Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki

Killing Commendatore
by Murakami Haruki
translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Harvill Secker (2018)
ISBN-13: 978-1787300194

Review by Beau Waycott

Breaking from first-person narration for the first time in almost ten years, Murakami Haruki’s Killing Commendatore is an epic novel that fails to capture the wry poignance and fully immersive settings of his earlier works. Whilst there are passages of charming and warm prose, as well as some promising nods to contemporary politics, Murakami’s end product seems disconnected, sterile and, above all else, unconvincing.

The protagonist (who is, in a true trope of Murakami, unnamed) is a 36 year-old portrait painter living in Tokyo, whose stable life is suddenly shaken when his wife announces her infidelity and issues a divorce. Feeling numb and bewildered, the painter embarks on a month-long expedition around Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, spending time alone in various onsen (hot spring bath houses), izakaya bars and unmaintained ryokan hotels, seasoned with infrequent -yet formative- and spontaneous rendezvous. Returning to Honshu, he settles on the hilltop house of an acquaintance’s father in rural Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture. Settling into the slow and static lifestyle of a recently-separated luddite, he spends the majority of his time, much like before, in isolation: reading; cooking; examining artworks, and, for the first time in almost a decade, painting for pleasure, rediscovering styles of art he last practised at art college, far removed from the naturalistic and impersonal portraits he has exclusively created for so long.

The opening chapters are lucid, engaging and very promising, with Murakami’s precise intermingling of the metaphorical and the literal; the prosaic and the sterile; the surreal and the mundane all culminating to holistically characterise the protagonist in Murakami’s exact and practised style. Murakami breathes new life into his fascination with bildungsroman, subverting the genre in the protagonist’s early characterisation by allowing him to question -and then rediscover- both artistic style and inspiration not in adolescence, but in middle age.

It is whilst living in this house that the protagonist discovers the painting of the previous owner, Amada Tomohiko, who is a well known painter, renowned internationally throughout the art world for his deft skill following traditional Japanese styles and techniques (although old age has now reduced Amada to life in a residential home, incapable of logical conversation or thought). The piece, entitled ‘Killing Commendatore’, depicts a killing scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, contextualised in what appears to be Japan’s Asuka Period (552-645). Following this, an enigmatic and mysterious neighbour of the protagonist appears, Menshiki Wataru, who disrupts the protagonist’s (and plot’s) new equilibrium by bringing frequent social visits to the house, and the subsequent multiple of narrative changes. Most notable, a seemingly unconnected nightly aural assault begins to take place on the protagonist, with a bell, presumably a piece of ancient Buddhist memorabilia, ringing throughout the small hours nearly every night.

Connecting all of these events is the titular two-feet-tall Commendatore, who appears to have manifested himself out of the painting, complete with hooded Japanese garb. This is, perhaps, Murakami’s biggest mistake in the novel; whilst the Commendatore serves a very clear purpose in terms of the text’s narrative, Murakami fails to even attempt to create a credible inter-plot mythology, or justify any reasoning behind sudden and unexplained periods of magical realism. Moreover, much like in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the plot is contextualised through historical events, with Murakami attempting to draw together seemingly isolated characters through past, collective events. Whilst the historical nods in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are transportive, taking the action out of the present and into the past, in Killing Commendatore they are exclusively significant expositionally, merely adding often insignificant details to narration. However, nods to events such as Kristallnacht or Nanking are perhaps the closest Murakami has ever come to political in his novels, and do provide both an interesting perspective in which to view the author and his works, and the exciting possibility of more political commentary to come.

In terms of narratology past the first five chapters or so, the work is something of a shambles. The entirety of the plot becomes retrospective: we learn from the first lines that the protagonist will spend only nine months in Odawara, and eventually reconcile with his wife. As such, the extreme detail given to relatively insignificant events later in the novel seem almost superfluous; for example, the protagonist makes over a dozen visits to where the bell was found, more often than not just to conclude nothing has changed. Murakami is widely known for his remark ‘My lifetime dream is to be sitting at the bottom of a well’, and Killing Commendatore (along with many of his other novels) is testament to this, with great detail given to negligible trips to a well in Amada’s garden.

This leads to the real problem of the novel: it seems Murakami has made no selection in the inclusion of events and details whatsoever- absolutely everything is included. Unlike in Murakami’s earlier works, which led to his international stardom, such as Norwegian Wood or Pinball, or even the twentieth-century American literature from which he draws so much inspiration (with Menshiki in Killing Commendatore apparently written in partial homage to Jay Gatsby), there is no judicious adoption of only truly necessary scenes of descriptions. Even more frustratingly, the protagonist evolves very little throughout the plot, and finishes the text in almost precisely the same place in which he started. Indeed, by the novel’s end the protagonist writes of his return to the suburbian abyss ‘That’s the kind of life I wanted, and that’s also what people wanted of me’.

Overall, Murakami fans will probably feel frustrated with this novel. It starts off incredibly promisingly, only to wallow in overdescription that leads to no significant change or evolution of character. Whilst Murakami’s classic style does penetrate through the bulk of the text, be that his excellent mixture of sentence lengths, or warped yet gripping comedic elements. I don’t feel many followers will be overjoyed with this publication. It is worthwhile to remember, though that this new novel does bring the promise of a newly politicised and perhaps more outspoken Murakami, always a quiet and underpublicized individual, which is something I believe all fans can rally behind.

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