Murakami loses his magic with latest

Even for fans, Killing Commendatore is far from a satisfying read

By Nayantara Mazumder
  • Published 14.12.18, 1:25 PM
  • Updated 14.12.18, 1:25 PM
  • 4 mins read
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Murakami's legions of fans tend to worship him as though he is incapable of authorial flaws Image: Wikimedia Commons

Few figures in global publishing polarize opinion in as dramatic a manner as does Haruki Murakami. His work is regularly dismissed as undeserving of serious consideration by people who know modern Japanese literature well enough to suitably contextualize his writing. According to them, the last time Murakami was relevant was in the 1980s and 1990s. At the opposite end of the spectrum are his legions of fans who tend to worship him as though he is incapable of authorial flaws. (This can, to a large extent, be blamed on the manner in which he is marketed; right from the home page of his American website to the jacket of his latest novel, a chance to highlight his love of cooking and jazz or the famous epiphany during a baseball match that led to him becoming a novelist is rarely passed up.) And yet, even as a Murakami fan, one can say with certainty that with Killing Commendatore, he has, as it were, lost his ‘magic’. Even though he stays on familiar territory — middle-aged male ennui — he fails to capture the wry poignancy of his characters from the 20th century.

The new novel is described as a “loving homage” to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is easy to see why — there is an intriguingly wealthy Gatsby-like figure at the heart of the book. Unlike The Great Gatsby, though, Murakami’s novel is a baggy monstrosity into which he stuffs whatever his whims dictate. The narrator (as usual, unnamed) is a painter reeling from his former wife’s infidelity and the disillusionment that comes with being a portrait artist for the rich. He now wishes to return to his artistic roots, so he goes to stay in the empty house of a famous Japanese painter, Tomohiko Amada. There he sits around doing precious little, till he discovers a strange painting by Amada in the attic. Named Killing Commendatore, and painted in the style of the Asuka era, it depicts a murder involving four figures who clearly represent characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The titular Commendatore is being stabbed in the heart by Don Giovanni as a horrified Donna Anna and Leporello look on.

The narrator becomes obsessed with the painting. Why was it hidden away, and why did Amada choose this scene from the opera to paint? Most important, why do these characters resonate with him so violently? As these questions eat away at him, his rich, mysterious neighbour, Wataru Menshiki — Murakami’s Gatsby — commissions him for a portrait, which he is allowed to paint just as he wishes. This freedom briefly inspires the narrator to do more work, and it is his navigation of the artistic process upon which the novel’s philosophical conflict is premised.

That, unfortunately, is the sum total of what there is to a book of nearly 700 pages. Worse, Murakami’s effort to examine the artistic journey is bereft of any insight. If the only point of Killing Commendatore is to drive home the fact that artists and their methods are often exceedingly dull, then it took far too many pages to do so.

This is a pity, for Murakami’s most impressive works often dealt rather deftly with reality and consciousness. Books such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and even After Dark challenge both their protagonists and readers and defy simple explanations. They are also works of great imagination and fluidity. Killing Commendatore, on the other hand, is devoid of that sense of freedom, even though Murakami tries for dear life to grasp the magical. The figures in Amada’s painting, including the Commendatore, keep appearing to the narrator. No one but him can see them, and the most interesting events occur when they make him do things he would not otherwise do. But although the story hurtles along with the page-turning momentum that is crucial in popular novels, it is sabotaged by terrible writing. A character named Long Face keeps insisting that he is a “Metaphor”, creatures that are, supposedly, helpful; Double Metaphors, on the other hand, “grab hold of your true thoughts and feelings and devour them one after another, fattening themselves... They have been dwelling in the depths of your psyche since ancient times”.

The awful prose is not even the worst of it. The biggest missteps occur when Murakami tries to write about women. When the narrator first speaks of his sister, who died young, he talks only about her breasts: “It felt strange to see my little sister’s breasts grow by the day. Up till then she’d just been a little child, but now... suddenly... her breasts were slowly starting to take shape.” The smattering of adult women have no function apart from providing the men with sexual succour. This clear unwillingness to write about women as though they are human beings is a stain not only on this book but also on Murakami’s other works. Women in his literary universe are, at best, supernatural entities, and, at worst, sex objects and plot devices. In a post-MeToo world, this kind of writing from an author of Murakami’s stature is disturbing and disappointing.

Killing Commendatore does have a few sparks of brilliance, though. At a pivotal point, the narrator remembers a time in his youth when his sister had crawled into a cave. As the minutes went by and she did not emerge, the narrator started calling out to her. Readers, at this juncture, are already aware of the circumstances of her death, and know that this is not how she dies. The depth of the narrator’s fear in the few minutes of her absence is compounded by the fact that readers know she will die soon, even if it is not now. Murakami handles this emotional tension with skill; he is just unable to sustain it for even a tenth of the novel. It will be a wonder if even long-time fans find this book satisfying, let alone new readers.

Killing Commendatore By Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, Rs 999