After Dark, one of Haruki Murakami’s shortest novels, opens in a Denny’s in Tokyo, where the protagonist has come for a late-night snack. The first pages are taken up by a monologue about Denny’s chicken salad, in which he explains that although it’s the only thing he’ll ever order from Denny’s, he still reads the menu. “Wouldn’t it be too sad to walk into Denny’s and order chicken salad without looking at the menu? It’s like telling the world, ‘I come to Denny’s all the time because I love the chicken salad.’ ”
This passage came to mind often while reading Killing Commendatore, because it serves as a handy apology for appreciating Murakami and the echoing, underwater world his books share. Even his most ardent defenders will admit to a certain sameness about them – there is nothing like a Murakami novel, unless it’s another Murakami novel, and then it’s almost exactly like it. Overwhelmingly, his work focuses on lonely young men, thrown into bizarre circumstance, who remain markedly sanguine as reality disintegrates around them, slouching wryly around Japan and listening to records.
This time it’s the story of an unnamed 36-year-old painter living in Tokyo, earning a respectable, if creatively unfulfilled living as a portrait artist. When his wife, Yuzu, announces that she’s been seeing someone else and wants a divorce, he abandons the ruins of his life and takes off on a road trip through rural Japan. He finally settles down on top of a mountain in remote Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, when a friend, Masahiko, offers him the use of his ailing father’s house. Masahiko’s father, Tomohiko Amada, is a famous artist painting in classical Japanese style, so the house comes replete with a painting studio – an ideal place for the narrator to lick his wounds, learn to paint again, and come to grips with his failed marriage. He does this in the style fans of Murakami will be accustomed to: brooding on works of pop culture and the mysteries of the heart, eating simple but elaborately described meals, and stumbling into a surreal netherworld.
While investigating a noise in the attic, the narrator discovers a lost masterwork by Tomohiko Amada depicting a murder. It’s titled Killing Commendatore and seems to depict an interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set in Japan’s sixth-century Asuka era. Our narrator admires it, discerns it is somehow connected to an atrocity in Vienna under the Nazi occupation, grows obsessed, and in his attempts to unravel the mystery of the painting, unleashes supernatural forces.
He begins to hear the sound of a ringing bell at night, the search for which leads him to a secret chamber buried behind an old shrine. There he finds an ancient Buddhist ceremonial bell. This sets in motion a series of events that shakes his self-imposed isolation and leads him to befriend Menshiki, a charismatic tech industrialist who lives in a luxurious house across the valley, Marie Akigawa, a wise-beyond-her-years 13-year-old girl who seems connected to both Menshiki and the mysterious shrine, and The Idea, a two-foot-high entity that takes the form of the Commendatore character from the lost painting. The Idea is a cordial little spirit prone to giving advice on the creative process. “What is important is not creating something out of nothing. What my friends need to do is discover the right thing from what is already there.”
Ideas, and the way we build reality from preconceptions we pick up along the way, are central to this story, a thematic through-line that is either transcendent or insufferable, depending on the reader’s tolerance for such things. At one point, the narrator physically brutalises an apparition that introduces itself as “Metaphor”.
While Murakami’s style is broadly magical realist, he’s closer in artistic intent to David Lynch than Gabriel García Márquez. With each book, Murakami seems more concerned with mood and less concerned with fulfilling the narrative contract that has underpinned novel-writing since The Tale of Genji, circa 1021.
Murakami’s oeuvre rests suspended in a world of its own making, somewhere between a tradition of hermetic Japanese artistry and freewheeling all-appropriating globalist pop culture. It’s easy to forget, this late into his career, how groundbreaking and strange the fusion of elements and influences are, especially when submerged by the bizarre storytelling techniques Murakami champions.
This novel, just shy of 700 pages, comes loaded with Easter eggs and playful references to the works that inspired it. The character of Menshiki – a self-made man with a shady background who’s obsessed with a lost relationship from his past – has echoes of The Great Gatsby (a book Murakami loves so much, he has translated it into Japanese), while the story of the bell is lifted wholesale from Edo-period author Ueda Akinari’s short story Nise no Enishi (“A bond for two lifetimes”). Both classic stories are shoehorned into the larger mystery alongside other Murakami staples: a well, an excursion into a sinister dimension, moments of intense eroticism, an adolescent girl with a mysterious connection to events beyond our comprehension, and an unseemly obsession with her budding breasts, all linked by vast passages of studied inanity while the narrator makes pasta.
Killing Commendatore also shares several plot elements and themes with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s 1997 English-language breakthrough novel. At several points it seems to be deliberately referencing it, even plagiarising it. Is this authorial laziness? An elegant postmodern tone poem about the immortal nature of ideas wrapped in a thrilling supernatural enigma? Who knows? Either Murakami has lost the ability to land an ending, or he’s grown beyond the need to.
As an exercise in building and maintaining tension, this book is a spectacular failure, and so, in the dream-logic of Murakami’s creation, it succeeds. The closing chapters will prove deeply unsatisfying for readers who want answers from the dozens of richly built plot threads, but for those who luxuriate in the sweeping, surrealist pleasures of the prose itself, this is Murakami’s strongest work in years, a mighty generous serving of chicken salad. ZC
Harvill Secker, 704pp, $45
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami". Subscribe here.