Art and Obsession: “Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami

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If there was ever any doubt to the fact of Haruki Murakami’s skill at nuanced storytelling, Killing Commendatore eliminates them all with its artistic telling.

The latest novel from the Japanese author is a gripping tale of art and obsession. With nearly 700 pages to its name, Killing Commendatore surprises readers with prose that flows as smoothly as the many layers of its interconnected meanings in the story. There are several familiar elements: a nameless male narrator, an increasingly bizarre plot aided by inexplicable occurrences, music references, the methodical unrolling of each day in the narrator’s life— and of course, cats.

The nameless narrator (a portrait painter by profession) is at crossroads in his life following the unexpected and unforeseen demise of his marriage. The separation leads him to take up with occupancy at the house of Tomohiko Amada, his friend’s father and a famous painter. The house, located in the mountains of a small town, is the main setting of the novel. The brilliance of the novel mainly takes place in its space and the accompanying woods. The sense of isolation, which the remote setting creates, is palpable in the reading of the novel. It’s like a world with its own energy encasing the spirit of the story, a place where the supernatural appropriates reality.

The strangeness of the prologue prods you forth with the awareness that no matter how normal the narrative feels right now, things will most certainly capsize. The signature surrealism of Murakami will leap at you, ‘any page now.’

The novel is split into two volumes: The Idea Made Visible and The Shifting Metaphor. The story begins with an unsettling prologue that intermittently lingers in the back of your mind as you wade deeper into the story. The strangeness of the prologue prods you forth with the awareness that no matter how normal the narrative feels right now, things will most certainly capsize. The signature surrealism of Murakami will leap at you, ‘any page now.’ The closing 200 pages are packed with details and action that unpacks the bizarre tangents.

Alone in the rooms where Tomohiko Amada lived and painted, the narrator embarks on a journey which uncovers Killing Commendatore, a mysterious painting in the attic, stowed out of sight. In fact, it’s the only painting in the entire house, which makes it an object of greater curiosity for the thirty-something narrator. Enter Wataru Menshiki, an enigmatic and peculiar man willing to pay the narrator a huge commission for the portrait. Menshiki’s character is parallel to Gatsby’s, and that can be deemed as one of the reasons the strange charm attached to his persona never really dissipated. As Menshiki slowly becomes regular in the narrator’s life, his obsession and motives become slightly clear. This is followed by the entrance of a peculiar 13 year old girl and her aunt. The girl’s obsession with her body’s mellowness is one of those elements that are idiosyncratic and weird at best.

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Source: Sumaiyya Naseem

Murakami has managed to create a balanced parallel to The Great Gatsby, drawing only enough similarities to retain the uniqueness and originality of his epic. As someone familiar with the classic text on a near-obsessive level, reading Killing Commendatore was almost like a treasure hunt of all the Easter eggs he had dropped in his story. The familiarities in Killing Commendatore and The Great Gatsby unfold seamlessly, with Murakami managing to control his latest from becoming a great rip off of an American classic. So, while Killing Commendatore traces elements from The Great Gatsby, it is obviously a sprawling and layered chronicle that goes beyond the enigma of the classic. The final effect is of a metaphysical and psychological level, making it a fantastic story of Gatsby-esque obsession visible in both the narrator and Menshiki. The world shaping that obsession is entirely and fabulously Murakami-esque.

While the novel follows somewhat in the tradition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it reminded me equally of the realism in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’d advice reading The Great Gatsby before taking a plunge into Killing Commendatore; the link to the classic, its imprint and influence on Murakami’s writing add a definitive layer of meaning to the story.

Murakami and art, therefore, is the combination that needs to become a regular thing.

The book is an inquisition into the world of art and the unfurling of explosive capacities in an unknown painting that seems to carry multitudes of meanings. Haruki Murakami expands the breadth of his literary nuance and intrigue in Killing Commendatore. Murakami and art, therefore, is the combination that needs to become a regular thing.

There seems no simple way to express what an effect does a ‘Murakami novel’ has on the soul. I devoured the story, the writing and the gratification that comes with turning the last page and knowing that every single page is worth it. In fact, I wished it to be longer. There are no wasted words, and somehow despite its length and spiraling trail, the craftsman seems to be in complete control of the story from the very first page. Killing Commendatore is positively, yet another, the best Murakami novel.

(Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, Translated by Ted Goosen and Philip Gabriel)


Sumaiyya Naseem is an Editor at ‘Destination Jeddah’ Magazine. She can be reached at her blog Sumaiyya and Books or at her instagram handler @sumaiyya.books

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