I first heard of Haruki Murakami a decade ago and instantly knew we had a connection. It was while reading the first pages of his tome 1Q84, in which a young woman riding a taxi on an elevated expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic realizes she is going to miss an important meeting, grabs her shoulder bag, steps out of the cab, and negotiates the fully jammed expressway by foot until she can make her way to the nearest ramp. I try to picture someone doing this on the Long Island Expressway.
What a concept, my kind of weirdness — and I had 1,174 pages to go!
That book – and many others by Murakami– should have prepared me for Killing Commendatore (Knopf), originally released in Japan in 2017 and now making its U.S. debut. But how are you ever prepared, really, for a book in which the protagonist confronts an “Idea” in the physical manifestation of a two-foot person who pops from a painting; an underworld haunted by villainous Double Metaphors; and a capricious teenager obsessed with asking the protagonist, the painter of her portrait, whether he thinks she will ever grow breasts big enough to wear a bra.
In his books, Murakami is a master of ordinary lives turned extraordinary. He takes domestic, intricate and believable characters and puts them into situations that are unbelievable. A book like 1Q84, for example, that navigates parallel universes and whose sky has multiple moons is commonplace for him. Yet his incredibly credible characters that you feel you know so well make even the most rational among us wonder when the surreal arrives, “I guess this could really happen, couldn’t it?”
In Killing Commendatore, the author’s focus is a 30ish portrait painter, whose name we never learn, trying to resolve identity issues and some self-imposed loneliness. He is abandoned by his wife, which sets him off on an aimless journey until he settles in a vacant mountain home owned by a famous and near-death artist, Tomohiko Amada.
While the narrator at Amada’s house attempts to break free of his “commercial” portrait painting and realize his true desire of more freestyle artistic creation, he stumbles upon a wrapped painting in the house’s attic entitled “Killing Commendatore.” The narrator believes the characters of the painting resemble a Japanese version of a crucial scene from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
While trying to sort out the true meaning and brilliance of the painting, we are introduced to a neighbor of the narrator: a suave, well-off, retired businessman, Mr. Menshiki, who commissions the narrator to paint his portrait and, later, the portrait of a 13-year-old girl in whom the businessman has some interest. The mysterious motives of Menshiki, who lives in the mountains on the other side of the valley from the narrator, are curious throughout – until, of course, they are revealed.
And then there’s that painting, and what its discovery has aroused. Shortly after the narrator finds it, a string of odd occurrences arise. In the middle of the night, he awakes to the distant sound of a ringing bell – which he and Menshiki trace to a covered pit by a shrine in the woods near the mountain house.
That’s only the beginning of a bizarre chain in which the narrator interacts with “characters” surfacing from the painting, with their share of instructions and hidden messages. Throw in a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, an Alice in Wonderland-like journey into a dark underworld, and you can finally see the story full circle.
Killing Commendatore can be read simply for its plot and characterization of a young painter’s challenge confronting his demons and coming to terms with them – along with a magical world beyond the sphere of basic comprehension. The book can also be seen as a confluence of concepts, ideas, the real vs. the surreal, and the many themes Murakami endears – loneliness, despair, disillusionment and search for self.
There are enough symbols in the book’s almost 700 pages that the reader may not satisfactorily interpret all of them, myself included. Is this a deal breaker? It shouldn’t be. Writes Lila Shapiro for Vulture, “Fans of Haruki Murakami crave his books for reasons that can be hard for them to articulate or even understand.”
Yet that does not discourage his audience. How else to explain his millions of books sold and the 50 languages into which they have been translated – full of curious readers embracing the exhilarating journey to decipher their many messages and ambiguities. Enjoy the ride – you’ve been so warned.
Killing Commendatore is now available for purchase.
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ABOUT HARUKI MURAKAMI:
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. His work has been translated into more than fifty languages, and the most recent of his many international honors is the Jerusalem Prize, whose previous recipients include J. M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, and V. S. Naipaul.