Rating 4 stars
First published in Japan in two volumes in 2017 and issued in English translation in 2018, Killing Commendatore is the fourteenth of Haruki Murakami’s novels to be published in the English language.
In this instalment of his epic tale of men who don’t understand women and don’t fully understand themselves, Murakami has chosen to tell the story of an unnamed artist. The novel incorporates a trio of mysteries. The first concerns a celebrated artist who began painting in the Western style, studying as a young man in Vienna, but who suddenly changed to the Japanese style on his return home. The mystery revolves around why he made the change and why he hid a painting in his attic. The second concerns the man who commissions the protagonist to paint his portrait, centring on his position in the remote community he and the unnamed artist find themselves in and why he has singled out the artist. The third is a mystery about what is real and whether ideas can independently manifest physically.
The hardback design is beautiful and prefigures the content of the novel. The dust jacket, designed by Suzanne Dean, uses elements from a linocut design by Vladimir Zimokov, itself based on a woodcut by Okada Baikan, against a ground of indigo circles. A solitary white circle conjures up the moon, the celestial body most often referenced in Murakami’s writing.
Beneath the dust jacket lies a book board design of circles laid out to resemble an artist’s watercolour palette, each circle of colour numbered from 1 to 50.
Inside the book, the endpapers depict circles, mostly of black ink, drawn with a Japanese brush, as though an artist has been practising the form. Some of the circles are red, others have blue or brown filling them in. The sword and owl elements from the dust jacket figure in a couple of the end papers.
Within the pages of this hefty book is an equally hefty story. It starts slowly with the main character having an existential crisis when his wife tells him she can no longer live with him.
After a month-long unplanned roadtrip driving around Hokkaido, he finds himself renting a house from his former art school classmate. It’s the house of his classmate’s father, the celebrated artist who changed his painting style. The house is in a remote mountain area looking over a valley. He takes a job teaching art in the local village and enters into affairs with two of his students. He finds an owl roosting in the attic of the house and a violent painting hidden by his classmate’s father. He is unable to paint.
Previously, when his life was settled and his marriage hadn’t ended, he was a successful if unfulfilled portrait painter. When his crisis hits, he decides to quit portraiture to find his own artistic expression. Despite living in the perfect environment, he finds he can’t find anything within that he wants to commit to a painting. His interior is as blank as the canvas that faces him every day.
When his agent contacts him with a mysterious commission to paint another portrait, he finds he can’t resist the money offered. This introduces into his life the neighbour from the intriguing house across the valley that he has been contemplating from his own terrace. Wataru Menshiki is that rarest of people – a man with no online profile. Apparently open about himself, he is strategically cagey about certain aspects of his life. His name, he tells the unnamed artist, means ‘One who crosses a river, avoiding colour’. The surname Menshiki is the name translated as ‘avoiding colour’. Murakami’s last novel was also about a colourless man, but Tsukuru Tazaki wasn’t avoiding colour so much as he was devoid of it. Menshiki is an altogether different prospect. There’s something menacing about his apparent banality. As a character, something in him made something in me feel threatened. Perhaps he reminded me of certain manipulative men I have encountered in the past.
One of the techniques that the unnamed artist uses when creating a portrait is to have conversations with his clients that subtly reveal their inner self. He never paints from life, always from his perception of who the client is following these conversations. With Menshiki, the process is different. Menshiki wants to be painted from life. He positions this as part of the transaction between him and the artist. As the artist receives something from him that is transferred to the canvas, so he will receive something from the artist by watching him paint. The mystery is what he will do with what he receives. During the painting process, Menshiki describes himself as “a person who’s always seeking change, always in flux”, and suggests that he is the catalyst for an active change in the artist as a painter. The sense is that he’s a stealer of souls, and the painter is unwittingly involved in some kind of Faustian pact.
I found the discussions between the unnamed artist and Menshiki intriguing. They centre on the meaning of self and what we choose to reveal about that self to the world. Some people are an open book, unable to hide anything, too uncomplicated or too blank to have anything to hide. Others are a mystery whose secrets dodge inspection despite the pages being freely turned and the evidence ostensibly all there. And then there are the people who lock their secrets tightly away in sealed volumes not to be read by anyone.
Menshiki’s interest in the unnamed artist stems from his perception that the artist is able to see past the mystery to reveal the true self of his sitters. Menshiki seems to be challenging the artist, testing his ability to see beyond a sealed account and pull the inner self into the light.
Surrounding the artist’s crisis of self, his curiosity about the man whose house he is living in and his wariness around his new client, is a magical realism tale. One night, he wakes in the small hours to absolute silence. No insects, no sounds of weather, nothing but the distant and irregular ringing of a bell. He ventures out into the moonlight, following the sound of the bell, making his way into the woodland behind a small shrine in the grounds of the house. Here he finds a pile of stones within a clump of tall grass. The ringing bell seems to be beneath the stones.
The artist mentions the experience to Menshiki who readily involves himself in investigating this mystery. There’s an air of someone older and more confident in who they are taking advantage of someone vulnerable, under the guise of offering them friendly assistance. The unnamed artist frames it as being similar to older children in a school playground taking over a game that the younger children have started.
Through Menshiki’s assistance, the stones are cleared, revealing stone slabs which are also cleared, revealing a wooden lattice cover. When this is removed, those gathered in the clearing behind the shrine look down into a round, stone-lined pit. What is inside the pit isn’t what the unnamed artist is expecting and offers more questions instead of an answer.
