Aria Grande

Killing Commendatore: A novel BY Haruki Murakami. Knopf. Hardcover, 704 pages. $30.

I first heard the name Haruki Murakami as an undergraduate in Madison, Wisconsin, when a bandmate handed me a frayed paperback, saying it was “pretty rad Japanese cyberpunk.” The warring cells of Calcutecs and Semiotecs in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World did seem like they might have come out of early William Gibson, but the book wasn’t really science fiction at all. Sci-fi marvels are usually explained by some ingenious techno-MacGuffin; H. G. Wells’s Time Traveler, to take a canonical example, waves his hands at some glimmering quartz cylinders at the center of his machine to explain how he gets himself into the future. Murakami’s marvels, by contrast, are blunt givens, closer to Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself transformed into a huge beetle, or a frog turning into a prince. His novels contain no explanation as to why there are two moons, or how a cat can talk, or how a woman may get pregnant from dreaming, or, to take an example from the Murakami paperback my bandmate had turned me on to, how there can be a secret laboratory hidden behind a waterfall under Tokyo, which (I recall thinking) was indeed rad.

Over the next twenty years new Murakami novels showed up like issues of a mysterious magazine—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, The Strange Library, 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Together they formed a closed world of recurring obsessions, all conveyed with the casual surrealism of a fairy tale. Murakami’s latest, Killing Commendatore, is similarly skewed and hermetic. It is told in the first person by an unnamed portrait painter in the aftermath of a chastening divorce, living alone in a mountain retreat lent to him by a friend. After some investigation, the guest finds out that the friend’s father, who once lived in the house, had studied art in Vienna in 1938, where he had taken part in an assassination attempt on a Nazi official shortly after the Anschluss. The plot failed, and the student was arrested and sent back to Japan. At which point, he painted a tableau of a murder, titled Killing Commendatore, which our narrator discovers hidden away in the attic of the mountain house. The painting is vintage Murakami, jam-packed with cultural references to the point of absurdity: It illustrates a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the style of Asuka-period court life, making it (once the Vienna backstory is factored in) an eighteenth-century German-Italian opera rendered in the style of seventh-century Japan, depicting the violence of a twentieth-century fascist regime.

Soon the painting begins to take on supernatural powers. A two-foot-tall replica of the Commendatore materializes as a “pure Idea” and begins having conversations with the narrator, referring to him in the plural as “my friends” and speaking in vaguely militaristic anachronisms (“Affirmative!”), with omniscient access to the narrator’s life (including his sex life) and a penchant for dispensing weird facts that only a magical being could know, for example that dolphins “have the power to put the right or left half of their brain to sleep.” The Commendatore is a charming, ostensibly benevolent figure, a fount of wisdom who sometimes seems to want to help the narrator, and is made to seem almost cute, his tiny frame propped up on a sofa, his legs not long enough to reach the edge. But there is also something unsettling about the Commendatore—his tendency to appear out of thin air and start imperiously philosophizing, and his apparent lack of comprehension of notions such as privacy.

The narrator’s encounter with the figure from the painting is just one facet in this sprawling novel of seven hundred pages, and there are many other intriguing narrative oddities along the way. A bell ringing in a nine-foot circular pit proves to be a portal into another reality (these portals are something of a fixture in Murakami novels: In Kafka on the Shore the portal is a stone; in 1Q84 it’s a service ladder off the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway). A faceless ferryman—in place of a face there is swirling fog—escorts the narrator through a barren, eerily soundless underworld called the Land of Metaphor, where he encounters a similarly diminutive version of Donna Anna from Mozart’s opera. A sinister man in a Yonex baseball hat drives a Subaru and seems to speak directly to the narrator on a telepathic frequency. It all transpires with the quaint spookiness of a Nancy Drew mystery or an ABC Afterschool Special, and there are shades of David Lynch in the tonal combination of absurdism, levity, and menace.

Kelsey Shwetz, I Could If I Wanted To, 2016, oil on canvas, 30 × 24".

While all this may seem like an unmanageably bewildering tangle, Murakami’s first-person prose has a tabulating thoroughness that brings a feeling of calm and control. A sometime translator of Raymond Chandler into Japanese, Murakami often borrows the detective story convention of combing for clues but strips it of its explanatory role, so that the fine-grained noticing becomes a styleless, camera-like neutrality that forms the quotidian wallpaper against which intrusions of the absurd flare up (you find this in Kafka too: When Gregor’s mother sees what’s happened to him she backs into a coffeepot on the kitchen table and we get a close-up of coffee dripping onto a rug). In Killing Commendatore, this style is apparent in the frank and clinical descriptions of sex—bodies are diagrammed, actions and movements inventoried. You also notice it in the obsessive recombinations of cashmere sweaters, khaki pants, windbreakers, and loafers that the characters come equipped with, or in a passage weighing the comparative merits of Subarus, Jaguars, Toyotas, and Volvos. Sometimes Murakami’s allusiveness itself helps to stabilize things, as with the white-haired man of extraordinary wealth who has a background of shady business dealings and lives in a sprawling modernist mansion across the way, an apparent nod to The Great Gatsby (another novel Murakami has translated into Japanese).

