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B : typical and enjoyable Murakami, though fizzles at the end
See our review for fuller assessment.
¹ review of the first part
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The complete review's Review:
[Note that the English translation of Killing Commendatore has a page-count that is significantly lower than that of the Japanese original or, for example, the German and Dutch translations (all of which were originally printed in two separate volumes). While page-count comparisons do not necessarily reflect fidelity to the original (word-count will obviously differ from language to language; the number of words per page can differ greatly from edition to edition, etc.), the disparity here is large enough (hundreds of pages) to suggest that, as with several previous Murakami translations into English, significant portions of the text were, unconscionably, cut in the US/UK version(s).]
Killing Commendatore is the story of a thirty-six-year-old painter whose life was upended when his wife of six years, Yuzu, suddenly told him that she couldn't live with him any longer.
The break up was sudden and abrupt, the husband -- the narrator of the story -- accepting what happens and immediately moving out -- it's his only condition: "That I'm the one who leaves here. And I do it today. I'd like you to stay behind".
Back then my wife and I had dissolved our marriage, the divorce papers all signed and sealed, but afterward things happened and we ended up making a go of marriage one more time.Killing Commendatore is mostly about those 'things that happened', during those nine months (a time period pregnant with meaning ...) they were separated.
As he revealed at the beginning of the novel, the narrator spent most of this time -- "From May until early the following year" -- in one place (after driving around somewhat aimlessly and lost for a while). A friend from his art school days, Masahiko Amada, provides him with the place to settle down for the time, Masahiko's father's old house in the mountains outside Odawara (on the Pacific coast, not too far south of Yokohama and Tokyo). Masahiko's father is Tomohiko Amada, "a famous painter of Japanese-style paintings" who is now ninety-two and suffering from dementia, and was moved to a high-end nursing home a few months earlier. The quiet spot, an artist's studio, but with none of the master's paintings left there (but a great classical record collection), is a perfect retreat for the narrator.
After finishing art school the narrator wasn't able to continue with abstract painting -- there just wasn't any money in it --, but he found a comfortable niche as a portrait-painter -- something that: "ran totally counter to my artistic aims", but which it turns out he has a real feel for. Even though he felt he was only: "trudging through one assignment after another", his customers were satisfied and he found himself in some demand. But when he separates from his wife he leaves that behind him too. In Odawara he does agree to teach a few art classes at the local arts and culture center, but even living in the space previously inhabited by renowned artist Tomohiko Amada can't immediately inspire him to pick up the brushes again and create his own art.
It turns out that one of Amada's paintings was left in the house -- wrapped up and well-hidden -- and when the narrator discovers it he is naturally curious. It is a startling work -- "one of his true masterpieces" -- but no one knew of its existence. A tag on the package has 'Killing Commendatore' written on it, clearly the name given to the painting. The scene it depicts is of two men fighting, with a few figures observing the scene; eventually the narrator figures out that the 'Commendatore' is taken from the opera Don Giovanni -- the old man killed at the beginning of that work -- and that:
Tomohiko Amada had "adapted" the world of Mozart's opera into the Asuka period. A fascinating experiment, for sure. That, I recognized. But why was that adaption necessary ?Amada's own background continues to interest the narrator: the famous painter had started out painting Western-style paintings, but when he returned to Japan after spending time in Vienna, just before the Second World War started, he switched to Japanese-style painting -- achieving great success at it. Over the course of his time in the artist's home the narrator comes to learn more about Amada, and the circumstances of his stay and departure from Vienna -- but the 'Killing Commendatore'-painting is, of course, a key to more than just Amada.
After a few months the narrator is contacted by his agent, who tells him that a client has contacted him, wanting his portrait painted. The narrator isn't inclined to pick up his brush again, but the fee the client is willing to pay is "unbelievable", so he can't help but be tempted. The client does have one other demand: to be painted "live and in person" -- which isn't how the portraitist usually works: an introductory conversation, and a few photographs are all he usually relies on.
