Killing Commendatore – a review in retrospect
I was super eager to start reading Murakami’s latest. I had the book since last fall. But the list of priorities when it came to reading always shifted and suffered changes. Work and uni came first and Murakami just got postponed. Eventually, I started reading the book somewhere in April, after a nasty break- up (which was quite ironic, given the first chapters of the book) and then put it aside, read a few chapters, put it aside and that went on and on until June, when I finally ended it, after writing my Dissertation thesis.
I always recommend to Murakami newbies to start with What I Talk About when I Talk about Running because one needs a bit of an insight on the author before embarking on the surreal journeys he creates. All the jazz music collection that can be gathered from his novels, along with the classic could make a great Spotify playlist for any lover of the genre (and there actually are a few playlists on this, so I’m not the only lunatic in love with the background music of Murakami’s novels). He’s a guy in love with marathons, an author that appreciates nature and freedom, along with keeping himself in shape. He’s not your day-to-day author who got on the mountaintop of fame and became an alcoholic or an opioid addict. On the contrary. He is you and he is me, to a certain extent. Je suis Murakami.
Pride and prejudice much?
I made the mistake of reading a few comments on this latest book and most of them were in the lines of “boring” and “nothing happens”. Hence, I armed myself with a great deal of patience to wait for the surreal break that happens in each of his novels. Except Norwegian Wood I got enchanted with all of his creations; reading him always felt like constantly going to Narnia through an unexpected gate that miraculously opened. But I guess that’s what literature does to a certain extent, unravels the mind and creates unexpected journeys. Plus, the visuals that the mind creates always beat the ones from the television.
What to expect?
I am bad with names, especially long Japanese names that are so strange for us, Europeans. Therefore, at first I considered leaving all of the names out. But then I’d end up talking about this dude and that dude and it would become a Great Lebowski all over again. Apparently Murakami also caught this weakness of ours and left the narrator unnamed. A guy of 36, with a failed marriage, that his wife had cheated upon. He is abruptly announced by his wife that they are to divorce since she wants to continue living with the man she cheated on him with. My heart skipped a beat or two at reading this incipient plot of the novel. The narrator leaves his hometown and along with his Peugeot embarks on a journey to the North of Japan. I will not get into too many details, this and that happens during his journey, bits of existence that will come back haunting him throughout the novel.
By the end, with a little help from his friend, the narrator finds the perfect refuge, in a great house at the top of a mountain; not just any house but the former residence of the famous painter Tomohiko Amada (yes, I actually had to Google the name so that I don’t transform it into a monster). And here the Murakami journey begins, nice and slow, softly, on the tunes of the painter’s classical music collection.
As expected, although the narrator can be considered one of the typical Murakamian men that the readers are acquainted with from his previous novels, the twist also appears. The narrator is living a solitary life, far from the maddening crowds, with one married lover and a painting class that he teaches. Not many neighbours, not too much time on Facebook, trying to find a new direction in his career as a painter. The twist happens the moment his neighbour asks him to paint a portrait of his. Though the narrator agreed not to paint portraits again for a living (but rather find a deeper meaning in his art) he accepts due to the huge fee and the eccentric conditions attached to the piece of work.
The plot continues to thicken and so do the layers of the novel. As usually, Murakami does not follow only one linear plot but rather adds various ingredients to his mystery; this time the ingredients consist of Tomohiko’s past in Vienna and a short history of the Nazis in Austria at the time, a brief introduction to Buddhism and the meaning of the bell that keeps ringing from the underground in the middle of the night and so much more. But enough spoilers.
What’s up with the title?
I was pondering for the first chapters about the title. Why did Murakami choose it and why it makes absolutely no sense? All the explanations are given at the exact right moment in the novel. Paintings in the novel seem to come to life, in an unexpected way, serving as passages to another world (as it often happens in the surreal side of Murakami’s novels). Getting further into the painting will only mean spoilers, therefore I had a better idea. I came across this amazing reproduction of the painting, made by Tsai Yu-Chi (hope you won’t mind me using the Europeanised version of your name) and thought to share it with you. If anyone could have depicted precisely the movements and expressions that Murakami painted so carefully with words, you certainly did:
Is it worth reading?
In my humble opinion all of his novels are worth reading (including his short stories, although Men Without Women also received a not very warm review, but The Elephant Vanishes will keep you more alert than any TV series you could find on Netflix). Some critics mentioned this to be a novel of genesis, the genesis of Murakami as an author, perhaps trying out something new, just as the nameless narrator refrained from painting portraits and Tomohiko moves back to traditional Japanese painting style. Could have the plot been depicted in say, 300 pages instead of nearly 700? Perhaps, but isn’t the novel a parallel to the human existence? Murakami plays a lot in the novel with the idea of art as unfinished business, people as unfinished creations. Also, art appears to be an exchange, as is depicted “we exchange parts of us with each other… I offer something of myself, and you offer something of yourself. It doesn’t have to be something valuable”. The idea of the exchange is also repeated throughout the novel.
“There are things better left not knowing” and perhaps that’s exactly what Murakami does in the novel. He leaves the readers waiting, in suspense, waiting for the big plot twist, for the grand finale that will uncover all the mysteries, yet it never comes. We are not offered very much insight on many aspects, such as the failed marriage of the narrator, the father-daughter relationship of the rich man across the hill. Just as some of the narrator’s paintings remain without a conclusive ending, so does the novel. But perhaps through the open ending, we are offered all the knowledge we require. At the moment.