Haruki Murakami Penguin Random House, $45
There’s a certain meta delight in reviewing Murakami. In one of his essays, Masshiro na Uso (Pure White Lies), he discusses his own experience writing book reviews, saving time on reading and avoiding negative fallout from authors by simply making up books to review, such as biographies of people who don’t exist. Of course, Murakami’s fame is such that I can’t possibly do something similar here. His fame is also such that those who have read Murakami before have generally already made up their minds about him. Killing Commendatore is textbook Murakami. If you’re a fan, this was written for you; you’ll likely enjoy it, but I’d be surprised if it becomes anyone’s favourite. If you’re not, I can’t see this latest iteration swaying you.
Starting with a gripping prologue featuring a man without a face (who, disappointingly, is largely abandoned), Killing Commendatore follows Murakami’s first-person narrator, a painter who has found success, but not fulfilment, churning out oil portraits for wealthy CEOs and the like. After his wife confesses an affair, he goes on a directionless road trip through northern Japan (the character admits he doesn’t know why he chose this area; the answer later turns out to be so that Murakami can clumsily tie in the 2011 tsunami/earthquake/nuclear disaster) before settling into the mountain-top hermitage of a former master of Japanese painting, Tomohiko Amada, who is slowly deteriorating in a nearby nursing home.
(We might note here that almost all of Killing Commendatore’s characters read as older than they are: ostensibly 35, Murakami’s narrator talks like a man in his 50s; a 13-year-old he meets seems closer to 16, apart from her having not yet developed breasts (something on which the novel has an unfortunate fixation); and one has to constantly remind oneself that Amada, while vegetative, isn’t dead yet).
Staying in Amada’s house, the narrator finds the painter’s undiscovered final masterpiece, a graphically violent painting titled Killing Commendatore. This sets in motion a series of paranormal events that lead to the revelation of a world where ideas and metaphors take corporeal form and (I kid you not) the greatest danger is the ever-looming threat of (I wish I was joking) the dreaded Double Metaphor. The action both progresses and resolves in the style of Ueda Akinari, wrapped up in the end with the bow of an end-credits style “where are they now” recap.
Perhaps you missed that reference to Ueda Akinari, a samurai-era Japanese writer and adapter of ghost stories. Fear not: Murakami provides explanatory descriptions of Akinari’s work, as well as historical events, and pieces of art including Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Van Gogh’s Postman, though these can sometimes be painfully forced. While some of the references fit with the story, others seem needless and clunky, and name-checking Facebook in a novel where the protagonist doesn’t own a cell phone, lives in the mountains, and the characters primarily talk about classical music and painting, is both awkward and unnecessarily dates what could otherwise be a timeless story.
If you’re looking for a straightforward novel with a strong plot and a satisfying resolution that you can knock off cover to cover, Killing Commendatore isn’t it. Firstly, it’s long, coming in at around 700 pages (with not-insignificant amounts of text apparently having been cut in its translation into English). Secondly, the novel sets its own pace — it tells you when to keep reading, when to slow down and luxuriate in a passage, when to stop and come back later — and fighting against the novel’s strong internal rhythm is counterproductive.
Killing Commendatore does tell a story, and Murakami is masterful at building the eeriness of the novel’s ghost-tale scenes to a fever pitch of anticipation, slowing the mood to focus on the novel’s many rich conversations, scenes, and descriptive passages, and moving the plot along before things start to drag, although the story has its flaws.
More than having value as a story per se, Killing Commendatore is an exploration of art, how we interact with it, and the power it can have. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the characters’ discussions around painting and music and Murakami’s chosen art of writing. It seeks to achieve and say certain things, but is also made for its own sake. As with a fine oil painting or a great symphony, certain parts of Killing Commendatore shine brighter than others. There will certainly be joy and profit to be found in pulling this book off the shelf again and again, and poring through its magical moments, just as Murakami’s characters return to the novel’s paintings or the records of classical music that fill Amada’s house to re-explore them, and, perhaps themselves. As Murakami writes, “that’s why we need pictures. Or literature, or music, or anything of that sort.” The genius of those moments makes up for any shortcomings of the novel as a whole.
Murakami is masterful at building the eeriness of the novel’s ghost-tale scenes to a fever pitch of anticipation, although the story has its flaws.