November 2018


‘Killing Commendatore’ by Haruki Murakami

By Helen Elliott
Cover of Killing Commendatore
Art, music and mystery abound in the Japanese author’s latest novel

The 700 pages of Killing Commendatore (Harvill Secker; $45) ripple into being like an unfolding Japanese screen, each panel another miniature stage set. Murakami’s universe is embedded with obsessions, patterned with music and art, and it slants in every surprising and exhilarating way.

The Commendatore of the title is a character in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Murdered by Don Juan in Act 1, Scene 1, he reappears in different form late in the opera. Don Giovanni, skittering about between comedy, tragedy and the supernatural, is annoying to follow but not necessary to know when reading Murakami’s new novel. As always, music inflects every particle of his universe. The central character and narrator, significantly unnamed, talks and plays Richard Strauss but is equally fond of jazz and contemporary American song. A portrait painter, he tells his story with a bizarre tranquillity, brushing in drama with firm black strokes, and foregrounding details in vibrant colour. He inserts tiny lectures on traditional Japanese painting.

The narrator is successful in his art and happily married until, at 36, his wife of six years tells him she can no longer live with him. She confesses that she has a lover but her need to end their marriage is for a reason she refuses to explain. In shock, he leaves their house that evening. After some weeks of aimless driving and sleeping in cheap places, he takes up a suggestion that he caretake the mountaintop house of a friend’s father, a revered traditional artist who is now in aged care. The narrator finds a violent Western-style painting, unlike anything the famous old artist has ever done, hidden in the roof of the house. Written across the packing is the title, Killing Commendatore.

The mountain is another world. In the house’s garden there is a shrine with a cellar once used to wall in volunteer monks determined to starve themselves into the next plane of being. Across the valley, directly opposite the narrator’s modest house, there is a magnificent, showy contemporary house. When the owner of this house, Mr Menshiki, arrives in his exquisite car and even more exquisite clothes, the narrator is intrigued. But Menshiki’s external perfection deflects any attempt at intimacy. He is a portrait without a face.

Menshiki, whose name means “avoiding colours”, drives the central plot. He could be the most dangerous charmer the narrator will ever meet. Or the most enabling.

I, too, disliked fantastical characters elbowing themselves into adult novels until I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Mitchell redefines time, and Murakami’s novel is reminiscent of Mitchell’s in the best sense. Inspiration, not imitation. Murakami facilitates adults to read again as if they were children. An enchantment to the soul and a lure to the mind.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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