A Ja­panese Gatsby in a sub­con­scious Won­der­land

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - ELEANOR O’REILLY

KILLING COM­MENDA­TORE HARUKI MU­RAKAMI Harvill Secker, 704pp, £20

Be­ing one of those, you know the type, who wings it at lit­er­ary dis­cus­sions, MA sem­i­nars, on Rick O’Shea posts, pre­tend­ing they’ve ac­tu­ally read the Ja­panese master Haruki Mu­rakami, I felt that fi­nally com­ing to him now, with­out pre­con­cep­tions or the de­sire to gen­u­flect – a metaphor­i­cal Mu­rakami vir­gin – would put us on an equal foot­ing. (He’s never read me ei­ther.)

The teacher in­side takes out the big­gest red pen she can find. Okay, Mu­rakami, let’s see what you’ve got! Ex­cel­lent, I write be­low the strik­ing pro­logue – lov­ing the face­less man and the pen­guin charm of­fered in ex­change for a por­trait.

An un­named pro­tag­o­nist re­lates his story; di­vorced, 36, a por­trait painter, he lives alone in a house on top of moun­tain (an in­ner land­scape kind of moun­tain), across the val­ley from Jay Gatsby’s white-haired Ja­panese cousin, the great Men­shiki. The man-boy artist makes end­less cups of tea, stares at can­vases, and belts out sim­i­les so big, I duck to take cover. Pre­dictably enough, our painter/nar­ra­tor is des­per­ately try­ing to re­dis­cover his cre­ative ge­nius and to de­velop his own artis­tic style. But as I plough on, red pen al­most spent, it all starts to read like the first draft of a book, the big ver­sion of the big book, of Gen­e­sis, where ev­ery­thing is in­cluded and then in­cluded all over again.

Then, out of nowhere, and I mean that lit­er­ally (noth­ing metaphor­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, meta any­thing about it), a grey horned owl ap­pears in the at­tic space of the house (clearly by house, I mean sub­con­scious mind); there is the prom­ise of a 1,000-year-old, bell-ring­ing, mum­mi­fied Bud­dhist monk buried in a hole, close to the house (far too close), which may turn out to be a well – wells are highly sym­bolic. We could be look­ing into the un­con­scious mind at this point, that old reser­voir of feel­ings, thoughts and urges, buried deep, deep in­side. The main man’s fas­ci­na­tion with his dead sis­ter’s small breasts cou­pled with the short dis­tance be­tween the well (the un­con­scious) and the house (the sub­con­scious) has me fran­tic at this point (the con­scious).

For the life of me, I can’t fig­ure out the need for the monk, or per­haps in some un­ex­ca­vated part of me (the pre­con­scious), I don’t want to. Of course, no line-up would be com­plete with­out a 2ft-tall tit­u­lar Com­menda­tore, wear­ing tra­di­tional Ja­panese garb, who in­tro­duces him­self as an “idea” in­car­nated in the fig­ure that ap­par­ently fell out of the mys­te­ri­ous paint­ing hid­den away above in the at­tic (re­mem­ber the sym­bol­ism) with the owl. Though I’m not en­tirely sure of his pur­pose. Like Lear’s fool, the Com­menda­tore could be an in­ter­nal guide, a kind of meta­phys­i­cal sat nav, con­jured up to voice the in­te­rior mono­logue of our rather low re­lief painter friend – or maybe Mu­rakami just put him there, be­cause he could.

There’s a whole host of char­ac­ters in this book, skip­ping around in the magic re­al­ism more as “types” than any­thing else. The holy grail, as usual, is self-knowl­edge, en­light­en­ment even, for all its com­mer­cial worth. It is rather dif­fi­cult to mea­sure the char­ac­ters’ lev­els of suc­cesses or fail­ures when they re­main wholly flat-pack, Ikea types (assem­bly re­quired). And therein lies the fault of this big, feral beast of a book: the in-world mythol­ogy of magic re­al­ism is so bizarre, so con­sis­tently in­con­sis­tent, it dis­tances reader from char­ac­ter(s), ren­der­ing them all more like the Com­menda­tore him­self: lit­tle more than “ideas”, sam­ple peo­ple, man­i­fest in the bor­rowed forms of fig­ures from other places, other sto­ries, other Wiki pages.

Cue ex­plicit in­ter­tex­tu­al­ity (my favourite). Jaguar-driv­ing, chino-wear­ing Gatsby is present, re­splen­dent in all his lone­li­ness and mys­tery. Alice, shipped from Won­der­land, frol­ics about, like a rash. Shad­owy, shape-shift­ing Do­rian Gray hov­ers, on some other as­tral plane, con­tem­plat­ing new per­spec­tives, new ways of see­ing. Ae­sop, the great fab­u­list, stands cen­tre stage. And Ae­sop’s on acid! There are so many mi­grants in the pas­sages of this labyrinth, it seems the­atri­cally rem­i­nis­cent of Noah’s Ark. But who is be­ing saved?

Ref­er­ences to other texts, paint­ings and mu­sic are wo­ven densely, like thick clothes-line rope, into the nar­ra­tive, but, de­spite its length, its multi -lay­ers, its com­plex­ity, Killing Com­menda­tore of­ten feels lazy, like a paint­ing-by-num­bers ver­sion of an Old Master done in crayons.

How­ever, it is the Cray­ola ef­fect that makes this work orig­i­nal – child­like in its telling, but grand in the big, loud, colour­ful marks it makes. Too con­trived in its mad­ness, too gar­ish and long, the words spill out over the pages like the clut­ter of a hoarder in ther­apy. But it’s one hell of a ses­sion. One hell of a tale.

Mu­rakami the master? The ring­mas­ter maybe – a funny, en­ter­tain­ing per­former; a clever imag­i­na­tion play­ing the crowd.

Sir, I ap­plaud you – I scrib­ble across the last page! Eleanor O’ Reilly’ s de­but novel, M for Mammy (Hod der& St ought on) will be pub­lished next March

PHO­TO­GRAPH: VIN­TAGE/AN­CHOR

Haruki Mu­rakami: a funny, en­ter­tain­ing per­former; a clever imag­i­na­tion play­ing the crowd.

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