Killing Commendatore

Haruki Mu­rakami Pen­guin Ran­dom House, $45

Metro Magazine NZ - - Books - RE­VIEW — ALEC REDVERS-HILL

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.

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