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FICTION: MURAKAMI’S BLANK SPACES

December 30, 2018

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A tapestry fragment dating to the Asuka period. At the heart of Murakami’s novel is a painting depicting characters from a Western opera, but in the Asuka style of Japanese art | Public Domain
A tapestry fragment dating to the Asuka period. At the heart of Murakami’s novel is a painting depicting characters from a Western opera, but in the Asuka style of Japanese art | Public Domain

Haruki Murakami always draws polarising reactions from his readers because he leaves plenty to their imagination — which can be a rather exasperating experience. His work is also notoriously difficult to classify, because he defies the usual norms of both high-brow and low-brow genres. With Killing Commendatore, his latest novel, he doesn’t seem to be striving to violently propel his readers into his surrealistic world, but is rather content with giving them a gentle nudge.

In fact, it can be argued that here he finally brings to balance the melancholic realism of Norwegian Wood and the phantasmagoric worlds of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84. In this new tome of a novel, the hero embarks on an artistic quest to discover his Real Self, an Idea comes to life, a serpentine Double Metaphor takes the hero to the Underworld, a mysterious man’s spying over one of his neighbours has catastrophic consequences and a teenage girl with an extraordinary talent for interpreting complex paintings goes missing.

Our unnamed narrator is a 36-year-old painter with an unusual talent for capturing the essence of a person in portraits. His wife of six years has recently left him without any explanation. Now he is living alone in the house of a famous Japanese painter in a remote valley and trying to discover his own unique painting style. Much like other Murakami protagonists, he is a meticulous, whisky-drinking, neatly dressed man who finds it hard to open up, but is much valued as a good listener and friend by his friends and acquaintances alike.

Master novelist Haruki Murakami’s latest book, at its core, is about the melancholic nature of the creative process but, as usual, there is plenty left unsaid

Many of Murakami’s protagonists are attracted to women who are not beautiful in any obvious sense, but have one unique feature that draws these men in. It could be argued that these men are more attracted to the woman’s overall personality rather than her body. In the case of our unnamed narrator in Killing Commendatore, it is his wife Yuzu’s eyes hiding a deep world beyond time that he wants to draw.

As an idealistic fresh graduate, the narrator wanted to paint abstract art, but ended up painting commercial portraits — a compromise that made him feel like a sell-out artist or “a high-priced prostitute.” For Murakami, the delicate harmony of inner peace and worldly pursuits is of utmost importance. Many of his characters describe an inner void or emptiness that they seek to fill; for example, Killing Commendatore opens with a prologue starring a Faceless Man and the possibility of capturing “nothingness” in a painting.

The narrator is aware that what he was pursuing in his youth was only mere “form”, but there was no soulful depth to his art. He feels as though he was born with a blind spot that kept him from understanding things properly. It was as if he had taken a wrong turn in life that messed everything up, leaving him waiting desperately for some kind of inner breakthrough.

Murakami also has a great fascination for borders, boundaries and meeting points for two opposing realities. Often these two realities converge, only to reveal the truth of not just the narrator’s life, but also of life itself. But before this convergence takes place, the narrator goes through a thorough upheaval that overthrows the apparent balance of his reality.

In Killing Commendatore, not one, but three events lead the narrator to a dizzying journey of self-discovery. The first event takes place immediately after he moves to the famous Japanese painter Tomohiko Amada’s house as a tenant. Hidden in the attic, with only a sleeping horned owl for company, he discovers an unknown painting of Tomohiko titled ‘Killing Commendatore’. He is struck by the violent nature of the painting which portrays a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, except rendered in Japanese watercolours where the characters are dressed in the fashion of the Asuka period. The narrator soon becomes obsessed with the painting and spends hours on end simply staring at it. He also begins reading more about Tomohiko who, after studying Western-style painting in Vienna, re-emerged as a Japanese-style artist after the Second World War. This contrast between Western and Japanese art is one the recurring motifs of the book.

Between teaching classes at the local art school, occasionally sleeping with some women and staring at the painting ‘Killing Commendatore’, the narrator accepts a portrait commission from Menshiki, a mysterious, extremely rich, Jaguar-driving neighbour. The process of painting this enigmatic man with his amazingly white hair and firm handshake helps him recover from his artist’s block and bring to life his own unique style. He discerns a solitude hidden behind Menshiki’s handsome, smiling face. Before the narrator discovers Menshiki’s hidden agenda, every night, at the exact same time, the protagonist hears the ringing of a bell from a strange circular pit in the woods. These are the three catalysts that usher our narrator into a slippery reality as things ripple out of control. Soon the narrator comes to realise that it is not just the physical world around him that has gone awry, but his consciousness has also entered a strange realm with no strong foothold: “Like the objects and events in constant flux, or perhaps in opposition to them, what should have been a fixed yardstick inside the framework of my memory seemed instead to be in perpetual motion.”

Much like Japanese paintings, Murakami’s writing is enchantingly rich in symbolism and metaphor. Take, for instance, his description of the house where the narrator is living: “The house was built right on the boundary line, so often it would be sunny out in front while heavy rain fell in back. At first I found this disconcerting, but as I got used to it, it came to seem natural.”

You might wonder what makes Killing Commendatore different from Murakami’s earlier books. Has he reached that dreaded point of a successful career where every new piece of writing is a rehashing of previous works? Despite the many recurring motifs, Killing Commendatore has a unique plot and many new themes that make it a pure delight to read. Intimacy, pleasure, solitude, freedom, love, free will and faith are some of its most important themes.

The notion that Ideas have an independent life of their own is another strong narrative as well as thematic element, which sets the novel apart from Murakami’s previous works. “Ideas possess nothing like morality. Ideas are an entirely neutral concept, neither good nor bad. It all depends on how humans use them. In which case Ideas can have a beneficial effect in some cases, and a negative effect in others.”

Killing Commendatore is, at its core, about the melancholic nature of the creative process and the idea that artistic creation is a sort of exchange between the subject and the painter. Moreover, Murakami’s detailed analysis of the difference between traditional Japanese painting and modern European painting is among the highlights of the book. Japanese painting excels at the use of blank space that accentuates that which was indeed painted. Murakami’s novels, in a somewhat similar fashion, leave plenty unsaid. However, that lends to the complex beauty of his writing.

The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer

Killing Commendatore
By Haruki Murakami
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-1787300194
681pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 30th, 2018