The narrator agrees to meet the man -- who, conveniently, lives close by. His name is Menshiki Wataru -- 免色 渉. "'Avoiding colors,' is what it means", he explains about the characters for Menshiki, while: "The wataru [渉] in my name is the character that means 'to cross a river'". Needless to say, in this symbol- and meaning-laden (i.e. typical) Murakami work all the parts of the name are meaning-full, too .....
Menshiki is a wealthy man in his mid-fifties, with no family or other ties, living on his own within (distant) sight of the narrator's home. There are layers of mystery to him as well, slowly revealed. The narrator also can't help feeling a bit like he is being used -- though Menshiki also seems to be fairly straightforward and upfront with him (bit by bit). Still, as someone mentions to him:
Menshiki has an ulterior motive for everything. Never wastes a move, that fellow. It is the only way he knows.Menshiki not only wants the narrator to paint his portrait -- which goes well -- but paint another one. Of a thirteen-year-old local girl, Mariye Akikawa, who happens to be in one of the narrator's art classes -- and who Menshiki has good reason to believe might be his daughter, but whom he has never had any real contact with. Menshiki is good at orchestrating what he wants, and he practically stages this so that he will eventually be able to happen to drop by when Mariye is at the narrator's studio so that he can see her up-close -- after long having observed her from afar. Her mother died when she was young, and her aunt now lives with her and her rather distant father -- or at least the man her mother was married to and whom everyone has always taken to be her father, who has increasingly devoted his time and considerable resources to a religious cult.
Menshiki is not interested in ascertaining whether or not Mariye is actually his daughter -- something that he could probably manage, if he set his mind (and money) to it. Rather, he finds satisfaction in the limbo state of uncertainty, the possibility she is his daughter. But he does want to get closer to her, and this portrait-painting scenario strikes him as a good way of doing that.
There aren't many significant people in the narrator's life, past or present, and the most significant ones, such as his wife, are, during this period, out of his life. He's estranged from his parents and has no other family -- the one important figure to him being his sister, Komi, who died when she was twelve. Her death, though not entirely unexpected -- she had a congenital heart problem -- was a great blow to him, and the family. The narrator admits that one of the things that drew him to Yuzu was her resemblance to his sister -- not physical, but otherwise -- while Mariye is practically the same age as Komi was when she died, and he naturally can't help but be reminded of his sister when he paints her.
Among the odd happenings at the house in Odawara is the ringing of a bell that the narrator begins to hear late at night. Menshiki helps him look into where it might originate, leading to the uncovering of a pit on the grounds nearby. It is a carefully constructed pit, only a bit more than eight feet deep, lined with stones, under six feet in diameter. It's not obvious what purpose it could serve; the foreman of the crew that helped uncover it observes:
But it's too wide for a well, and the stone wall around it is so elaborately constructed. It couldn't have been easy to build. I suppose they must have had some important purpose in mind to construct something that took this much time and effort.Despite not being very deep, the walls are constructed so that it is impossible to climb out; unsurprisingly, the narrator does at one point become yet another protagonist in a Murakami novel who finds himself stuck in a pit.
Killing Commendatore is a two part novel, the first titled: 'The Idea made Visible', the second, 'The Shifting Metaphor'. Murakami isn't kidding with 'the idea made visible': it manifests itself for the narrator -- in unlikely form, but assuring him: "I am no dream, I can tell you." As to what it -- or he -- is, even it finds it difficult to explain: "At a certain point I became a pure Idea". But it can still take on physical form, visible at least to the narrator (though generally otherwise staying out of sight) and, though working on a different plane, where things like time aren't really significant, it helpfully gives the narrator (and Mariye) some tips and clues as to how to proceed.
The manifest-idea isn't the only unusual or spiritual aspect of the novel. There are many significant and extremely vivid -- completely life-like -- dreams, for one thing. And the few paintings the narrator makes each have certain qualities -- as does, especially, Amada's 'Killing Commendatore'. And there's the pit, and some of the things surrounding it or originating there. And there's Amada himself, his mind almost completely gone, but his past, and how he captured and transformed it in 'Killing Commendatore' reverberating into the present day -- in spirit, in Amada's dimming mind, and in the narrator's reality.
