Thursday, October 18, 2018

I still like Haruki Murakami: Killing Commendatore

Killing Commendatore, the latest novel by Haruki Murakami, was published last week. Despite many similarities to Murakami's earlier novels, the plot and characters surprised me as compelling and fascinating.

The narrator (whose name we do not learn) is an ordinary man to whom out-of-the-ordinary things happen. Elements of magical realism are strong here: there are events that the reader is expected to believe in the course of the novel, but which are impossible in the world that the rest of us inhabit. The narrator presents them in a completely matter-of-fact way: they happened. Slowly the narrative moves from realistic description to magical and uncanny.  The mysterious parts of the novel are deeply connected to the Japanese experience of World War II, but I don't feel that it's an allegory. It just happens.

Matter-of-fact details are the core of what I like in this and other Murakami novels. His powers of observation are amazing, and when he tells you what he sees (or his narrator sees) you can grasp that it's something that has always stood before you but you never quite saw it before. Or heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or feared it.

The principal identity of the narrator is that he's a portrait painter. He describes with amazing clarity how he evaluates a subject for a portrait, sketches a likeness, prepares his canvas for a portrait, and how he completes the work. We also share the narrator's discoveries about the life and artistic accomplishments of the famous painter who owns the house where the narrator is living: a kind of a reverie on the differences between Japanese and Western painting.

The narrator hears and describes the sensations he gets when listening to grand opera (such as Mozart's Don Giovanni, in which the Commendatore is a character) or to jazz recorded on LPs and played on an old stereo system. He notices the different sounds that car doors make when the driver closes them -- sounds from a Jaguar, an old Peugeot, and others. He's intrigued by a mysterious rustling in an attic that turns out to be a horned owl making its way in and out of a broken vent.

Though the narrator says he doesn't care much about food, he describes it often (though not in as much detail as in other Murakami books). He notes, for instance, that his estranged wife's name, Yuzu, is the same as the name of the citrus fruit. When he's bothered, we learn how he absent-mindedly, of necessity, eats things like Ritz crackers with catsup or vegetables with mayo. If he's less bothered, he shops and cooks:
"When it began to get dark, I went to the kitchen, cracked open a can of beer, and began preparing dinner. In the oven, I broiled a piece of yellowtail that I'd marinated in sake lees, then sliced pickles, made a cucumber-and-seaweed salad with vinegar, and fixed some miso soup with radishes and deep-fried tofu. Then I sat down and ate my silent meal." (pp. 364-365) 
Although the narrator can remember what he ate at various places, he says he has no ability to recall the flavors of his food -- he's a painter, he says, so he can only recollect exactly what something looked like. In the course of the novel we see many examples of this memory and how it serves his portrait painting. (p. 292)

Sometimes the narrator notes pleasant aromas or putrid smells, but often, he remarks on the absence of smells. Certain locations strike him as creepy because they have no smell. Another of his sensations is a vivid claustrophobia, associated with the long-ago death of his little sister and his unending grief for her. He notes the details of clothing that characterize a man or a woman, and describes their facial features, beauty or lack of beauty, and body types (though I have trouble creating my own mental image from these descriptions). He explains what it's like to look through powerful binoculars. He evokes the strong visual element of Japanese landscapes: the mountains, the sea coast, the deep forest.

Several times, the reader is told of the significance of the Japanese characters with which people's names are written -- this may be more meaningful to one who knows Japanese. One example:
"My name is Menshiki," says an important character when introducing himself to the narrator. "The men is written with the character in menzeiten -- the one that means 'avoidance' -- and the shiki is the character iro, for 'color.' ... 'Avoiding colors' is what it means. ... An unusual name. Other than my relatives I rarely run across anyone who shares it." (p. 80)
Is there a possible connection to Murakami's 2014 novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? I'm not sure about this and many other parallels to his earlier novels. I wonder, in fact, what it all means. Details. Details!

What Other People Say about Killing Commendatore

Up to this point, I have presented my very subjective description of how I reacted to descriptions and characters in Killing Commendatore. I wrote the above account without having read a single review of the novel. Now for some quotes that I found after what I've written so far:

In the Guardian: "Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami review – a rambling voyage of discovery" reviewer Xan Brooks writes --
"Who are the spirits? Who are the real people? The hero’s married lover amounts to little more than a dispenser of expository dialogue and sexual favours (indirectly responsible for the book being classed as “class two indecent” in Hong Kong). Worse, the gnomic, fantastical Commendatore turns out to be a more rounded character than Menshiki’s reputed daughter, a preternaturally self-possessed 13-year-old who speaks as though she’s been fed through Google Translate. Significantly, Murakami’s painter likes to leave some of his portraits unfinished. One has the sense that the author does, too. 
"Paradoxically, it’s this incompleteness that this beguiling, confounding – and yes, sometimes infuriating – novel is concerned with: the sense that everybody is unfinished, a work in progress, and that any clear-cut resolution is therefore a lie. Murakami’s mountainside setting is full of wormholes and blind spots, arrivals and exits. His plot, such as it is, unfolds as the narrator experiences it, which means that it’s thick with loose ends and cul‑de-sacs. His character is casting about for the correct way forward. He’s attempting to script a fresh adventure that will give his battered life meaning and distract him from his divorce, so his story sets forth as a tale of creative rebirth. Then it switches lanes to become a study of male friendship; then a haunted house story; then a father-daughter mystery yarn. Each route is valid but it can only take him so far. 'In this real world of ours,' he explains, 'nothing remains the same for ever.'"
Hari Kunzru at the New York Times wrote a review titled "In Haruki Murakami’s New Novel, a Painter’s Inspiration Is Supernatural." He points to some of the influences and parallels to other Japanese culture:
"The 18th-century ghost stories of Ueda Akinari (most familiar outside Japan through Mizoguchi’s 1953 film “Ugetsu”) and the demonological compendiums of Toriyama Sekien hover in the background of “Killing Commendatore,” as they do in so much contemporary Japanese horror and fantasy, notably the anime of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro”). Though “Killing Commendatore” does not address authenticity in specifically national-cultural terms, the novel is preoccupied with the possibility of making art infused with depth or spirit. The mechanical painter of commissioned portraits comes under the influence of the man whose house he’s living in, and is moved to make works with real expressive power. 'What I’d created was, at heart, a painting I’d done for my own sake.'"
"Haruki Murakami turns his gaze toward middle age" is the title of the review by Charles Finch in the Washington Post. Finch writes of the book's "exhilarating portrayal of how it feels to make art. In long, powerful passages, Murakami describes painting with the intensity of what seems like just-concealed autobiography." The reviewer connects connects this to the way that "only in the calm madness of his magical realism can Murakami truly capture one of his obsessions, the usually ineffable yearning that drives a person to make art."


Beth F said...

Glad you liked this one.

Claudia said...

I haven't yet finished one of his books as his characters seem difficult to identify with. Something one of the reviewers noted though, we are all unfinished works, and the quality remains to be seen at the end. In a novel or painting I think we appreciate completion.

Wendy Klik said...

I am not familiar with this author at all. Thanks for the introduction.