When Haruki Murakami’s new novel was published in Japan in April 2013, it sold more than 1m copies in seven days. The book’s plot had been such a closely held secret that almost no one queueing up for a copy knew much more than the title and a few carefully leaked details. Fans started reading it just after midnight outside bookstores that stayed open especially. Within minutes they were sending out messages on social media about their first impressions.
In Japan, and increasingly abroad, Murakami has become a publishing sensation. Critics, of whom there are not a few, sniff that he’s more of a marketing sensation. Admirers, of whom there are more, think Murakami is the real thing: the back flap of the jacket quotes one describing him definitively as “the best novelist on the planet”. Devotees love his flights of imagination and elaborate plots, which fuse the ordinary with the fantastical in ways that suggest that our daily “reality” is but a window on a more complex world.
In several of his stories, that alternative reality takes on physical form. A giant frog visits a nervous bank clerk. Two moons hang in the sky. Menacing creatures writhe beneath the Tokyo metro. But in his latest, stripped-down novel, we are mostly in the world as we know it – or at least as we think we know it – though there are, naturally, forays into dreams and the subconscious. It’s a return, in some ways, to the territory of Norwegian Wood (1987), the relatively straightforward and hugely successful love story that made Murakami famous.
At a mere 298 pages in its English translation, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is far shorter than his usual literary wanderings. His previous work, 1Q84 (2009-10), ran to 944 pages. Some readers will consider the new book too contained and restrained, and will lament the fact that there is no denouement featuring a man wearing a goat-head (to be fair, there is a short digression about a man who carries death in a little bag). Others, though, will be thankful that they don’t have to wade through quite so many pages. This book shows that Murakami can find mystery in the mundane and conjure it in sparse, Raymond Carveresque prose.
The plot is simplicity itself. A group of five high school adolescents form a tight-knit friendship. By coincidence, four of the five have colours in their names: Akamatsu – “red pine”, Oumi – “blue sea”, Shirane – “white root” and Kurono – “black field”. Mr Red and Mr Blue, Ms White and Ms Black. The fifth, Tsukuru Tazaki, whose first name means “to make”, has no colour. One day, inexplicably, the four friends cut him off, plunging him into a suicidal depression and years of self-doubt.
Tsukuru, though “pretty good-looking” and diligent in pursuit of his nerdish vocational ambition to design railway stations, considers himself nondescript. “He had no particular defects to speak of everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour.” After the shock of being rejected, it becomes hard for him to form lasting friendships or romantic attachments.
A chance to escape this emotional trap presents itself years later when he starts dating a woman who urges him, for his own emotional good, to find out why he was rejected. In his quest, he visits each former friend in turn and starts piecing together what happened. By the standards of Murakami novels – most of them with frustrating, shaggy-dog-story endings – the book edges towards genuine resolution.
The relative ordinariness of the plot notwithstanding, the story has pace and suspense. We want to find out what happened and what is going on in Tsukuru’s head. Dreams figure prominently as the protagonist tramps through the Freudian undergrowth. One chapter, typical of Murakami’s unabashedly page-turning style, ends: “As Tsukuru lay in bed in his pajamas, he heard water rushing by in a mountain stream. But that was impossible, of course. They were in the middle of Tokyo. He soon fell into a deep sleep. That night, several strange things happened.”
That particular dream explores the dynamics of Tsukuru’s lost friendship. The fact that there were five, not four, friends required an implicit agreement not to pair off sexually. His dream makes clear that this led to unspoken psychological strain.
Though it is not mentioned, the Japanese generally give gifts in sets of five, not six, since five is indivisible, and thus more harmonious (when a six-fingered piano player pops up in another of Tsukuru’s dreams, we know it’s a bad omen). Once the bonds of the friends’ “chemical fusion” are broken, “the harmonious community” breaks apart and the adolescent reverie is over.
The novel won’t go down as Murakami’s best. For me, that prize belongs to Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), which, as the title suggests, is larger in scope than a teenage falling-out.
But Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of his most coherent and, in its tight and tidy way, one of the most satisfying. Those who miss the goat-heads and the demons and the parallel worlds in which anything can happen shouldn’t worry. There’s enough unresolved human mystery in this novel to suggest that they’ll be back.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker RRP£20/ Knopf RRP$25.95, 298 pages
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Illustration by Adam Hancher