In Haruki Murakami's hugely popular novels, philosophical observations tend to emerge from unlikely sources. And so it is that midway through his latest, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," a man who appears to be a soulless con artist surprises us with a bit of workaday wisdom.
"The truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand," he says to the book's main character. "As time passes, sometimes the sand piles up even thicker, and sometimes it's blown away and what's below is revealed."
Constitutionally passive, Tsukuru Tazaki has sat by and watched as a desert's worth of sand has obscured the details of a mysterious episode from his past. Finally, he's ready to start digging.
Murakami has honed his distinctive voice in a series of novels that have hit bestseller lists in Asia, Europe and the United States. Like its predecessors, "Colorless Tsukuru" is pleasingly off-kilter and a bit otherworldly, even as it tells a story rooted in the here and now.
Tsukuru is a successful Tokyo engineer who has recently started dating a woman with whom he might yet settle down. He has, it would seem, a very nice life. But like other ostensibly settled characters in Murakami's previous novels, Tsukuru is haunted by emotional wounds and unanswered questions from his youth.
In high school, Tsukuru made friends with a multihued group of classmates. "The two boys' last names were Akamatsu — which means 'red pine' — and Oumi — 'blue sea'; the girls' family names were Shirane — 'white root' — and Kurono — 'black field,' " Murakami writes. "Tazaki was the only last name that did not have a color in its meaning. From the very beginning this fact made [Tsukuru] feel a little bit left out."
The quintet grew increasingly close during their late teens. But one day there was a rupture, and Tsukuru was expelled from the group. The falling-out, abrupt and unexplained, plunged him into a suicidal depression. Though he eventually regained his health, Tsukuru hasn't been the same since. Forging bonds with friends and romantic partners is a struggle.
Now 36, Tsukuru is falling in love with his new girlfriend, Sara. She seems to be developing similar feelings, but understandably, Sara is wary of getting too attached to a man so preoccupied by long-lost friends. At her urging, he decides to find his old pals. More than 15 years have passed, but now, Tsukuru realizes, he simply must know why they conspired to banish him from their clique.
As always in Murakami, there's a hint of the bizarre in this otherwise earthbound tale — notably, an unsettling story-within-a-story about a foretold death.
Off-the-cuff philosophical musings; a brand of foreshadowing that suggests an adult fairy tale; a melancholy fascination with youthful relationships gone wrong; narrative playfulness — these are hallmarks of Murakami's fiction. Fittingly, all of the above are present in this novel.
"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" isn't the 65-year-old Murakami's most daring work. It's not as heartbreakingly urgent as "Norwegian Wood," his story of doomed, dangerous love, or as inventive as "1Q84," his boundlessly entertaining 900-plus-page epic. But in these pages Murakami again demonstrates a gift for imbuing the mundane with a sense of the surreal, for extracting maximum dramatic impact from quotidian events. Even in a relatively minor novel, his virtuosity is no less apparent.
Kevin Canfield is a critic in New York City.