COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE, by Haruki Murakami, Alfred A. Knopf, 386 pp., $29.95.
Dig a little and you'll find that most people have some kind of irrational fear and plenty of evidence to back it up. But pity the title character in Haruki Murakami's new novel, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" -- he's scared he doesn't have a soul.
In high school, Tsukuru's whole identity was bound up in a little gang of friends -- five of them, including himself. And then, without warning or explanation, Tsukuru is expelled from his tight-knit group and cut off from any contact with its members. For a while, he decides he wants to die, and then, eventually, he tries to make his way in the world, believing as a result of his ouster that he's broken or defective in some way he can't understand.
Now he's 36, building train stations and still wounded, with occasional stabs of intense pain in his abdomen and the feeling of "a cold, hard object near the center of his body" as though his heart is frozen. He has a few long relationships, but can't muster more than fondness for the women he dates. He recalls his friends' nicknames -- all the names of colors, while he alone has no name but Tsukuru, and is colorless.
Murakami, author of "1Q84" and many other books, excels here at the depiction of both a specifically adolescent kind of intimacy and the pain caused by its absence; only at the end of childhood do people develop the kinds of relationships he describes between Tsukuru and his friends. Two of the group are boys -- Ao and Aka, a nice jock and a calculating brainiac, respectively. The girls are outgoing, plain Kuro and Shiro, a shy, beautiful girl who plays a particular Liszt piece on the piano that haunts Tsukuru throughout his life.
This being a Murakami novel, Tsukuru also has very strange, perhaps even supernatural, sexual dreams that complicate his feelings of loss considerably. For a few months, he also has a friend named Haida who is, in some ways, a replacement for the loved ones he's separated from -- at first he's just a friend, and then there's a very weird dream-or-maybe-not sequence in which his feelings for Tsukuru seem to run deeper.
The book skips back and forth among three periods in Tsukuru's life: the one season with Haida; the present day, where he's interviewing different people from his past like a detective; and Tsukuru's high school years, as he tries to solve the mystery of the abrupt end to his friendships. Whenever Tsukuru gets nostalgic, Murakami salts the pages with unexpected, sad little realizations -- 30, Tsukuru realizes, is "no longer the age when one dreamed of an ordered, harmonious community of friends."
The able translation by Philip Gabriel captures much of the beauty of the Japanese writer's prose, especially in those lyrical passages that blur the line between dream and reality. "He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss," Murakami writes. "A perilous spot, teetering on the edge, where, if he rolled over in his sleep, he might plunge into the depth of the void. Yet he wasn't afraid. All he thought about was how easy it would be to fall in."
Ultimately, though, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki" is less about fear and enigma and more about absolution. At the urging of his new girlfriend, a woman he feels he might be able to love wholeheartedly after more than a decade of emptiness, Tsukuru seeks out his old companions to learn the reasons for his expulsion from the group, and comes eventually to find peace. A particularly trenchant friend offers a lovely epitaph for all that departed intimacy, noting to Tsukuru that one member of the group donates heavily to charity, despite appearing to be a creep. Another "still has a very pure heart."
"What I'm trying to say is, it wasn't a waste for us to have been us -- the way we were together, as a group," the friend tells Tsukuru. "I really believe that. Even if it was only for a few short years." Coming as it does at the end of Tsukuru's long journey, it's as unsentimental and convincing a defense of earnest youth as I've read, and it stings even as it heals.