‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami: Submerge yourself in this alternate reality

‘The Great Gatsby’ meets Japanese art to create the augmented reality that is signature Murakami

October 26, 2018 01:19 pm | Updated 03:38 pm IST

Once in a while the world of literature is roused by a novel that divides critics and raises heated debates of what makes for legitimate narrative. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, his 14th novel, is that book.

Let’s first ignore the fact that a couple of sex scenes caused the book to be shelved as indecent in Hong Kong — they describe what one commonly finds in world literature or run-of-the-mill TV series. But what has ruffled the feathers of critics is that Murakami has dared to re-awaken his world of magic realism, which seems in strident conflict with current autofiction and non-fiction trends.

The power of mood

The hypnotic lure of Murakami’s writing comes from subtraction, his Zen capacity to take away the superfluous. The novel starts with an artful set-up; Murakami grabs the reader with a simple story and a balanced tone.

Some shallow minds see this as emotional flatness, not realising that the Japanese master (yes, he is a master) with his parboiled vegetables, classical music, lost cats and domestic life is creating an irresistibly robust emotional state, which constitutes the secret of many great novels: the power of mood.

The plain conversations, the minute descriptions of stylish wardrobes and Jaguar rides are all part of creating a world you belong to as a silent voyeur. What else are we as readers if not players of a high-tension, full-immersion, augmented reality video game called reading?

Murakami does what he does best. He creates his usual Murakami man, the lost 30-something, nameless male narrator; then puts him in a crisis and piles on narrative riddles that keep you glued to his weird and wonderful journey.

The story seems simple at first. That’s how he hooks the bait. A commercial portrait painter separates from his wife, who has a lover. He drives around, a bit lost but not too maudlin, more like the Murakami of Norwegian Wood, detached. Then he settles in a house on top of a mountain, the former home of famous artist Tomohiko Amada.

This is where the much-announced homage to The Great Gatsby kicks in. Because after a few weeks of solitude bordering on hikikomori, the pathological avoidance of social contact typical of some Japanese adolescents, his isolation is interrupted by two occurrences. First, he meets the enigmatic, 50-something, tech millionaire in the giant villa across the valley. The man has moved there to spy on a 13-year-old girl who might be his own daughter (paging Francis Scott Fitzgerald!).

Then, he makes two discoveries. The first is a painting, the second is a pit where an invisible hand rings an ancient Buddhist bell until someone frees whatever is hiding inside. The painting our narrator discovers is by Tomohiko Amada and called ‘Killing Commendatore’. It’s a re-creation of a scene from Mozart’s opera ‘Don Giovanni,’ in which a young man kills an older man (the Commendatore) while the victim’s daughter looks on. It’s a Japanese artist using Japanese art to relate a Western archetypal legend. Which is what Murakami is doing: a Japanese writer using The Great Gatsby to tell a Japanese tale.

And here we get to the quintessential Murakami, recalling his best work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , an investigation into Japanese war crimes in Manchuria revolving around a mysterious pit. From the pit in Killing Commendatore , a strange spirit rises, a deus ex machina, that takes the shape of a two feet tall Yoda-like creature, as in the painting.

The Commendatore appears and disappears, intervening in the riddles that develop along with the plot, culminating in the protagonist climbing down a rabbit hole, where he faces a painful journey of rebirth.

Dreamlike indeterminacy

This is a Japan that loves its ghosts, with a tinge of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and some 18th-century phantom tales of Ueda Akinari and a bit of Toriyama Sekien’s demonogical works.

Some Western critics have attacked Murakami for this, proving how contemporary writers and critics are embarrassed by the imagination, the unexplained, and the unresolved. The book makes them uneasy. Which is exactly the point. They don’t seem able to digest the wormholes and blind spots; they are insecure minds who feel the need for everything to have an explanation. As Murakami said, when “accused” of employing magic realism: “This is my realism. Through these lenses, the world makes sense to me.”

A writer narrates reality. If reality expands in the imagination, you can’t keep griping about ‘suspension of disbelief’. Literature is so much more than our present diet of the believable. And if a master novelist like Murakami takes advantage of his position to again prove this point, all the better.

The dreamlike indeterminacy of Killing Commendatore is the force of literature, not its weakness. It’s what allows you to be in a reverie with Murakami and fill in your own blanks. Yes, disappearing fish knives will reappear in hospital cupboards just when you need them. The sacrifice made with that weapon is as metaphorical as its reappearance.

It is the familiar wild and rich cosmos of elusive cats and pre-pubescent manga-style women, unearthing here the theme of the uncertain fatherhood of a daughter. But it is also a powerful story that doesn’t let go.

Great writers make a promise to readers at the beginning of the walk in the woods. They say: trust me, stay with me long enough to submerge in the reality I’m creating. I won’t let you down.

Murakami delivers on this promise.

The writer is an author and professor of communication theory. His most recent book is Mappillai: An Italian son-in-law in India.

Killing Commendatore; Haruki Murakami, Penguin Random House, ₹999

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