While the arrival of a new Haruki Murakami novel isn’t quite the event it used to be, I was still keen to find time to read the Japanese writer’s latest slice of the bizarre and uncanny. Rest assured, there’s plenty to like about it, but some of the events of this latest novel also give pause for thought, leading me to wonder whether it’s me or Murakami that’s changed over the past decade or so. Let’s take a look at what it’s all about, with a particular focus today on some of the less successful – and unsavoury – aspects of the book…
Killing Commendatore (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen) is another long Murakami novel featuring an average man facing extraordinary circumstances. The central figure here is a portrait painter who splits up with his wife and then takes up an offer from a friend to look after a house on a hill-top. The old house, which belongs to the famous painter Tomohiko Amada, has its own art studio and is the perfect space for the visitor to get his real painting career back on track.
Of course, as is the always the case with Murakami, fate intervenes, this time in the form of a request by a wealthy businessman, Wataru Menshiki, to paint another portrait. Menshiki (whose name, in a nod to Murakami’s previous novel, means ‘colourless’…) has ulterior motives for making the painter’s acquaintance, and the two men begin to see a lot of each other. However, it’s the discovery of an old painting in the attic that proves to be the catalyst for subsequent events. It’s an old Japanese-style painting featuring a murder, the ‘Killing Commendatore’ of the title, and it turns out to be influenced by Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. This a Murakami book, though, and if I say that the picture speaks to the painter, you’ll know that I’m not using metaphors…
What ensues is a typically entertaining Murakamian adventure. The painter, who just wants a bit of peace and quiet while he attempts to rebuild his life, has to deal with Menshiki, Mariye Akikawa (a schoolgirl whose portrait he is also asked to paint), a couple of casual girlfriends and a handful of supernatural appearances. It’ll come as no surprise that at one point he and Menshiki uncover a large hole in the ground near the house:
“What a strange day,” Menshiki said.
“I’m sorry you had to use up your entire day for this,” I said.
“No, don’t apologize. It’s been very interesting,” Menshiki said. “And this isn’t the end of it, I would imagine.”
Menshiki had an odd look on his face, as if gazing far away.
“Meaning something else is going to happen?” I asked.
Menshiki chose his words carefully. “I can’t explain it well, but I get the feeling that this is only the beginning.”
p.174 (Harvill Secker, 2018)
No prizes for guessing that he’s spot on here. This is just the start of a rather big adventure featuring tunnels, caves, bells and the odd dream or two – all par for the course.
The rest of the book looks at the links between Menshiki and Mariye, and the provenance of the painting, while all the time exploring the painter’s own history. Dreams pervade the novel, some stranger than others, and Murakami attempts to tie all his various threads together, with the story culminating in a rather familiar voyage of discovery through the narrator’s own psyche. It’s a page turner once you get into it, and Murakami fans will find plenty to like.
Killing Commendatore is a fun and interesting read for the most part. However, I’m more interested here in looking at some of the issues with the book. One of these concerns the lead character, another of Murakami’s interchangeable main men, with only his talent for painting making him stand out. He’s emotionless, detached and ultimately dull, and if we compare him with Tsukuru Tazaki, for example (a far more nuanced creation), he shows an extraordinary lack of depth. No matter how hard things get (and at times they’re pretty damn hard), I would challenge any reader to truly empathise with him.
Another slightly troubling character, for very different reasons, is Mariye Akikawa. She’s eleven years old, and the dynamic between her and the narrator is off from the very start. During the first sitting for her portrait, the quiet pre-teen decides that this would be the perfect time to open up to a complete stranger:
“I can’t help thinking about my breasts,” Mariye said after a while. “That’s all I think about, pretty much. Is that weird?”
“Not particularly,” I said. “You’re at that age. When I was your age all I thought about was my penis. Whether it was shaped funny, or was too small, whether it was working wrong.” (pp.323/4)
There’s so much here that is wrong, on so many levels, and while she generally begins these conversations, the words are coming from a middle-aged male writer. In short, it’s rather disturbing. There are parallels here with the two-dimensional (apart from her huge breasts) picture Murakami paints of 1Q84’s Fuka-Eri. Again, he’s simply putting a girl out there as if it’s not his problem – but he’s writing it all…
The novel includes a lot of sex and dirty talk, even if it’s not quite bad enough to take out the bad sex in fiction award this year. However, one particular passage, involving a nocturnal encounter between the narrator and his ex-wife, crosses the line by some margin. Yes, it’s a ‘dream’, but it’s basically rape (a reverse of a similar scene in 1Q84), and again there’s a point where you can’t simply hide behind a defence of dreams and fiction. It’s distinctly uncomfortable (for many readers it might even be distressing), and even long-time fans will struggle to defend it on artistic grounds.
I’ve mentioned 1Q84 a couple of times already, but the book Killing Commendatore really plays on is Murakami’s most successful work to date, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Similarities include the prominence of a young girl, the classical music leitmotiv, a missing person, dream sex, the depths of the psyche, history and Japanese war guilt. However, where in the earlier book these themes seemed to connect logically and coherently, here they are merely clichés, a repetition of what has come before. In particular, the idea of the Nanking (or Nanjing) massacre (or rape…), which was mentioned in many pre-release teasers, is merely a footnote in the book. It appears to be just a passing whim, an idea that doesn’t really support the narrative, an echo of the historical strand of the earlier novel.
More importantly, for all the Murakami Bingo jokes, his work usually manages to stay just on the right side of self-parody, but this book sees him (to mix my metaphors) crashing off the tightrope he’s balancing on. Chekhov’s gun becomes Murakami’s well, as we all know that if there’s a hole in the ground, the main character must sit in it towards the end of the book – no prizes for guessing that he eventually does so. The whole book is so allegory-laden and self-referential that when I read the following sentence:
Menshiki climbed down the mental ladder the contractor had left for us. (p.194)
I wasn’t actually sure whether this was a typo or not. As for the bingo, we get cats (p.6), breasts (p.10), classical music (p.24), a hole in the ground (p.68), wandering around in the dark (p.122) and scotch (p.123). There’s also pasta, jazz, dream sex, flings with bored housewives and a mysterious stranger well before the half-way mark. I have a full card, and I’d like my prize of a special commemorative Killing Commendatore print, please.
Overall, despite the many issues with Killing Commendatore, I did enjoy the experience, but it’s not one of Murakami’s better books, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for those new to the writer. Then again, perhaps the lack of enjoyment has more to do with a jaded reader than a poor book, and fresher eyes might well find more to admire here. One thing’s for sure: if you do fall under Killing Commendatore‘s spell, then your luck’s in. Murakami has an extensive back catalogue in English, and most of those books are better than this one – enjoy 🙂