When Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in his native Japan last year, Tokyo bookstores reported crowds of hundreds of people lined up for its midnight release. The book sold 1 million copies in its first week.
Its publication in the United States in an English translation on Aug. 12 is unlikely to evoke such an avid response. Murakami is a superstar in his country, but Americans aren't much given to lionizing literati (at least those that don't write about boy wizards). Even so, fans of elegant, intelligent fiction will welcome this book.
Murakami published his first book in 1979; his breakthrough novel, Norwegian Wood in 1987, made him a star in Japan and a well-known literary figure internationally. Now 65, he has published dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction. Translated into 50 languages, they have sold millions of copies around the world. He has an array of literary honors, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize, and is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize.
Murakami's last novel, 1Q84, was a gripping, complex, surrealistic thriller that weighed in at over 900 pages. This one is less than half that length, far more streamlined in structure and essentially realistic, but no less compelling.
Moving away from the magical realism of many of his recent novels, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage recalls some of the elements of Norwegian Wood. Its title character, at age 36, looks back on his youth and painful events that changed his life forever: "From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying."
In high school, Tsukuru was one of a group of five friends who shared an intense bond. Three boys — Tsukuru, Ao and Aka — and two girls named Shiro and Kuro spent most of their time together in a relationship in which each seemed to complement all of the others. Tsukuru's "colorless" status was a joke — each of the other four had a surname that contained a color, names that translate to "red pine" and "blue sea," "black field" and "white root." (Tsukuru's name means "maker" or "creator.")
When they graduated from high school, Tsukuru was the only one to leave their hometown of Nagoya to attend college in Tokyo, but their friendship continued as before. Until, that is, his trip home that fateful July, when at first they didn't return his calls, and then Ao abruptly and forcefully told him the group no longer wanted to see him or talk to him. So stunned he could not even press Ao for the reason, Tsukuru sank into that months-long depression.
Sixteen years later, he still has no idea what the reason might have been. He's never seen or spoken to any of his friends again. But he has made a life for himself — a boyhood fascination with trains led him to a career in Tokyo as an engineer who designs train stations for a large transportation firm. It's an ironic vocation for a man who rarely travels himself and has never been outside Japan, but he is content.
Tsukuru has never formed a close bond with anyone else except, briefly, with another student at his college, an enigmatic young man named Haida ("gray field") who also disappears mysteriously from Tsukuru's life. He has had several relationships with women, but none of them has gone anywhere — at least until he meets Sara, a no-nonsense, successful travel agent a couple of years older than he is.
Their romance looks promising until he tells Sara the story of how his friends cut him off without explanation. She insists he track them down and talk with them to discover exactly what happened: "You need to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional. Not to see what you want to see, but what you must see." She even helpfully Googles them all and makes travel arrangements for him to go to Finland, where one of them now lives.
Tsukuru's pilgrimage will lead to a shocking revelation, one that only becomes more dismaying as each person adds details to its recounting. But it will also lead him to a new sense of himself and of how others see him. As one of the friends, who now makes lovely pottery, tells him when he calls himself a hollow man, "Let's say you are an empty vessel. So what? ... So why not be a completely beautiful vessel?"
As is often the case in Murakami's fiction, music plays a role, in this case Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness), a haunting piece from Franz Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage. Tsukuru has vivid memories of Shiro playing it on the piano, and it is also a favorite of Haida's — he leaves behind a recording of it when he vanishes from Tsukuru's life.
Dreams, too, play an important role — erotic dreams, frightening dreams, frightening erotic dreams — and those dreams sometimes leak into Tsukuru's waking life. Even his encounters with his lost friends have a dreamlike, ritualistic quality.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage in its entirety has a dreamlike quality, too. Full of melancholy and loss, it is nonetheless beautiful, rich with moving images and lush yet exquisitely controlled language, reverberating, like that piano music Tsukuru cannot forget, with elusive emotion.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.