The Jakarta Post
‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami (Knopf/File)
Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Killing Commendatore is a tale of loss, grief and the possibility of personal transformation after going through a devastating life crisis. Reading any of Murakami’s novels, chances are you will find the same kind of protagonist there: an insecure and loner guy, who likes jazz and/or classical music, who is suddenly abandoned by his wife, romantic partner or friends.
Yet, the author has always been able to twist and turn this starting point into a myriad of different character back stories.
The same character can also be found in his latest output. The novel’s 36-year-old male protagonist is a painter who has abandoned his personal creative pursuits as he has already been trapped in a comfort zone earning a living by making commissioned portraits. One day, his wife of six years announces she wants a divorce. Their separation unravels a heavy baggage of loss and grief from the protagonist’s own childhood.
Trying to escape from the pain that haunts him in the aftermath of his separation from his wife, the man embarks on a lonely journey, putting himself into exile in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada, who is currently hospitalized due to dementia. Then, a mysterious man appears in his life.
The painter’s encounter with this mysterious man, along with his discovery of Amada’s painting Killing Commendatore, which blows him away, eventually inspires him to rediscover his own creative spark.
After too many years suffering from “painter’s block”, the painter starts to pursue his own creativity again, independent of commissioned projects. Murakami’s story arc in this novel is based on the song cycle pattern. Murakami himself is an avid music lover — in 2016 he published a non-fiction book called Absolutely on Music, documenting a series of conversations with his friend, the acclaimed Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa.
Song cycle is a term in classical music referring to an interdependent series of songs that form a narrative following a certain storyline: a person encounters a personal crisis, before embarking on a journey to cope with the grief. Along the way, the person will encounter a series of unexpected friends and magical events, which then help them to transform and rebuild their life again following their experience of loss.
As the individual empowers him or herself, they will then be awakened to a global crisis bigger than the one they are experiencing and thus are called to help mitigate the global crisis by using their creativity and intelligence.
Song cycles follow the idea of loss and gain, whereby a person’s grief eventually brings with it a chance to start anew with one’s life, to find love again. The journey of the novel’s main character follows this archetypal pattern.
In Killing Commendatore, Murakami makes some subtle references to the rise of global fascism. The book also contains multilayered discussions on the aesthetic value of commissioned works versus independently created paintings, Japan’s history and culture, as well as the global history of fascism. These debates are intimately connected to the characters’ grief and melancholy, in a story told in an eclectic technique combining romance, horror and thriller. The 704-page novel is highly addictive, guaranteed to make you stay up all night just to satisfy your curiosity of what will happen next to the characters. Also, starting with his novel 1Q84 in 2010, followed by his 2014 novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami has shown more positive and optimistic themes of personal empowerment and healing in his writings — a tone that also pervades along Killing Commendatore. It is a beautiful demarcation from the doom-and-gloom that permeates his previous novels, most memorably the highly disturbing and depressive The Wind-up Bird Chronicle ( 1995 ).
Murakami’s latest also provokes some unnecessary controversy: in Hong Kong, the book is classified by the Obscene Articles Tribunal of the country under “Class II-Indecent”, requiring the publisher not to distribute the book to people under 18, while sealing it with printed warnings on its front and back covers. Public libraries are not allowed to lend the book to anyone under 18, with the book being removed from the Hong Kong Book Fair’s shelves.
Upon close reading, the novel’s violence is nothing to worry about. At times, it is even necessary for us to confront our own dark side before we can actually commit ourselves to be more compassionate. In that sense, violence depicted in the novel can be interpreted as Murakami’s social criticism. To note one curious thing: the new novel’s central character experiences his personal transformation at the age of 36, just like the protagonist of his novel Tsukuru Tazaki. It would be interesting to learn what the age of 36 signifies for Murakami.
Currently at the age of 69, Murakami is a writer that so many young ones will find enviable: he is complicated yet excellent and he just gets better at writing.
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen