A mysterious millionaire living alone in a white mansion on a hill. A strange pit behind a shrine in the woods. Ideas that take the form of characters from paintings. The second world war. Disappearing schoolgirls. Faceless men. A land of metaphor. Whirlpools, dragging people into their cyclone of events. Circles that must be closed. Trying to describe and decode a Murakami plot is bit like trying to untangle a ball of wool after an over-excited kitten has been at it: difficult and possibly pointless. But let’s give it a go anyway.
Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, is ostensibly about an unnamed artist – a portrait painter by trade – who, after the abrupt and unanticipated break up of his marriage, agrees to look after the house of a famous painter, in order to get away from it all while he figures out what to do next, whereupon strange things begin to happen. Except that the weirdness begins on page one, with a prologue where our narrator is visited by a literally faceless man who requests that he draw his portrait, causing our narrator to ponder on how you give form to the formless. This gives us a clue, immediately, as to what kind of novel this is going to be: deeply introspective, dealing with the nature of creativity, ideas, how they’re tied to us, how they can become independent of us.
Soon after the narrator moves into the house three things happen: he finds a painting hidden in the attic, the eponymous ‘Killing Commendatore’ – named after the scene which it depicts from the opera Don Giovanni, transplanted into 7thcentury Japan – a work of unusual passion and power that seems to present a puzzle to decipher; he meets Wataru Menshiki, the enigmatic white-haired owner of the white mansion on the opposite hill, a tech entrepreneur whose commission to paint his portrait seems to not only reignite the narrator’s motivation to paint for himself but also seems to have his own agenda; soon after, he hears a bell ringing in the night which, after some investigation, proves to be coming from a sealed pit behind a shrine in the woods. This leads to strange visitations, mostly from a two-foot high Commendatore, or something that has borrowed his form.
In a recent Guardian interview, Murakami describes his writing process as operating “from a bedrock trust in his subconscious: if an image arises from that dark inner well, he figures, it must be meaningful by definition – and his job is to record what arises, rather than to analyse it”, going on to say that he and the reader “have a secret meeting place underground, a secret place in the subconscious.” Later on inKilling Commendatore that secret underground place in the subconscious, the conduit between ideas and the conscious, becomes literal as the narrator odysseys through an underworld of metaphor complete with psychopomps. This goes some way to explaining explain the entrancing effect his novels can have: “It might mean something, then again it might not. But then again it might.”
This does mean however, that, if you are familiar with Murakami’s fiction, certain motifs do reoccur. Our unnamed protagonist does share some of the tropes common amongst Murakami’s leading male characters – a love for cooking, cleaning and old music, a tendency towards being introspective – but even though they have things in common he feels different enough from Tengo from 1Q84and Tsukuru Tazaki from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to make him a fully-rounded character.
The novel is also, by the author’s own admission, an homage to The Great Gatsby (Murakami has been a devotee of F Scott Fitzgerald since he was a teenager and has translated Gatsby into Japanese), and though there are some surface comparisons, particularly in the creation of Menshiki, but what Killing Commendatore really seems to be about is the art of creating itself. The narrator’s ruminations on the subject often land home and anyone who’s wanted to create, or creates for a living, only to find that they earn from doing something they’re good at but not necessarily something they want to be doing will relate to his situation.
A dreamlike journey through a world of ideas and metaphor that will strike a chord with many.