Imagine the frustration of reading a novel of nearly seven hundred pages by one of your favorite authors to find it not only unfulfilling but just terrible? That was my experience with Killing Commendatore, the latest work from Haruki Murakami. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead!)
To say that I am a Murakami fan is an understatement: I have read every one of his many novels and short story collections—Murakami is a prolific writer—and I have reviewed a host of them. I no longer read a good deal of fiction, but when someone comes to me for a literary recommendation, I usually rave about Murakami. I cannot say that I have loved everything he has written, but I hold much of it in very high regard. My favorites are those where he blends magical realism with his superb writing style—akin to the literary subgenre made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—to create iconic novels of extraordinary brilliance like Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and 1Q84. And while I tend to have less interest in the more grounded, tragi-comic romantic efforts like Norwegian Wood that first won him international fame, I still credit these as fine books. Murakami can be frustrating: many of his novels end with plot lines and characters suspended, maddeningly unresolved. But few authors leave the reader with so much to think about after the cover is closed, even if so much is left up in the air. Killing Commendatore—unfortunately—left me with little more than a bad taste in my mouth.
It doesn’t start off that way. The unnamed thirty-something male protagonist is a docile introvert right out of Murakami central casting, a passive fellow who generally lets life happen to him—until, that is, his wife abruptly ends their relationship with little explanation, with pronounced echoes of the character and plot of a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Unlike similar Murakami protagonists though, this guy doesn’t just sit around contemplating his naval, listening to classical music and reading (at least not right away!), but instead he gets angry—angry enough to give up his livelihood as a successful commercial artist specializing in portrait painting and hop in his car for a long aimless road trip. Doing something—rather than simply enduring his fate—is a fairly dramatic change of pace for a Murakami male.
Eventually, he ends up housesitting at the secluded mountaintop home of a famous artist—now elderly and suffering from Alzheimer’s, bedridden in a medical facility—who happens to be the father of an old friend grateful to have someone there to keep an eye on the place. Determined to return to his roots of doing art for art’s sake rather than the dull commercial painting he pursued for years, he welcomes the splendid isolation here, where it is so remote—we are supposed to believe—that radio, television, internet and even cell phone service are completely out of reach, leaving only a single landline to communicate with the outside world. But the house has a strange feel to it, somewhat akin to the “Dolphin Hotel” made famous in Murakami’s early novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance; the kind of vague sense of eeriness that pervades a locale conjured up by Stephen King.
Exploring, he comes upon a horned owl living in the attic alongside a painting that has been wrapped in paper and secreted there, no doubt by the renowned artist who lived here before he was institutionalized. Unwrapped, it turns out to be a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, depicting the killing of the character “Il Commendatore,” but incongruously set in seventh-century Japan and painted in a traditional Japanese style. Hence the novel’s title: Killing Commendatore. Then things start to get really weird: in the middle of the night, our main character begins to hear inexplicable sounds of a bell ringing beneath the ground near an old shrine out back. Meanwhile, his life takes another strange turn as he is pressed to accept a commission to paint yet one more portrait, this time for an affluent yet enigmatic neighbor named Menshiki, who sports a shock of pure white hair and lives in a nearby mansion. The offer is so substantial that he cannot turn it down. Menshiki seems odd, even somewhat menacing, but the two nevertheless develop a kind of friendship, which comes in handy when Menshiki puts his wealth and resources to bear to chase down the recurring subterranean knell, bringing in a crew and heavy machinery to excavate the mound behind the shrine and revealing a stone chamber with high walls and a perfectly preserved ancient bell, although absent the mysterious bell-ringer. The tantalizing whiff of the supernatural that emanates from that episode is nothing compared to what is to follow, when sometime later our protagonist is confronted by a walking, talking two-foot tall version of the Commendatore, clad just as depicted in the painting in seventh-century garb and carrying a tiny sword! All of this, more or less—and there actually is quite a bit more—marks just the beginning of the novel, and we are on page two-hundred-thirty-eight!
