Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

The title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel (released in 2017 in Japan, and in 2018 in English translation), refers to a painting, done in traditional Japanese style, of a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, where Giovanni kills the father of Donna Anna, a woman he’s been trying to seduce. The unnamed narrator finds this painting in the attic of postwar artist Tomohiko Amada, while living in the artist’s house (Amada himself being in a retirement home, all but lost to dementia). Seeing it, he realises two things: that this painting is a masterpiece, and that it’s unknown to the art world. It must, he’s sure, have had some deep personal significance for the artist.

He’s an artist himself, and has been living alone in Amada’s mountaintop house since his wife of six years unexpectedly asked for a divorce. At the time, he’d been making a reasonable living painting unchallenging portraits for business clients who’d write off the expense as “office furniture”. After his wife asks him to leave, he phones his agent and says he has given up painting portraits. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but can no longer keep living as he did.

Killing Commendatore is a big novel, and it’s no surprise it contains a lot of perennial Murakami elements (though some only briefly): a well-like hole in the ground used for self-imposed solitary confinement; a wise teenage girl; a potentially dangerous religious cult; conversations with an oddly down-to-earth fantastical being; the girl in the past who died too young; the wife who suddenly and inexplicably leaves; a missing cat; a violent impulse in a love hotel; a closet full of a dead woman’s clothes; days spent obsessively watching news reports of an earthquake; a seemingly significant bird (in this case, a horned owl); uncovered histories of WWII atrocities… Most Murakamian of all, though, is the Empty Man: the young professional working competently at a financially rewarding but undemanding job who’s suddenly confronted with the emptiness in his life, an emptiness that hides unprocessed losses in the past.

“Empty Man”, obviously, describes the narrator of Killing Commendatore, but here we get an additional instance of this Murakamian trope — and perhaps an even more empty Empty Man, because, not being an artist as the narrator is, he can’t express his emptiness — in the shape of mountaintop neighbour Menshiki, who says, at one point, “when I passed fifty, I looked at myself in the mirror and discovered nothing but emptiness.” (And of whom we’re later told, “there is a gap in his heart, an empty space that attracts the abnormal and the dangerous.”)

Menshiki’s name means something like “avoiding colour” (which recalls the protagonist of Murakami’s previous novel, Colourless Tsukuru). He has completely white hair, lives in a white house, and maintains an isolated but intensely ordered existence. He approaches the narrator to commission a portrait, and though the narrator has just given up portrait-painting, the amount Menshiki offers means he’d be stupid to refuse; in addition, Menshiki wants the narrator to open up artistically and use whatever style he thinks fit. Unlike all those “office furniture” commissions, here, at last, he’s being given permission to produce something truly artistic.

Soon enough, though, Menshiki makes a confession. Although he has spent his life avoiding permanent relationships, there’s a 13-year-old girl out there in the world he believes may be his daughter. And though he’s rich enough, and connected enough, to find some way of determining this for sure, he doesn’t want a final answer. What he wants is for the narrator, after he’s painted Menshiki’s portrait, to paint hers, for which, of course, he’ll pay an even more disproportionately large sum.

Unlike Murakami’s previous big novel, 1Q84, which alternated between two or three narratives, Killing Commendatore is all related by a single character, but it never becomes monotonous. This is because, as usual, Murakami keeps several mysteries on the boil from early on: there’s the titular painting, and how Amada came to paint it; there’s Great Gatsby-like Menshiki, and the whole mystery of his Empty Man personality; there’s the narrator’s wife, and why she left him. But there’s also weirder mysteries: a bell heard ringing from a remote spot in the middle of the night, the narrator’s oddly troubling, wordless encounter with the Man in the White Subaru Forester, and the Commendatore, a two-foot tall “Idea” in traditional Japanese dress who emerges from Amada’s painting for a series of enigmatic chats.

Killing Commendatore is a novel about secrets. Deeply personal secrets, things that can’t be easily spoken of, are what the narrator’s “office furniture” clients lack, and so he can quite easily paint superficial but successful portraits of them. But when confronted with a man like Menshiki, who has a genuine secret, an emptiness to be plumbed and expressed, that is what requires him to reach inside for an artistic response. Secrets of this sort, though, as well as providing depth to a person, isolate them, turning them into the likes of Menshiki, who lives such a well-ordered, superficially wealthy but cavernously empty life.

Yet, there is a way out, a way a secret can remain a secret, and so keep its personal meaning and significance, but escape the trap of isolation: it can be shared, and so become not just a way out of the isolation, but a bond with another person. And artists — the likes of the narrator and Amada — have an additional way out, too. They can keep their secrets secret while sharing them through their art, saying what cannot be said, sharing what cannot be shared.

