BOOK REVIEW: Haruki Murakami returns with a mystifying tale of lost passion and a goblin spectre
Harvill Secker, Penguin Random House
There are bizarre contrasts in most of the works of prolific Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. See-sawing between the surrealism of the subconscious and a stark, bland realism, they shuffle sense with nonsense and veer from the mundane to the inexplicable. Murakami admits that he often freestyles, writing without knowing what will happen next — a case of the novelist conjoining his characters in a journey of self-discovery.
His books engage near-universal themes: personal isolation, confusion, and disconnection in an impersonal age of increasing change and uncertainty. Murakami captures the disorientation of modern life and conveys a sense of yearning — for love, release from loneliness, relief from ennui.
One of his translators, Ted Goossen, humanities professor at Toronto’s York University, believes Murakami’s voice is the clue to his popularity, rather than identifiable themes or specific storylines. “The rhythm of his narration, and the place you visit when you open a Murakami book, translate all around the world. You can return to where you were the last time you read Murakami; you liked that place, it’s addictive.”
Though Murakami is a cult figure in Japan, where his new releases cause in-store mayhem and his devotees are known as Harukists, he also has an enormous global following, his works having been translated into 40 languages.
Murakami’s plots are straightforward in design but complex in their blurry telling, bridging genres in an unclassifiable postmodern mash-up of thriller-mystery, fantasy, standoffish romance and noir. Goossen’s involvement with Murakami is decades-long, but even he struggles to describe Murakami’s books, summarising them as “very experimental, uniquely interesting, and drawing people’s participation”.
Killing Commendatore’s unnamed protagonist-narrator is a 30-something, nondescript everyman. His wife has left him, for reasons he can’t initially understand. A talented but disengaged portrait artist, his emotional sterility is mirrored professionally when he stops taking commissions because he feels portraiture is stifling his capacity for artistic sensibility. He tries to reignite his life by embarking on a road trip across northern Japan. After a few weeks of aimless driving he gets offered accommodation at a hillside house belonging to a reclusive, famous artist now in an old-age care facility.
He settles into a boring routine of cleaning, reading, listening to the same music and methodically preparing simple meals. Then he discovers one of the old artist’s paintings hidden in the attic. It portrays a Japanese-style adaptation of the murder of Commendatore, a scene from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. He is captivated by the canvas even as he struggles to understand his reaction to the work and its meaning: “Impressions don’t prove anything. They’re like a butterfly in the wind — totally useless.”
Then he starts hearing a distant bell in the dead of night, and the Commendatore figure in the painting comes to life — in his mind, at least — as a goblin-like reincarnation that calls itself an Idea. He doesn’t realise it, but his passion is reawakening.
From this point the setting alternates haphazardly between reality and a parallel, subterranean spirit world; above and below the ground, our protagonist must now embark on a rite of passage involving a shrine, a deep hole in the ground, claustrophobic caving, sexual dreams, and ponderous, dreamy interactions with his neighbour, an enigmatic millionaire who sneaks into his orbit with an ulterior motive.
Murakami’s previous 13 novels and his short-story collections often carry echoes of Japan’s wartime or economic history, or its geological instability, and how these continue to shape a post-memory national trauma. Similarly, Killing Commendatore has an undercurrent tremor of restlessness, the perpetual fear of earthquakes and tsunamis as a reminder of the possibility of looming disaster.
Nearly all his works are peppered with western literary and musical references. Magpie-like, he borrows titles or pilfers ideas from Hemingway, Kafka, Salinger, and now, in Killing Commendatore, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Classical music threads through the novel as a symbol of escapism within a language transformed to minimalist purity or profundity. In a surfeit of repetition, the protagonist and his neighbour listen repeatedly to Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. Murakami, Goossen confirms, “carefully chooses his references, and you need to fully understand their relevance to the story — they carry more than a superficial meaning”.
However, the precise meaning is difficult to discern. And, equally, Murakami may be teasing us: some passages seem to mock the nature of art and literary criticism. He identifies as an outsider, divorced from the literary community and uninterested in critical forums or prizes, and he seems to be saying: “Look, stop examining or interpreting. Just enjoy, that’s enough.”
Killing Commendatore is simultaneously mind-numbing and mind-boggling, enthralling and superficial. Depending upon one’s fiction preferences, it will do no more than kill time on multiple plane journeys or will instigate pause to ponder metaphysics and existentialism, the fine line between destiny and free will, and the path from ignorant ordinariness to the dynamism of deeper understanding.
But it’s possible to read too much into Murakami. I ask Goossen about the prevalence of crows in the book, whether, according to Japanese folklore, they symbolise divine intervention. “That’s a stretch,” he replies. “Besides, Murakami has used crows as symbols before, most integrally in Kafka on the Shore. And ‘kafka’ is Czech for crow. They’re scary but inauspicious birds.”
So, what do they portend? Goossen doesn’t know, and this conversation segment loops in a replica of the story and structure — its stuttering intrigue, but oddball symmetry — of Killing Commendatore.