Late last year, the long-awaited English version of Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore was finally released, but to widely mixed reviews. Aware of the lukewarm reception, I picked up the novel with fairly low expectations. But while Killing Commendatore is far from perfect, I ended up pleasantly surprised. In fact, I’d consider it Murakami’s best novel of the past 15 years. With that said, the book may not be for everyone.
IS KILLING COMMENDATORE WORTH THE READ?
(Note: The first section of the review is spoiler free. You’ll find a warning once the spoiler section begins.)
Nevertheless, I would not recommend this book to readers who are relatively new to Murakami. When it comes to his ‘magical realism’ books, be sure to pick up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kafka on the Shore before this one.
Killing Commendatore, in many ways, feels like a tribute to those earlier novels. Murakami reuses many familiar tropes, and he seems to have done so deliberately while keeping his longtime readers in mind. As I read through the 700-page book, it was almost like a game to see how many references to his other books I could spot.
But there’s one book in particular that Killing Commendatore shares most in common with: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This mid-’90’s masterpiece is my favorite of all Murakami books, and so I was excited from the beginning to encounter a familiar character in the prologue: the Man With No Face.
Without giving too much away, other similarities between the two books reveal themselves in the first couple hundred pages: the narrator’s wife leaves him and he discovers a mysterious pit (likely an old well) near the house he’s living in. And he also befriends a quirky and intelligent teenage girl.
But while these similarities will delight fans of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, they also make it hard to not constantly compare the two novels. And in just about every way, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the far superior book.
Killing Commendatore just lacks the flow, character depth, and overall charm that Wind-Up Bird has. It’s also sobering to realize that that book is over two decades older. Can Murakami ever write anything that good again? Maybe not, but that’s ok. He hasn’t completely lost his touch. Killing Commendatore is proof of that.
While, as mentioned, many themes are merely rehashed from previous books, the basic premise of the story is fresh enough to keep the reader engaged. The unnamed narrator is a painter, which is a new concept for a Murakami novel. While music is still a big theme here (the book’s title is derived from the opera Don Giovanni), art plays an even bigger role.
There are relatively few characters overall and that makes the story pretty easy to follow. Especially with all the bizarre ‘magical’ stuff taking place, which would be especially confusing if there were many more characters to keep track of. While the book may be too slow paced for some, I felt that the pacing really helped draw me into the narrator’s world. That is, after all, what Murakami does best.
If you’re unaware of the basic plot, it goes something like this: the narrator, recently divorced, takes up residence in the vacant mountaintop house of his best friend’s father. Like the narrator himself, the house’s owner is a painter. And when the narrator discovers a mysterious painting hidden in the attic, he inadvertently sets off a strange series of events.
Meanwhile, the rich, eccentric, Gatsby-esque man who lives across the valley also enters the protagonist’s life. And while the two are friendly, his true intentions remain ambiguous throughout the entire story.
If that sounds intriguing to you, you’ll enjoy the book. But sadly, Killing Commendatore‘s major flaw is one that’s also shared with other recent Murakami novels. Namely, tension builds and builds throughout the book, only for things to end rather anticlimactically. Killing Commendatore, at least, does a better job of tying up loose ends than 1Q84 or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
THOUGHT FORMS AND THE UNDERWORLD
(Warning: There are major spoilers beyond this point!)
Killing Commendatore, like many of Murakami’s other novels, fits very neatly in the ‘magical realism’ category of fiction. We’re introduced to an ordinary man who works an ordinary job in our ordinary world. But then, all of a sudden, strange things start to happen.
Like most of Murakami’s novels, the theme of ‘another world’ plays a major role here. And while hardly new or original, I especially liked the way this concept is presented in Killing Commendatore.
Aside from the prologue, the first instance of something out of the ordinary happening is the narrator hearing the strange sound of the bell. With the help of Menshiki and his business connections, they retrieve the old bell, an act which unleashes the ‘Commendatore’ from beneath the pit.
But what is the Commendatore and how was he formed? According to the Commendatore himself, he is merely an ‘idea’ that is essentially formless. Nonetheless, he’s taken on the form of the character from Tomohiko Amada’s painting, as he understands the significance this imagery has for the narrator.
Murakami used this concept in a previous novel, Kafka on the Shore. In that book, the ‘idea’ takes on the form of none other than Colonel Sanders. For better or for worse, people all around the world know who Colonel Sanders is, and the absurdity of the guise provides some comic relief for such an abstract concept.
In the case of the Commendatore, on the other hand, we need to imagine his appearance on our own. There’s not even a depiction of Amada’s painting on the book cover. While I can’t speak for all negative reviews, I think a lot of people who disliked the book were those who got turned off by, well, the idea of the ‘idea.’ The thought of a painting’s character materializing in the real world can seem pretty absurd and childish for an adult novel.
It took me awhile to get into this whole aspect of the plot myself. But I think the overall theme here is both the power of art and its ability to act as a bridge between realms. I just so happened to be doing research into art from various ancient cultures while reading the novel, and I couldn’t help but notice some parallels.
