Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

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Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Review by Rob Spence

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

The strap line chosen by the publishers for the cover of this massive novel is instructive: “None of us are ever finished. Everyone is always a work in progress.” Despite its Dickensian length, Murakami’s eighteenth work of fiction has the feel of the unfinished about it. Although there is a satisfying circularity about the narrative, there are many threads that remain mysterious and unresolved, and an air of opacity pervades the text, which many readers, though presumably not Murakami’s legions of fans, will find irritating.

The Commendatore of the title, of course, evokes the ghostly nemesis of Don Giovanni in the Mozart / Da Ponte opera, and here he serves a similar function. In this case, he emerges, in one of this novel’s many magic realist flourishes, from a painting that the unnamed first-person narrator finds in the house he is renting, the former home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. Our narrator, a lesser artist reduced to painting portraits on commission, is a somewhat colourless figure, in contrast to Amada, whose backstory includes an encounter with Nazism in thirties Vienna. The painting depicts the moment in Mozart’s opera where Don Giovanni, having been challenged by the Commandatore, who is protecting his daughter from the Don’s advances, plunges his dagger into the older man’s chest, killing him. Amada’s painting translates the scene from eighteenth-century Spain to seventh-century Japan, for reasons that are never explained. Similarly, Murakami’s technique revolves around exploiting the connections and resonances between eastern and western cultures, so that a subplot here is a variation on The Great Gatsby, whilst other aspects of the novel recall pop culture American tales of the supernatural.

Murakami’s central character is, deliberately perhaps, rather dull: his marriage has broken up, providing him with the excuse for his departure to rural isolation in Amada’s house, where he conducts a listless affair with a local woman, and listens to the artist’s record collection. But his isolation is short-lived, and the narrative soon becomes a bustling series of encounters, many of them strange and possibly supernatural. A mysterious bell rings in the woods behind the house. Is this the ghostly presence of the long departed Buddhist monks? What lies in the pit under the cairn of stones, into which the narrator descends? What is the history of the reclusive neighbour, who is obsessed with a girl who may be his daughter? And what, exactly, is the status and significance of the two-foot high Commendatore, whose presence the narrator accepts as calmly if he were dealing with a cleaner or cook?

Lots of questions, and not many answers. This is by turns a fascinating and frustrating book. The plot’s many diversions, often down blind alleys, will annoy those who want to read for the story, but may delight those whose taste is for the whimsical and the digressive. The lack of a clear structure allows the narrator plenty of time for reflection, especially on the nature of art. The tone, detached and cool, seems to be at odds with the passions reflected in the painting, and this low-key style reads uneasily when the subject matter treats of ghosts and spirits. The English reader must assume that the translators, who are to be commended for the consistency of their work, have faithfully reproduced the idiom of the original. What they and Murakami have produced is a real curate’s egg: fascinating in parts, but with some longueurs that a more active editor might have tightened.

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Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore (Harvill Secker, 2018) 9781787300194, 674pp., hardback

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