Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Reference, Repetition and Literary Stardom: Haruki Murakami's Killing Commendatore

by Eli K.P. William

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Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore, Shinchosha Publishing, 2017. 1048 pgs.


Readers of Haruki Murakami in English who are interested in his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, are faced with the unfortunate fact that reviewers capable of fairly evaluating his work are all but impossible to find.

Those with enough knowledge of modern Japanese literature to adequately contextualise his work tend to dismiss it off hand. From the perspective of these discriminating experts, if Murakami was ever relevant at all, he left his mark on Japanese letters way back in the 80s and 90s. Ever since, he has become a commercial writer for the global masses, and it is a foregone conclusion that his new releases are not worth serious consideration.

Then there are Murakami's die-hard fans, sometimes called "Harukists" (a term no doubt invented by one of his publicists). While some may be knowledgeable about Japanese literature, all are too prejudiced by their unconditional worship to acknowledge potential flaws. The way Murakami is marketed overseas is partly to blame for this cult of personality (for example, visit his American homepage to find out "what Murakami eats, drinks and listens to while he writes"). Seen as an artist who channels his stories spontaneously from some deep place in his mind without any conscious planning, his work is no more open to criticism for the fan than the visions of a prophet for the believer.

Admittedly, there are a few academics who view him with a more impartial eye, but their evaluations are mostly of interest to a specialised audience, leaving the rest of us not knowing whose opinion to trust. This critical dilemma makes one sceptical about the possibility of writing anything worthwhile about Haruki Murakami—especially since it is sometimes challenging to be honest with oneself about which camp one falls into. Still, there can't be any harm in trying.

Although no announcements have been made about when Murakami's latest novel, kishidancho goroshi, will be translated, the cover already bears the English title Killing Commendatore. As is standard with recent Murakami novels, all details were kept secret until the day of its release (February 24, 2017), and the author made no public comment beforehand, but he has since stated his intentions in an interview for several major newspapers, including the Asahi and Mainichi. Killing Commendatore was reportedly inspired by two ideas: the character Commendatore from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni and the setting of a mountaintop in rural Odawara.

The protagonist goes unnamed and is simply referred to in the first person. This would seem to signal a return to the almost exclusively first person narrative style of Murakami's earlier work, which began to change with Kafka on the Shore (2002)—told half in first-person and half in third—and which was completely abandoned in IQ84 (2009)—told entirely in third person. However, unlike English with its "I," Japanese has several first-person pronouns, and whereas his early novels mostly employed the masculine "boku" the narrator of Killing Commendatore uses the more formal "watashi."

The narrator/protagonist watashi is a professional portrait painter with a particular knack for distilling the unseen essence of his subjects into his paintings. After a mysterious prologue in which he struggles hopelessly to produce the portrait of a faceless man, the story is framed as a tale about a nine-month gap in the narrator's relationship with his wife, in which they separated and then reconciled.

When his wife informs him suddenly that she's been having an affair and wants a divorce, the narrator immediately leaves their house in Tokyo to embark on a road trip. This journey spans Niigata and Hokkaido, as well as towns along the Tohoku coast that the author reportedly drove through in 2015. However, the Tohoku of the novel is a halcyon version of what it is today, as the story takes place prior to the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown triple-disaster that devastated the region.

After some weeks on the road, the narrator takes up residence in a house on a mountain in Odawara that used to be the home and studio of his best friend's father, Tomohiko Amada, a famous painter now retired to a geriatric facility with severe dementia. After settling into a quiet life of listening to classical records, teaching painting in the nearby town and sleeping with a local married woman (named simply "girlfriend" as in IQ84), the narrator soon discovers in the attic an unknown painting of Amada's entitled "Killing Commendatore." Painted in Japanese style, it depicts a gory murder involving four figures who, although dressed in ancient Asuka Era (538–710 CE) attire, nonetheless represent characters from Don Giovanni. The eponymous Commendatore is being stabbed in the heart by Don Giovanni as Donna Anna and Leporello look on in horror. A fourth character not from the opera—who is described as having a stretched out face "like a bent eggplant"—is peeking out from a half-open hatch in the ground.

The discovery of this painting triggers a gradual shift from realism to surrealism reminiscent of numerous Murakami stories. One by one, strange events unfold and strange new characters are summoned who bear relations, symbolic or otherwise, to the painting. First the narrator is awoken by the sound of a bell ringing night after night and eventually searches the property to find it emanating from beneath a pile of rocks near a small Shinto shrine. Around the same time, Wataru Menshiki—a handsome, white-haired, retired IT tycoon who lives in the mansion on an adjacent slope—hires the narrator to paint his portrait and the two soon become friends.

