What is the best way into Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Killing Commendatore (2018)?
This is a late novel from an aging novelist (Murakami is 69 years old) who has perhaps lost the vitality that carried his greatest novels. In fact, I gave up on 2013’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by the end of the first chapter. It seemed like a re-tread, something I could return to later or never. I was therefore pleased when I found that I had once again fallen under the spell of a Murakami novel with Killing Commendatore. The story begins when a talented but mostly bored portrait artist learns that his wife wants a divorce. He travels briefly around Japan before settling in a borrowed mountain home. There, he finds a yearning to paint something more artistically rich than commercial portraits. Murakami’s spell in this novel is familiar, but I was ready to look past any nostalgic resonance so long as the story could maintain the momentum of its opening. (For the most part, it does.)
As much as I enjoyed the strange conversations the hero has with the eccentric characters he meets, I couldn’t escape a nagging concern that maybe Killing Commendatore is just a re-tread. After all, Murakami’s characters respond to deeply felt impulses and intuitions that they ponder at length before concluding that they just feel the way they feel. The protagonist’s wife, for example, leaves him because she feels in a way that defies explanation that they can no longer be together; the hero meets a wealthy eccentric, Menshiki, who strongly intuits that they could collaborate to produce a powerful portrait. As per usual, there are the many references to vinyl albums and Western music, and Menshiki is more Murakami’s version of Jay Gatsby than he is a wealthy eccentric from the mountain. There is also Murakami’s familiar brand of magic realism, which is first encountered in a painting, Killing Commendatore. The painting slowly reveals a hidden mirror world that the hero must confront and journey through.
These familiar elements seem designed as an invitation to read Killing Commendatore as a response to earlier Murakami novels. When the hero enters the mirror world, he encounters an inky darkness that recalls the inklings from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World. At one point, he learns about a girl who falls asleep, recalling Eri from After Dark. And much of the novel revolves around a pit in the woods that recalls the wells in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Because the hero is an artist who discovers that he has the ability to look at people and see their, for lack of a better word, mirror self, it seems safe view this novel as a retrospective work.
So what are the hidden threads that tie together Murakami’s novels? Although it’s easy to look at familiar tropes, such as an enthusiasm for fancy cocktails, it might be more useful to consider what is so appealing in these novels. Here’s my theory. We get the most out of Murakami’s novels in those moments when we are confused by the world around us as well as by ourselves. We look at ourselves and don’t understand what we are feeling, or we look at our career and wonder why it has lost meaning, or we look at our country and wonder how it has become so alien. What hidden forces led to here? We can repress or ignore this uneasy disorientation, but Murakami’s characters fascinate us because they must confront these feelings. And I suspect we trust Murakami because sometimes his heroes do not resolve these conflicts. Sometimes, their journeys, however urgent, remind us of the cost of such examination.
If so, Killing Commendatore is a cautious response to his earlier works. The hero learns to see the mirror world in those he paints, and he also discovers it in himself. Unlike Miu in Sputnik Sweetheart, however, he only goes so far that he is able to find himself again. In other words, he turns back and focuses on his beliefs in order to ground himself. By the end of the novel, he finds a sense of grace, including in things he can “do without thinking.”
No one should start in on Murakami’s novels by reading Killing Commendatore, but readers who turned away after his last few novels may find here a modest return to form.