Kindle Edition Published: October 9th 2018, First Published: February 24th 2017
Language book read in: English
Here it is, our last book of the year! And what a book it is. As it was Nelly’s choice, I have to admit I did not look at any reviews or research the author as I had done with the titles I’d chosen. I found the title itself pretty vague – I had an inkling a “Commendatore” was a person of a military rank, and, well, I know what “killing” means, but the two words together gave me little certainty about the time period or part of the world the story is set in, yet now I have read the book, I can think of no other title which would be more fitting. As it was, I started this novel with my mind a blank slate. Which was actually a pretty good thing, considering how abstract it got about a third of the way in.
Peculiarities of the Storytelling
Killing Commendatore isn’t the first Japanese book I’ve read, and it shares some features with other works from that country. These peculiarities I call “The Japanese storytelling style”, and one of them is the openness, which in the West can easily be perceived as bluntness, the main character talks about sex. The book centers on a few months of the life of an unnamed portrait painter, and the story is told from his perspective. The themes of sex and self perception in a sexual light is included throughout, in particular there are several scenes which are described quite graphically, yet almost clinically, a rendition of a sexual intercourse, which reads much like “I got up in the morning after snoozing my alarm three times, made some coffee, drank it and left for work”. This is not something unique to Murakami, in fact, I believe it is common for many Japanese authors, yet as a westerner, I still found it a little shocking and almost unpleasant.
Another writing technique I found a little bizarre is that we know the ending of the book from about page 15. This technique is used in the West as well, though less frequently, and Murakami applies it with great success here, we know where we are headed, so let’s really focus on how we got there.
Painters and Their Creed
Our main character is a portrait painter, as mentioned above, though he shows much promise with his abstract work instead. When he marries his wife, he decides to go into a steadier career of painting people’s likeness with technical skill, yet little inspiration, to help the support of their household. The work is dull, unvaried, though he doesn’t mind it – it’s a quiet life he can maintain for a long time, in fact he has found what he believes is happiness. His wife does not wish for a child, and he doesn’t particularly either, so he sees his days painting portraits and spending the evenings with his wife stretching indefinitely.
You may rightfully think this is a life with no lustre, a routine. Or you may feel some jealousy of how settled and calm his life is. I personally fluctuate between these extremes, as I compare my current state to the main character’s at the beginning of the novel. Our situations are similar, we make a comfortable living, have a long term partner, married or not, do not want children, and are content with what we have. Is this enough?
Our main character’s wife thought not. She ends up in a relationship with another man, and decides to request a divorse. The main character is shocked, stumped, in his mind, all was going well, when suddenly the idyllic routine is broken, the woman he loves unconditionally has enjoyed another man’s embrace and he hasn’t even realised. This is the turning point of his life, when he begins a journey of self discovery, as a person and a painter.
Who is the Commendatore?
About a third into the book I was still confused about who the Commendatore was. Where does he fit into the main character’s story? Will we break into another timeline, and uncover some distant relative’s past, which is another writing technique sometimes employed to bring something new to the table? Thankfully, this is not the case, and the title of this book, is also the title of a painting by a famous Japanese painter, Tomohiko Amada, a piece he has locked away and which, through a series of inexplicable events, the main character uncovers.
With this discovery the book takes a turn for the abstract and the main character plunges, at one point physically, into the world of ideas, metaphors, double metaphors and their expression onto the canvas.
There are a few characters making an appearance, the rich retired neighbour, a couple of women from the art class the main character teaches whom he has an affair with him, his best friend, and a couple of others I deliberately will not mention. All of them have little secrets we get to peek at, whilst the fantastic gets mingled with the mundane.
My Personal Gripes
Remember when I mention I felt my current situation quite similar to the main character’s at the very beginning? This made me feel represented in the literary world, which I rarely find – very often the object of a relationship is a child, and my partner and myself have chosen against that. I was, of course, aware of the ending, yet when it came round to it, it left me unsatisfied – whilst I was happy the main character gets together with his wife, their love for one another still strong, she has become pregnant, and Murakami forces some ambiguity around the child’s father – pretty far fetched and unnecessary in my mind. I was disappointed with the novel in this respect – the narrative was turned yet again into another “have a child to fix everything” preaching.
This book is a weird one, and I am still undecided whether I liked it or not. The writing is good, though at times over the top (though this may be to do with the translation into English too), the plot wasn’t difficult to follow as such, but I did struggle at times with the abrupt psychedelic experiences and the more I deliberated over them, the more I felt something sinister under the metaphors. On the Kindle version, this book is 706 pages long, and I needed a few long breaks from it to finish it. Overall, if you are looking for a read you can ponder in between sittings, and are willing to invest the time to finish it, this book offers much intrigue and philosophical musings, though personally it left me disappointed as it feels unnecessarily wordy and far fetched.
I think this review will be by far the longest I’ve ever written and the most incomplete. I read the whole book, I promise. There are heavy spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk. With that said, there are so many things I can say about Murakami’s Killing Commendatore that even now as I write my review I am not sure how to begin talking about the book because it had left me with very mixed feelings. I guess this month’s final review would resemble a running commentary sprinkled with random thoughts. Let’s see how this goes.
Plot and Main Theme
As Vel mentioned, the title of the book gives little information about its contents. The narrative starts with the ending, where a faceless figure asks for a portrait in return for a figurine in the shape of a penguin. Right from the beginning we’re thrown into a psychedelic experience, which we soon learn is the ending of the whole story and we have to follow the main character’s trip to understand who is the faceless man; why does he have a toy penguin and what does all of this has to do with killing a commendatore. As the story progressed I gradually got the idea that the main theme of the book is the artist’s rebirth, formation and consolidation.
