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killing commendatore

17 november 2018

Killing Commendatore, in my opinion, is Haruki Murakami's weakest novel since Norwegian Wood thirty years ago. Like Norwegian Wood, Killing Commendatore features a single first-person male narrator who's having problems with women. That can't be what's wrong with the book, because Sputnik Sweetheart, one of Murakami's best novels, shares the same structure and concerns. But Killing Commendatore is long (681 pages), it develops little interest in any character except its narrator (and not much in him), and it deliberately sets out to eliminate suspense. You know from the start that the narrator is looking back on troubling events from a position of relative safety. Though suspense is largely suspended, Murakami tries to generate some of his trademark mystery, but it is slow going.

The narrator – never named – is a successful painter of standard portraits, the kind that get hung in corporate boardrooms and immediately forgotten. He's head-over-heels in love with his wife Yuzu, but that's his first problem: Yuzu has just left him for another man. Our narrator sets out on a road trip across Japan, driving in order to forget; and when he's sufficiently forgotten and has run out of money, he accepts his friend Amada's offer to live in a mountaintop house, the former home of Amada's much more famous father Tomohiko, a great artist in traditional Japanese forms of painting. By giving art lessons, the narrator can squeak by till he decides what to do next.

Then things start happening to him. An eccentric, vaguely sinister millionaire from the next mountain, Menshiki, commissions the narrator to paint his portrait. Menshiki has a hidden agenda: he also wants the narrator to paint the portrait of a pubescent girl named Mariye who lives on yet another mountain – a girl Menshiki is convinced is really his daughter. Somebody starts ringing an ancient Buddhist bell in a hole in the ground in the backyard, and when Menshiki hires a backhoe to investigate, he releases a disembodied Idea who takes the form of a character from one of Tomohiko Amada's paintings, an unknown masterpiece that the narrator becomes obsessed with.

Among the many ideas at work in Killing Commendatore is the question of how an artist conveys character. Portraits must be true, not accurate. Our narrator has always understood this, and it's been the key to his success; but he has rarely been able to let himself go into unabandoned contemplation of someone else. With Menshiki and Mariye, he starts for the first time to plunge beneath the surface, and the energies he releases compel him to paint other things: the hole in his back yard, some guy he saw once in a highway restaurant.

This is all fine, and the most interesting part of the book in many ways; but as I've said, the characters don't come across very vividly in Murakami's prose, and they aren't pitted in interesting dramatic ways against or across one another. The little disembodied guy who emerges from the backyard pit, the Commendatore, has the liveliest personality of the bunch, despite (or because) of his status as hallucination.

And meanwhile we get the obligatory Murakami stuff, which can be charmingly eccentric in so many of his works but which drags mightily when there's not much else going on. Slow descriptions of the preparation of spare meals for one. Sex with athletic but distant married women. Elaborate catalogues of everybody's audio equipment and record collections. A certain amount of sitting around in deep pits in the earth, alternating between contemplation and despair. Rifts into other universes, though here that device is literal and obvious, and the pilgrimages the characters make between states of being don't lead to much development. And in the end – and this is not a spoiler, as I've noted – everything pretty much returns to the way it was before it all started.

At the core of Murakami's novel is a poignant account of the narrator's sister dying young, which was excerpted in bits and recombined as a stand-alone short story called "The Wind Cave," earlier this year, in The New Yorker. The energy that might have led to a better novel is concentrated there, but somewhat dispersed in Killing Commendatore at its current length. The novel was published in two volumes in Japan, but the story barely pauses between them. In America, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen's translation is in one big volume, with a cutaway dust jacket that reveals a different design when removed.

The copy on the flap of that dust jacket claims that Killing Commendatore is "a loving homage to The Great Gatsby." I only read that after finishing the novel, but I must say I missed the homage completely. This may be because I am an idiot. But honestly, I remember The Great Gatsby as well as any other classic I haven't read in a while, and the parallels are scanty. In each book there's a first-person narrator (Nick Carraway; the portrait-painter). In each, there is a rich friend with an indeterminate past (Gatsby, Menshiki). And … that's about it. I guess that's OK, but it's a bit like saying that a book that mentions driving to California is an homage to The Grapes of Wrath.

Murakami Haruki. Killing Commendatore. [Kishidancho goroshi, 2017]. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2018. PL 856 .U673K5713