Friday, 19 October 2018

Review: 'Killing Commendatore' by Haruki Murakami

"...sometimes in life we can't grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won't know which side we're on."

You would be forgiven for feeling a considerable amount of envy regarding Haruki Murakami's prodigious output of stories. For the depth and intricacy that often characterises his novels, he has managed to sustain a remarkable rate of publication. This is, I'm sure, largely a product of his approach to writing. Murakami always begins the writing process with no concrete plan. As he told an interviewer with The Paris Review: "When I start to write, I don't have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don't choose what kind of story it is or what's going to happen. I just wait." For most creatives, plagued by sleepless nights and hours staring at a blank screen, the ease with which Murakami applies this approach and remains capable of producing a new novel every couple of years is impressive. When I read that he would be releasing a new novel in 2018 - the English version of Killing Commendatore - I was excited but unsurprised, given his tendency to publish something new every couple of years. I have always enjoyed Murakami's niche approach to magical realism and, despite the flaws of his more recent works, find his novels immensely engaging. When I learnt that Killing Commendatore was to serve as Murakami's homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I was even more intrigued. 

Killing Commendatore follows the experiences of an unnamed narrator, whose character very much conforms to Murakami's standard trope. A portrait artist dissatisfied with his creative direction and recently separated from his wife, the narrator heads to a remote house in the mountains at Odawara. The appeal of this location lies not only in its isolation but also in the fact that its former owner, Tomohiko Amada, was a celebrated artist of traditional Japanese paintings. Now confined to a residential home, Amada's imprint is still felt throughout the house - from his impressive collection of classical music, to his artist's studio. Stumped as to his own creative direction, the narrator accidentally stumbles upon one of Amada's paintings - a painting unknown to the public and purposely hidden away. It is his most impressive work, Killing Commendatore, but its discovery sets in motion a series of increasingly bizarre and dangerous events. Into the mix steps the aloof and mysterious millionaire, Wataru Menshiki, and his unclear connection to a 13-year old girl who also resides in this remote part of Odawara. A mysterious bell ringing from the bottom of a closed pit, a two-foot tall manifestation of Killing Commmendatore's Commendatore character, and a faceless man, enter to propel the novel's increasingly surrealistic plot. The question is how these disparate parts are ultimately connected.

"But the painting titled Killing Commendatore was full of blood. Realistic blood flowing all over. Two men were fighting with heavy, ancient swords, in what seemed to be a duel. One of the men fighting was young, the other old. The young man had plunged his sword deep into the old man's chest. The young man had a thin black mustache and wore tight-fitting light-greenish clothes. The old man was dressed in white and had a lush white beard...He had dropped his sword, which had not yet struck the ground. Blood was spewing from his chest. The tip of the sword must have pierced his aorta. The blood had soaked his white clothes, and his mouth was twisted in agony."

Much of my love for Murakami's work stems from his impressive ability to blend monotonous slice-of-life details with the surreal. In fact, it is Murakami's descriptions of the everyday that are often the most celebrated aspects of his work. His relatively simplistic prose lends itself to cultivating a real sense of familiarity for the reader. Whenever I read Murakami, I find myself sinking into his writing - in a way that I can only compare with sinking into an old, particularly comfortable sofa. I am always able to trust that Murakami will entertain me and that his novels are best experienced by allowing the story, and all of its surreal turns, to simply wash over me. Killing Commendatore is no exception to this. Murakami achieves an excellent balance of comfortable reality and supernatural details. At a number of points, the plot accelerates in true suspense and I found myself unable to leave the book without reading to the incident's resolution. 

The characterisations were also, for the most part, incredibly engaging. The characters most heavily influenced by The Great Gatsby - the unnamed narrator and the millionaire Menshiki - were undoubtedly the novel's most fully-formed and believable. In Menshiki, Murakami gave himself the space to explore and develop a Gatsby-esque character, against the backdrop of contemporary Japan and modern technology. It was an interesting take and one that worked incredibly well in parallel to the narrator's own journey. The interactions between these two characters were, for me, the most engaging parts of the novel. Unsurprising to regular readers of Murakami, however, the characters were also Killing Commendatore's most flawed element. Women play a significant role in driving the plot. From the narrator's wife, whose announcement of separation sparks the narrator's journey, to the new girlfriend, whose role is to feed the narrator pieces of information about his new acquaintance, Menshiki, the female characters are fundamental to the novel's progress. However, they are also universally ill-developed and lacking in dimension. Of the female characters, the 13-year old Mariye Akikawa is afforded the most direct role in the plot's development. Her character is, however, almost entirely reduced to a preoccupation with the size of her breasts. The fact that this serves as one of the central themes of Mariye's conversations with the 36-year old narrator is uncomfortable and, as becomes clear by the end of the novel, entirely redundant. Murakami has been widely critiqued for his tendency to use female characters only in service of the momentum of his plot. Killing Commendatore confirms this propensity to reduce female characters to a plot device. This is a particular shame given the intriguing and integral nature of the female characters in Murakami's source material, The Great Gatsby.

"In the silence of the woods it felt like I could hear the passage of time, of life passing by. One person leaves, another appears. A thought flits away and another takes its place. One image bids farewell and another one appears on the scene. As the days piled up, I wore out, too, and was remade. Nothing stayed still. And time was lost. Behind me, time became dead grains of sand, which one after another gave way and vanished. I just sat there in front of the hole, listening to the sound of time dying."

What most troubles Killing Commendatore is that it is fundamentally overambitious. Reading the novel, one can appreciate the authenticity with which Murakami describes his own approach to writing - that he has no plan and waits for ideas to come to him. There is too much taking place in Killing Commendatore and too many narrative threads to follow. However, I didn't find that this impacted my reading experience until the very end of the novel. Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending of the novel left me incredibly unsatisfied. It felt hurried and very much an afterthought, attempting to tie up the many loose ends. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and would still recommend it (although not as anyone's first experience with Murakami), many of the novel's details feel like a cursory and under-explored nod to various Murakami tropes or plot necessities. The ending reads almost as a favour to the reader, who would inevitably expect and require some degree of resolution for the characters. The plot offers a similarly cursory nod to the history of WWII and Nazi occupation, without any clear necessity for the detail existing at all given that it is never fully and satisfactorily explored.

For its flaws, however, Killing Commendatore was still one of the novels that I've most enjoyed this year. I tore through it in the space of two days and have found myself reflecting on it ever since. It is, I think, relatively easy to get lost in critiques of Murakami. Not only does he have an impressive body of work against which all new novels must be compared, his work exists in a niche of its own, exacerbating our propensity to see any new publications as part of series rather than a work in their own right. It is undeniable that Murakami relies on specific tropes to develop his plots. His male characters, the theme of isolation, sex and breasts - there will always be an element of 'Murakami Bingo' with any new read. However, Murakami also does what he does better than any other author. The cosy familiarity of the lives that he describes, in juxtaposition with the jarring surreality that he introduces, are a truly remarkable example of what magical realism can achieve.


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