Portrait of an artistic magpie
Murakami’s new novel evokes Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
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.