'Killing Commendatore' is the latest evasive, magical, utterly unique novel by Murakami

Haruki Murakami weaves an intriguing, time-challenging story around the life of a portrait painter who is changed forever by a work of art.

Killing Commendatore By Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen Knopf 704 pp. Review by Terry Hong

A famous painter succumbing to dementia living out his final days in a posh care facility. A wealthy, middle-aged white-haired man who lives alone in a mountainside white mansion. A motherless schoolgirl whose father is mostly absent being raised by an aunt since she was six. An unnamed man – 36, artist, newly single – becomes the catalyst that somehow intertwines these disparate narratives together.

Like many of inimitable Haruki Murakami’s anti-heroes, his newest protagonist is quite the music aficionado, cooks efficiently and often, drinks whiskey, has complicated relationships with women, and observes his experiences from ... well ... an unusual perspective – because, as in all of Murakami’s novels, the world is unpredictable, hardly logical, and yet somehow strangely believable.

Welcome to Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, seamlessly translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen who have become his preferred Anglophonic emissaries. At over 700-plus pages, it’s (thankfully) another intriguing, time-challenging tome you can’t wait to finish anticipating that all – most? enough? – of the puzzling pieces will align, while simultaneously wishing you might never reach its conclusion, dreading the end of another indescribable Murakami odyssey. That said, Murakami’s recent announcement of his withdrawal from the finalist nomination for the alternative to the Nobel Prize in Literature in order to concentrate on his writing could mean less-than-usual, in-between-titles waiting time.

But back to Murakami’s latest no-name narrator, who initially explains, “these events took place some years ago,” promising “to do [his] utmost ... to set down a systematic, logical account.” Back then, he was separated from his wife of six years, and after a peripatetic couple months, he settled into a rented mountain home, remote but within driving distance of Tokyo. The “cozy cottage” belonged to famed nonagenarian Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada, now installed in “a high-end nursing home”; his son Masahiko, an art school friend, offered the narrator the empty house as the “‘perfect environment for painting. No distractions whatsoever.’” Promises, promises.

A career portrait painter, the narrator called his agent (from the city of Murakami, no less) after leaving his wife (she announced without preamble, “‘I don’t think I can live with you anymore’”)  that he would no longer accept portrait commissions. In the Amada home, he lives – at first – quietly and self-sufficiently, supporting himself teaching adults and children at the local art school. Soon after moving in, he discovers a painting in the attic, the titular "Killing Commendatore":  “I couldn’t know it at the time, but that one painting changed my world forever.” 

Hidden for decades, Amada’s stupendous canvas will reveal long-buried secrets linking Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," pre-World War II Vienna, and the horrors of Nazi Germany. Its characters will come to life, providing guidance as well as a beseeching request to murder. It will inspire (prod) the narrator to paint again, even agreeing to produce a portrait for near-by neighbor, Wataru Menshiki, whose his family name Menshiki means “avoiding color,” so fitting for a near-recluse who lives in a white mountain fortress. Menshiki and the narrator’s artist-and-subject studio time will engender a tenuous bond, eventually sending the pair searching for a ringing bell in the middle of the night. They’ll discover an abandoned pit (not unlike Murakami’s many other fictional wells), which will prove to be both prison and portal. Menshiki will confess that he chose his hideaway because of its proximity to another neighbor, Mariye Akigawa, a junior high schooler who might be his biological daughter. Mariye’s mother, who died from an allergic reaction to hornets, was Menshiki’s one true love; curious but detached, he prefers to observe Mariye, content with the possibility rather an actual declared relationship.

As entertainingly evasive as always, Murakami allows for some mysteries to be solved, while others remain in limbo. Avoiding absolutes, his playful slyness pops up throughout. He uses meaningful names, for example, to infer more probability than mere possibility: Menshiki’s given name, “Wataru,” means “crossing the river,” while Mariye’s family name “Akigawa” (which, ironically, could be a misnomer given her uncertain parentage) means “autumn river.” Their meeting occurs, naturally, in the fall, and the overlapping “river” is meant to connect them, but that the river water is always a moving, dividing force also implies the improbability of decisively knowing.

“We all live our lives carrying secrets we cannot disclose,” the narrator eventually concludes. Murakami fans will immediately, gleefully recognize that sentiment here – as with all his fiction – as he once more explicates the seemingly impossible with such thorough, exacting conviction to make believers of us all.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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