Many cultures throughout the world created art not just because it looked pretty, but because they saw it as a way to bridge the gap between our ordinary reality and other realms. They sometimes even called on divinities to come ‘inhabit’ these works of art.
And in Tibet for example, there’s even a practice of deity manifestation referred to as yidam. At the beginning of this mental exercise, a practitioner intently focuses on the divinity’s form by gazing at its likeness in paintings and sculpture. Ideally, after many days of intense focus, the yidam should appear before the practitioner as if it were actually in the room. It’s not unlike how the narrator intently focuses on the painting for days before the Commendatore eventually appears in his house.
In the novel, Amada presumably painted Killing Commendatore while recalling a tremendously intense emotional experience from his personal life. And in the end, he didn’t just create a painting. While he unlikely did so deliberately, his intense concentration of thoughts and emotions actually gave birth to a new sentient being in an abstract ‘thought realm.’ At least, that’s how I interpreted the story!
Near the end of the novel, after the narrator kills the Commendatore, he descends down into a deep and dark realm with the help of Long Face. The concept of the underworld also plays a major role in several other works by Murakami, but I found it to be especially well done in this book.
The underworld scenes seem to have been inspired by the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries of ancient Greece. Initiates into these mystery schools would be given detailed instructions on certain beings they would meet upon death, and what to say to them. Furthermore, which body of water they chose to drink out of was pivotal. It was important to drink from the pool of ‘Memory’ rather than that of ‘Forgetfulness,’ and the choice would greatly determine the soul’s future incarnation.
The protagonist, of course, is not dead (it was the Commendatore who died in his place), but he does encounter a river and a strange being (the faceless man). Thirsty, he drinks from the river, which turns out to be the right choice. When he later meets the other ‘idea’ in the form of Donna Anna, she tells him, “That river flows along the interstice between presence and absence. It is filled with hidden possibilities that only the finest metaphors can bring to the surface.”
While crawling through the dark tunnel, memories of his dead younger sister are what help him stay sane. But even having drunk from the river, he still struggles to recall other concrete memories. Without a memory to cling to, he risks getting completely absorbed by the darkness.
Donna Anna also explains the true significance behind the Killing Commendatore painting itself. “Like a great poem, the painting was a perfect metaphor, one that launched a new reality into the world,” she says.
Perhaps there is some world out there where all sorts of ideas and metaphors from Murakami novels meet and hang out? If so, how does that world interact with our own?
THE GEOGRAPHY OF KILLING COMMENDATORE
As the author of a guide book dedicated to the geography of Murakami’s novels, I, of course, took a special interest in the locations featured in the book.
In the beginning of the story, the recently divorced narrator takes a road trip through northern Japan. He visits Hokkaido, where classic novels like A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance take place. He continues his journey down south through the Tohoku region, and it’s in an unnamed town in Miyagi Prefecture where he encounters “The Man in the White Subaru Forester.” This is the first Murakami novel where Tohoku plays a significant role.
The backstory of Tomohiko Amada also takes us to World War II-era Vienna. This may just be a random coincidence, but Vienna happens to be the hometown of 20th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner. While Murakami doesn’t reference him, Steiner is known for his writings on topics like outer realms, confronting one’s shadow, and human thoughts as physical vibrations – all highly relevant themes to this novel.
But the main portion of the book occurs in the Kanto area of Japan, the area where nearly all of Murakami’s novels take place. The vacant house the narrator stays in for most of the book is located in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Kanagawa, situated just south of Tokyo, makes frequent appearances through many, if not most of Murakami’s novels (it is, after all, where the author lives). But aside from a brief appearance in Dance, Dance, Dance, this is the only novel so far in which the city of Odawara is featured so prominently. Located in the western part of the prefecture, Odawara is mostly known for its castle.
KILLING COMMENDATORE IN THE MURAKAMI PILGRIMAGE
When I made The Murakami Pilgrimage, the latest novel out at the time was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Now that Killing Commendatore has come out, it’s time for an updated edition. Unfortunately, though, I can’t exactly hop on a train to Odawara right now to start the new chapter.
I was living in Japan full time when I researched and wrote The Murakami Pilgrimage. But after many years of living there, I left just right after the physical version of the book was published. As I’m not there anymore, I’ll have to make a return trip before I can update the book, and I can’t say for sure when that will happen.
Rest assured, though, that I’ll continue making new editions of The Murakami Pilgrimage for as long as Murakami keeps putting out novels. Just don’t expect them to come out right after a new novel’s release!
While I do intend to update the paperback version, I chose the web format for the eBook version with future updates in mind. Note that even if you buy the eBook version now, you’ll get the extra chapter for Killing Commendatore automatically added for free once it’s finished.
As I took extensive notes while reading the book, one thing I can update in the near future is the ‘Location Reference Guide.’ That portion of the guide book is basically a complete collection of every single reference to a location in all of Murakami’s books.
While I’m tied up with a few other projects at the moment, be sure to check this post, or sign up to the mailing list, for announcements on when that’s ready.