Sunday Morning! “Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami
This week, I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s most recent book Killing Commendatore and have much the same feeling I’ve had with his other books, of returning from a leisurely zigzagging tour of the hidden magical corners of our more quotidian reality. At times, I was reminded strangely of those old mystery series for young people: The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Underground World. His books are like adventure fantasies with the violence and eroticism made more explicit.
They’re also stories grounded in reality, however ambivalently. I think Murakami’s best fiction works because it leans heavily on the realistic side of surrealism. He will describe something like the preparation of a meal in spare, clean prose and then add a dinner guest from the spirit world- or, in this case, an “idea” who takes the form of a two-foot tall “Commendatore” from a painting of the first scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. In the opera, the Commendatore comes back as a ten foot statue heralding the rake’s descent into hell. Here, he’s a charming sprite with a wry sense of humor.
The painting in question, also called “Killing Commendatore”, is an unknown masterpiece by a once-famous master, Tomohiko Amada, who switched from creating Western-style works to more traditional Japanese art for unknown reasons during his time in Vienna in the late 1930s. Now, the master is in his 90s and senile, living out his last days in a nursing home, while his mountaintop estate is being rented by a younger painter, our narrator, whose marriage has come to an end. A typical Murakami narrator, our hero is there in a sort of liminal state between our world and a netherworld, his old life and a new life. He’s trying to make sense of his life and art and the Commendatore has arrived in order to help him in some way.
As well, an older millionaire named Menshiki has come into our narrator’s life to commission a portrait, a meeting that affects great change for both of them. A 13 year old art student who may or may not be the millionaire’s secret daughter become a useful friend. And there is an underground world beyond the realm of ours where he must cross the River of Metaphor in order to save a lost child.
So, in other words, this is vintage Murakami with a convoluted plot teeming with bizarre and enchanting imagery that doesn’t entirely make sense, but doesn’t really need to in order to work. For the most part it does work, and really who else in the world is writing things like this? But I think a reader needs to adjust to the structure and length- the middle section is less about surrealistic conceits, like Ideas made flesh or a man with no face ferrying travelers through the netherworld, and more about a man whose wife has left him for another lover, triggering the return of his artistic inspiration. It contains a wonderful description of divorce as being:
Like you’re walking along as always, sure you’re on the right path, when the path suddenly vanishes, and you’re facing an empty space, no sense of direction, no clue where to go, and you just keep trudging along.”
In fact, I read much of the midsection as a sort of guidebook: How to be a Detached Artist with a Little Help from the Supernatural. There were good bits of advice about how an artist makes use of time, knowing when not to create as clearly as when to, or how to accept symbols as true without knowing quite what they mean. One can hear Murakami speaking in his own voice in lines like:
But you know it seems to me that reality itself has a screw loose somewhere. That’s why I try to keep at least myself in line as much as possible.”
Many of the reviews have noted Murakami’s homage to Gatsby in the Menshiki character, who lives alone in a white mansion from where he can see the 13 year old girl who might well be his daughter. I was struck more by his riffing on Ueda Akinari’s 18th century Tales of Moonlight and Rain (probably because I read that one fairly recently), which contains a story of a monk who has achieved such a state of zenjo or “pure concentration” that he’s essentially a mummy and buried alive for decades.
I really couldn’t see any close parallels to Don Giovanni; the Commendatore seems to have been chosen more according to Murakami’s own internal logic than anything else. I also wish the narrator’s wife, who leaves him in the beginning and returns at the end (with a pregnancy he might have initiated in an erotic dream), had more of a role in all of this.
In the end, I think Murakami really does capture something about creation- its mercurial character, the way it seems to come from nowhere, its sometimes complete and total strangeness. I’m okay that the story zigzags and digresses and sometimes loses itself. We can forgive him his eccentricities because, without him, books like this might well never come into our world from the one beyond.
So what are you reading, watching, playing, or pondering this weekend?