Book: Killing Commendatore
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publication: Harvill Secker
Rediscovery of the self through art is the central theme of Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, a homage in many ways to The Great Gatsby. The novel seems to pick up where F Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus leaves off, with the protagonist set adrift by a sense of disillusionment. The Japanese author’s exploration of his painter-protagonist makes for powerful reading in parts. However, cracks are visible in his trademark style, with his impersonal touch, sometimes, veering off into complete detachment.
The narrator, a painter in his 30s, finds himself separated from his wife and questioning his decision of abandoning his art for portrait painting. After driving across Japan listlessly for months, he eventually stays in a house owned by a famous painter, Tomohiko Amada, in an attempt to discover who he is. It is in such a state that he meets the unfathomable Mr. Menshiki. An eccentric, wealthy man who lives in a beautiful mansion, Menshiki is the Jay Gatsby to the narrator’s Nick Carraway. Commissioned to draw his portrait, that meeting and the narrator’s discovery of one of Amada’s paintings, Killing Commendatore, act as the catalysts for nine increasingly bizarre months in the mountains. Equally bizarre is the way Mariye, an adolescent girl, enters his life — the narrator is persuaded by Menshiki to paint her portrait in order to create a plausible reason for him to meet her. Then, there is his sister, Komichi, who died as a child, leaving an indelible mark on his being.
Bizarre is a relative term with reference to a Murakami production. The emanation of a two-foot-tall Commendatore, a physical manifestation of an Idea, barely elicits a moment of shock before the two are talking the night away. If an Idea could eat, it would also have been feasting on one of the narrator’s yummy dishes while listening to vinyl records of opera or Thelonious Monk.
This, incidentally, brings the spotlight to the Haruki Murakami bingo. It is hardly a secret that Murakami has a set number of plot devices that he deploys in every book, with some variation. Going by Grant Snider’s illustrated Murakami bingo, Commendatore meets at least 16 of 25 standard plot devices. While this is a compelling case for repetition, it must be said that Murakami’s writing has never dwelt on those elements. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife. Do they ever get back together? The answer is hardly a spoiler because the narrator tells you on page one, in the same line that first mentions the separation. Another example is the narrator’s name — he’s never given one. For the author, the characters or devices only seem to gain relevance through their interactions, which allow him to tease out the larger concepts at play.
Using the examination of art as a focal point allows Murakami to try and give shape (literally) to the profundities that he usually skirts around. As an author for whom concepts such as “reality and unreality” and the “coalescence of existence and non-existence” are just another day at the office, an elevation to the examination of the very concept of allegories and metaphors, seems like a natural progression. However, in his own words, “Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain in words. You just grasp them and accept them.”
Counting on someone to intuit an already indeterminate idea is hardly a reliable method — that is largely where criticisms of Murakami’s writing arise. When one considers the author’s tendency for circumlocution, the result is large stretches of dreamlike passages which are offset, at least partly, by occasional detours into the real and mundane. This is one of the bigger flaws in Commendatore. The usually effortless asides about music and history come across as mechanical and laboured. While the pace is by no means hurried, there is a sense that the characters and these anecdotes had to be downgraded from their already tenuous placement to make room for the major themes. This extends to the focus of the narrative; this book is the first to give a feeling that the author chose plot elements by quantity instead of quality. While it can be said that the core idea of the novel is as good as any of his best works, Commendatore is burdened by an unusually large number of ideas and plot threads, many of which are underdone. This is a shame, given that the novel does in part create that feeling of wonder and pensiveness that longtime readers credit him with.
It is easy to see the author in the role of the narrator. One can see subtle changes to his style as his gaze moves from youth to middle age and lingers on the questions therein. The power in Commendatore is the same as that of an unfinished painting and there is certainly enough of it to anticipate where Murakami might go next. But as for this particular book, the verdict is perhaps best summarised in its own words. “It is like trying to use a sieve to hold water,” the Commendatore said, “No one ever can float something full of holes on water.”