Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen (from Japanese)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: October 2018
Number of Pages: 681 pages
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
In Killing Commendatore, a thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada.
When he discovers a previously unseen painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.
Unexpectedly, I found myself slowly becoming a Murakami fan although our reader-writer relationship started on the wrong footing. A lot of my reader friends love his works and in no time, I found myself drawn to his works. His magical and fantastical writing never failed to enchant me and other readers the world around. In the hopes of uncovering more of his phantasmagorical writing, I waited in anticipation for the English translation of his latest work, Killing Commendatore. When I was able to avail a copy of this work, I immediately set on devouring it with every ounce of the transformed reader in me.
Killing Commendatore is my third Murakami of the year (and ninth overall). This gave me confidence in dealing with his latest work. My past reading experiences aided me greatly in unraveling that proverbial Murakami labyrinth. But if there is something that I have learned from reading books, it is that every book is a fresh journey. To some extent, Killing Commendatore gave that to me.
“When you get to be my age, you’ll understand how I feel. How much loneliness the truth can cause sometimes.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
The narrative is related by an anonymous narrator, a typical Murakami figure. A portrait artist for hire, he rarely paints his subjects in their presence, preferring to draw them after memorizing their features and their nuances. Unexpectedly, his wife of six years called him to end their marriage. Abandoned, he went meandering all over Japan until he settled on an empty house in the mountains which belongs to his friend’s senile father, Tomohiko Amada, a famous painter.
While browsing through the items in the attic, the unnamed narrator inadvertently uncovered a distracting and violent painting by Amada titled Killing Commendatore. Upon further study, the narrator gleaned that the painting is a reinterpretation of the Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But it was more than just a reinterpretation as this discovery set into motion a series of mysterious events involving a dapper businessman, an Idea, and Double Metaphors. He must then venture to the pits of another world to close the lid of the endless pit that he has helped open.
Killing Commendatore is Murakami’s second serialized novel, after tri-volume 1Q84. Just like most of his works, it contained allusions to literary elements integral to a Haruki Murakami work. These elements include Murakami’s undying love for classical jazz music, the endless eroticism (there was so much in the book that it got banned in libraries and got censored in bookstores in Hong Kong), and his devotion for books. Whereas I have maintained that eroticism in Murakami’s works is merely a plot device to make the story move forward, I was nonetheless perturbed by the narrator’s unusual breast fetishism which bordered on the incestuous.
The book is a monumental an ode to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ageless classic The Great Gatsby. This is no surprise as in 2006, Murakami successfully completed the Japanese translation of this modern classic. Aside from the obvious allusion to jazz music, Menshiki (which literally means “lacking colors”), the narrator’s dapper businessman neighbor, is a literary reincarnation of Jay Gatsby. Beyond the themes of The Great Gatsby, readers can find within the confines of the novel a plethora of philosophical concerns, and psychological growth. As always, Murakami displayed how skilled he is in navigating the humdrums of the supernatural.
“There are plenty of things in history that are best left in the shadows. Accurate knowledge does not improve people’s lives. The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know. Reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
Haruki Murakami was yet again ingenious in conveying the message of the narrative, a literary nuance that he is quite known for. It is a rarity for him to be straightforward and in Killing Commendatore, it was no different. The unknown narrator whimsically doesn’t complete his paintings. One of his paintings is of a faceless man. This is the subtlest yet biggest message in the entire narrative: beauty will always be abstract and sometimes, faceless. We can draw up experiences but we can never fully relive it.
The subplots were wonderfully created. However, the plot fell flat as it was too loose (something that is quite un-Murakami). It was under-edited and could have used some tightening up. The pace as well didn’t match the narrative; it was a tad too slow. Moreover, there were details that could have been cut from the narrative without it affecting to overall context. It was just a drag trying to unravel the narrative in the 600+ pages novel filled with unnecessary drivel.
The thing is this book has wrapped me in an “literary” emotional impasse because I have set quite a high bar for this particular Murakami work considering my previous reading experiences; Sputnik Sweetheart, which was the last Murakami novel I read, wrapped me in a magical ride. But reading Killing Commendatore is just like going through the motions of a normal novel, nothing extraordinary, nothing interesting. It did have an interesting premise and the for the first few hundred pages, it was exciting. But then everything started to feel like a déjà vu.
Killing Commendatore resonated with so many elements from Murakami’s previous works. It was as though Murakmi was so uninspired he simply snipped different themes and elements from his previous works and from the rubble he weaved an abstract work, which, unfortunately, undermined the overall impact of the narrative. It brings out the question: where is Murakami’s brand of literature is headed? The book imbibed Murakami through and through but it lacked a sense or a vision to make one think that he has still more in store.
“The truth is a symbol, and symbols are the truth. It is best to grasp symbols the way they are. There’s no logical facts, no pig’s belly button or ant’s balls. When people try to use a method other than the truth to follow along the path of understanding, it is like trying to use a sieve to hold water.” ~ Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
Overall, I neither hated nor loved the story. It was your “usual” exemplary Murakami novel but it lacked vision. In the end, it was Murakami’s creative and vivid imagination that managed to pull off a Houdini-esque escape. The novel reeked of mediocrity (compared to his other works). There were just too much of the same thing; it lacked fresher perspectives to make me look forward to his future works. Take note that I am only comparing this work to his other works because simply put, Murakami is a class of his own.
For readers who want to get a start on Murakami’s work, I don’t recommend this as a starting point. Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart would be the better choice.
Recommended for devout readers of magical fiction, readers who are devotees of Haruki Murakami and his works, readers who want an escapist world where pits, ideas and double metaphors are the norm, readers with vast and creative imaginations, and readers who like the supernatural and who are open-minded.
Not recommended for readers who prefer the traditional and more demure Japanese storytelling, for devout fanatics of Kenzaboro Oe, readers who dislike manifestations of ideas and double metaphors, readers who dislike unnamed narrators and characters, and conservative readers who hate excessive eroticism and breast fetishes.
About the Author
To know more about Haruki Murakami, click here.