Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Haruki Murakami is no stranger to exploring the slices of reality which exist somewhere between truth and imagination, to the point where I suspect he came out from one of them. In his recent novel, Killing Commendatore, he tells the story of an unnamed portrait painter who, upon finding a magnificent painting in an attic, embarks on a strange journey of self-discovery, one which blurs the thin line between fiction and reality and shows him a world hidden in plain sight.
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Haruki Murakami Unearths a Painting of Power
Even the most scientifically-minded among us would find it hard to deny the power of painted art, how deeply it can touch people, and perhaps even change them. Some paintings are so magnificent and awe-inspiring they almost have some supernatural hold on all those who witness them, and in Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, the main character discovers such a work tucked away from the world’s prying eyes.
The story begins by presenting us with the narrator of the story, an unnamed portrait painter more or less down on his luck. In the wake of his wife confessing her infidelity to him and asking for a divorce, the protagonist decides to quit his job as a portrait painter, for the time being at least, and embarks on a directionless road trip across Japan.
Eventually his car breaks down, and Masahiko, his friend, offers him an opportunity he can’t quite pass up. With the latter’s father, famous Japanese painter Tomohiko Amada being ill and at the end of his rope, there is no one who can take care of his house in the mountains. Naturally, the protagonist ends up accepting this unusual offer, especially in light of his car troubles and dwindling resources.
After settling into the house, he goes up into the attic to discover an owl living there, and more importantly, the titular painting, depicting a scene from Don Giovanni, but in a classic Japanese style. Soon after, the protagonist makes the acquaintance of a neighbour on the mountain, a mysteriously-wealthy and dangerously-capable Menshiki, who seems to take a great interest in him, and more strangely, the large pit they soon discover in the backyard of the Amada house.
From there on out, things only become increasingly strange for the protagonist when the Commendatore from the painting seemingly manifests before him, albeit two feet in height. The little man begins to guide our protagonist on a strange journey of discovery about the painting, Tomohiko Amada’s past, Menshiki’s true intentions, his role at the centre of it all, and his identity as a painter.
From a distance, most things look beautiful.― Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
Crafting the Perfect Portrait in Killing Commendatore
If you’re already familiar with Murakami‘s landmark works, then you already know what to expect in terms of the journey the main character is embarking on. There are plenty of events, twists and characters to discuss, but before looking at all of that, I would like to turn my attention to what really sets Killing Commendatore apart from his other works: Murakami‘s exploration of a portrait painter’s craft.
While the main character does quit painting portraits for a living at the start, he doesn’t abandon his craft, teaching classes and taking on special commissions from Menshiki. It’s an activity he returns to time and time again, and the author seems to truly relish in exploring the psychological aspects involved in capturing someone’s likeness on canvas.
While I can’t imagine the protagonist’s methods as being universal, the way in which Murakami describes them is nothing short of fascinating, explaining the ultimate goal as not being reproduction, but rather, the discovery of the hidden inner self, the one encompassing each one of us in totality. He makes us understand it’s much more than a simple activity; soul-searching is what it really is.
Going beyond that, Haruki Murakami also takes a good and long look at the power such paintings can hold, and how the people depicted on the canvas can spill into the real world, influencing our lives and our thoughts. I really loved how for our protagonist, his main nemesis seemed to be the man with the white Subaru Forester, a menacing figure who appeared to know exactly what dirty deeds he had been up to, and whose portrait won’t allow itself to be finished.
The author blurs the line between the real and painted worlds just enough to make us doubt what can and cannot be real. Slowly, he makes us accepting of the idea that portraits have power of their own, an influence they exert on the world around them, and that the inspired work of true artists can very well have real and unpredictable consequences.
Instead of a stable truth, I choose unstable possibilities.― Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
The Hidden Trap Door to the Underworld
Moving on and discussing the story itself, it does take a little while to set the stage and get going, with Murakami meandering along the main character until he finds himself in the Amada home. As a matter of fact, the story feels fairly tame and routine until the protagonist makes the discovery of the painting in his attic, marking the beginning of the actual plot.
From there on out my interest was certainly piqued as the author kept on throwing curious new elements into the mix, including Menshiki, the pit in the back of the house, the manifestation of the Commendatore from the painting, a thirteen-year-old girl who ends up disappearing, and even a failed Nazi assassination attempt in World War II Vienna.
In other words, there’s always something to drum up the mystery and keep our attention glued to the pages, and the deeper the protagonist ventures into Tomohiko Amada’s story and the meaning behind his painting, the more it feels like we’re inching closer to something unnatural, never meant to be seen. Haruki Murakami feeds us information one spoonful at a time, ensuring we never overdose but are always left wanting for more.
While he does have books where the supernatural and mystical elements get a little too far out of hand, in Killing Commendatore things stay fairly grounded, for the most part at least. There is, of course, a section where the protagonist goes on a seemingly impossible journey of metaphorical proportions and ends up trapped in a small and dark location, but it wouldn’t be a Murakami novel without that.
While I did feel like certain parts in the middle of the book dragged their feet a little too much for my taste, on the whole I’d say it wasn’t a noticeable problem, especially since, in my opinion, this was a story made to be savoured rather than swallowed. I thought the ending wrapped the story up quite nicely, in a rather human and believable fashion, showing that for all that we lose and gain, we remain imperfect beings and must simply live on as best we can.
|704||Knopf||Oct. 9 2018||978-0525520047|
The Final Verdict
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami is an exquisite literary fiction novel mixing a profound take on the craft of painting portraits and a surrealistic journey rife with mysterious circumstances and memorable characters.
If you’re a fan of the author, or are looking for a longer and slower type of read, one which promises a far-reaching and profound adventure with unique art-related twists to it, then you should definitely give this novel a shot.
Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer and author of numerous bestsellers, some of which earned him the Franz Kafka Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and others. Some of his better known works include Hear the Wind Sing and Kafka on the Shore.