Por­trait of an artis­tic mag­pie

Mu­rakami’s new novel evokes Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gatsby

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - RE­VIEW BY KEITH BRUCE

Killing Com­menda­tore Haruki Mu­rakami Harvill Secker, £20

ON BBC Ra­dio 4 and in a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle, novelist Wil­liam Boyd has re­cently made the ob­ser­va­tion that, in an era of “fake news” and con­tested bi­og­ra­phy, the cen­tral para­dox of the novel is that it is al­ways “true”, be­cause it has been in­vented by the au­thor.

Boyd was, of course, mak­ing the point in the con­text of pro­mot­ing his own new book, Love Is Blind, but it is just as ap­pli­ca­ble to the lat­est chunky of­fer­ing from Ja­pan’s glob­ally-suc­cess­ful Haruki Mu­rakami, and iden­ti­fi­ably one of the main ideas he is ex­plor­ing in the novel. For fans of the writer – and those num­ber in the mil­lions – there will be much that is re­as­sur­ingly fa­mil­iar in his lat­est work. Its pro­tag­o­nist is a por­trait pain­ter with a trou­bled per­sonal life and friends more flam­boy­ant than him­self, and the life-story he re­lates cheer­fully mixes the most mun­dane of nat­u­ral­is­tic de­tail with the fan­tas­ti­cal, and the in­ter­ven­tion of char­ac­ters that are not of this pro­saic old world. Present also, as usual, are the specifics of mu­sic and cook­ing that the au­thor ad­mits to be­ing im­por­tant non-writ­ing in­ter­ests in his own life, and quite a lot of sex.

What rather sets Killing Com­menda­tore apart from its pre­de­ces­sors, how­ever, is the con­sis­tent bla­tant ref­er­enc­ing of its sources. Sketch­ing and putting paint on a can­vas – the mak­ing of art – are piv­otal to the nar­ra­tive of the book, and at the same time Mu­rakami makes ob­vi­ous all the bor­row­ings that have gone into the mak­ing of the novel. Those be­gin with the ti­tle’s bor­row­ing of the plot en­gine of Mozart/Da Ponte’s Don Gio­vanni, who mur­ders the fa­ther of Donna Anna at the start of the opera and is con­demned to hell­fire by his ghost at its end. The Ital­ian rank of “knight com­man­der” chiefly now ex­ists in that opera’s con­text alone, and a de­pic­tion of that open­ing scene, trans­lated to the medium and pe­riod of clas­si­cal Ja­panese art, is the key can­vas of a gallery of work de­scribed in these pages.

Just as im­por­tant are the lit­er­ary mod­els be­hind the book. If there is a hint of the florid cir­cum­lo­cu­tion of Nick Car­raway in the early de­scrip­tive pas­sages by our un-named nar­ra­tor, that is be­cause the whole novel holds a mir­ror up to Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gatsby. His Long Is­land com­mu­ni­ties of East and West Egg are here op­po­site sides of a val­ley in ru­ral Odawara in Ja­pan’s Kana­gawa Pre­fec­ture, and Jay Gatsby be­comes a wealthy, soli­tary, IT baron, Wataru Men­shiki, who lives in a glit­ter­ing moun­tain­side man­sion op­po­site the por­trait artist’s bolt­hole (fol­low­ing the break-up of his mar­riage), from where Men­shiki spies on the nar­ra­tor’s neigh­bours through pow­er­ful binoc­u­lars.

Fitzger­ald is ex­plic­itly named late on in the book, but so too are Dos­to­evsky and Melville. And as for the owl in the at­tic of the nar­ra­tor’s new home – that has been bor­rowed from James Thurber’s 1931 gath­er­ing to­gether of a col­lec­tion of hu­mor­ous pieces un­der that ti­tle.

Although the story bowls along with the sort of page-turn­ing propul­sion that is es­sen­tial in pop­u­lar nov­els, what can­not be missed is that Mu­rakami has writ­ten a novel that is sub­stan­tially about the busi­ness of writ­ing a novel, just as its nar­ra­tive is metic­u­lously con­cerned with the busi­ness of paint­ing a pic­ture.

Much of that rings very true to me, hav­ing lis­tened to artists talk­ing about the cre­ation of their work, and Mu­rakami care­fully con­trasts those pas­sages with more do­mes­tic de­scrip­tions of meal prepa­ra­tion and the me­chan­ics of mo­tor ve­hi­cles. Our

nar­ra­tor is for­ever pre­par­ing “a sim­ple meal”, al­ways itemised by in­gre­di­ents and method like a cook­ery book, while Toy­otas, Jaguars and Volvos are end­lessly com­pared and as­sessed with the de­tail of a work­shop man­ual.

Scot­land’s Ian Cal­lum might take ex­cep­tion to the novel’s deroga­tory opin­ion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print of the new­est Jags he has de­signed, but there are other de­tails in which Scot­tish read­ers can a take pass­ing de­light. Ever the con­nois­seur of fine drink, Mu­rakami has his Gatsby re­veal an afi­cionado’s knowl­edge of Is­lay and Jura – and the lat­ter’s sta­tus as the place where Or­well wrote 1984, the book lurk­ing be­hind his own IQ84, two nov­els ago. It is a shame, then, that whisky is mis­spelled with an “e” through­out the book, when it is al­ways Scotch that is be­ing con­sumed. The trans­la­tion by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen is sadly lit­tered with in­ap­pro­pri­ate Amer­i­can­isms, a de­fi­ciency I can­not re­call hav­ing no­ticed in any pre­vi­ous English edi­tions of Mu­rakami’s work, although North Amer­ica will ob­vi­ously be the largest English-speak­ing mar­ket for his books.

While it is only obliquely al­luded to most of the time, the last chap­ter of Killing Com­menda­tore makes clear that it is set in the first decade of the cur­rent cen­tury, which might partly ex­cuse the other con­cern­ing as­pect of the novel. Through­out there is a male-gaze fo­cus on the sex­u­al­ity of its fe­male char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing that of the pre­co­cious pubescent one, Mariye Akikawa. I reached the clos­ing pages un­cer­tain whether some of this slightly dodgy – and very pre-#MeToo – re­portage was de­signed to steer us to a judge­ment about the char­ac­ter of our nar­ra­tor, or was more au­tho­rial. On bal­ance – and his com­men­tary on the one non-por­trait he paints in the course of the book is a big hint – I think it is the for­mer, but of course that very am­bi­gu­ity only fu­els the de­bate about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the artist (and writer) and his work that is at the very heart of the book.

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