Lots of tantalizing material here that … well … meanders for several hundred more pages and quite frankly goes nowhere, or at least nowhere of much interest. Plenty of tensions build and dissipate. There are moments of great suspense—some that even verge on terror—that simply fizzle. Characters appear to be not who they seem to be … but maybe they really are after all? There are pages upon pages upon pages of narrative and dialogue that smack of the clue-laden and suggestive, but ultimately turn out to be just pages and pages and pages that add even greater complexity to an already overly complicated plot that tends to act as a burden on the handful of rather superficial characters that people the novel. Sadly, after nearly seven hundred pages of twists and turns, the reader is left with little more than a profound sense of disappointment.
There are indeed some familiar echoes of Murakami themes here—the passive main character spends hours alone listening to classical music, the stone chamber behind the shrine is reminiscent of the bottom of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and there is even homage to the author’s well-known fetish for women’s ears—but it is nonetheless clear that the novelist seeks to break new ground here. This is most evident in the somewhat frank descriptions of sexual acts, conspicuously absent from earlier works. Those who have read Murakami know that sex is treated with perfunctorily when it is treated with at all. This changes with Killing Commendatore, however, from the main character’s random tryst with an anonymous stranger he encounters on the road—who violently couples with him while demanding that he slap and choke her—to various episodes with other women in the course of the novel. But while the sex described is indeed more graphic, the author fails to hit the high notes of eroticism; all of it rings of more of the documentary than the decadent. It is clear that Murakami remains awkward around sexuality, if only in his choice of terminology: no matter how much heat you add to an afternoon delight, “vagina” still sounds more anatomical than erogenous. And awkward verges on the creepy with the character of Mariye Akikawa, a precocious teenage girl who seems to channel May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and who may or may not be Menshiki’s love child. But Mariye is only thirteen years old, and the far too frequent references to her as “beautiful” coupled with discussions of her developing breasts lean sharply to the uncomfortable. The author seems to palpably leer at Mariye through the eyes of the protagonist, which because of her youth made this reader recoil.
But even in familiar territory, there are stumbles and wrong turns. In his fiction, Murakami’s brand of magical realism is often over the top—Kafka on the Shore features a forgotten village in the forest where time has stopped circa 1965, and in 1Q84 there is an alternate reality version of the Earth that has two moons in its orbit—yet it always seems to make sense within the context of the respective novel. In contrast, the little Commendatore that steps out of the painting here strikes the reader as more cartoonish than surreal. Suspending disbelief is a critical mechanism for any novel that challenges reality, and even without two-foot tall men with swords walking around it is difficult to buy into the notion that there could be a contemporary location in a modern nation like Japan that is fully stuck in a 1990 communications time-warp. The ability of his main character to simply “Google” something that he questions must have been a plot roadblock for the author that he dealt with by simply inventing a locale out of reach of the web; readers remain unconvinced. Worst of all, the writing—always Murakami’s strongest suit—tends to the pedestrian here. My email signatures have frequently featured quotes from Murakami fiction; in my estimation, there is virtually nothing in Killing Commendatore worth quoting. Long passages are given to stultifying dialogue. Rarely are there more than two people in the same room, and they are usually engaged in long conversations that seem not only forced but unconvincing. And—perhaps responding to criticism that his novels leave so many loose ends—this time around Murakami ties nearly all of these up, although the various resolutions and explanations are not only unsatisfying but irritating because they strain—and largely fail—to ring true. The whole novel has the feel of a low budget B-grade horror flick with a handful of actors, ominous moments and looming terror that never quite gets off the ground.
Prior to this, my least favorite Murakami novel was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which struck me as dull and uninspiring. But this novel is much worse. Despite this, Haruki Murakami remains one of the finest novelists of the twenty-first century. My advice: skip Killing Commendatore; there are plenty of other Murakami novels that are worth the time to read and cherish—just not this one . . .
[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/scheherazade-3 ]
[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:
South of the Border, West of the Sun: https://regarp.com/2015/12/26/review-of-south-of-the-border-west-of-the-sun-by-haruki-murakami/
Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973: https://regarp.com/2015/11/26/review-of-hear-the-wind-sing-and-pinball-1973-by-haruki-murakami/
Sputnik Sweetheart: https://regarp.com/2015/05/30/review-of-sputnik-sweetheart-by-haruki-murakami/
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: https://regarp.com/2015/05/17/review-of-blind-willow-sleeping-woman-by-haruki-murakami/]