Copies of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's latest novel 'Killing Commendatore' are displayed sealed in wrappers with yellow warning notices in a bookstore in Hong Kong on July 26, 2018. (AFP/Anthony Wallace)
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's latest effort has split U.S. critics upon its release this month in English translation, with some praising the novel's breadth and surrealism while others write it off as an unfocused "disappointment."
"Killing Commendatore" ("Kishidancho Goroshi" in Japanese) tells the story of an unnamed 36-year-old portrait painter who separates from his wife and ends up in isolation after a road trip through northern and northeastern Japan.
During a span of months in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, where he stays in a house previously occupied by a famous, now senile Japanese painter, the narrator's attempts to renew his artistic talent are complicated by otherworldly events of a type familiar to Murakami readers, including the discovery of a painting from which the titular Commendatore comes to life.
With subplots involving a wealthy businessman, a mysterious 13-year-old girl, and the narrator's affair with a married woman, the book meanders through a story the New York Times says "might have been engaging at 300 or 400 pages" rather than its actual length of nearly 700.
The Times laments that the plot, despite its "promising mysteries" and "melodramatic bustle," never fully gains traction, and rates the novel "a baggy monster, a disappointment from a writer who has made much better work."
In contrast, the Washington Post takes its excesses in stride, describing Murakami's latest as an "immersive, repetitive, big-hearted" novel that achieves a better overall balance than his previous multivolume effort, "1Q84."
While the detached, largely passive male narrator fits a mold established by the 69-year-old Japanese author's earlier work, the Post argues that "Killing Commendatore" marks a shift in how he writes about middle age.
In response to loneliness and yearning in the wake of youth, the Post writes, Murakami's recent characters "want to turn themselves inside out, to escape the indecipherable mechanical momentum of their lives" -- a desire that leads to the creation of art, with Murakami's "exhilarating portrayal" of the creative process serving as a counterpoint to rather than a letdown from his earlier writing.
Among other reviews weighing the good and the bad, Entertainment Weekly deems the "wild and unwieldy" novel a success despite its missteps, while Publishers Weekly calls it "consistently rewarding" thanks in part to the author's sense of humor.
"Killing Commendatore," released in Japan in February 2017, was Murakami's first multivolume novel in Japanese since "1Q84" in 2009-2010.
In the interim, the world-renowned Japanese writer released other new work including the novel "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," which achieved bestseller status in English translation in 2014, as well as a collection of short stories and a book of conversations with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa.
The latest novel, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, was published by Knopf in the United States.
Though critics have at times scorned Murakami as a lightweight, the Japanese author's imaginative novels and stories have become a global phenomenon, propelling him to the status of likely Nobel Prize in Literature contender as enthusiastic fans around the world savor his work in more than 50 languages.
A review of "Killing Commendatore" from Kirkus Reviews acknowledges this split, concluding that the "pleasingly beguiling, if demanding" Murakami novel, though not for everyone, is "likely to satisfy longtime fans."