reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Elegant is the way I would describe Haruki Murakami’s writing. It balances somewhere between direct and whimsical – swaying back and forth to find the perfect tone for each scene. Murakami may take you away for a moment into the imagination of the narrator, but he always firmly settles you back in reality where you belong.
I think that he has found a style and tone that is simultaneously artistic and captivating. His mastery of form is undoubtable, and his writing is so easy-flowing and enthralling that I find it hard to find many authors of his caliber out there today.
That being said, I wouldn’t compare the writing in Killing Commendatore to classics like The Sound and the Fury or The Brothers Karamazov. Murakami focuses much more on the aesthetic than moral quandaries or social ills. He knows his strength is the sensual, and he plays to it masterfully well.
I believe that his intention was to create a compelling story – gripping at times and graceful at others – that we could use to reflect on our own lives and the decisions we have made to get where we are today.
Killing Commendatore is a large book; at over 700 pages it’s certainly a time investment. I’d argue it’s a very worthwhile one. But if you’d prefer to get a feel for his writing before embarking on this journey, I’d recommend With the Beatles first – which focuses on the sensual aspects of life like love and music – and then Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey – which showcases his imaginative and mysterious writing as a lone traveler comes across a talking monkey.
Any book that is written in another language and translated into English will only be successful with a good translation. The translator must understand every nook and cranny of the novel, from tone to metaphors, to who-knows-what. Peter Gabriel has done an absolute phenomenal job as he does with much of Murakami’s writing.
Killing Commendatore’s characters are vivid and complex. Some are lovable, others mysterious and even sinister. Murakami first thrusts us into the life of the narrator, and then wisps us off into his own imagination – where we are unsure what is real and what is not. This is truly a wonderful novel.
The narrator’s wife, named Yuzu, just left him. They had been together for much of their twenties and early thirties, but something had pushed her to seek love elsewhere. Although the narrator was blind-sighted at first, as he drives through the Japanese countryside to get away from it all, he reflects on his past and realizes that there were plenty of signs he should have picked up on.
Through these reflections on his relationship, he also tells us about other parts of his life. He’s a very skilled artist who fell into painting mundane portraits for a steady paycheck. He doesn’t regret this decision – as many of his schoolmates either sought out different professions entirely or aren’t making enough for a decent living – but he does wish to pursue his own artistic desires.
He even finds pride in being a professional; he paints portraits for wealthy families and businessmen and is often sought out for his expertise. But he felt a growing complacency with this lifestyle that leaked into other parts of his life – whereas Yuzu dedicated her life to the architectural firm she worked at, constantly spending late nights at the office (although now he wonders if she was actually at the office).
There is a contradiction in this setting. On one hand, the narrator gives up everything – throwing his phone into the sea, quitting his job, leaving the apartment – to venture aimlessly around the countryside. On the other hand, it seems that he’s not that sad. He takes all of this as if it was an inevitability. He is both thoughtful and calm, something that I bet a lot of us wish we were when the anxiety kicks in.
He gets in contact with a friend from college, Masahiko, whose family has a secluded mountain home far outside the city. Masahiko was friends with both the narrator and Yuzu, so he knows all about the breakup and offers the narrator to stay in the house as long as he wishes, because his father had just recently entered an elderly home and there is nobody around to take care of it. The narrator agrees.
The mountain home is perfect for him; Masahiko’s father was a famous Japanese painter, so there is a beautiful studio that looks over the valley. He decides that he should use this time alone to focus on pursuing his own art.
He had been doing portraits for so long that he now finds it difficult to start something new. Day after day he goes into the studio and tries to find his muse, but nothing turns up. Masahiko fortunately gets him a job as an art teacher in the nearby town to make a few bucks. He even starts up a relationship with one of his students from the adult class.
The narrator’s old agent gets in touch with him and says that he has received a large offer to paint a portrait for a wealthy man. The narrator initially rejects it. The agent insists, and the narrator realizes that the money could last him quite awhile for a simple painting. He takes the job.
Coincidentally – or maybe not so coincidentally – the man who requested the portrait lives right across the valley, within eyesight of the narrator’s new house. They meet, and the narrator learns that his name is Menshiki – a very rare name – and that he has quite a mysterious background. But he is charming, insistent, and very friendly, so they easily become acquaintances.
The narrator’s life of leisure up in the mountain home soon changes drastically. He comes across a painting hidden in the attic that he thinks could be one of the greatest pieces of modern Japanese art. But the painter – Masahiko’s father, Tomohiko Amada – purposefully hid it away for some reason. A series of events soon come to pass that makes the narrator believe he never should have unwrapped it for the world to see.
Haruki Murakami is slowly becoming one of my favorite authors. His characters are vivid and real, his descriptions of life and nature beautiful and moving, and his plots are captivating with just the right amount of suspense to keep you interested and attentive. All of these come together in Killing Commendatore to make it an excellent book.
That being said, Killing Commendatore won’t blow you away with suspense; it’s a more gradual tension that builds throughout the story. It is decently long, around 700 pages in paperback, and can often get repetitive. It seems that we follow the narrator each chapter waking up, drinking coffee and tea, and making meals for himself without much happening other than some music playing in the background and his own thoughts running through his head.
But this was also part of the appeal; I felt deeply attached to the narrator and his simple way of life. The frequency of him sitting around and drinking tea even pushed me to finally purchase a Japanese cast iron teapot that I had wanted for some time. That’s a powerful connection with the character.
Although there are certainly elements that I felt were out of place or not as strong as they could have been, Killing Commendatore is a very good book and has wiggled its way to one of my lesser favorites.
There is just something about its elegance that’s hard to explain; Murakami understands the aesthetic world and conveys is beautifully through writing. Flipping the pages of the book, even though the story line may have stalled at times, was an absolute pleasure.