The truest portrait the narrator paints, in the end, is an unfinished one. Those “office furniture” paintings were so satisfying to their clients because those clients had ceased to grow and change and so could be easily captured. The deeper sort of subject requires not just artistry, but an acknowledgement that this is not by any means a finished piece. As one of the narrator’s subject’s says:

“It’s a work in progress, and I’m a work in progress too, now and forever.”

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Harvill HB, cover by Keenan

In 1997, Haruki Murakami published his first full-length work of non-fiction (later translated into English in abridged form as Underground) in which he interviewed both the victims and the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack that took place in the Tokyo subway in March 1995. After the Quake, a slim collection of six stories first published in Japan in 1999 (and in English in 2002) is in part an outgrowth of that project, being an artistic response to another devastating event that occurred in Japan only two months before the gas attack, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like Underground, it focuses on ordinary lives and how they are affected by a large-scale disaster.

A key difference, though — apart from this being fiction — is that, unlike the interviewees in Underground, none of the characters in After the Quake directly experiences the Kobe earthquake. Instead, in each of the six stories, the main character has some sort of powerful, barely-dormant subterranean force of their own that they have learned to live with on a day-to-day basis, but which the Kobe earthquake, through a sort of sympathetic magic, threatens to bring into the open. It might be unacknowledged love, it might be long-held-onto hatred, but most often it’s loss or emptiness.

It’s perhaps at its purest, and most Murakami-ish, in the first story in the book, “UFO in Kushiro” (which can be read at the The New Yorker). The main character, Komura, is a hi-fi salesman whose wife, after spending days doing nothing but watching reports of the Kobe earthquake on TV, suddenly leaves him. The only concrete reason she gives is that Komura has nothing to give her: “living with you,” she writes in her farewell note, “is like living with a chunk of air”. Komura takes a week’s leave, but, unsure what to do with himself, accepts the suggestion of a work colleague that he visit Hokkaido, because the colleague has a delicate package he needs to get there, and he’s willing to cover Komura’s expenses if he delivers it. Komura does so, handing over the package to the colleague’s sister, then spending the rest of the day with the sister’s friend, Shimao. They end up in a love hotel together, but Komura finds himself impotent. He tells Shimao about the emptiness his wife accused him of having inside. Out of nowhere, Shimao says that the thing Komura is supposed to have inside himself was in the package he just delivered, and now he’s handed it over, he’ll always be empty inside. If it’s a joke, it’s too close to the mark, because, hearing it, Komura feels his own inner-earthquake pre-tremors:

“For one split second, Komura realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.”

It doesn’t matter, in “UFO in Kushiro”, what the emptiness is, only that Komura finally manages to feel it. In “Landscape with Flatiron”, the second story in the collection, the main character, Junko, feels inside herself “a certain ‘something’… deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling… too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea”. Having run away from home and now working in a convenience store, she gets to know a middle-aged painter, Miyake, who has an irrational feeling that he will die trapped in a fridge. He’s clearly aware this is just a symbol of his own fear of being trapped in other ways — as, for instance, by the family he abandoned in Kobe. He likes to comb the beach for driftwood, building bonfires, which symbolise, for him, true freedom. Looking into the flames of his latest creation, Junko sees not freedom but acceptance, in response to her own particular emptiness:

“The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”

In most of the stories, Murakami’s characters find some way of working with the emptiness they find within themselves, but these are almost always abstract, irrational actions, symbolic rather than practical, as though it doesn’t matter so much what you do to counter the emptiness, just that you do something. In “All God’s Children Can Dance”, for instance, Yoshiya is told by his highly religious mother that he has no human father, but is the son of “Our Lord”. He has ceased to believe in God, but finally finds a sort of self-acceptance by dancing his own peculiar form of dance, alone in the dark. In “Thailand”, meanwhile, an ageing thyroid specialist who has retained a lifelong hatred of a certain man in Kobe (and who can’t help believing, at some level, that her hatred caused the earthquake there), is told how to finally let go, because otherwise, she’s told, when she dies, only the hatred will remain.

The strangest tale in the book, and surely the most memorable, is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”. The main character here is Katagiri, who sees himself as something of a nobody. He collects debts for the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, and is largely successful because, having given up on life, he has no fear when confronted by the various gangsters, heavies, and criminals his work brings him into contact with. One day he comes home to find a giant frog waiting in his apartment. This frog — who insists on being called “Frog”, not “Mr. Frog” — is going to try to save Tokyo from an earthquake many times worse than the one that hit Kobe, and needs Katagiri’s help. The Frog, who is both immensely strong and impressively well-read for an amphibian (he quotes Tolstoy, Conrad, Nietzsche, Hemingway, and Dostoevsky) is perhaps Katagiri’s own repressed potential — his unacknowledged strength (his “courage and passion for justice”, which Katagiri is surprised to find Frog praising him for), and the urge to live a fuller life (Frog’s endless quotations finally encourage Katagiri to read).

