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An idea that asks to be murdered – Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami (translated into English by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen; Japan publication date Feb. 24, 2017; published in English Oct. 9, 2018; English publisher: Knopf; 704 pp. (US); hardcover)

Killing Commendatore was published in Japanese with the title 騎士団長殺し (Kishidancho Goroshi) in 2017, and the English translation came out in the UK and the US on Oct. 9, 2018. Its publication was a literary event of note – this is after all the very famous, award-winning Murakami. It is a very peculiar, complicated novel based, oddly, on one brief event depicted in an opera.

Themes of music and art

The novel of Murakami’s that I have read and reread is Norwegian Wood, which was published in 1987 in Japanese and later came out in English. The reason why I have re-read it is because it is a description of a awkward, long, unsuccessful love affair. It is weirdly fascinating since nothing in it seems romantic. The other reason is that, despite it being set in Japan, the narrative contains numerous references to Western culture, specifically pop music, such as The Beatles’ song, “Norwegian Wood”. Though the words “Norwegian wood” is a sarcastic aside by Paul McCartney, the rest of the lyrics pretty much sums up what the love affair in the book is like:

“I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?…”

Haruki Murakami (credit: Nathan Bajar for The New York Times) 

Murakami often uses references to music as themes in his novels, and he does this again in Killing Commendatore. Only this time, it is opera which he combines with art. Not only art, but Vienna in World War II, the history of art in Japan vs. in the West, Buddhism, the process and techniques of portrait painting, adolescent Angst, parent-child-relationships and sex. Like in many of his novels, this one contains many passages describing sex and, readers beware, they are direct and often quite unnerving.

Plot twists

There are as many plot lines and twists as there are themes: Set in the present day, a commercially successful portrait painter, the first person narrator, separates from his wife and becomes the housesitter in the remote home of a famous artist, “Tomohiko Amada” who has gone into an old age home. In the attic he discovers a work by Amada called “Killing Commedatore”, which is brilliant but an anomaly, depicting a violent scene and painted in the style of the Asuka period that lasted from 538 to 710 (or 592 to 645).

A pretty accurate recreation of the fictional painting in the novel by artist/illustrator Kanchana. (Credit: @literaryartjournal) Fans have quickly produced their own versions of the painting.

Simultaneously, his mysterious, wealthy neighbour across the valley, “Mr. Menshiki” commissions him to paint his portrait on the pretext of getting the artist to also paint the portrait of a teenage girl living on the opposite side of the valley, who Menshiki believes to be his daughter. At the same time the two men discover a perfectly round, deep pit at the house, in which they find a Buddhist monk’s bell, which rings by itself at night. Also, the artist seems to be followed by a man in a Subaru who may or may not have known what the artist was doing with this man’s wife in a hotel room, and the artist’s ex-wife becomes pregnant through a particularly erotic dream that the artist has. Well, yes – I told you it is complicated. It is 704 pages long, and there’s plenty of room for inexplicable twists and turns.

It is part art mystery, part super-natural thriller, part romance and partly a thesis about what art is and how it gets created. Other critics, and I, have wondered whether Murakami didn’t just decide to indulge himself, let his imagination run loose and pull the literary world’s leg. Because in the end there are no repercussions to the dramatic and mystifying events. It just ends, tidily and nicely.

The meaning, if any

The meaning, if any, lies in the fictional painting, which depicts, in the style of an Asuka-period painting, a scene from W.A. Mozart’s opera buffo “Don Giovanni”, specifically Act 1, Scene 1. In the opening scene of the actual opera, a character called “Il Commendatore”, the Commander, or “Don Pedro”, is stabbed to death by “Don Giovanni”, also known as “Don Juan”, while three other characters look on.

The death scene, Act 1, Scene 1, of a modernized version of Don Giovanni, presented by Opera North in 2012. Directed by Alessandro Talevi and with set and costume design by Madeline Boyd; William Dazeley as Don Giovanni; Alastair Miles as the servant Leporello; Meeta Raval as Donna Anna, the Commmendatore’s daughter; and Michael Druiett as Il Commendatore (Don Pedro). (Published Jun. 26, 2013, rtrvd. 2019-05-08)

After the artist discovers the pit with the bell in it, which was apparently of the kind used by Buddhist monks to starve themselves to death to attain enlightenment, the bell stops ringing but suddenly a two-foot tall, apparently flesh-and-blood copy of the character Commendatore from Tomohiko’s painting appears, and proceeds to act like a guide or fortune teller to the artist.

“All this time the Commendatore watched us drinking and eating from his perch on the display shelf. He sat there, unmoving, diligently observing the scene there down to the smallest detail, but didn’t seem to have any reaction to what he was seeing. Like he told me once, he merely observes. He doesn’t judge, or have any partiality toward it. […] This might be how he observed me and my girlfriend making love in bed in the afternoons. The thought unsettled me. He’d told me that watching people have sex was for him no different from watching morning radio exercise routines or someone sweeping a chimney.”

In the opera, Don Giovanni is a young, arrogant and sexually promiscuous nobleman, who abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast. The Commendatore, the Commander, returns to haunt him as a statue that comes to life, much like the two-foot-tall apparition appears to the artist. Don Giovanni is eventually dragged down to hell by demons.

Header
“Don Juan and the statue of the Commander”, by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, circa 1830-1835 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

For his part, the nameless artist in the novel is certainly young and promiscuous, and eventually he also descends into a fantastical netherworld, from which the pit with the bell is the exit, once he has also killed the idea or ghost of the Commendatore (at the latter’s instigation) with his own hands.

In the end, Menshiki rescues him from the pit, Amada dies, the artist never completes the painting of the man in the Subaru, it and the painting of Killing Commendatore are destroyed when the house burns down, Menshiki never finds out if the teenager is his daughter, the artist never finds out if the baby of his ex-wife is his, and he reconciles with her and stays married. After all that supernatural drama and sheer mass of verbiage, so what?

The plot is less important than the combined events that proceed to the conclusion, during which process which the artist-narrator is subtly transformed, even matured.

Conclusion

All the strange events, including the killing, seem to be partly in the artist’s mind, though quite real to him, and they all contribute to what one might call his liberation as an artist. Before, his work was constrained and formal. The imp, ghost or “idea” of the Commendatore, and the other characters in the opera, lead him (or perhaps he leads himself) to become much freer in his art, to embrace emotion, extreme ideas and ambiguity, all things he had previously rejected. He learns to paint from his gut, listening to his inner voice or a “premonition of impeding movement”, and expressing his own ideas:

“As I sat there staring at the finished work a feeling came over me, what be called a premonition of impending movement. On the surface at least, it was just as its title said: a landscape painting of the pit in the woods. It was so accurate, in fact, that ‘reproduction’ might be closer to the truth. […] Nevertheless, that premonition was there. Something was about to take place within that landscape. The painting was telling me that. Then I realized. What I had been trying to get across, or what that something had been trying to get me to paint, was precisely that premonition, those signs.”

And that is the gist of it – the liberation of an artistic vision. Did I enjoy it? Yes, mainly for the depiction of the creative process in painting. 

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