REVIEW: Killing Commendatore

GARETH LANGDON is a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, but is dismayed by the Japanese master’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore: an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue and simplistic, painstakingly detailed descriptions of everyday events.

Killing Commendatore

An interesting consequence of a move to New York city from “developing” Cape Town, South Africa, is the recognition of what it truly means to be faced with endless opportunity. New York is a big place, with a lot going on, and a lot to choose from, often to the point of option paralysis leading to a not-graceful decline into lonely alcoholism. But let’s keep it light.

In many ways though, the prospect of endless opportunity is more of a fantasy than a reality. Not in the sense that the city doesn’t, in fact, offer many worlds unknown, but rather than being able to actually access those worlds in a tangible way is highly unlikely. Most adult humans have commitments and limitations (importantly, financial limitations, which is especially true in NYC) which will prevent them from exploring, touring, engaging with every nook and cranny of the city in any meaningful way. I mean, some days I have to go and do my laundry, instead of savouring the latest craft brew the city has on offer. The possibility of fantastical escapism becomes narrower and narrower the longer you live in the city, and the more complacent you become with enjoying your simple apartment existence.

I’ve taken NYC here as my example, naturally, as it is where I live at the time of writing, but this could just as easily apply to any of the big and desirable cities in the world, from LA to London to Tokyo, and I think it is simply true of humans that our minds can only handle so much variety before we reflexively begin to narrow things down, cull the excess, or become paralysed by an excess of choice. This is not, however, true of fantastical novels.

Novels are a deliberate choice to move our minds into new worlds, which are truly inaccessible. The same way that someone might choose to read about NYC when living in rural Somalia, as a means of fantasist escape, so too someone who lives in NYC may want to read about Narnia or Middle Earth – that is to say, we are forever grasping for the unknown, believing there must be more, and are by nature, restless explorers. So naturally, you can imagine, to indulge my escapist urge and explore beyond the stresses of moving to NYC from Cape Town, as a salve for the anxiety of actually exploring when I really needed to focus on paying the bills, I spent an unnecessary $30 on Haruki Murakami’s newest, Killing Commendatore.

The novel follows the events of what appears to be only a few months in the life of a 36-year-old painter, who is never named. After a surprise divorce, he escapes to the mountains of rural Japan to live in the former home of famed painter, Tomohiko Amada, a fortune he comes by as a result of studying at art school with Amada’s son. During his time at the house, he comes across a hidden painting in the attic depicting a medieval scene of a murder, inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni but adapted into the Japanese style by Amada himself. The painting’s unearthing (or rather, de-atticing) leads to several supernatural events assaulting the tranquil escape that the narrator had been seeking, including the autonomous ringing of a bell in a black pit behind the house, the appearance of one of the characters in the painting — a two foot tall, strange talking fellow — and the eventual crossing into other worlds by way of aforementioned pit. There is also a lot of listening to records, making and eating of breakfast, vivid depictions of emotionless sex, and painting.

On the face of it, the novel is about a man’s attempt to escape the realities of his life — a failed relationship, and unfulfilling career as a commissioned portrait artist, apparently poor financial prospects — only to find himself drifting further and further away from the actual, physical realms of earthly reality. As much as the narrator attempts to tether himself to reality by buying groceries and listening over and over again to the same classical LPs, he is inexorably drawn to something other, something outside. This exhortation to the fantastical, I would argue, is analogous to the protagonist’s (and perhaps the 70-year old author’s?) own desire to escape life as he knows it and find something better. This is nothing new in Murakami’s work, all of which is perhaps known for, and successful because of, its artful juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane. Unfortunately, Killing Commendatore does not succeed in the careful balancing act required to pull this off.

What I found in Killing Commendatore was an overwrought 700 pages of trite dialogue, simplistic, prosaic description in painstaking detail of everyday events, and that same simplicity and triteness sloppily applied to the fantastical. I’m not sure if it is something that has been lost in the translation, or if this a deliberate manoeuvre on the part of the author to trick or perhaps communicate something deeper at the level of syntax to the reader, but the fact remains that it falls utterly flat. Far from providing me, a newcomer in a scarily large city at a new stage in life, or indeed the protagonist, himself in his own peril, with an escape, instead it left me feeling uncomfortable at the level of language I was expected to simply accept from a world-renowned master of the art of novel writing. It was for me, to paraphrase another critic, the kind of experience that made me feel embarrassed on behalf of Murakami himself.

What alternative explanations could there be for this lapse in judgement? Was the author rushed to produce this? Or is shitty translation the culprit: were the translators unable to accurately capture the Japanese as English, with symbolism lost in translation? Or is there something more insidious at play here, something deliberate, something cunning?

I remember once I attended a graduate seminar in which one of the papers on review was about Coetzee’s (bleh) Childhood of Jesus. Several days prior to this conference, I had myself read and scathingly reviewed the novel (also on account of the disappointingly third-grader level of language), and was curious to get the insight of a vastly more qualified academic on the matter. His general theory was that — get this — Coetzee was now so good and qualified to write well, that he had subverted the medium to the point where average writing was actually a sign of greater talent — he was beyond being any good, and could dismantle language to the point of it being what, at first glance, looked like crap. So in this conception, Coetzee had made some Picasso-esque move to regress himself to a child-like wielding of his form to send some kind of message, either about language itself or about his excellence as a writer. And so, do we find ourselves here again with another writer, Murakami, arrogantly thinking that he can get away with it?

Now, fair enough. Writers strip down and play with the form of the novel all the time, all the way through its history some would argue. But there is a limit. To continue the analogy of Picasso, his brilliance was that, even though the image was distorted, and child-like (his words) and perhaps indiscernible, it still formed a cohesive and striking whole. It was something beautiful to look at. Furthermore, you can get away with this as a visual artist, because it takes a split second to take in an image, and its colours, and to allow the effect to wash over you. But it takes a commitment of many hours (days even) to read a novel, and my feeling is that subjecting a reader, who out of reverence paid good money to buy your book and escape to some world other than their own, is borderline sadistic.

Now, I’d hate for this to become a rant about the obligations of writer to reader (there probably aren’t any) or to end up somewhere down the rabbit-hole of “I paid you, so you owe me” because we all know that is a slippery slope. But who isn’t upset when they fork over for their favourite band’s new album, or their favourite director’s new movie, only to leave feeling hurt, disappointed, and frankly, disinclined to favourably review said artist in an article?

I’d love to spend more time here dissecting the story of Killing Commendatore, its many metaphors, ideas, concepts etc, but really, it was so difficult and tiring to wade my way through the prose that I don’t even have the energy left to do so. All I can really see myself doing is going back and re-reading IQ84 or Hard-boiled Wonderland in the hope that I’ll discover that I was right — that Murakami is actually pretty good, and I still like him.

Killing Commendatore really does feel like Murakami’s difficult second album, his very own midlife crisis, a little blip in his past, and I think it is best that we, like a blighted lover, forgive him and try to move on.

Killing Commendatore is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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