Murakami is a fastidious fan of music with appealingly eclectic tastes, and it is not surprising that Don Giovanni should operate in this novel as a window onto an alternate reality (in 1Q84 Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta serves almost as a score to the developing action of the book). In addition to Mozart, Sheryl Crow, Thelonious Monk, Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, Roberta Flack, ABC’s “The Look of Love,” and Bananarama all make appearances in Killing Commendatore. There is a mini-disquisition about the superiority of LPs over CDs, as the narrator, freshly returned from the underworld, puts Bruce Springsteen’s The River on the turntable and notes how, “After ‘Independence Day’ wraps up the A side, you take the record in both hands, turn it over, and carefully lower the stylus. ‘Hungry Heart’ fills the room. . . . Great music should be presented in its proper form.” We even get product placement of high-end audio equipment: The mountain house is stocked with Tannoy Autograph speakers and a Marantz vacuum tube receiver—serious audio-geek stuff and evidence of Murakami’s own fussiness in matters of hi-fi. It’s all part of the recurring fantasy of domestic plenitude that comes up in many of the novels, as if the right bookshelf with the right books on it, the right stereo system with the right library of LPs, the right ingredients for the right meal (yes, this novel has noodles and fresh vegetables and cold beer and good scotch and lovingly procedural accounts of meal prep) might add up to heaven on earth, or even just make life bearable. At the very least, it is more of that orderliness in the prose that functions as a counterforce to Murakami’s (immensely appealing) whimsicality and free-associative narrative approach.

But what about this eighteenth-century German-Italian opera, rendered in the style of seventh-century Japan, standing in cryptically for twentieth-century fascism? Does one just give in and take the bait and enjoy a somewhat labored allegory for Western art getting Japanified (and vice versa) and forming a historical fractal in which Chandler and Fitzgerald are translated into Japanese? And couldn’t this pattern include Murakami’s own English translators (this time Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen) giving his Japanese an all-purpose sheen that has contributed in no small part to the turning of Murakami into a global literary brand? (The branding process comes with some collateral damage: “A chill ran down my spine” is an actual sentence in the book.)

Killing Commendatore is perhaps the first Murakami novel to invite explicit comparison with another writer deeply concerned with Japanese culture and its relation to the West. Kazuo Ishiguro, in his 1986 novel, An Artist of the Floating World, dealt precisely with the idea of a decadent Japanese aesthetics, depicting the “floating world” of prewar Japan and the artist’s fatal compromises with authoritarian political power. Mostly, though, Killing Commendatore centers on the (not at all apolitical) idea of the sacred importance of imaginative freedom. The narrator’s accounts of how his increasingly abstract portraits come slowly into being coincide for the most part with Murakami’s own descriptions of how he writes. “When I start to write,” he told the Paris Review in 2004, “I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come.” Much of the most gripping material in the new novel deals with the mystery of what happens when a person spends time creating alone in a room, as if art itself were an inexplicable intrusion of the supernatural.

In Absolutely on Music, a delightful volume of conversations with conductor Seiji Ozawa, Murakami says that “writing fiction has gradually and naturally given me a better ear. Conversely, you can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music . . . an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.” Those rhythms, in Murakami’s work, almost always involve the serial reconfiguration of a fixed set of modular components: duplications and parallelisms, underground passages, journeys into dark forests where one confronts one’s deepest fears, gothic revelations involving lost daughters and fathers, soap-opera-ish cliff-hangers, insouciant whimsy alongside quotidian catalogues, the occasional lapse into cliché, the allusive needle-drop. . . . To an uncharitably skeptical reader, this might seem formulaic, tilting over into the too-cute, or becoming a version of what James Wood once called “hysterical realism” (maybe Murakami is hysterical surrealism, though that may be redundant). To his credit, Murakami doesn’t show up on the conventional MFA grid (or any critical grid). He’s a loner, has always gone his own way, and has in the process invented an aggregate fictional world of fierce integrity that isn’t like anything else. There is some appealingly outré kick in Murakami’s novels that seems to be beamed to us from a friendly, distant planet. To borrow from the two-foot-tall Commendatore’s mini-lecture about Thelonious Monk: “He did not get those unusual chords as a result of logic or theory. He opened his eyes wide, and scooped those chords out from the darkness of his consciousness.”

Paul Grimstad is a writer and musician living in New York.