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Conquering ‘Commendatore’: Murakami brandishes familiar lexicon in latest novel

by

Special To The Japan Times

Haruki Murakami is a frustrating author to fall in love with. On a sentence level, he’s relatively easy to read. However, his concepts are tantalizingly deep, sometimes because they are complicated but other times because he only gestures at them and asks the reader to fill in the blanks. And that’s exactly what he has done in his most recent work “騎士団長殺し” (“Kishidanchō Goroshi,” “Killing Commendatore”), which was published in Japan on Feb. 24.

Murakami’s lexicon has evolved over the course of his career, but “Kishidanchō Goroshi” shares many phrases with 2009’s “1Q84,” and knowing them will ease you into this 1,048-page novel.

First, you should know that the 主人公 (shujinkō, protagonist) is a 36-year-old 画家 (gaka, painter) whose wife has asked for a divorce. The artist specialized in 抽象画 (ch̄ushōga, abstract paintings) in university but turned to 肖像画 (shōzōga, portraits) to make ends meet after graduating.

After the divorce he resolves to focus on painting to develop his art rather than to make a living, so he isolates himself in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the house of a famous artist — a father of a friend he attended art school with.

Once again, Murakami selects interesting character names. We never learn the narrator’s name, but once he is set up in Odawara, he ends up painting the portrait of a man named 免色渉 (Menshiki Wataru), a wealthy IT baron who lives in a modern villa on a mountain across a valley from the narrator.

His first name, Wataru, is a homonym of the Japanese verb 渡る (wataru, to cross). In past works, Murakami has used Toru and Tsukuru as male character names, which double with the verbs 通る(tōru, pass through) and 作る (tsukuru, to build/make), respectively.

Menshiki explains his unusual surname to mean 色を免れる (iro o manugareru, eluding/evading color). This seems to refer to his full mane of white hair as well as the heavily routinized life he lives, which feels absent of something. As with many Murakami characters, Menshiki has a physical tic he uses to punctuate mysterious moments: 手のひらをまっすぐ上に向けた (Te no hira o massugu ue ni muketa, He turned his palms straight upward).

One key word Murakami uses frequently in this book is 流れ (nagare, flow/current). When the narrator arrives in Odawara, he notes that he feels out of control of events: 私は材木につかまって、流れのままに流されていただけだった (Watashi wa zaimoku ni tsukamatte, nagare no mama ni nagasarete ita dake datta, “I was just clinging to a piece of wood and being tossed with the current”).

He decides to give in to the events as they come, which he notes again when he agrees to paint Menshiki’s portrait: 目の前にそういう流れがあるのなら、いったん流されてみればいい (Me no mae ni sō iu nagare ga aru no nara, ittan nagasarete mireba ii, “If there was a current before me, then let it take me for a while”).

Murakami’s most frequently used pet word of the past few books has been 惹かれる (hikareru, drawn in/attracted to), and this continues in “Kishidanchō Goroshi.” Readers may notice that this word resembles the 受け身 (ukemi, passive) form of 引く (hiku, to pull) — in other words, “to be drawn/pulled by.” This serves to reemphasize the passive nature of the protagonist.

A number of things are “drawn in.” The object that is drawn in is marked with the particle を (o), and the subject doing the drawing in is marked with に (ni). 心 (kokoro, heart/mind) is the most frequent object, but 関心 (kanshin, interest) and 興味 (kyōmi, interest) are also encountered as well as 注意 (chūi, warning/attention).

For example, when the artist discovers a mysterious painting in the attic of the house where he’s staying, he spends hours looking at the image, which depicts a scene from the Asuka Period (552-645). In it, onlookers watch a man kill the 騎士団長 (kishidanchō, commendatore). The contrast between winner and loser, killer and killed fascinates the narrator: その落差のようなものに、私は心を惹かれた (Sono rakusa no yō na mono ni, watashi wa kokoro o hikareta, “I was fascinated by the apparent difference [in the painting]”).

He goes back to this phrase when Menshiki offers an impressive sum to have his portrait painted: 正直なところ、提示された金額には心をひかれた (Shōjiki na tokoro, teiji sareta kingaku ni wa kokoro o hikareta, “To be honest, I was drawn by the price that was being offered”).

Another word that is somewhat important to be familiar with is 諸君 (shokun, gentlemen/sirs). This is a second-person plural pronoun generally used to address men of a lower rank, and it’s how the mysterious Kishidanchō addresses the narrator (despite the fact that he is only one person).

Murakami plays up the commendatore’s strange way of talking when he first appears to pop out of the painting, but he’s never too difficult to understand, and he stops using shokun as frequently later on in the novel.

Finally, Murakami makes use of the phrase 具わっている (sonawatteiru, equipped with) to describe characters’ unique abilities, as in previous novels.

The protagonist has an ability to remember faces: 私には人の顔の特徴を一目で素早く捉え、脳裏に焼き付ける能力が具わっている (Watashi ni wa hito no kao no tokuchō o hitome de suba-yaku torae, nōri ni yakitsukeru nōryoku ga sonawatteiru, “I have the ability to capture the characteristics of people’s faces with a quick glance and sear them into my mind”).

I’ll leave it up to you to discover how he uses this ability, but I will warn you that despite portentous-sounding advice from his agent at the beginning of the book that the narrator’s artistic abilities will help him, it’s not exactly clear that they do.

Some artistic vocabulary like デッサン (dessan, rough sketch) will also come in handy, but readers should really prepare themselves to take their time with this book. Reading five pages a day, the novel will take over six months to read. Even then you’ll finish before the official English translation, which will likely take a couple years. Might as well get started in the meantime.