“Killing Commendatore” is prototypical Murakami—magic realism meets philosophical quandary meets spirituality meets self-awareness—enveloped in a highly unique story with a range of characters.
The protagonist, whose name we are never told, is a talented artist who has been wasting his talents painting portraits. Although his talents might be wasted, his skill is apparent in his ability to capture not just a person’s likeness, but his (almost always HIS) essence.
After living in Tokyo with his wife, Yuzu for six years, Yuzu announces that she wants a divorce. This separation sets off an almost 9 month course of events that teaches our narrator who he is and what he wants from life.
Our narrator leaves the apartment he shared with Yuzu and drives around for almost a month before he settles in to a house offered to him by his friend Masahiko Amada, in the mountains outside Odawara. The house had been previously inhabited by Amada’s father, the renowned artist Tomohiko Amada. Tomohiko Amada was best known for his Japanese-style painting. The 90 year old Tomohiko is in a nursing home where he is suffering from dementia.
During the almost eight months that our narrator lives in the house, a lot happens (861 pages worth). He hears a noise in the attic and discovers a hidden painting, Killing Commendatore. The painting, one of Tomohiko’s, depicts what at first glance appears to be a scene from the opera Don Giovanni. It is the finest painting the narrator has ever seen and infuses him with an unsated curiosity about Tomohiko Amada. We do learn that Tomohiko had spent the late 1930s in Vienna and had been involved in an unsuccessful assassination plot leaving others in grave danger. His family’s connections and wealth enabled him to return to Japan without physical injury. The painting, we learn, has something to do with that time, and various characters in the painting come alive throughout the story.
In the meantime, the narrator meets a neighbor, Wataru Menshiki, who lives alone in a white mansion up the mountain. Menshiki, in his mid-50s and with a full head of shocking white hair, commissions the narrator to paint his portrait. The portrait reflects his essence rather than his physical self and Menshiki is satisfied. But it appears that Menshiki, who is very wealthy and has a mysterious past, wants something more from our narrator.
The narrator takes to teaching art classes two nights a week, one adult class and one children’s class. Through the adult class he takes a lover and through the children’s class (and a few other steps which I cannot divulge), he befriends a young girl, Mariye. He and Mariye become friendly when the narrator commences to paint her portrait. Mariye’s beautiful aunt, Shoko, becomes romantically involved with Menshiki.
For a couple of nights in a row the narrator hears a bell and one night goes out into the forest to find a shrine. The ringing seems to be coming from underground, beneath the shrine. With Menshiki’s help they arrange to remove layers of stones and discover a well like pit, with an old antique bell at the bottom. It is unclear how anyone could have been ringing the bell. The pit and the bell become an important part of the story.
At one point in the novel, Mariye and the narrator disappear at the same time. The narrator is pulled into an underworld and Mariye’s disappearance is a mystery. When they return, each shares the story only with the other. Through these stories we learn a little about a lot–or maybe a lot about a little, I am not sure!
There is a lot of Japanese history in the novel, a lot of music and a bit of sex. And weirdly, there is a Cleveland Indians baseball cap!
The novel addresses the depths of art, loneliness, spirituality, relationships and life’s very inexplicable complexities. There are ideas and metaphors personified, each sharing life’s invaluable lessons. The personified idea at one point comments, that “What is important is not creating something out of nothing. What my friends need to do is discover the right thing from what is already there”. The metaphor, who is not really all that bright, has no words of wisdom, although he does warn our narrator about the perils of double metaphors.
When you read Murakami you feel like you can almost grasp the meaning of life in his story, but he always leaves it just outside your reach. That said, while Murakami’s failure to bring you to that promised enlightenment is disappointing, the journey is still a blast! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.