Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a thing of beauty... at least the book jacket is.
Meticulously designed for both esthetic appeal and to reflect the themes of the story within, it's an apt cover for a novel that puts a lot of stock in the importance of creating tangible things, the latest work from the beloved Japanese novelist (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, 1Q84).
The work within the jacket isn't quite as effortlessly effective, but it has a strange, dreamy power that lingers.
The name of the novel's protagonist, Tsukuru, means "to make," and aptly, he is an engineer, a designer of train stations. He lives a solitary life, shaped, he feels, by the sudden, inexplicable betrayal by his four best friends when he was in university.
The five shared an unusually close and stable relationship, each bringing different strengths and qualities to the table. They were inseparable, rarely doing anything without all members of the group present.
The other four friends all had names that contained colours and were given corresponding nicknames -- Ao (blue), Aka (red), Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). Only colourless Tsukuru had no nickname, something he secretly felt reflected both his perceived blandness and his lesser status in the group.
After high school, the other four stay in their hometown, while Tsukuru departs for university in Toyko. On a visit home, he finds the group has, abruptly, coldly and without explanation, cut him off.
Their seemingly heartless action casts him into a deep and crippling depression, from which he emerges almost literally a new man, but one who still feels himself an empty vessel, unworthy of or unwilling to commit to meaningful relationships.
Then at age 36 he falls for Sara, a pragmatic, worldly travel agent who sees the wound he wrongly believes has healed, and encourages him to confront his past.
Murakami fans -- and they are legion; one million of them bought this book in the first week of its release in Japan -- are used to the novelist's reluctance to be slotted into a certain genre or style.
Tsukuru Tazaki falls in with the author's more naturalistic, less surreal works, though it is tinged with magical realism, especially in its troubling erotic-dream sequences. As with other Murakami books, there is a mystery or quest to be undertaken.
Music is another Murakami touchstone, and the Years of Pilgrimage of the title is both a reference to the character's search for the truth and a literal nod to the Liszt composition that underscores the story.
The writing can be crystalline and emotional, but it sometimes seems tossed-off and casual, bordering on pedestrian.
Of course, as with any work in a foreign language, the reader is in the hands of the translator, and it's impossible to know if the instances of unnatural dialogue, tiresome repetition and shopworn phrases that dot the narrative are Murakami's doing or the handiwork of frequent translator Philip Gabriel, although their longtime collaboration would indicate the former.
But those drawbacks can't detract from the indelible sadness of Murakami's story, which pulses with a strange melancholy despite the relatively mundane plot.
As Tsukuru sets out to discover the reason for his friends' desertion (and it's really more a short journey than a pilgrimage), he gets answers, but, of course, those answers only raise more questions.
Murakami deals with a lot of ideas in this relatively short novel, not always entirely to the reader's satisfaction. He touches on the importance of abstract thought and of building concrete things, as well as loss, death, nostalgia and change.
The strongest sections examine the way our childhood definitions of ourselves can define us, rightly or wrongly, into adulthood, and how far off we can be in our estimations of how others see us. Like Tsukuru, we are quick to assign roles to ourselves and those around us, and reluctant to give them up, even when they prove maladaptive or hurtful; the author captures the ineffable sense of loss at time wasted on the wrong paths.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki doesn't quite provide a full spectrum of emotion, but like the Liszt work of the title, the melancholy chords Murakami strikes will resonate after the book's beautiful cover is closed.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.