Book Review: Killing Commendatore

This is my first Murakami book, and probably my last. The book was beautifully written, and has been perfectly transcribed to English, but it just left me feeling rather stupid; like I’d totally missed the point. Yes, it was thought provoking, and contained some truly lovely quotes, passages, and refections on life, but I’m afraid the manifestations of metaphors as ‘real characters’ became too surreal for me.

contemporary fiction | magical realism | art

Rating: 2 out of 5.

dust-cover blurb

In Killing Commendatore, a thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada.

When he discovers a strange painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances.

To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.

A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art, Killing Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers.

Author – Haruki Murakami | Published by – Vintage Publishing in October 2018 | Pages – 704 (hardback)
Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

my thoughts

I rarely leave a book unfinished – no matter how slow and tedious it feels, I am ever hopeful of a spectacular change in pace hovering just over the page … or the next page … just one more … any minute now.  And this is really the only reason I reached the end of Killing Commendatore.  I feel dreadful even writing that, as the book’s hugely acclaimed author – Haruki Murakami – had clearly devoted an enormous amount of time to writing this book; as had the translators who transcribed it so perfectly into English.  In fact, I think it’s one of very few books that I didn’t find myself fussing over a typo or editorial clanger.

Killing Commendatore came onto my radar via a Waterstones ‘books of the month’ recommendation.  It wasn’t something I would normally read, but the official reviews were utterly compelling so I bought the hardback as soon as I saw it in store.  It weighs a whopping 1.17 kilos!  That’s a big old book to hold out of the bath water (I’m a bath time reader).

This is my first Murakami book, and I’ve since read that this probably wasn’t the best book for me to get to know his writing.  I’ll lay my cards on the table and say honestly that it really wasn’t for me … even though I did read to the end. Murakami’s books are known for their surreal and supernatural content, and this one took me down a bizarre and trippy metaphysical rabbit hole, being pursued by metaphorical fears embodied by the characters of a mysterious painting whose title gives this book its name. It left me feeling a bit (lot) stupid. There were also a number of situations in the book where the artist – whose name is never revealed – talks a little too much about the thirteen year-old girl who’s sitting for him, and how her breasts are developing.  It just felt creepy and made me uncomfortable.

However, the more lucid elements of the book were written so beautifully that I couldn’t help but feel cocooned at times, and incredibly peaceful.  Murakami conjures up the majestic enormity of the Japanese countryside, the atmospherically misty mountains, and the chilling feeling of being watched when you’re alone in the forest. Wherever he is, there’s more than a ghost of it surrounding you.

Sunday was another fine clear day.  No wind to speak of, and the fall colours in the valley sparkling in the sunlight.  Small, white-breasted birds hopped from one branch to the next, deftly pecking the red berries.  I sat on the terrace, soaking it all in.  Nature grants its beauty to us all, drawing no line between rich and poor.

It’s the artist’s description of his drawing process that really held my attention. I found myself yearning for the parts of the story that are told from his studio – how he feels rather than sees the people who sit for him, and how he transcribes the essence of them onto canvas. The way he sees and perceives people is so detailed and yet amorphous; not just the people he paints, but those he encounters on his travels.

A face is like reading a palm. More than the features you’re born with, a face is gradually formed over the passage of time, through all the experiences a person goes through, and no two faces are alike.

This is a story of stories. It tells us of love, lust, loss and an intense loneliness, drawing upon art, opera, and war as the canvas to set these emotions into stark reality. We never do discover who – or what – is ringing the bell in the hidden pit in the forest.  Whilst this rankled me at the time, it’s only now that I’m (finally) writing this review that it feels right.  Some things are better left unknown.

Memory can give warmth to time.

When I’m not completely absorbed by the book I’m reading, I usually hurry through it so I can get on to another book that I’ll (hopefully) enjoy more.  And I’ll usually start that next book as soon as I’ve turned the final page on the one that I just … want … to …. finish.  But when I closed the cover of Killing Commendatore my mind felt busy and full. The feeling was perfectly summed-up by Hurakami’s artist, standing in the pit in the woods one rainy morning …

Something was running through my mind, but I couldn’t grasp what it was. One thought would link to another, which in turn would link to still another thought. It was as if I had been swallowed by the act of thinking, if that makes sense.

set the atmosphere

First, pour yourself a coffee … or a whisky. They both feature quite regularly in the book. Coffee felt too ‘standard’, so in the interests of expanding my horizons I thought I’d dip my toe into the emerging trend that is Japanese whisky. As a gin fan, whisky is quite a leap (one I’ve dabbled with only a handful of times, usually mid winter to warm up after a particularly bracing walk), but having read that Japanese whiskies are less peaty than their Scottish forebears, I thought I’d take the plunge.

Throughout the book, Murakami’s artist takes a keen interest in the operatic vinyl record collection of Tomohiko Amada – the owner of this remote lodge set high in the Japanese mountains. Don Giovanni is an opera he keeps returning to … so, set this soundtrack playing in the background whilst you read.

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