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin (translator of a lot of Murakami’s fiction, including these stories), says that After the Quake is “perhaps Murakami’s most conventional story collection”, and it’s certainly his most consistent, with none of the more experimental pieces you find in his other collections. (The stories are also almost all of the same length.) Some, such as “UFO in Kushiro”, with its abandoned, suddenly empty mid-life protagonist, or the final story “Honey Pie” (whose tale of a love triangle between college friends evokes Murakami’s most famous book, Norwegian Wood, as well as one of his most recent, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) feel like essence-of-Murakami: characters, as Rubin says, “whose outwardly satisfactory lives leave them feeling unfulfilled and who live on the edge of some devastating discovery.”

I was very happy to get the chance to see Murakami himself shortly after the book’s publication in the UK, where he read from one of the stories (I’m sure it was “Super-Frog”), in both English and Japanese, and where I got my copy signed. This may, of course, be why it remains one of my favourites of his — After Dark, which came out shortly after, being another — and perhaps it helps that it’s short, but it’s certainly a more consistent and satisfying collection than his first book of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which only, for me, had a couple of really good hits).

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

cover imageThroughout his high school years, Tsukuru Tazaki was one of five extremely close-knit friends (three boys, two girls) in his hometown of Nagoya. Of the group, he was the only one not to have a colour in his name, so was nicknamed ‘Colourless’ Tsukuru Tazaki, something that subsequently coloured his own view of himself as being ‘An empty vessel. A colourless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding.’ He was also the only one of the five to leave Nagoya after high school, going to Tokyo to study engineering. Returning briefly in the middle of his sophomore year, he phones his friends only to find they’ve cut off relations with him. ‘Think about it, and you’ll figure it out,’ is all he’s told. But Tsukuru can’t figure it out, and he’s plunged into near-suicidal despair:

‘The door was slammed in my face, and they wouldn’t let me back inside. And they wouldn’t tell me why. But if that’s what all of them wanted, I figured there was nothing I could do about it.’

The novel begins sixteen years later. Living an empty but ordinary (colourless) life, Tsukuru is prompted by his latest girlfriend — the first he feels serious about — to track down his former friends and solve the mystery. Tsukuru is none too keen: ‘I’ve managed to slowly close up the wound and, somehow, conquer the pain. It took a long time. Now the wound is closed, why gouge it open again?’ Sara says: ‘Maybe inside the wound, under the scab, the blood is still silently flowing.’ She does the initial work (with social media, something Tsukuru, of course, doesn’t use), and comes up with the first shock: Shiro, ‘Miss White’, was murdered several years ago. Another of the group, Eri, married and moved to Finland, but the remaining two, the men, are still in Nagoya. Keen not to lose Sara, Tsukuru agrees to visit each of the surviving three and learn the truth about what he’s been dealing with on his own all these years.

inner coverIt’s just before halfway through the novel that Tsukuru meets with the first of his former friends, Ao, head of a Lexus car dealership in Nagoya, and perhaps because of the much slower pace of Murakami’s last novel, the triple-decker 1Q84, I was almost shocked when, instead of the usual Murakami-ish evasions and mysteries-around-mysteries, Tsukuru actually gets most of the answers he’s looking for! But Colourless Tsukuru is a much shorter book than 1Q84 — and, I’d say, a better one. It’s a pity that (perhaps because of the economics of publishing such a huge novel) 1Q84 got so much press attention at the time of its release, drawing in so many readers new to Murakami, many of whom were left somewhat overwhelmed by the size and typically Murakami-ish incomprehensibilities of the book. Colourless Tsukuru, though by no means as barnstorming or epic a novel, is much more effective at telling its low-key tale of a quiet man coming to terms with the loneliness and rejection he’s borne throughout his adult life. (It’s a novel that could, even, be shorter still. An early episode in Tsukuru’s college years, featuring the only fantasy-tinged sequence in the book, could be removed, I think, without unduly affecting the rest of the novel. Aside from offering up an interesting but mostly detachable story-within-a-story, it left me expecting a resolution that never comes.)

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage addresses themes Murakami has dealt with before — intense early-life relationships derailed by mental illness (Norwegian Wood), social ostracism (“The Silence”, one of the better stories in The Elephant Vanishes) — but to me it felt like he was taking those themes a bit further, adding a little more maturity and perspective to the brew. There’s a real feeling of mere human beings doing what they can to face up to the dark forces of life, an attempt to rescue something meaningful from an early, life-defining wrongness that has blighted all the years that followed:

‘Life is long, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes victims are needed. Someone has to take on that role.’

By the end of the novel, mysteries remain, but these are just the tying up of plot threads; the central emotional core resolves, and it makes Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki a satisfying, if low-key offering from Murakami, and one that bolsters my faith in him after the frankly overlong 1Q84.