When Menshiki hears the bell for himself, he is reminded of a short story in Ueda Akinari's Edo Era (1603–1868 CE) collection Tales of The Spring Rain called "The Destiny That Spanned Two Lifetimes." It is about a farmer who hears a mysterious bell from underground and digs up the spot to find an incredibly emaciated monk sitting inside. As Menshiki explains, this is a reference to a Japanese tantric Buddhist practice in which a monk starves himself, enters a tomb and reads sutras while ringing a prayer bell, thereby reaching nirvana and becoming a mummy called a sokushinbutsu.

With Menshiki's funding, they hire professional landscapers to dig out the rocks and unearth a mysterious lidded chamber. The head landscaper suggests it might have been a well, though the diameter is deemed too wide. Perhaps it is indeed a sokushinbutsu tomb, though no one, mummified monk or otherwise, awaits inside. Only an ancient bell rests on the floor, and they are at a loss to explain how anyone could have been in the buried chamber to ring it.

After the narrator brings the bell into Amada's studio, he is visited by Commendatore, a two-foot-tall man who is identical to the character being murdered in the painting. There is some suggestion he is the missing mummy, but Commendatore admits he isn't sure and introduces himself as an "idea" that has incarnated in this body out of convenience. It is never made clear what sort of idea Commendatore might represent, inviting the reader to fill in the semantic lacuna with interpretation, much as the sheep in A Wild Sheep Chase serves as a symbolic moving target that resists stable signification. Although his main role in the plot is as a sort of spirit guide who assists the narrator in various ways, he also provides comic relief, with his telepathy, stilted dialog, habit of calling the narrator "gentlemen" as though there were many of him and ability to "vanish incrementally like the Cheshire Cat" from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Murakami's works are well known to be rife with such explicit references, and the intertextuality does not stop here. Although Murakami has stated that the character of Menshiki is an homage to the Great Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel of that name, "girlfriend" explicitly compares him to Bluebeard from Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartok. The scenario of a mysterious bell sounding from a mummy's tomb playfully conjures the gothic mood of this Hungarian opera before the narrator is invited for a feast at Menshiki's mansion/castle to celebrate the completion of his portrait. Much later, Akikawa Marie, an eccentric but precocious adolescent who may be Menshiki's daughter, opens door after door in the mansion to expose the secret wardrobe of Menshiki's past lover just as Judith opens doors to uncover the ghoulish truth of Bluebeard's wives.

In order to save Marie, who has disappeared, the narrator must kill Commendatore and follow the long-faced man from the painting down Metaphor Way into a land where the distinction between analogy and ontology, between what something is like and what it is, breaks down, much as Alice follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. There he meets the faceless man and Donna Anna, an embodied analogy for the narrator's dead kid sister, Komichi, who leads him to the symbolic rebirth of reunion with his wife and literal birth in the form of a daughter, Muro, that may or may not be his.

A recent Japan Times review (which predictably wishes Murakami wrote as he did in the 80s and 90s) complained that Killing Commendatore is heavy on exposition and sometimes "reads like Wikipedia." Although this is no doubt hyperbole, Menshiki does have a tendency to lecture, as in the case of the sokushinbutsu, and one wonders whether the author is still adjusting to switching from third person, in which details can be explained more naturally through the narrative voice. Some readers like me may find the more than four-page-long discussion between Menshiki and Marie's aunt on the finer points of different models of Jaguar and the Toyota Prius an excruciating tangent. The author's decision to tell his readers about his new hobby seems out of place in his fiction, which, if it has any consistent message, valorises a turn away from consumerism to seek personal transformation in a life of non-technological isolation.

A more widely reported complaint that applies to many of his recent novels is excessive repetition. One kind of repetition is that which can be found within each story as similar events are rehashed again and again. For example, the hole in the ground is described, discussed in the same way in dialog and then recalled later. When the narrator takes another look at the hole, another description follows, that description is likewise recalled and so on, with such cycles repeating more than ten times in some cases.

This repetitive style can be understood as a side effect of Murakami's shift from jazz to classical as his primary musical source of inspiration. As is well known, Murakami is a jazz aficionado who operated a jazz bar prior to becoming a novelist and claims to have learnt much about writing by listening to jazz. While jazz can involve repetition of a theme, improvisation ensures that it sounds different each time and makes each rendition surprising and fresh. Similarly, the prose of his early stories has a certain jazzy rhythm, and their plots take unpredictable, often absurd, twists as exemplified best perhaps by Dance Dance Dance (1994). Classical music, on the other hand, often involves consistent repetition of a theme, identically or nearly identically each time without improvisation. The enduring cultural importance of classical music demonstrates that such repetition works in music, but its effectiveness in the very different medium of the written story is a different question. While the recurrence of musical phrases helps induce emotional involvement in the song or composition, recurrent mentions of the same narrative events become redundant fast and eventually encourage skimming.