The discovery of the pit made me think of the wells in my favourite Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In it, main character Toru Okada chooses to spend time at the bottom of a dry well as a period of reflection. In a parallel historical narrative, Lieutenant Mamiya is drafted into the military and posted to Manchuria. On a mission to Mongolia, he is captured by Russian troops and given the choice of being shot or throwing himself to the bottom of a dry well. He chooses the latter. It also brought to mind Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry in which a man climbs into a pit with a dog in order to contemplate his life. In Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, a man falls not into a pit but into a nightmare village that is slowly drowning in sand from the dunes that tower above it. Natsume Sōseki’s The Miner is also, naturally, set in an underground, inhospitable environment, in which a young man in existential crisis seeks a different way of being. In Killing Commendatore, there is a story about the Buddhist practice of nyujo, attaining enlightenment by choosing to be buried alive in a pit. There must be something in the collective Japanese psyche that makes being underground compelling.
The discovery of the pit and its contents opens up the third mystery that takes the unnamed artist on a journey he never expected to take. It links together his own existential crisis with the unknowableness of Menshiki and the past of the celebrated artist. The borders between what is physically real and what is from the mind become blurred. What emerges from the opening up of the pit isn’t supernatural or paranormal. It isn’t the spirit of some long dead monk back to haunt the unnamed artist. Rather it is an idea that seeks to find embodiment and influence the art of the protagonist.
This idea also influences the trajectory of the unnamed artist’s life over the next few months, involving him further with Menshiki, the power of the pit, and the past of the celebrated artist. During the unfurling of the mysteries he faces, the unnamed artist has a conversation with Menshiki about boredom and its place in creativity. I’ve heard it said before that, in order to create, we need to be bored. If we didn’t have boredom, we wouldn’t be impelled towards creativity. This is the position that the unnamed artist takes. In contrast, Menshiki claims that his drive to success means that he has never been bored. I found it easier to believe the artist than Menshiki. The artist also talks about the need to sacrifice ego at certain times in our lives and difficulty being a necessary part of becoming. This made me think about how I changed during my mum’s illness, when I had to put a lot of my own pleasure to one side, and how that has changed me as a person in the long run. I am less apologetic now and I don’t pander as willingly to other people’s expectations of me. I have turned down responsibilities that the younger me would have felt obliged to take on because, at this stage in my life, they would subtract more from my quality of life than they could add. I have let some friendships slide because they took too much energy to maintain. My life has become a virtual balance sheet, where I weigh what I must sacrifice against what I get back. This brief passage in the book, about boredom and sacrifice, resonated with me.
It also set the scene for an extended metaphor towards the end of the book. The unnamed artist, in seeking something very important to him and to other people, makes a series of sacrifices of ego in order to attain his goal. He passes through an underground world, described as “the interstice between presence and absence”, a place where metaphors bring hidden possibilities to the surface. Here he has to overcome his deepest fears and surmount his own discomfort in order to achieve a greater good than his personal comfort. The overriding metaphor in this subterranean, subconscious realm is the unnamed artist’s feelings about his sister, who died from a congenital heart defect when she was 12 years old. His feelings towards her are complicated and at times uncomfortable.
Throughout the novel, as ever with Murakami, there is a frank examination of sex. The artist enjoys sex most when it is devoid of commitment and he doesn’t have to give anything of himself other than his physical presence. He also has a latent interest in BDSM and autoerotic asphyxiation but resists it for fear of enjoying the violence too much. The uncomfortable element to his sexuality derives from the way the unnamed artist has linked the unfulfilled blossoming of his sister’s nascent breasts to his preference for women with small breasts. His sister’s death stopped her development into a woman. The artist was 15 at the time and seems to have had a fixation on his sister’s puberty. What emerges from this fixation is not paedophilia, but it’s not entirely comfortable as an expression of the artist’s inner feelings. Things don’t improve when the unnamed artist agrees to paint the portrait of a 12-year-old girl from his art class and she instantly engages him in a conversation about her budding breasts and his penis that he chooses not to close down.
It seems that the trauma of losing his sister and his inability to look after her as he feels an older brother should left the artist emotionally frozen at the age of 15. His outlook on the world seems quite adolescent when it comes to relationships. His affairs with his students are erotic but devoid of emotional connection. His fixation on his sister also impacts on his marriage. We discover that it was her similarity in personality to his dead sister that first attracted the artist to his wife. Murakami suggests that it is the artist’s lack of interest in who his wife actually is that leads to her decision to end the marriage.
Despite ending their marriage, the artist’s wife remains part of his story, both through the contact they maintain and through the artist’s obsessive imaginings about her sleeping with another man.
There’s a war story embedded in Killing Commendatore, in another echo of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The celebrated artist’s studies in Vienna coincided with the Anschluss and he was expelled from Austria for his supposed involvement in an assassination attempt. At the same time as he was studying in Vienna, his younger brother was conscripted to fight in China where he participated in the Nanjing Massacre. Japan’s imperialist interventions in China seem to be an aspect of history that plays on Murakami’s mind.
The novel received mixed reviews from literary critics at the time of publication, with some describing it as baggy and meandering and others considering it to be a better example of Murakami’s writing than his much-lauded trilogy 1Q84. Personally, I enjoyed it. A little more than I enjoyed 1Q84, a little less than I enjoyed Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, but nowhere near as much as I adored The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or enjoyed Dance, Dance, Dance or Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Killing Commendatore is quintessentially a Murakami book. It’s hard for me, having read almost everything Murakami has committed to paper that has been translated into English, to judge what someone new to Murakami would make of it. At almost 700 pages, it might be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated. And yet it contains all of the elements that I love about Murakami, that are present across all his works. I didn’t feel as close to the characters in this book as I have in past novels, but I was engrossed by what was happening to them. I found myself thinking about it in the moments I wasn’t reading it, wanting to hurry back to the story to find out what happened next. I enjoy spending time in the world Murakami has created and am always happy to reimmerse myself each time a new view of it opens up. With this view, I felt more like an observer than a participant, but that’s not a bad thing.