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Book review

‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ by Haruki Murakami

VICTO NGAI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

How does he do it? His sentences are as unfussy as Finnish furniture. His plots do not require much joinery. His characters are vividly grained, but often mysteriously so.

Yet within a paragraph, Haruki Murakami’s novels cast a hypnotic spell.

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In Tokyo, a man boils spaghetti in his apartment. A 37-year-old arrives in Hamburg and overhears the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” A woman travels across Tokyo in a taxi in 1984, listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta.

The reflective openings of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “1Q84,” like so many Murakami books begin as a character suddenly hears a deeper frequency to the world’s mysterious order.

In “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” his latest novel, Murakami allows his hero to eavesdrop on one of life’s darkest possible tunes: the inner hum, the secret desire, for death.

As the book opens, Tsukuru Tazaki, whose name means to create things, has fallen into a terrible depression. Tsukuru’s four closest friends abruptly and unequivocally cut him off. All he can think about is dying.

Tsukuru escapes the void, just barely, and emerges a new person, the person we follow through the rest of this book. Murakami elegantly describes how emotional trauma can lead us to disassociate.

“The person here now,” he writes from Tsukuru’s perspective, “might at first glance resemble Tsukuru Tazaki, but it wasn’t actually him. It was merely a container that, for the sake of convenience, was labeled with the same name.”

It is a strange prelude to a novel about time and friendship. Then again, Murakami’s meditations on the latter feel like an excuse to think deeply about the former. Why, if time takes all, does it allow us to keep some things? Our vivid memories, as if they were yesterday.

The style of “Colorless Tsukuru” mimics this contradiction. The story flows along smoothly, wrapping around details like objects in a stream. Tsukuru’s four friends all carry colors as nicknames. They were so close as to seem a five-ventricled heart.

One of them, Shiro, a pianist, liked to play Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (“Homesickness”). The piece is part of “Years of Pilgrimage,” a series of suites Liszt composed after traveling. Tsukuru remembers how Shiro’s “calves were like glazed porcelain, white and smooth.”

Tsukuru is the only one among his friends who isn’t given a color. He is the follower, the listener, the least bold. Ironically, while they stay behind, he leaves their provincial town, travels to Tokyo, and becomes an engineer of train stations.

As in “South of the Border, West of the Sun” — another Murakami book haunted by a tune — this novel moves forward by looking back. Tsukuru meets a woman who encourages him to resolve his long-broken friendships. Thus begins his pilgrimage.

The shape of a pilgrimage has some built-in pleasures, all of which Murakami exploits to maximum effect. Tsukuru encounters quasi-religious guides, false prophets, danger, and spectral presences that he knows he should not trust. Almost every person he tracks down tells him a story.

In one brilliant scene, a man who has retreated to a hot spring in the south of Japan encounters a dying jazz musician. “Each individual has their own unique color,” the musician says. “Like a halo. Or a backlight.” He then passes to his listener the gift of not being afraid of death.

Later on, in the wake of another emotional shock, Tsukuru thinks to himself: “Everyone has their own special sound they live with, though they seldom have the chance to actually hear it.”

Murakami never tries to assemble such mystical statements into a cosmology. Instead, we encounter the phenomena just as Tsukuru does — with curiosity and skepticism. They simply become part of the pattern of reality that Tsukuru notices.

In the past decade, James Wood has convincingly argued that what the novel does best is show us what consciousness feels like. Murakami, in his own oblique way, has sharpened that objective to a mystical cognitive science: This, so many of what of his books tell us, is what perception feels like.

Part of what “Colorless Tsukuru” seems to be telling us, though, is that perception has limits, for it is built upon subjectivity and the past, each of which are highly imperfect vessels for experience.

And yet, they are also all we have to navigate the world. To form a pattern out of reality, and thereby, hopefully, a narrative for our own lives. So out of time’s darkness, the colors stand out.

One of Tsukuru’s friends always has “dark toast with a thin spread of honey”; in Finland, where he travels to find one of his long-lost friends, Tsukuru tips a bellboy who “grinned and softly slipped out of the room like a clever cat.” Later that night, a street musician plays, and Tsukuru tips the man and “patted the head of his dog. As if it were pretending to be a figurine, the dog didn’t react.”

“Colorless Tsukuru” spins a weave of such vivid images around a great mystery: Why did Tsukuru’s friends leave him? The two threads form a maze as complicated as reality.

The world’s seeming sense of volition is, in Murakami’s universe, connected to relationships. There are times when we can only guess at meaning, and there are times when we must do better than guess, as Tsukuru does on his brief, moving pilgrimage into the past.

John Freeman is the editor of “Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York,” forthcoming from OR Books this fall.
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