Following a very sudden separation from his wife, who leaves for another man, and a subsequent resignation from the art company he works for, the main protagonists goes on an almost two month trip around Northern Japan, having nothing but a suitcase with some of his clothes in the back of an old rusty car. Up until the separation, the unnamed character has enjoyed a quiet, semi-satisfactory life of painting corporate portraits, while maintaining the small family home. Such unexpected changes often lead to a life crisis and introspective sessions. Given that the main character’s life was defined by his professional work, his love for his wife, Yuzu, and the help he provided at home, with all of these gone, a big chunk of who he is as a person also disappears. He needs to find himself among the foggy thoughts consuming his mind.
I think this is the overarching theme of Killing Commendatore – one big metaphor for finding and redefining oneself. After the long trip, the nameless protagonist settles in the home of Tomohiko Amada, a famous Japanese artist famous for being a recluse, as a favour to his college friend Masahiko Amada. Having very little belongings from his previous life in this new place, the main character begins his explorations into his own artistry. The road is quiet at first, then mystery and folklore shroud his path until finally he enters into the Land of Metaphors. Remember the faceless man in the prologue? I think this is the protagonist himself, trying to reach out and remember who he was, is.. And to do this, he has to employ his most profitable skill – painting. As he himself put it:
Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface is fogged up (which was more often the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again. Otherwise the darker side would naturally reveal itself in the portrait.
The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark.
The protagonist’s painting style is heavily influenced by what’s important to him at different stages in his life: the death of his sister brings about rough sketches; his claustrophobia-induced panic attacks fuel his interest in abstract art; and the corporate portraits reflect his mundane life prior to the separation.
How to Marie Kondo Your Relationship and Get Stuck Again
Okay, as I said in the beginning my review this time would be a running commentary mixed with my thoughts. Hence why Marie Kondo appears in the title of this section. Vel already commented on Murakami’s blunt style of writing. The way the author described the protagonist’s new life was similar to the Marie Kondo method of decluttering your life and your living space:
- Wife? Does not spark joy.
- Work? Does not spark joy.
- Being around other people? Does not spark joy.
I kept asking myself is this the point where the main character asks himself ‘Do I spark joy’? I guess it takes living the life of famous hermit to come to terms with your anger and frustration.This is where things get meta.
On one hand, the protagonist becomes extremely interested in Tomohiko Amada’s life and attempts to understand the reason behind his reclusiveness by putting himself in the artist’s shoes. On the other hand, Tomohiko Amada had poured his life and soul into the painting Killing Commendatore. Thus, on some level, the main character becomes obsessed and burdened with new emotional clutter.
Meanwhile, the protagonist’s seemingly calm life is interrupted by the appearance of Mr Menshiki, Tomohiko Amada’s mysterious white-haired neighbour. I’m not sure whether his appearance was just a homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or just an idea, which wasn’t executed very well. The relationship between Menshiki and the main character is strange. Over its course, Menshiki shares some of his very personal secrets with the protagonist; both characters try to solve the mystery of the abandoned shinto shrine and the pit behind it; they even trust each other with their lives at some point. Yet, they do not consider themselves friends, which further confused me as to the purpose of their relationship. Apart from the main character overcoming his painter’s block.
Speaking of painting, I delved into the names of the different characters, as well as possible explanations to some of the psychedelic events in the book. In many East Asian cultures name plays are very common. Some people’s names reflect their character, while others represent their parents’ aspirations. That’s why they can often be a clue to what’s going on when it comes to storytelling. Menshiki is a prime example: According to the book, the characters in his Japanese name (免色 涉) means colourless (免色) and crossing a river (涉). However, if each character in colourless is interpreted separately, they could also mean without a facial expression. Thus, for a very long time I thought Menshiki had something to do with the faceless man in the beginning. However, Murakami put and emphasis on his first name, hence the main character crossing a river in the Land of Metaphors.
The Pit, The Freudian Slip and the Pendulum
Going back to the main theme of the book – rebirth – I believe that the strange mix of sexual comparisons, the psychedelic, and the supernatural are one big metaphor for the artist’s rebirth. Since I read the book in one go, the link between the pit (or as the main character puts it “the vagina”) and the subsequent description of the Land of Metaphor (“a female body”) did not go unnoticed. However, amid all of this, I would also like to mention one more thing which made me lower my rating for Killing Commendatore.
There were plenty of sexual and explicit paragraphs, but what disturbed me most was the constant comparison of the main character’s sexual partners with his tween sister. Also, how does talking about genitals and their growth comes about so casually and naturally between a tween and an almost middle-aged man? These take up about a third of all the conversations between the main character and Mariye Akikawa. The Japanese way of communication (and writing style as Vel mentioned) can be very blunt, but I don’t think such conversations are particularly normal. They seemed devoid of emotion. Then again, I’m afraid of what the alternative would be.
I hoped all of this would lead to the revelation of a big secret or something so unexpected it will leave you speechless in a good way. However, nothing of this sort happened. I was speechless, definitely, but that was because somewhere along the way, the focus shifted from the main protagonist to Mariye Akikawa, one of the main character’s art students and object of the mysterious Mister Menshiki’s fixation. The story culminates with Mariye Akikawa’s disappearance and then you’re left with the most anticlimactic ending there ever was. Everything goes back to normal within a closing few chapters, which tie a few loose threads. What happens to the faceless man? What about the toy penguin? Murakami just doesn’t acknowledge them at all. They simply vanish, even though they made an appearance in the obvious ending in the beginning of the book.
Overall, I think the book has many interesting philosophical musings and gives plenty of food for thought. But some parts could have been executed much better.
P.S. If you want to read something interesting about temples and ringing bells, here is an article on the Noderabō (野寺坊).