Book review: Killing Commendatore

Killing Commendatore.Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Ah, Murakami. My old buddy. Ole pal.

His works are among the first I came to when I began reading weirder literature, and so I feel great affection for him. I loved his strangeness, and then – later – I loved his plainer works, his more natural narratives. And perhaps, above all, his non-fiction titles.

And every time he puts out a new one, I snap it up. Because in each title is the kernel of hope that I’ll be dazzled the way I was when I first grabbed hold of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Kind of akin to how I keep buying albums by bands I idolised in university, in the hope that their albums will spark the joy I’ve been seeking since undergrad days.

They usually don’t, though, which is a shame. And maybe more about me than the novelist (or the bands) but here we are. It seems – as has occurred with a couple of recent-ish releases by the guy – that the score is always pretty good – but not great.

This one isn’t great, but I do like it a fair bit because it seems to engage more with the idea of artistic work and creation than some of the author’s other works. How objects are created (and the power they hold, whether planned or not) is an important topic in here, and I think the role of the subconscious in this process is given attention as it echoes the way the author creates his work: in a kind of mesmerised autopilot.

(It’s also a thing of mine to wonder – thanks to the role of translation in reading Murakami’s work – about the unintended consequences of the relaying of a text in a language not its own. Just as the artist protagonist finds strange aspects of his work after the work’s done, I wonder whether Murakami sometimes reads the translations of his works and finds images in there, unintended yet pleasantly apposite.)

The story is a fairly simple one – yes, despite the otherworldly characters that crop up from time to time – and we’re given where it will end at the beginning. It’s the tale of a portrait artist whose wife calls time on their relationship, forcing him on a journey of self-discovery that ends with him living in the now-abandoned house of a friend’s famous artist father. Along the way there’s a bit of drinking, some classical music, the examination of Ideas, and a copious portion of underground examination, until finally the protagonist ends up where we came in.

Hang on, does that underground bit sound familiar? Like maybe it’s something you’ve read before. Say, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? SNAP. The familiar parts of Murakami’s work – Aoyama, flirtatious women, musical geekery and a kind of nerdy schlub main character – are in full effect here. Hell, one of the characters’ names refers to a lack of colour, an undoubted nod to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, even if the character this time around is more like a Japanese Roger Sterling than anything more humble. I guess it’s the Murakami Bingo thing again, but hey, it still seems to work.

Killing Commendatore, as the name would infer, borrows a fair bit from Don Giovanni. Well, it borrows imagery from it, at least – there’s a Commendatore, even if he’s not as, uh, imposing as Mozart’s main man. There’s hell. There’s hidden desires. There’s booze. But it also chucks fair chunks of The Great Gatsby: the distance of obsession, the insanity of wealth, and the power of making up your past.

There’s a lot of examination throughout of the influence the past has on one’s future – in art, war and life – and this seems a more kitchen-sink Lynch than other work the author’s created. I had the distinct feeling that the flatness of some characters – hello, breast-obsessed schoolgirl! – is less an example of badly-written character than it is a stand-in for the idea that everyone is a work in progress, continually either being written, erased or revised. There’s a feeling that the book is about creation and rediscovery, and that it’s fine to not understand what certain things in life mean, even when you feel you should, because some parts of life might exist solely so they can be lost.

Do I wish the book hung together better? Sure. But it’s enjoyable enough as-is. This is another on-brand Murakami, but it seems to manage that with a little more aplomb than some of his other recent works. It’s a bit stranger than some others. It’s certainly shorter than 1Q84 (which, admittedly, doesn’t take much doing, given that you could’ve driven a brush-cutter through that thing and probably not done much damage). But it also feels more honest, and more natural – like this is something that actually matters to the author, rather than being a grab-bag of the usual tropes.

It’s worth a look, at the very least.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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