Haruki Murakami has lost his magic.
After two consecutive novels written in the third person (2009’s “1Q84” and 2013’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage”), Murakami has returned to first-person narration with his latest novel, “Kishidancho Goroshi” (“Killing Commendatore”), published in Japan and so far only in Japanese, on Feb. 24. In it, he is unable to capture the same energy of the wry, poignant protagonists that drove his books in the 1980s and ’90s.
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The novel relates the story of an unnamed 36-year-old portrait artist living in Tokyo. When his wife, Yuzu, suddenly wants a divorce and admits she’s been seeing someone else, he clears his schedule and goes on a month-long road trip to Hokkaido and Tohoku before settling in a house on the top of a mountain in rural Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, where he plans to paint for himself for the first time in years rather than taking portrait work.
This novel, then, is a sort of bildungsroman, as the character attempts to rediscover his inspiration for painting and create his own unique artistic style.
Murakami’s obsession with isolating his characters continues: The narrator spends much of his time in the house staring at canvases, cooking, reading books and listening to the extensive collection of classical music records that belongs to the house’s owner, a famous artist named Tomohiko Amada, who is the father of the narrator’s friend from college, Masahiko. “You should be careful,” Masahiko tells the narrator. “Don’t get possessed by my dad’s spirit. He’s a guy with a strong spirit.”
The world tilts in typically Murakami fashion when the narrator discovers one of Amada’s paintings titled “Killing Commendatore” squirreled away in the house’s attic. Amada is well known as a traditional Japanese artist, but the painting depicts a violent killing in what seems to be Japan’s Asuka Era (552-645). The narrator interprets the title as a reframing of a scene from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in Japan.
How the painting causes the world to change is unclear to the narrator, but he soon finds himself being commissioned for a portrait by Wataru Menshiki, a mysterious, wealthy IT baron with a lion-like mane of white hair who lives in a modern villa across the valley from the Amada residence. The narrator is then assaulted aurally by a ringing bell, which seems to be coming from underneath a pyramid of stones behind a makeshift shrine on the property.
The shrine brings Menshiki and the narrator closer together, as the artist involves the semi-retired entrepreneur in excavating the stones to reveal a 10-foot deep, well-like cavern. If you’ve read any Murakami, you know that he’s long been fascinated with wells, and this book is no different. Over the course of the novel, the narrator makes no less than a dozen trips back and forth from the house to the hole, sometimes just to confirm that things haven’t changed. Needless to say, this is gripping literature.
There are two other characters worth mentioning: The titular Commendatore is a 2-foot-tall figure wearing traditional Japanese garb who seems to have popped out of Amada’s painting. He provides various assistance here and there throughout the book, but the rules that govern his mysterious existence seem to bend as needed for the plot. Murakami fails again to build a credible in-world mythology for his magic realism.
There is also Marie Akigawa, a 13-year-old girl who becomes the subject of one of the narrator’s portraits in the second half of the novel. Like Fukaeri in “1Q84,” she’s a bit mysterious and seems to be wiser than her age at times. Yet she’s also obsessed with her flat chest and whether she’ll ever have breasts.
Expanding the above plot summary would spoil one of the book’s meager pleasures, which is figuring out how the characters are connected. Among the questions that abound: Why has Menshiki set himself up alone in a fancy villa on the top of this mountain? And why is he rumored to have been in jail and to have forced out its previous tenants?
There is, of course, an “adventure” of sorts, as Murakami is wont to write. Someone disappears and the narrator goes off to help. But the stakes are never clearly presented, nor is it clear that the narrator actually does anything tangible to help.
Murakami also tries to recapture the magic of “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” by including lengthy portions of history connected to Amada’s time studying abroad in Europe in the days before the start of World War II. Sections on Anschluss, Kristallnacht and the Rape of Nanking are awkwardly dropped in at various points, often via large blocks of dialogue from Menshiki and Masahiko. “Wind-up Bird” succeeded because it dramatized wartime events, making them incredibly immediate. “Killing Commendatore,” on the other hand, can feel like a Wikipedia entry at times.
This book fails most in its narrative point of view. Murakami tells story in retrospect: We know from the opening pages that the protagonist is in Odawara for nine months, that he reconciles with his wife in the end and that he’s telling the story from a point in the future.
This is at odds with Murakami’s tendency to narrate almost with the artist’s stream of conscious. He starts strong with a striking prologue about a faceless man come to have his portrait painted, building suspense in the first few chapters — only to fill out the rest of the 1,048 pages with needless details and extraneous thoughts.
Classics such as “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and Murakami’s own “Norwegian Wood” work so well because the narrators judiciously select which events from their past to share with readers. In “Killing Commendatore,” we get everything.
Ultimately, the narrator doesn’t seem to have learned much from these nine strange months. He continues largely as he did before, painting portraits in an almost mechanical manner without much significance. “That’s the life I wanted,” the narrator says. “And that’s also what people wanted of me.”
Ironically, this could be read as a stand-in for Murakami’s writing itself. I, for one, wanted more, and I imagine other readers will as well.
“Killing Commendatore” is currently being translated, but details of its English-language release are not yet available.