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.”