Japanese Title: 騎士団長殺し (Kishidanchō Goroshi)
Author: Haruki Murakami (村上春樹)
Translators: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
If you read Haruki Murakami’s 2010 novel 1Q84 and thought, “Wow! I could use more dream rape and magical wormhole pregnancy in my life,” then Killing Commendatore is bespoke tailored to your interests. If you’re put off by that sort of thing, you may be put off by more of the same in this novel, not to mention its multiple detailed descriptions of the bodies of 12-year-old girls from the perspective of an adult man. If you fall into either of these groups, you know who you are, and you probably already know how you feel about Killing Commendatore. If you’re still undecided about whether to jump into a 700-page slipstream adventure, however, this review is for you.
I’ve read some intensely negative reviews of Killing Commendatore, but I don’t think the novel is all that bad. The weird and creepy sexual bits are indeed weird and creepy, but they’re not that frequent, that important, or even that noticeable within the context of the larger story, which is about finding oneself and creating connections with other people through the struggle of artistic expression.
The nameless narrator is a 36-year-old painter who has separated from his wife, Yuzu. His friend from art school, Masahiko, offers to rent him a small villa in the hills of Kanagawa Prefecture that belonged to his father, a famous Japanese-style painter named Tomohiko Amada. The narrator, who has left his apartment in Tokyo and now needs somewhere to live, takes Masahiko up on his offer. He also accepts a part-time teaching position at a local art center that Masahiko sets up for him.
The narrator specialized in abstract art in school, but he currently makes his living by painting the sorts of formal portraits that might hang in a company president’s office. He’s quite good at it, and his commission fees have risen as he’s established a reputation for himself as a talented and reliable artist. When Yuzu tells him that she wants a divorce, he informs his agent that he will no longer accept portrait commissions, and he emphasizes this point by throwing away his cellphone. Unfortunately, once he is alone and untroubled in Tomohiko Amada’s isolated mountainside villa, he finds that he can no longer paint anything.
The narrator therefore spends his time doing what Murakami narrators tend to do, reading and cooking and listening to music, until one day he hears a sound in the attic. The commotion was caused by a harmless owl, but the incident leads the narrator to discover a painting that Tomohiko Amada hid without showing anyone, Killing Commendatore. The painting transposes a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni into the Asuka Period (552-645), and it fascinates the narrator, who takes it downstairs and puts it in his studio.
Before too much time passes, the narrator’s agent contacts him with a strange commission request. A man named Wataru Menshiki, who lives in a mansion across the valley from the narrator’s villa, wants his portrait painted, and he’s willing to pay a large sun of money for the privilege. The narrator is initially hesitant, but he agrees because he enjoys Menshiki’s company. Menshiki retired from the tech industry after a lengthy court case, and he now lives a life of leisure and good taste, which the narrator appreciates. Although Menshiki isn’t a bad person, he does have an ulterior motive in pursuing a friendship with the narrator, and their relationship gradually grows more intense as Menshiki attempts to draw the narrator into a convoluted plot.
As an aside, I think it’s worth saying that many of the overtly sexual elements of Killing Commendatore are nothing more than window dressing. The narrator has a series of brief affairs while he’s separated from his wife, and he also has several conversations with a preteen art student who demands that he provide her with a frank evaluation of her physical appearance. All of this makes sense in context, and none of it ever really goes anywhere. In comparison, Menshiki’s long and drawn-out seduction of the narrator becomes genuinely erotic as the narrator’s attention is drawn to Menshiki’s eyes and hair and hands and smell. Both men are presumably straight, but the one truly dynamic relationship of the novel springs from the attraction between Menshiki and the narrator, not any of the heterosexual encounters either man has experienced, which are recounted with a surprising lack of affect.
After the narrator spends more time with Menshiki and the Killing Commendatore painting, he begins to hear a bell ringing in the woods behind his house at night. He goes to investigate only to find that the sound is emanating from under a pile of rocks in the woods. He tells Menshiki about the strange occurrence, and Menshiki hires a landscaper to bring in a bulldozer to remove the rocks, thereby uncovering a mysterious hole. There’s nothing in the hole aside from an old Buddhist ritual implement; but, later that evening, a two-foot-tall vision of the Commendatore from Tomohiko Amada’s painting shows up in the narrator’s studio speaking in riddles and claiming to be a metaphor. The narrator takes this in stride, as it doesn’t affect him much at all during the first half the novel, which focuses on the development of his relationship with Menshiki.
In the second half, the narrator’s preteen art student disappears into thin air. He feels a sense of responsibility toward her, so he resolves to track her down. He intuits that the girl’s disappearance is somehow connected to Menshiki, who is somehow connected to the Commendatore, who is somehow connected to Tomohiko Amada, who is somehow connected to the hole on his property. The exact nature of these connections is never made explicitly clear, but the narrator does end up going on an adventure to rescue the girl while learning more about the old painter and his enigmatic neighbor in the process.
I’ve read a few reviews that claim that the second half of Killing Commendatore is not as strong as the first, which is fair. Personally, however, I appreciate that Murakami leaves so much up to the reader’s interpretation, which may or may not be affected by a familiarity with the divided worlds and split personalities of the author’s other novels. Any homage to The Great Gatsby that may have been intended in the close friendship between the “everyman” narrator and the rich and ambitious yet slightly sinister Menshiki falls apart when both men start to spend more time in holes, which the reader can never quite tell are literal or metaphorical. As Menshiki says in reference to the pit in the narrator’s yard,
“Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.”
Killing Commendatore reminds me of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, which is also about the deep strangeness of imagination. The truth both writers attempt to express is that the chaos of artistic creation can be extraordinarily violent and disturbing, and that the process can sometimes result in a powerful sense of disconnect from consensus reality. Nevertheless, it’s still necessary to brave this unpleasantness in order to achieve personal growth. As Menshiki puts it,
“There’s a point in everybody’s life where they need a major transformation. And when that time comes you have to grab it by the tail. Grab it hard, and never let go. There are some people who are able to, and others who can’t. Tomohiko Amada was one who could.”
The major question of the novel is whether the narrator can become one of these people as well. Will he insist on clinging to the dreams of his youth while going nowhere? Will he embark on a series of random, halfhearted projects that he doesn’t really believe in? Will he keep painting portraits without changing his style? Will he, like Tomohiko Amada, create a masterpiece that’s too personal to show to anyone? Or will he be able to descend deeper into the well of his mind so that he can find a better way to communicate with people through his art? And, if he tries, what will happen to him if he fails? Just how large is his risk of becoming like Menshiki, whose shadow is so dark that the reader is never allowed to look at it directly?
I feel that Killing Commendatore can be read at two levels. The first is a slipstream adventure saga complemented by a handsome, seductive, and sympathetic villain. The second is a psychological profile of the creative process, which is frustrating and demanding and never straightforward. The first level is reminiscent of early Neil Gaiman without the more overt elements of urban fantasy, but I found that the second level to be more interesting and compelling. Killing Commendatore isn’t 700 pages of pretentious navel gazing, however; there are plenty of ghosts and wayward girls and hauntings and mysteries and even a religious cult out in the woods, and and both halves of the novel are nothing if not compulsively readable.