Book review: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Killing Commandatore starts in a typically Murakami way, the narrator, mid-thirties, an artist or painter at least, being asked to paint the portrait of a man with no face, just a whirl of fog. Is it real, a dream or a metaphor? With Murakami it can be all of these and something more, and more than ever Murakami seems to be retreating into a narrow field where he is writing about writing, or in the case of Killing Commendatore, writing about ideas and metaphors quite openly and literally as Ideas and Metaphors.

Initially at least however, Killing Commendatore gets off to an intriguing start. The narrator has been painting portraits in Tokyo to make a living. He’s good at it, able to quickly sketch a likeness and even imbue his work with some of the personality of his sitter. When he breaks up with his wife however he goes off-grid, settling in a house on top of a remote mountain, rented out by a friend, the son of a Japanese painter of some renown, Tomohiko Amada, who is now confined to a nursing home. He learns something about Amada’s life and art, including a mysterious period in Vienna 1936 to 1939, after which he abandoned Western art style and returned to Japan to take up Japanese style painting.

Still pained by his break-up with his wife, the narrator has a couple of affairs with women from a painting class he takes, listens to Amada’s classical and opera vinyl records, but is still unsatisfied with the direction his life has taken and is unable to do any serious painting of his own. Then he discovers a painting by Amada hidden in the attic labelled, ‘Killing Commandatore’, depicting a strange scene that seems to owe something to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He also uncovers a pit out of the back of the house after hearing a ringing bell coming from under a shrine, develops an unusual friendship with a mysterious and enigmatic neighbour on the other side of the mountain, Mr Menshiki, who wants him to paint his portrait for a lot of money. And then things get weird.

Killing Commendatore is a typical Murakami novel with all his familiar tics, imagery and themes gleaned from a diverse range of cultural sources. Instead of jazz, opera plays a role this time, but you can expect dark wells, claustrophobia, enigmatic behaviour from lovers who disappear and lots of frank, explicit sex scenes. There’s a sinister David Lynch-like supernatural/psychological aspect as well in ghostly figures, spirits of the dead or at least the impression of what they leave behind. The impact of the death of a 12 year old younger sister also haunts the narrator and his thoughts return constantly back to her. There’s also something about attempting to capture some sense of the other, the unseen, the essence of people’s lives in his paintings (and by extenstion, in writing).

As much as it starts to feel like parody, a rearrangement of themes covered extensively in South of the Border, After Dark, Kafka on the Shore, Colourless Tsuruku, Murakami draws you into a compelling circular narrative that repeats and expand on these themes. Personally I don’t think Murakami’s stories and obsessions really develop into anything meaningful, but the way that they are told is compelling. Killing Commendatore, for a good two-thirds of the book is certainly entertaining; a little bit irritating in his tics, a bit predictable, but essentially it’s all about achieving a balance or equilibrium in life. That doesn’t necessarily mean stability, but rather a coming to terms with the challenges, the unknowns, learning how to accept them and incorporate them into your life.

Or in Murakami’s case into your art. If Murakami always writes along similar lines its because he’s also in a way exploring the nature of writing, of gathering material, of probing material, of balancing it out, creating situations and resolving them. Or if not resolving then exactly, allowing their connections and discrepancies to stand out as factors in what makes writing and life interesting. It’s an attempt to explore the unknowable, the internal life and find a way of bringing it out. Unfortunately at over 700 pages Killing Commendatore is again rather overlong, taking a slim idea to extremes, becoming repetitive and drawn out, but there’s still a lot to enjoy in the Murakami’s distinctive writing and situations.

Killing Commendatore is published by Vintage and is now available in paperback.


Updated: Nov 12, 2019

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Book review: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami | The Digital Fix