BOOKS: Haruki Mu­rakami’s Killing Com­menda­tore. Toni Jor­dan’s The Frag­ments. Mary Le­u­nig’s One Good Turn.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

Af­ter Dark, one of Haruki Mu­rakami’s short­est nov­els, opens in a Denny’s in Tokyo, where the pro­tag­o­nist has come for a latenight snack. The first pages are taken up by a mono­logue about Denny’s chicken salad, in which he ex­plains that al­though it’s the only thing he’ll ever or­der from Denny’s, he still reads the menu. “Wouldn’t it be too sad to walk into Denny’s and or­der chicken salad with­out look­ing at the menu? It’s like telling the world, ‘I come to Denny’s all the time be­cause I love the chicken salad.’”

This pas­sage came to mind of­ten while read­ing Killing Com­menda­tore, be­cause it serves as a handy apol­ogy for ap­pre­ci­at­ing Mu­rakami and the echo­ing, un­der­wa­ter world his books share. Even his most ar­dent de­fend­ers will ad­mit to a cer­tain same­ness about them – there is noth­ing like a Mu­rakami novel, un­less it’s an­other Mu­rakami novel, and then it’s al­most ex­actly like it. Over­whelm­ingly, his work fo­cuses on lonely young men, thrown into bizarre cir­cum­stance, who re­main markedly san­guine as re­al­ity dis­in­te­grates around them, slouch­ing wryly around Ja­pan and lis­ten­ing to records.

This time it’s the story of an un­named 36-year-old painter liv­ing in Tokyo, earn­ing a re­spectable, if cre­atively un­ful­filled liv­ing as a por­trait artist. When his wife, Yuzu, an­nounces that she’s been see­ing some­one else and wants a di­vorce, he aban­dons the ru­ins of his life and takes off on a road trip through ru­ral Ja­pan. He fi­nally set­tles down on top of a moun­tain in re­mote Odawara, Kana­gawa Pre­fec­ture, when a friend, Masahiko, of­fers him the use of his ail­ing fa­ther’s house. Masahiko’s fa­ther, To­mo­hiko Amada, is a fa­mous artist paint­ing in clas­si­cal Ja­panese style, so the house comes re­plete with a paint­ing stu­dio – an ideal place for the nar­ra­tor to lick his wounds, learn to paint again, and come to grips with his failed mar­riage. He does this in the style fans of Mu­rakami will be ac­cus­tomed to: brood­ing on works of pop cul­ture and the mys­ter­ies of the heart, eat­ing sim­ple but elab­o­rately de­scribed meals, and stum­bling into a sur­real nether­world.

While in­ves­ti­gat­ing a noise in the at­tic, the nar­ra­tor dis­cov­ers a lost mas­ter­work by To­mo­hiko Amada de­pict­ing a mur­der.

It’s ti­tled Killing Com­menda­tore and seems to de­pict an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Mozart’s Don Gio­vanni set in Ja­pan’s sixth-cen­tury Asuka era. Our nar­ra­tor ad­mires it, dis­cerns it is some­how con­nected to an atroc­ity in Vi­enna un­der the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, grows ob­sessed, and in his at­tempts to un­ravel the mys­tery of the paint­ing, un­leashes su­per­nat­u­ral forces.

He be­gins to hear the sound of a ring­ing bell at night, the search for which leads him to a se­cret cham­ber buried be­hind an old shrine. There he finds an an­cient Bud­dhist cer­e­mo­nial bell. This sets in mo­tion a se­ries of events that shakes his self-im­posed iso­la­tion and leads him to be­friend Men­shiki, a charis­matic tech in­dus­tri­al­ist who lives in a lux­u­ri­ous house across the val­ley, Marie Aki­gawa, a wise-be­yond-her-years 13-yearold girl who seems con­nected to both Men­shiki and the mys­te­ri­ous shrine, and The Idea, a two-foot-high en­tity that takes the form of the Com­menda­tore char­ac­ter from the lost paint­ing. The Idea is a cor­dial lit­tle spirit prone to giv­ing ad­vice on the creative process. “What is im­por­tant is not cre­at­ing some­thing out of noth­ing. What my friends need to do is dis­cover the right thing from what is al­ready there.”

Ideas, and the way we build re­al­ity from pre­con­cep­tions we pick up along the way, are cen­tral to this story, a the­matic through-line that is ei­ther tran­scen­dent or in­suf­fer­able, de­pend­ing on the reader’s tol­er­ance for such things. At one point, the nar­ra­tor phys­i­cally bru­talises an ap­pari­tion that in­tro­duces it­self as “Metaphor”.

While Mu­rakami’s style is broadly mag­i­cal re­al­ist, he’s closer in artis­tic in­tent to David Lynch than Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez. With each book, Mu­rakami seems more con­cerned with mood and less con­cerned with ful­fill­ing the nar­ra­tive con­tract that has un­der­pinned novel-writ­ing since The Tale of Genji, circa 1021.

Mu­rakami’s oeu­vre rests sus­pended in a world of its own mak­ing, some­where be­tween a tra­di­tion of her­metic Ja­panese artistry and free­wheel­ing all-ap­pro­pri­at­ing glob­al­ist pop cul­ture. It’s easy to for­get, this late into his ca­reer, how ground­break­ing and strange the fu­sion of el­e­ments and in­flu­ences are, es­pe­cially when sub­merged by the bizarre sto­ry­telling tech­niques Mu­rakami cham­pi­ons.

This novel, just shy of 700 pages, comes loaded with Easter eggs and play­ful ref­er­ences to the works that in­spired it. The char­ac­ter of Men­shiki – a self-made man with a shady back­ground who’s ob­sessed with a lost re­la­tion­ship from his past – has echoes of The Great Gatsby (a book Mu­rakami loves so much, he has trans­lated it into Ja­panese), while the story of the bell is lifted whole­sale from Edope­riod au­thor Ueda Ak­i­nari’s short story Nise no Enishi (“A bond for two life­times”). Both clas­sic sto­ries are shoe­horned into the larger mys­tery along­side other Mu­rakami sta­ples: a well, an ex­cur­sion into a sin­is­ter di­men­sion, mo­ments of in­tense eroti­cism, an ado­les­cent girl with a mys­te­ri­ous con­nec­tion to events be­yond our com­pre­hen­sion, and an un­seemly ob­ses­sion with her bud­ding breasts, all linked by vast pas­sages of stud­ied inanity while the nar­ra­tor makes pasta.

Killing Com­menda­tore also shares sev­eral plot el­e­ments and themes with The Wind-Up Bird Chron­i­cle, Mu­rakami’s 1997 English­language break­through novel. At sev­eral points it seems to be de­lib­er­ately ref­er­enc­ing it, even pla­gia­ris­ing it. Is this au­tho­rial lazi­ness? An el­e­gant post­mod­ern tone poem about the im­mor­tal na­ture of ideas wrapped in a thrilling su­per­nat­u­ral enigma? Who knows? Ei­ther Mu­rakami has lost the abil­ity to land an end­ing, or he’s grown be­yond the need to.

As an ex­er­cise in build­ing and main­tain­ing ten­sion, this book is a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure, and so, in the dream-logic of Mu­rakami’s cre­ation, it suc­ceeds. The clos­ing chap­ters will prove deeply un­sat­is­fy­ing for read­ers who want an­swers from the dozens of richly built plot threads, but for those who lux­u­ri­ate in the sweep­ing, sur­re­al­ist plea­sures of the prose it­self, this is Mu­rakami’s strong­est work in years, a mighty gen­er­ous serv­ing of chicken salad. ZC

Harvill Secker, 704pp, $45

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