on. And presumably Haida did resent him by the end, bitter that Tsukuru was incapable of living with him in the present. Like Kuro, he didn’t have the confidence or courage to say anything. At the novel’s conclusion, Tsukuru is still ignorant of Haida’s feelings. We, the readers, are left holding them.

In the end, Haida leaves a coffee mill and his prized LPs behind. I imagine he can’t listen to them anymore. Unlike Tsukuru, who continues to listen to Le Mal du Pays and think of Shiro years later, Haida chose freedom, something it takes Tsukuru the entire novel to learn to do.

Ultimately, Haida cut off Tsukuru like a sixth finger. I hope he found someone who treasures him, as Kuro’s husband loves her. Or maybe Sara will reject Tsukuru and he’ll make the long-overdue trip to Akita.

2021 update: I’m amused that this is the most-searched post on this blog. I’ve since read other Murakami books and have noticed several LGBT characters, so I feel good about this interpretation a few years later. Tsukuru remains my favorite of his novels.

Leave a Reply