Get the Sunday Star paper on Oct 14 for a 25% discount coupon on ‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami at Kinokuniya Bookstore, Suria KLCC. Look for it in Star2.
Haruki Murakami is arguably Japan’s most internationally famous living author. With more than 20 books under his belt, the 69-year-old is also one of the country’s most prolific writers. His latest novel, Killing Commendatore, is one of his lengthiest to date.
The nameless narrator is the main protagonist of the story, a relatively successful and sought after portrait artist. His wife announces that she no longer wants to be married to him. The heartbroken artist reacts by taking to the road, driving around northern Japan in a beat-up Peugeot, staying at cheap guest houses and motels until he is offered the possibility of occupying the former home of a friend’s ailing elderly father who is now confined to a retirement home.
As it happens, the friend’s father, Tomohiko Amada, is a famous painter and the little house on a mountainside is where he painted for many years. The narrator settles into his new, remote surroundings and finds work teaching art two evenings a week in a local school.
Via his agent he receives a mysterious commission for a portrait. Though he has decided to stop painting portraits to focus on his own art, the amount offered is enough to make him change his mind. It transpires that the person who wants his portrait painted is a wealthy semi-recluse who lives alone in a huge modern house on the opposite side of the valley, a house clearly visible from the artist’s home.
Perhaps with a nod to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the artist finds a painting stored in the attic, carefully wrapped in protective paper. Curiosity gets the better of him. He unwraps the package and discovers a hitherto unknown work by the house’s owner, Amada. The painting is called Killing Commendatore and appears to be an interpretation of a scene from the opera Don Giovanni, but done in traditional Japanese style. It thoroughly captivates the narrator who spends hours gazing at it trying to decipher the layers of meaning it holds.
Living in the Amada’s old home, painting in his studio, listening to his collection of opera records, analysing his painting, the narrator tries to learn more about the old artist who spent time in Vienna just before Adolf Hitler annexed Austria to become part of Nazi Germany during WWII. There is some mystery around the old painter’s activities at the time, culminating in a sudden return to Japan and a rejection of the Western artistic canon to focus uniquely on traditional Japanese style.
The story veers towards the supernatural here. The narrator hears a bell ringing at night. With the help of the rich neighbour who commissioned his portrait he discovers a mysterious pit hidden under a pile of rocks in the woods behind the artist’s house. The pit acts as a portal of sorts between different realities. The character in the painting, who the narrator refers to as Commendatore, comes to life, or rather an “Idea” takes on the appearance of the character. Later in the book the supernatural elements take over and the story leaves any grounding in reality to take place in a parallel nightmarish dimension laden with all sorts of psychosexual symbolism and imagery.
In a scenario engineered by the rich neighbour, a 13-year-old girl, one of the artist’s students, poses for her portrait to be painted. She plays a pivotal role and becomes one of the lead characters.
This is where things might get a little uncomfortable for the reader. While there are quite a number of graphic erotic interludes of a consensual and adult nature throughout the novel there is also an inordinate focus on the development, or lack of development, of the girl’s breasts, a theme returned to frequently and repeatedly. Both of these aspects are likely what encouraged Hong Kong censors to deem the novel indecent, banning it for sale to anyone under 18. It was also removed from the Hong Kong book fair with a warning that using the fair to sell indecent literature could lead to the publisher’s booths being closed down.
There is quite a bit of unnecessary repetition, perhaps given the length of the novel, to remind the reader of the various moving parts. There are also some historical and geographical inaccuracies about the Spanish Armada that editors or translators should have caught.
Then there are peculiarities of the translation, with phrasing that did not jibe with my pedantic sensitivities – for example the repeated use of “had on” instead of “wore” – eg, “He had on a white shirt”, rather than the more natural “He wore a white shirt”.
Leaving aside these elements, and the near obsessive focus on prepubescent breasts, Killing Commendatore is an entertaining and easy, if somewhat lengthy read, that is at its most interesting in its exploration of the artistic process and the descriptions of the works of art.
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Secker