Lockdown Book Reviews: #3 Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Three. The number all aspiring serial killers need to reach before they can even claim to have begun their work. I join in this sentiment today, somewhat aptly, with my third book review of this series, considering Murakami’s latest masterpiece: Killing Commendatore.

There’s something about Murakami’s diligence as a writer which pours out of each line in his novels, chapter after chapter, which almost indescribably adds to the sentiments he conveys. Yet, as I heard described about Miles Davis’ music recently, the emotion is romantic without being sentimental. And the same is certainly true of Murakami’s prose.

What has always grabbed me about Murakami’s books is the measured nature of his main characters, despite all which is happening around them. Loneliness, betrayal, paintings coming to life, alternate realities and murder…it’s all handled with unobjectionable clarity and without missing a good night’s sleep, a morning routine, or a well balanced meal. His characters appear to have that essential Dharmic quality of equanimity – that serenity and balance – even as the world crumbles around them. It is the break away from the dysfunctional character: that type upon which Dostoevsky might have insisted all interesting stories are based. Indeed, it is the functional character, with his rituals, orderliness and keen observation, which most intrigues and comforts the reader. This ironically, though very much intentionally, provides the backbone to that magical realist quality for which Murakami’s literature is so well known. It also likely speaks to the character of the author himself, who once described his own strict personal routine – up at six, writing every morning, running every afternoon, in bed by ten – as “mesmerising”.

The moody tone of Killing Commendatore is a familiar one within Murakami’s canon. The plot follows a young portrait artist who is left to ponder his sense of place and purpose, after his wife of 6 years mysteriously requests a divorce. The unnamed protagonist, in an attempt to rediscover his own artistic drive, moves into an isolated house, formerly home to his friend’s father, Tomohiko Amada, a renowned traditional Japanese painter, now nearing death. Upon discovering a previously unseen painting of Amada’s in his attic (‘Killing Commendatore’), an admiration bordering on obsession begins, whereby reality and concept eventually merge. Our protagonist goes on a surreal exploration of a world within creation and destruction. Love, birth, death – and reality itself – are all seen through the prism of the painting’s subject: the abstract idea of the Commendatore (himself a character from the opera Don Giovanni). The result is a tour de force of imaginative potential, a weaving of mysteries around spiritual tradition, the second world war, and the deepest significances of loss. The balance struck between the real and the imagined, as well as the dramatic and the humorous, is realised to wonderful effect on the page.

Something which always inspires my reading of Murakami is the breadth and depth of his research. Offered up as conversational pieces to charm both the Dionysian and Apollonian in us, the book intermingles everything from descriptive tapestries of twentieth century Japanese art and military history, to European opera and Scottish Hebridean whisky folklore. The reader’s gift is one of vicarious experience – the sounds feel personal; the smell and taste of wine and cooking are not far off eliciting mouth watering anticipation.

The characters of Killing Commendatore appear at first as an indiscriminate selection: a supporting cast for our seemingly ordinary protagonist. But such subtle deception gives way to curiosity and compassion for a whole host of idiosyncratic performances, each with unforeseen interconnections. We meet the middle-aged millionaire living alone in the mansion opposite Amada’s house. The pre-teen girl who our portrait artist paints. And of course, the Commendatore, our 2 ft tall, eighteenth century opera character representation. As antagonists shift, our protagonist journeys on a surreal adventure which affects them all. This is a mystery-drama, gripping the reader around character destinations as the tale climaxes; and leaving us with a warming wistfulness, as the story of each reaches resolution.

This year marks my tenth as a Murakami reader. My gratitude for this author is truly unbounded as I continue to find sanctuary within his pages. The first book I read, A Wild Sheep Chase, was nothing short of a private chapel, complete with roomy acoustic reverberation, stained glass windows and musky notes on the nose. If you have yet to experience the majestic equanimity of Haruki Murakami, I’d encourage you to start.

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. Published in the UK by Penguin Random House, 2018.

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