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Killing Commendatore

Review

Killing Commendatore

written by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

It begins with the narrator waking up from a nap to view a large, faceless man in a long dark coat who is just sitting there staring at him. Readers might instantly be thinking, "Uh oh, this is going to be one of those novels.” However, this imagery is not in the least bit bizarre and is actually a beautiful moment. Those who are fortunate enough to see their way through to the end of this beguiling 700-page work will be rewarded with this and dozens of other indelible images the book plants in your brain.

Throughout his prolific writing career, Haruki Murakami has shown a mastery of the written word. His prose is not challenging yet effortlessly produces ideas, passages and images that linger long after the written words have been absorbed. KILLING COMMENDATORE is yet another example of how he is able to take a Japanese story and infuse it with so many Western references and ideas that the novel easily could have been set in Northern California or New England rather than a wooded mountain community outside of Tokyo.

I was so absorbed in the story that I didn't realize until I was several chapters in that we never learn the narrator’s name. He is still reeling from a six-year marriage that has ended in divorce, pending the final signatures on the divorce decree. The narrator is a painter who is seeking the solace of quietude and a space that will allow him to get his creative juices flowing once again.

"...[a] beguiling 700-page work... KILLING COMMENDATORE is an unforgettable read that is sure to rack up accolades and awards."

His friend, Masahiko, rents him a home all alone on the top of a mountain that had belonged to Tomohiko Amada, Masahiko’s father. This semi-famous painter is now wasting away in a rest home and waiting for the end of his mortal existence. A couple of months after moving into the new residence, the narrator discovers a painting hidden under wrap in the closet of the room that acts as an art studio. It is entitled Killing Commendatore and depicts a dual in which the ill-fated Commendatore is being skewered by the rapier of his opponent, complete with plenty of blood and horrified expressions on the faces of onlookers. The narrator wonders why this piece was never displayed or made public. Nevertheless, it inspires him to jump back into his own work and begin taking on personal portrait appointments.

His first client is Menshiki, an extremely wealthy gentleman who lives within sight of the narrator. During the many sessions and hours spent in each other's company, the two men get to know each other better and share secrets. Menshiki divulges that he has fathered a girl who lives nearby, but she has no idea who he is. Thirteen-year-old Mariye just happens to be a student in one of the local art classes the narrator teaches. Menshiki encourages him to do a portrait of her, giving him an opportunity to drop by “accidentally on purpose” so he can be near her. He also begins a relationship with Mariye's aunt, who is caring for her, as he decides how to go about revealing the truth about himself to her.

Meanwhile, Menshiki and the narrator come across a mysterious hole behind a trench on Menshiki's property that seems to hold many secrets. The first item claimed from the hole is an old-style bell that mysteriously starts ringing in the middle of the night. This is hardly the most bizarre thing to happen to the narrator. One night, he is walking through his home when he sees a miniature man sitting on his sofa. The approximately two-foot-tall person is an exact replica of the Commendatore from Tomohiko's painting. The Commendatore begins a conversation with the narrator and thus starts the part of the novel that is fully through the looking glass and firmly in the realm of the fantastical.

Ironically, the narrator thinks about his sister, who was three years his junior and passed away tragically when she was only 12. He recalls how she had a sixth sense about her own mortality and began saying the strangest things. At one point, she informed him that Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and all the denizens of Lewis Carroll's book were actually based on real people who once existed. Having that experience with her makes his own conversations with the Commendatore that much easier to accept at face value.

The Commendatore ends up having a much higher purpose when Mariye suddenly goes missing. The diminutive figure informs the narrator that he represents an Idea and that the answer to discovering what happened to Mariye and where she went will require the narrator to take a journey into the realm of Metaphors, where it is quite possible he may never return. Murakami inserts these passages so seamlessly into the rest of the narrative that readers can completely accept what is happening without question and enjoy the suspense created by the journey the narrator must take to save Mariye.

I've seen some descriptions of KILLING COMMENDATORE that refers to it as a “loving homage to THE GREAT GATSBY,” but this comparison doesn’t really resonate with me. The narrator is renting a place near a wealthy man, but our protagonist is no Nick Carraway, and Mariye is definitely not Daisy Buchanan. If anything, I can make a stronger case for comparing the book’s fantastical elements to Lewis Carroll's ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Like this wonderful story, it would make for a great book group discussion.

KILLING COMMENDATORE is an unforgettable read that is sure to rack up accolades and awards. It already has been shortlisted on Goodreads for Best Fiction of 2018, and I am proud to say that it has my vote.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 21, 2018

Killing Commendatore
written by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

  • Publication Date: October 9, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 052552004X
  • ISBN-13: 9780525520047