However, this problem is unlikely to bother international readers as Murakami's longer works are usually significantly shortened due to differences in editing customs. While editors everywhere may be hesitant to tamper with the manuscript of a bestselling author, Japanese editors tend to have a less hands-on approach than American ones, the latter being conscious of the greater demand for concision in their market. As one example, in an appendix of Huraki Murakami and The Music of Words (2002, 2005) called "Translating Murakami," Jay Rubin discusses the controversy surrounding his "adaptation" of The Windup Bird Chronicle (1994–1995), which some suggested should be labelled "abridged." Since Killing Commendatore will likely go through a comparable trimming process when translated into English, from which it will be translated into many other languages, eager fans abroad need not fret about the above complaint (although those hoping for a complete translation will undoubtedly be disappointed).

A more contentious issue, which transcends publishing cultures, is repetition across stories. This is succinctly expressed by Murakami Bingo. A number of trademark motifs are repeated throughout Murakami's corpus, and already in this review, we have encountered a well, something vanishing, old records, supernatural powers, another world, a precocious teenager, a secret passage and a faceless man. Other familiar elements include an unusual name (Menshiki), cooking (the narrator cooks for himself), weird sex (between Menshiki and his old flame, between the narrator and his wife, etc.), a historical flashback (the painter Amada's experience of Anschluss) and several mysterious women, not to mention a woman choked in a hotel room, chino pants and plenty of whiskey drinking.

According to Murakami in past interviews, certain images repeat themselves in his work inevitably because he writes by channelling his imagination without plotting or outlining in advance, producing the only sort of work that he as an individual can. He compares this to the fact that John Irving often has protagonists who are deformed or disfigured in some way. There is no way to explain the recurrence of these images. They arise simply from who these writers are as unique human beings.

However, from the perspective of critics such as Tim Parks and Stephen Snyder, these can be viewed as crowd-pleasing formulas. In this light, Murakami is a calculating businessman, intentionally churning out the same story again and again to match expectations. The fact that his example is John Irving, another literary author of lasting commercial success, may be telling.

Against these critics, fans might challenge the supposition that his stories are formulaic and point to signs of his work evolving in Killing Commendatore. Already noted is the shift to the watashi first-person narrative mode, which, according to Murakami, signals an evolution in his writing. Setting aside the question of whether this truly marks a significant development, if the watashi trend continues one can certainly imagine Murakami's posthumous scholars dividing the early, middle and late periods of his oeuvre by narrative mode. Therefore, this novel could one day be classified as his first late work.

Another change is having a protagonist who is a painter. The profession of previous protagonists has rarely served as more than backstory, whereas here it is integral to the plot, as he begins to create his own paintings that take on a metaphysical life. I would argue also that references to other texts and music play a different role here, with Alice in Wonderland, the sokushinbutsu tale and the two operas discussed above woven explicitly into the narrative rather than being mentioned in passing as usual.

The most striking change perhaps is that this novel has a resolution! I will not give anything further away, but in spite of a few lingering ambiguities, such as the significance of the Tohoku earthquake mentioned at the end, we are treated to possibly the most tightly wrapped conclusion we could hope for from an author well known for leaving his stories open. (This is assuming the he does not write an unexpected sequel as he did with the Windup Bird Chronicle, which he admits is a possibility.) Murakami claims that after his trip to disaster-struck areas in Tohoku he felt the need for "a sense of closure" in the narrative as a way of helping Japan find much-needed renewal. Does this novel, therefore, represent renewal in his fiction?

Whether disillusioned critic or fan, I think most readers will agree that Killing Commendatore is neither a revolution in Murakami's writing nor an ossified stereotype. Yet such agreement says little about how the novel will be evaluated overall by either side. Though we might try to answer the question by tallying the repetitions against the innovations, whichever list turns out to be longer, some will find formulas where others find shining nuggets of genius beyond reproach, and this split in opinion is determined more by our preconceptions about the author and his prior work than anything to be found in this particular text.

It seems to me that this polarisation of critical prejudice mirrors the paradoxical figure of the literary bestseller that Murakami has become. As a literary author annually rumoured to be a Nobel candidate, he is expected to prioritise the artistic integrity of his work above all else, while as a popular content producer, he is beholden to the demands of the global publishing industry. However, it is just as unrealistic to believe artists are unswayed to some degree by the desire for fortune as it is to assume that they (or anyone else) can predict to what degree regurgitating former glories will guarantee ongoing high sales. Rather, irrespective of how much they might value aesthetic principles or profit respectively, authors usually picture an audience during the process of writing, and it would be natural for that imagined audience to grow as their actual readership expands. When trying to satisfy millions of people in dozens of countries with widely varying tastes and cultures, perhaps it is hard to avoid falling on a conservative strategy, whether consciously or unconsciously.

A similar creative conservatism is depicted in Killing Commendatore, where, over the course of the story, the narrator starts off in the lucrative business of portrait painting and shifts to painting more original work as his life goes off kilter before returning in the end to the portraits he knows best. In this light, the novel can also be read as Murakami's reflection on the novelist as a profession (the title of his 2015 collection of essays on the craft of writing) and the relation between writing and business, or on the nature of the artist and perception of their art more generally.

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