Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”Our lives really do seem strange and mysterious when you look back on them. Filled with unbelievably bizarre coincidences and unpredictable, zigzagging developments. While they are unfolding, it’s hard to see anything weird about them, no matter how closely you pay attention to your surroundings. In the midst of the everyday, these things may strike you as simply ordinary things, a matter of course. They might not be logical, but time has to pass before you can see if something is logical.”
Our Narrator for this tale, unnamed, is a gifted portrait painter. He can capture the true inner nature of a subject and is astute enough to understand that people want to see what is best about them revealed. For most of us, who we are goes well beyond what we look like on the surface, and this artist is an expert at capturing those hidden layers in our surface reality.
This life is soon to be a part of his past. We meet the Narrator at the point that his wife Yuzu has just informed him that she wants a divorce. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t want to explain herself. She just wants him to accept what she wants. After six years of marriage, I think anyone who wants to dissolve the union probably owes the other person an explanation. “It’s not you; it’s me” kind of thing at the very least. Our Narrator is puzzled but accepts the situation, packs up his artist’s materials, and goes on a walkabout, or to be more precise a driveabout.
This is a theme in many Haruki Murakami books, the grand quest. The people he meets and the situations he encounters in this brief journey do have a lasting impact on his life, on his art, and the future plot of this novel.
He ends up in a mountain retreat, staying in the house of the respected artist Tomohiko Amada. He is alone up there but finds that he is perfectly suited to a life without people. He can focus on his art and feels inspired to be working in the studio of such a celebrated artist. He is done with portrait work and wants to finally explore art without restrictions. He has created a perfect storm of creativity, and he feels reinvigorated about painting. The question is, how long can the world be held at bay?
The house is like many houses of old people, filled with things from a certain era. Records instead of CDs, for example. Murakami mentions the pure pleasure there is in turning a record over, to listening to songs in order because records used to be carefully arranged to lead a listener in a direction to achieve greater understanding, as the songs built beautifully upon one another. Now, people buy the single they hear on the radio and never listen to the rest of the album. It is a real bastardization of the craft of music. It is consuming without finding the soul behind the music.
Murakami also takes the opportunity to talk about books as well.
”All the books on Mr. Amada’s bookshelf were old, among them a few unusual novels that would be hard to get hold of these days. Works that in the past had been pretty popular but had been forgotten, read by no one. I enjoyed reading this kind of out-of-date novel. Doing so let me share--with this old man I’d never met--the feeling of being left behind by time.”
Readers who have followed my reviews for a long time (I do appreciate your loyalty and your input into what I read) will know, without me saying this, the almost pathological curiosity I have about reading what we can term “lost books.” Books that may have even had a large audience at one time but now are not read at all, or even more enticing, those books that never did find an audience but are actually minor masterpieces. When I dive into these books, I feel like I’m an archaeologist discovering buried treasure that deserves to see the light of day again. How about those fat WW2 books from the 1950s? Many of them have merit and should continue to find new audiences. How about a book like Mortal Leap by MacDonald Harris? This book has been out of print for decades, but it is a seriously entertaining and deep novel that has been...lost.
So for me having an opportunity to explore a personal library that is suspended in time, filled with books from the 1930s, 1950s, or even 1980s, would be as conducive to raising my pulse rate as having Salma Hayek nibble on my neck.
The other part of this quote that really resonates with me is “being left behind by time.” Several of the characters in this novel, even the young girl Mariye Akikawa, who becomes so intricate to the plot, struggle with accepting the importance of gadgets, like cell phones. The pressure for each and every person on the planet to own and pay those alarming, high fees for service is frankly too overwhelming. To not own a cell phone these days is almost like not being a human being at all.
I will admit I’ve always been fascinating by new breakthroughs in technology. I owned a computer when they were really too expensive to own personally. I watched with fascination as the internet came into being, chunk...chunk...chunk a few loaded pixels at a time. I’ve always loved science, even when I haven’t fully understood it. However, now technology seems to be intent on not freeing me, but confining me. It owns me rather than being a tool for my own edification. I hear more and more people say to me, why do they have to know anything if they can just google it? There are so many things wrong with that statement that I could write a whole dissertation on what the true meaning of that statement means to the future, but I’m going to keep to one part of it. How will people know what to google if they don’t have enough reference points already in their mind to start with?
I’m starting to believe that I am a man on the verge of being left behind, and it doesn’t scare me one bit. I may move in with the artist in his time stamped house, and while he paints, I’ll read and write. We will have tea at three with crumpets.
The plot becomes more and more convoluted as the world does start to encroach upon the artist. When I say world, I may not mean this world. A ringing bell in the middle of the night from underground sets off a series of events that revolve around a painting called Killing Commendatore by Amada that is carefully wrapped up and stored in the attic. The subject of the painting is a scene from the opera Don Giovanni. The last time I was in Prague, they were showing Don Giovanni in the theater it debuted in for the first time since the original showing. Needless to say, I scored tickets, and the experience was as magical as I could hope for.
When you read and travel, it is amazing the cool associations a person can develop that adds enjoyment to future reading and traveling experiences.
His wealthy neighbor, Wataru Menshiki, offers him an outrageous amount of money to paint his portrait. He seems intent on becoming good friends, as well. Unfortunately, through trial and error, I have discovered that people expressing that much interest in me usually means they want something from me. I’d like to think that I’m infinitely fascinating, and that is enough reason for people to want to spend time with me, but I’ve been disabused of that idea. The artist is of the same mind as me and looks with suspicion upon this offer of friendship. What is Menshiki’s true motivation?
There are many philosophical concerns, psychological growth, supernatural occurrences, including astral projection sex, and some wonderful descriptions of the artistic process all within the confines of this novel. Most readers should find parts, or maybe even all of these elements, as aspects that they can identify with. This book reminds me somewhat of Murakami’s masterpiece Kafka on the Shore, but it lacks that something something that would have had me genuflecting to the deftness and creativity of his genius. Normally, I rate books against other books in their genre, but with Murakami, like say Charles Dickens, I can only rate him against his own body of work. A contemplative book that tries to slow the world down and remind us that fast is not always better and new is not always an improvement.
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