I loved this book, though I have to say it’s one of the most mystifying novels I’ve ever read. Not to say it’s the most esoteric or difficult to read. The writing is clear and simple and fluid. Statements are clear, paragraphs coherent, plot simple. But the story… not so much.
The first thought I had was despite it being a Japanese novel by Haruki Murakami (my first exposure to him), it did not read like a translation, that’s how good the translation was. (Though I have to note my mother’s observation that some of the expressions/phrases the narrator uses throughout the novel seem less Japanese than American.) Second thought—this book would make a great movie. Maybe along the lines of something Hitchcock might have done. Third thought, though written by a Japanese writer, it harkens back to novels by South American magical realists like Isabelle Allende.
Okay, now, as for meaning. Well, it’s mostly about a middle-something-aged portrait artist who is in the process of getting a divorce. This is his wife’s choice, for no particularly clear reason. We learn shortly thereafter she has been having an affair with a colleague of Masahiko Amada, a family friend, and she is, in fact, pregnant with his child. The narrator, the main character, mulls this over from time to time, noting Yuzu and he had had no children during their 6-year marriage.
When the novel opens, the narrator (does he have a name?) is staying at Masahiko’s aging-artist-father’s (Tomohiko Amada’s, who is currently suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home) abandoned house. Upon moving in, the narrator discovers one of the father’s paintings under wraps in the attic. Importantly, throughout its course, the content of this mysterious painting informs the novel: Tomohiko painted it in the Japanese style after returning from a harrowing experience in WWII Austria during the Anschluss. It depicts a scene inspired by Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, in which a commendatore (commander?) is being murdered by an unknown hand, Donna Anna is nearby, and a strange figure is seen emerging from a hole in the ground. All of this echoes events that have happened to Tomohiko during this time: he tried to murder a Nazi official, his lover was brutally killed. As the novel progresses, more echoes of the painting recur: we learn the narrator‘s sister, Komi, died at 12 years of age. Similarly, the mother of the 13-year-old girl who lives next door was killed many years ago by a hornet sting. The narrator, a portrait artist, meets the mysterious Mr. Menshiki and agrees to paint his portrait even though he is on a sabbatical of sorts. He also paints the young girl’s, Mariye’s, portrait at Menshiki’s—who turns out to be the girl’s biological father—request. Finally, there are a handful of other characters, not the least of which is the commendatore himself, a 2-foot-tall white-clad figure from the painting who describes himself as an ‘Idea.’ [It’s also interesting to note all of the significant men’s last names (as well as Mariye’s and Muro’s first names) in Killing Commendatore begin with ‘M,’ the first letter of author’s own last name.]
So … are you confused enough? The ironic thing is the story is not hard to follow, mainly because of Haruki Marukami’s meticulous world-building. Detail by detail, layer by layer, the narrator tells the story, making it seem very, very realistic (even though it is full of fantastical stuff). What holds it all together, though, and makes us keep reading, is the promise by the commendatore that all of these disparate elements (people, places, times) are related to one another in some way, that all of the things depicted in Tomohiko’s painting are, perhaps, metaphors for important things in the main characters’ lives.
And that’s where I’ll leave you. I don’t want to spoil the novel (and, I’m not quite finished it yet myself). I’ll add a postscript explaining what I think it all means in a little bit. Only read that if you’ve finished the novel (or, alternatively) decided to abandon it. Overall, though, I give the novel 5 stars, because although it’s extremely long (800 pp?—it’s hard to tell on the kindle) it held my attention and made me want to keep reading it, in fact, to find out what it all means.
PS – SPOILER ALERT:
Okay. I haven’t finished it yet, but here are some pieces of the puzzle: Mariye is a metaphor/doppelganger/parallel of the narrator’s dead 12-year-old sister, toward whom he has unresolved feeling of great sadness. Her dead mother is a metaphor for two women—Yuzu, the narrator’s ex-wife, who’s currently pregnant with another man’s child. She is also the woman Menshiki, the mysterious white-haired millionaire from across the mountain, had an affair with and impregnated on their final night together (by Mariye’s mother’s design). Do all these women refer back to Donna Anna? I’m not sure, because I’m not familiar with the opera, Don Giovanni. Is Menshiki connected to the mysterious white-haired man emerging from a hole in the ground in Tomohiko’s painting? If so, what does this mean? And the man in the white Subaru forester who keeps popping up—is he another metaphor for Menshiki and the white-haired man in the painting? Watch this space for some more thoughts about all this after I’ve finished the novel!
Finished—finally. Thank heavens Haruki Murakami is such a good writer, otherwise a book this length, full of this much repetitive detail, would have been tedious, to say the least. But I liked it, and, in the end, it worked for me. Here’s my take on it: the painting depicting the killing of the commandatore is a metaphor for all sorts of transformation/journeys/realizations in the book. And the pit it depicts is a metaphor for the real pit in the narrator’s backyard as well as the personal deep, dark hole each of the main characters—the narrator, Menshiki and Mariye—needs to go through to grow. Menshiki in the real pit, the narrator in his journey underground from the nursing home, and Mariye in Menshiki’s basement. And all of them grow—Menshiki meets his daughter and finds a mate, Mariye’s aunt, Shoko; the narrator reunites with Yuzu and has a daughter with her, Muro; and Mariye connects with her long-dead mother via her evocative clothes, filling an emotional gap in her life. She also literally grows up a bit, eventually sprouting the breast she constantly worries about. So it’s a happy ending all round. Despite it being a long and winding route, all of the main characters have gone through their own, personal dark journeys to get where they needed to be. And the commendatore, both literal and figurative (the one the narrator and Mariye meet as well as the one in Atsuko’s painting), has served his purpose—as a metaphor, a facilitator, for all of his various ‘my friends’ inner journeys.