When Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in his native Japan last year, it sold 1 million copies in its first week.
Its publication Tuesday in the United States in an English translation 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's last novel, 1Q84, was a gripping, complex, sur realistic thriller that weighed of more than 900 pages. This one is less than half that, 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, his 1987 breakthrough novel. Its title character, at age 36, looks back on his youth and painful events that changed his life forever.
In high school, Tsukuru was one of a group of five friends who shared an intense bond. Three boys — Tsukuru, Ao and Aka — and 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.
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 friends didn't return his calls, and then Ao abruptly and forcefully told him the group no longer wanted to see or talk to him. Tsukuru sank into that monthslong depression.
Sixteen years later, he still has no idea what the reason might have been. He's not seen or spoken to any of his friends. But he has made a life for himself, designing train stations for a large transportation firm.
Tsukuru has never formed a close bond with anyone else except, briefly, another student at college, an enigmatic young man named Haida who also disappears mysteriously from Tsukuru's life. He has had several relationships with women, but none 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 what happened. She even 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 becomes more dismaying as each person adds details to its recounting. But it also leads him to a new sense of himself and of how others see him.
Full of melancholy and loss, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is nonetheless beautiful, rich with moving images and lush yet exquisitely controlled language.