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‘Killing Commendatore’

Writers use words to create ideas and pictures. These experiences live in the mind of each reader. Although not technically real, these experiences feel real enough. And, if they feel real, then to all intents and purposes they are real to that person. This seems to be the message of Killing Commendatore, it’s a creative and contemplative journey about the interplay between the real world and the mind. It plays with the idea of ‘living ideas’, thoughts and concepts that come to life. They are devices to challenge the protagonist, and the reader.

While much of Haruki Murakami’s novel Killing Commendatore incorporates standard Murakami elements: the disaffected creative person alone in a house, the failed marriage or relationship, a hole in the ground, fantastic characters, portals to Murakami’s fantasy world, a girl with wisdom beyond her years, heavy metaphor, an easygoing narrator who seems open about his failings and fears, multiple love interests, someone in the past who has committed suicide, an old man on his deathbed (with associated recollections of Second World War atrocities), and all of this is set against a mystery-suspense story involving disparate elements (‘fishy’ clues that provoke questions). The overall effect is akin to a character from a Raymond Carver short story walking into a Raymond Chandler mystery, with the voice of a J D Salinger character (wistfully ruminating on his past, with a forlorn sense of emotional loss), and fantastic dream-world characters who might have been in a Terry Pratchet story.

The use of an ostensibly dull-but-nice-guy as the protagonist, a realistically depicted suburbanite who doesn’t quite ‘fit in’, who is preoccupied with his problems, combined with surrealist fantasy characters, creates a natural tension that challenges the reader. It echoes the relationship between the rational and the irrational. Murakami’s fantastic beings are conceptually straight out of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. The grey area between night and day, between awake and dreamscape. When the narrator goes ‘underground’ he leaves the day-world to venture into that dream world. It’s reminiscent of Charles Burns’ graphic novel X’ed Out, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which is referenced earlier in the story).

The protagonist encounters a two foot tall creature that calls itself a living ‘Idea’. And later the protagonist meets a living double metaphor. I understand these characters as Murakami’s playful take on surrealism, or fantastic poetic license, or nonsense verse (take your pick). It’s probably a mistake to ascribe too much meaning to them. They’re Murakami’s leprechauns, his six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall, invisible rabbit Harvey.

The variety of elements in Killing Commendatore should ideally mesh together to create resonance, to hook the reader’s curiosity. That’s the problem with this novel, it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. The riddles and clues don’t lead to conclusions. It doesn’t feel like the journey takes us anywhere. It doesn’t help that the novel suffers from repetition, sections that feel simply dull, cringe-worthy moments, and the novel is far too long for its own good.

Murakami is great at making his central character come alive for the reader. We empathise with their ordinariness, but this time his protagonist seems a little off-kilter. The repetitive descriptions of breasts including the breasts of a 13 year old just seem weird: weird in a bad way. Is this Murakami being provocative? Is it an experiment in making the reader feel awkward and uncomfortable? Or a misstep? Either way it made me cringe. It’s not shocking so much as unnecessary. Likewise, sexual descriptions can seem bizarrely gratuitous, not adding to our understanding of the characters or the plot. Perhaps they were added during the editing stage to make otherwise uninteresting sections have some spice?

What is Killing Commendatore about?

It’s a novel about the creative process, it even features a painter who’s battling between the choice of producing artistic or commercial work. It incorporates another artist who switches from modern art to traditional Japanese painting. In some respects the novel feels like a self-portrait (although it’s hard to know for sure without knowing the author), as if the writer is usurping the characters to have a dialogue with the reader, but it’s unclear what the implication of this dialogue is. Give space to your creative imaginings? The conversation around these topics is handled at a kind of pop-philosophy level. It could be a story about writing and being a writer, but hiding behind the camouflage of characters who paint.

Murakami is a magpie in the way he absorbs influences and ideas from different places. There are Western influences, and in Killing Commendatore it’s The Great Gatsby, but the narrative tone, themes, even plot devices that Murakami uses recall the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata (loneliness, alienation, lost love, melancholy, suicide, confused desires, and so on). Readers relate to the sensitivity and failings of his character’s in much the same way they do to Kawabata’s characters.

Murakami’s narrative works through the information it provides about the central character, and the information it leaves out. This allows the reader to believe that they have worked things out for themselves using clues within the text. This makes the reader feel perceptive and intelligent, but it’s all a deliberate construct on Murakami’s part. The reader is following the path that he has set. And the thoughts and views that he deliberately obscures or misses out adds to that character’s mystery.

The reoccurring tropes in Murakami’s work feel like he’s read up on the Auteur Theory and perfected the motifs of the ‘Murakami novel’, obliquely referencing his own works and recycling scenes, character types, and locations. In Killing Commendatore we have a character whose name refers to colourlessness, and who dresses in white: colourlessness is a word straight out of the title of a previous novel. It’s said that writers only write one novel, and then they write it again and again. Murakami certainly seems to live up to this notion and appears to have perfected the ‘Murakami formulae’.

The downside of Killing Commendatore is that it feels too self-aware of the ‘Murakami formulae’, and the ‘Murakami world’. As a result, it comes across as mechanical, as if he’s painting by numbers.

I was waiting for the pay-off, but it never arrived. I was waiting for something to grab me, but I wasn’t grabbed. I was hoping to leave with something meaningful, instead, I was left unmoved. The story is weirdly formless, like a door without a handle. The real merges with the unreal to a point where nothing matters. A character looses himself and then finds himself. The tacked-on ending has a different tone to the rest of the novel. The result is a journey that hasn’t taken us anywhere. It’s a mostly entertaining and accessible read, but it’s strangely hollow.