“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami. (Knopf)

Nestled into the title of Haruki Murakami’s new novel are the words “Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s a common enough catchphrase for a coming-of-age story, and easy enough to dismiss as mere packaging. But as we peel the onion of this remarkable novel — as it takes us on a spellbinding descent through the rings of hell in Tsukuru Tazaki’s young life — that spectral phrase takes on new meaning.

Soon it is clear that Tsukuru’s “years of pilgrimage” are an echo of Franz Liszt’s masterwork for the piano, “Années de pèlerinage,” especially its elegiac solo “Le mal du pays” (or “homesickness”), a melody that worms its way into the heart of our hero and suffuses his story with an exquisite sadness. Add to its haunting strains Liszt’s inspiration for that music — Goethe’s groundbreaking 19th-century novel about disillusionment, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” — and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” becomes a virtual symphony of literary and musical referents. Murakami’s wizardry lies in his ability to pack all that cultural and spiritual resonance into a book that is as tightly wound as a Dashiell Hammett mystery.

Murakami is Japan’s greatest living writer, so revered that when “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” was released in Japan last year, it sold a million copies within the first week. Hard to categorize and famously unpredictable, his works are enormously popular, defying the conventional wisdom that only genre novels sell well. His works have included tales of hard-nosed realism (“Norwegian Wood” and “Sputnik Sweetheart”) and complex, bizarre yarns (“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “1Q84”). We cannot know what will come next from this master’s pen. But a Murakami novel always promises a provocative, challenging and decidedly quirky perspective. It generally concerns love, sex and anomie. And, almost always, there is a memorable piece of music at its core.

This time, Murakami focuses on a youth in a five-member circle of teenage friends. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” begins with a candid and soul-shattering confession that characterizes its protagonist throughout his journey: “From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying. He turned twenty during this time, but this special watershed — becoming an adult — meant nothing. Taking his own life seemed the most natural solution, and even now he couldn’t say why he hadn’t taken this final step. Crossing that threshold between life and death would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg.”

At 20, Tsukuru is a phantom of his teenage self. An engineering student at a Tokyo college, he feels as if he is sleepwalking through life, “as if he already died but not yet noticed it.” The reason, as is swiftly made clear, is that upon his return to his home town of Nagoya between semesters, his four closest friends — the high-school circle on which his entire sense of happiness and belonging relied — announced that they never wanted to see him or talk to him again. They refuse to tell him why.

Clearly, Tsukuru survives the heartbreak, for in the next scene we see him at age 36, a reasonably successful and eligible bachelor, living out his childhood dream of building and rebuilding train stations. He is in a romantic relationship with attractive, intelligent, cosmopolitan Sara. But Sara can see the existential hole in Tsukuru’s heart. As he recounts his mysterious exile from his childhood paradise — the formless, transparent sorrow that surges inside him still — she becomes convinced that he needs to confront the truth before he can move on to a meaningful relationship.

Sara is nothing if not an astute, efficient businesswoman, so she sets out to research the whereabouts of Tsukuru’s four friends. When she locates them, she urges him to track them down, talk to them, learn what it was that caused such an abrupt and unequivocal rupture: “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.”

So it is that a story that, in other hands, might sink with the weight of its own angst, becomes a page-turner with intervals of lapidary prose and dazzling human comprehension.

Tsukuru must trawl his past and simultaneously investigate the present. The result is a suspense novel with deft twists and turns and an aptitude for quick, bright jolts of psychological insight. The friends in question are Aka (whose surname contains the Japanese word for “red”), a boy who had never studied hard yet stood at the top of every class; Ao (meaning “blue”), a rugby player with wide shoulders, whose cheery, forceful personality made him popular with classmates; Shiro (“white”), a tall, slim beauty, whose extraordinary talent and delicacy at the piano enabled her to play Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” with striking fluency; and, lastly, Kuro (“black”), a vivacious and funny young woman with a writer’s sensibility and a quick turn of mind.

Why would they banish Tsukuru from their happy milieu? Because his name had no hint of color? It is true that although he was good-looking, reasonably well-off and an integral part of their group, he was the only one who represented no particular hue and had no particular flaws or virtues. He was Colorless Tsukuru, glad to be part of their reflected rainbow. But the answer to the central questions — why had he been ostracized, and why was a dire accusation leveled against him? — is harrowing; to tell you more would be to spoil the rest of this furious story.

I will simply say that “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” is about agonizing adolescent experiences that forever scar the soul. It is a deeply affecting novel, not only for the dark nooks and crannies it explores, but for the magic that seeps into its characters’ subconsciouses, for the lengths to which they will go to protect or damage one another, for the brilliant characterizations it delivers along the way.

A quick caveat: The prose, often gracefully rendered by translator Philip Gabriel, can wander into awkwardness: muscles snap, bones shriek. “We live in a pretty apathetic age,” someone ventures. These infelicities are scattered throughout, and the reader must rise above them.

All the same, we are also given evocative passages such as this: “The sky was covered with a thin layer of clouds, not a patch of blue visible anywhere. . . . Occasionally, a small bird landed unsteadily on a branch, but soon gave up and fluttered away. Like a distraught mind, the branch quivered slightly, then returned to stillness.”

Indeed, Murakami can herd the troubles of a very large world and still mind a few precious details. He may be taking us deeper and deeper into a fractured modernity and its uneasy inhabitants, but he is ever alert to minds and hearts, to what it is, precisely, that they feel and see, and to humanity’s abiding and indomitable spirit.

Arana, a former editor in chief of Book World, is a writer at large for The Washington Post. She is the author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction.


By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

386 pp. $25.95