Haruki Mu­rakami turns his gaze to­ward mid­dle age in new novel

Killing Com­menda­tore of­fers es­cape from life through art

Waterloo Region Record - - Books - CHARLES FINCH Charles Finch is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “The Woman in the Wa­ter.”

The mid­dle of life is a sec­ond ado­les­cence, with no one left to ad­mire our suf­fer­ing. All of Dante’s work is a beau­ti­ful, un­con­vinc­ing ri­poste to the sense of an­guish this age can bring: “Mid­way along the jour­ney of our life, I woke to find my­self in a dark wood, for I had wan­dered from the straight path,” he writes. Even­tu­ally, he makes it to Par­adise, but no­body reads that part.

The great Ja­panese au­thor Haruki Mu­rakami grew fa­mous writ­ing about the ten­der melan­choly of youth. (”Nor­we­gian Wood” made him so rec­og­niz­able in Ja­pan that he left.) Read­ing books from that pe­riod, you feel sad with­out know­ing why — and yet, within that sad­ness glows a small em­ber of happiness, be­cause to feel sad is at least to feel hon­estly.

Now, in his 60s, he has be­gun to con­sider mid­dle age more care­fully, as if he sees him­self most clearly across a 20-year lag. It’s the sub­ject of his un­der­rated “Color­less Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pil­grim­age,” and also of his im­mer­sive, repet­i­tive, big-hearted new novel “Killing Com­menda­tore.”

The nar­ra­tor of “Killing Com­menda­tore” is a pain­ter of 36. His wife has just left him. Hav­ing sac­ri­ficed his early am­bi­tions as an artist to be­come a master por­traitist, he leaves his Tokyo apart­ment be­wil­dered, be­fore com­ing to a re­al­iza­tion: “I ... wanted to try paint­ing what­ever I wanted.” A friend from art school lends him a re­mote house in the moun­tains, and he be­gins to search anew for the mean­ing he once found in pure cre­ation.

As is of­ten the case in Mu­rakami’s fic­tion, a plot of rel­a­tive sim­plic­ity — an artist’s rein­ven­tion — is dis­rupted by enig­matic, sur­real or vi­o­lent in­ci­dents. The nar­ra­tor’s new res­i­dence once be­longed to a fa­mous pain­ter, whose pe­cu­liar de­pic­tion of a sword fight, “Killing Com­menda­tore,” re­mains in the at­tic. Soon af­ter find­ing the paint­ing, the house’s new in­hab­i­tant be­gins to hear the clear sound of a bell em­a­nat­ing from a “strange cir­cu­lar pit in the woods.” These events dis­turb him, while also press­ing him into a fu­ri­ous cre­ativ­ity; he be­gins to paint ab­stract por­traits, not sim­ply of faces and bod­ies, but of the souls within them.

One of these por­traits is of a mys­te­ri­ous, im­mensely rich man named Men­shiki, who lives nearby. He has bright white hair, a Jaguar and a “very clean, open smile,” while con­ceal­ing, the pain­ter thinks, “a secret locked away in a small box and buried deep down in the ground.”

It is Men­shiki who man­ages the ex­ca­va­tion of the pit. In­side, they find only the an­cient bell — but its call brings to life (hold steady here, if you can) a two-foot-tall char­ac­ter from the omi­nous paint­ing, with a mes­sage of mor­tal im­por­tance.

This stuff is very Mu­rakami. “Killing Com­menda­tore” re­peats al­most ex­actly, for ex­am­ple, the de­scent through a well to a mag­i­cal world that oc­curs in his ear­lier novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chron­i­cle.” Odd crea­tures con­stantly come to life in his writ­ing, per­haps most mem­o­rably the hu­man-size frog calmly pre­par­ing tea in the short story “Su­per-Frog Saves Tokyo.”

Yet, there’s a strong sense in Mu­rakami’s work that his al­le­gor­i­cal in­stincts are sec­ondary, the ra­di­a­tion of his char­ac­ters’ in­ner sense of dis­lo­ca­tion. He took this method to its out­er­most lim­its in his mon­u­men­tal “1Q84” (is it time to ad­mit that that book is some­thing of a mess?), but “Killing Com­menda­tore” gets the bal­ance right.

Per­haps this lies in its ex­hil­a­rat­ing por­trayal of how it feels to make art. In long, pow­er­ful pas­sages, Mu­rakami de­scribes paint­ing with the in­ten­sity of what seems like just-con­cealed au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “An im­age of a colour I should add came to me ... the colour was like that of a tree with its green leaves dully dyed by rain. I mixed sev­eral colours to­gether and cre­ated what I wanted ... even if it doesn’t turn out as a por­trait, I told my­self, that was OK ... I could think about the next step later on ... like a child, not watch­ing his step, chas­ing some un­usual but­ter­fly ... I don’t re­mem­ber how much time passed. By the time I looked around, the room had got­ten dim.”

One could ar­gue that the re­al­ism of such scenes saves “Killing Com­menda­tore” from its flights of out­landish­ness; con­versely, it’s pos­si­ble that only in the calm mad­ness of his mag­i­cal re­al­ism can Mu­rakami truly cap­ture one of his ob­ses­sions, the usu­ally in­ef­fa­ble yearn­ing that drives a per­son to make art. The ob­scurely lonely do­mes­tic images that run through his nov­els — rain, swim­ming, pasta, jazz, a par­tic­u­lar sort of warm, im­per­sonal sex — root that yearn­ing in the truth of daily life. It’s as Byron wrote: “I had a dream, which was not all a dream.”

Lately, Mu­rakami has writ­ten about how this sen­sa­tion surges again in the mid­dle of life, when we re­al­ize that we know less as we age, not more. His char­ac­ters want to turn them­selves in­side out, to es­cape the in­de­ci­pher­able me­chan­i­cal mo­men­tum of their lives. The only path he of­fers them out of that de­s­pair is art; the nar­ra­tor of “Killing Com­menda­tore” learns “the courage not to fear a change in one’s life­style, the im­por­tance of hav­ing time on your side.” They are hum­ble lessons, given the ridicu­lous events that have be­fallen him. But that’s the point. Noth­ing we in­vent could be as strange as life. We hon­our that fact by in­vent­ing it any­way.

THOS ROBIN­SON GETTY IMAGES FOR THE NEW YORKER

Au­thor Haruki Mu­rakami’s new novel Killing Com­menda­tore is im­mer­sive, repet­i­tive and big-hearted.

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