Killing Commendatore: A blizzard of the bizarre from an Eastern giant
Fiction: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami Translators Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker, hardback, 704 pages, €21.99
With a readership that has seen him dubbed "the JK Rowling of Japan", while also eliciting a hushed reverence in the West where his magic-realist voyages are perhaps read into a little too closely, Haruki Murakami is a fascinating presence in international publishing.
Even before acclaim and commercial clout are taken into account, he is remarkably storied himself for a writer. An opportunity is never missed to mention his light-bulb epiphany at 29 during a baseball game to pen a novel, or his love of jazz, cooking and long-distance running.
All this seems to clash with the quiet Kyotoite anxious to shut down talk of Nobel prizes so that he can get on with working in peace. Out the other side, the world is met with romance, darkness and humour, all punctuated with a strangely spare mysticism that can seem as transfixing and crucial as it does absurd.
Over a sprawling, confounding 700-plus pages, Killing Commendatore, Murakami's 14th novel (he has also written scores of short stories and non-fiction essays) is precisely the kind of thing his subscribers will relish but may leave others scratching their heads as to what the fuss is about precisely.
Told in the first person, it follows a nameless portrait artist who is in the creative doldrums following his wife's affair. He relocates to the mountain home of a famous artist called Tomohiko Amada who has been placed in institutional care for dementia. After being helped to settle in by Tomohiko's son, our protagonist discovers a strange painting in the attic that shows a 7th-century feudal commander being killed while various onlookers react. The piece consumes him wholly, enticing him to ponder why it was hidden away and what drove Tomohiko to depict this scene from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (the killing of Donna Anna's father) and why its cast of characters are resounding with him so forcibly. Soon after, a different sort of chime materialises when he starts hearing a bell coming from the nearby woods at night.
While all this is swirling away, our painter has received a commission from a mysterious and wealthy neighbour across the valley called Menshiki who has made him an offer he can't refuse to paint his portrait. Menshiki soon involves himself in the strange nocturnal sounds while also sharing his desire to reconnect with a local girl who may be his estranged daughter.
Wartime ghosts waft into view from Nazi Vienna and the viciously brutalised Chinese city of Nanjing, while there is a potent seam of the erotic as a scorned lover frenziedly fills the space left by his ex-wife.
On to the arena step 2ft-tall avatars of characters in the painting. The verbose and nosey Commendatore is the walking embodiment of an idea, we are told. Another character brought to life represents a metaphor.
Eventually, our man is sucked into the underworld where "double metaphors" loom and he is forced to face the beloved sister who died when he was young.
This blizzard of bizarre toggles beside more tangible intrigues such as the painter's heated affair with a married woman who helps him snoop into Menshiki's backstory in a manner that carries notes of Rear Window. Unsurprisingly for a novel whose overarching theme is surely the path of creativity and the consuming, lonesome nature of art, Murakami is in conversation with a host of other ingredients, from Lewis Carroll's opium phantasmagoria to The Great Gatsby's curtain-twitching voyeurism (Menshiki is clearly the wealthy but hollow object of fascination).
Depending on the angle you view all this from, Killing Commendatore is either bonkers or brilliant, a knowing and elaborate discussion or an indulgent mess. It certainly can feel at times like Murakami is making it up as he strolls along, but it's probably fairer to view that unfolding pace and its elongated sidebars of gentle, ponderous inquiry as part of a plot to slow you down to his rhythm so that things might seep in more.
Murakami teases things out like a meandering river approaching an ocean (to use the type of metaphor this novel is dotted with), and those who love the inimitable world he brings you to will feel right at home. It is hard not to imagine newcomers to the Eastern giant losing patience, however.