Eventually, the narrator has a truly otherworldly experience -- not the first, but the most elaborate --, a journey that is a sort of test that forces him to confront old fears and memories. He's warned it will require sacrifices -- and that: "Metaphorically speaking, there will be blood". (Murakami goes all in on this weird ride: "dangerous Double Metaphors were lurking out there, ready to pounce".)
The painting 'Killing Commendatore' is a remarkable work, and one of the narrator's observations about it is:
The longer I looked at the painting, the less clear was the threshold between reality and unreality, flat and solid, substance and image.The painting is not directly a portal for him, but the environment and circumstances he finds himself in push him towards these bounds -- and beyond. Indeed, even after he has been on his wild ride -- definitely on the other side of conventional reality -- and everything seems to have stabilized, the narrator finds himself uncertain:
But was this the real world ?Shortly after he left his wife, still dazed by the sudden rupture and upending of his life, and while he's still on the road, before he's settled down in Odawara, the narrator catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror:
As I gazed at my reflection I wondered, Where am I headed ? Before that, though, the question was Where have I come to ? Where is this place ? No, before that even I needed to ask, Who the hell am I ?Killing Commendatore is a typical Murakamiesque journey of self-discovery -- complete with guidance such as: "The destination is something you yourself must determine by following your own heart" -- not offering straightforward answers, but leading its protagonist (and some of the other characters) on a path to a future. Among the lessons he learns is: "We all live our lives carrying secrets we cannot disclose" -- though one wonders if more openness wouldn't actually be in the best interest of all involved. But it seems to work for the narrator, who winds up reconciled -- almost effortlessly -- with his wife and sharing a continued bond with sister-substitute Mariye.
The long build-up of Killing Commendatore is very enjoyable, the narrator settling down into a rather simple, withdrawn life but intriguing surprises constantly keeping him, and the story, slightly on edge. Menshiki is an interesting counter-figure, effortlessly seeming to be able to control everything around him, while Mariye is an appealing figure to whom there's also more than first meets the eye. (Among the few touches Murakami doesn't quite get right is Mariye's obsession with her small breasts -- plausible as something that preöccupies her, but just plain uncomfortable in how the narrator also repeatedly addresses it.)
Murakami does the art -- Amada's and the narrator's -- well, just like he's strong on everyday-living incidentals -- cooking a meal, listening to music, or the encounters with Menshiki or Masahiko where nothing significant happens (or that are at least less events of any sort -- almost every encounter and occurrence in the novel feels pregnant with meaning). Amada's experiences, including in Austria before the war, and the narrator's memories of his sister are also quite well blended into the larger story.
The meaningful last journey, however, feels a bit rushed and forced. Mariye disappears, and the narrator understands he must act to help or save her -- while of course being clueless as to how he might do so. He is guided, in a way -- he doesn't really seem to have many options, beyond being called to act -- and he has to face some old fears, but it feels a bit anticlimactic -- a turn of events that allows the narrator to come out the other side changed in some fundamental way (but also not at all ...) that helps bring the story to its conclusion. Presenting what Mariye went through separately then -- and after the fact -- takes some of the power away from the whole thing too.
So the ending does fizzle a bit, and the way many of the things are tied up feels a bit perfunctory -- perhaps understandable, the narrator focused on his return to his old life and wife, but still a bit too quick and simple (right down to burning down the Amada-house in Odawara after the narrator moves out again).
On the whole, however, Killing Commendatore is an enjoyable ride and consistently entertaining. Arguably, Murakami relies a bit much on the over-familiar from his earlier work -- right down to the backyard pit -- but they work well enough here, too. As to the spiritual journey mumbo-jumbo, that's always hard to pull off, and Murakami does it about as well as he usually does -- reasonably if not entirely convincingly.
Satisfying as a pretty typical Murakami work.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 August 2018
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Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.
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