Book Review: Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki

“That sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting.”

The narrator of Killing Commendatore is a nameless portrait painter in his 30‘s living in Tokyo married to Yuzu, a female architect. Suddenly she is asking for a divorce, because she is in love with another man. She is having an affair for months now.

The narrator moves out. To get some fresh air he first goes on a trip to North Japan by car for over a month and a half. Then he settles for a living in an old wooden mountaintop house in Odawara, which belongs to the father of his friend Masahiko Amada. The old man was a famous painter, named Tomohiko Amada. Now he is in his 90‘s, suffering from dementia, and living in a nursing home near Izu Kogen.

The old house is fully furnished and equipped with things belonging to the old painter including a painting studio. There the narrator is living a simple tech-free life in the woods for the time of the story. He listens to records, mainly classical music, repeatedly to the comic opera of Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).

After a short period of time he gets a call from his agent: a client named Wataru Menshiki wants to be painted by him and only by him for a huge amount of money. The narrator cannot decline.

So, a mysterious stranger appears in his house. Tall, slim, white hair, perfectly in style. He is 54 years old, living as a single person in a white mansion across the mountain in view of the old house. He has become rich by selling his own tech company and by stock trading. His business is somewhat unclear and remains hidden in the dark as an undescribed internet business.

He sits regularly as a model in the studio, but the narrator is not capable of painting him, because he is hiding something and appears to be soulless. There is nothing personal about Menshiki, he seems to be an empty shell.

The narrator describes his painting process to the reader and gives some background information about traditional Japanese painting techniques. This becomes an integral part of the story.

The atmosphere of the novel is loaded with fear. Something bad will happen. It is lingering in the air. Menshiki is mysterious and the narrator does not know, if he can trust him. Why is he paying him a huge amount of money for his portrait? Why is he living alone in a big mansion? And what is he really working at?

Puzzling events occur after the narrator finds an old painting made by Tomohiko Amada in the attic. This is called Killing Commendatore.

First there is a mysterious ringing bell in the middle of the night which wakes the narrator. It comes from outside. The narrator cannot ignore the sound and goes out to explore the strange phenomenon. In the backyard of the house there is an old forgotten Shinto shrine. Nothing special, something you find overall in Japan.

There he sees some square stones covered with moss. Is something or someone causing the ringing in a pit hidden by the stones down there? A nightmarish situation.

In the morning after the incident the narrator is suddenly capable of painting the outlines of Menshiki‘s portrait.

After telling him about the strange occurrence in the night, they both decide to remove the stones near the shrine. A pit in the backyard is revealed. Which leads to another strange event: the painting Killing Commendatore becomes alive. With that in the open a wild story is developing.

The structure of the novel

The story is being told basically in chronological order taking place in the first decade of 2000 from the perspective of the narrator with many flashbacks of his childhood and of past events of the main persons, mainly Menshiki and the old painter. There are also some backstories of the narrator’s sister. As the story evolves two female characters become important: the 13-year old Mariye and her attractive aunt Shoko Akikawa.

Two discoveries initiate mysterious events

  1. The painting called Killing Commendatore
  2. The pit in the backyard at the old shrine

The story of Menshiki is relevant as a counterpart of the narrator’s life.

First Menshiki is portrayed as a perfect being, that one could believe he is an android. The background story of Menshiki is being told as the story evolves.

He was never willing to get married, although he had a meaningful love affair with a woman. She got pregnant and yet broke up with him. Then she got married to another man. (This is a parallel to the personal story of the narrator.)

She was killed by a hornet, caused by an allergic reaction, when her child Mariye was about six years old. Her husband, now being alone with the young daughter, asked his sister Shoko to live with them and take care of Mariye. Shoko, the aunt of Mariye, became like a mother to her. Mariye is thirteen years old when the story is happening. The family is also living in Odawara nearby the old house and the family’s house is vis-à-vis to Menshiki’s mansion.

Menshiki is possessed by the idea, that Mariye could be his child, but he is not certain of it. His uncertainty gives him reason to watch her from afar. His behavior makes him appear as a creepy stalker and dangerous man.

After the completion of Menshiki‘s portrait, he asked the narrator to paint another portrait, now a painting of Mariye. Although considering the strange behavior of Menshiki, the narrator is willing to do so under his own conditions. The working contract regulates the painting process and his own right to sell it or not. But he still feels guilty of being complicit and has concerns about being used by Menshiki. After reconsidering it he comes to the conclusion that he can make a difference and that he is not helpless. So, he is going to paint Mariye.

From now on the narrator is drawn deeply into a multi-level nightmarish story with supernatural and paranormal elements. Surreal scenes, sounds, hallucinations, fears, memories, dreams feeling like reality accompany his own soul-searching. Elements of ghost-stories and Japanese folktales are also part of the storytelling.

The overall atmosphere is dominated by fear. Fear of looking into an abyss, fear to see the past clearly and to understand the meaning of past and present events. Everyone has a secret…

Conclusion

Part of the process is, that not every secret will be unraveled in the end. Although there remain unanswered questions, the narrator has clearly undergone some major changes towards the end, and he is able to make clear decisions. After gaining insights through soul-searching he can make his peace so far. Being together with Yuzu after a phase of self-discovery feels right, which he already points out in the beginning. The narrator lived through an exciting story and his soul is released.

The novel is 704 pages long. It took me some days to read it through. The path was not always clear and sometimes I did not know, where the story will lead me to. Surely one can analyze the meaning of everything and every metaphor, but I am not going to do that here. This would lead to a very long article. What is becoming of Menshiki and Mariye? Interesting question. I think you can go on a journey with the narrator and explore all the weird stuff happening. I guess, it probably will have a different effect on you.

In the course of reading the novel I lost track sometimes, and sometimes I was bored. It was like, when you are thinking things over and over. The story is repetitive in some chapters, but I read every page of the book. In the end I think it was worth it. You can see the whole picture then. It becomes a full circle. I would recommend the book Killing Commendatore to artists, to fans of Murakami Haruki and to people, who like to stay for a while in Odawara with a nameless Japanese painter reading his long book and discover something new.

Book title

The book was first published in two volumes in Japan: 騎士団長殺し:第1部 顕れるイデア編. Killing Commendatore. 1. Teil. The Idea made visible. 騎士団長殺し: 第2部 遷ろうメタファー編. Killing Commendatore. 2. Teil. The Shifting Metaphor. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen. Harvill Secker, London. Published in English in 2018. 704 pages.