Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Book Review: Killing Commendatore

From Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami:

Killing Commendatore


"It was a couple of months after I’d moved there that I discovered Tomohiko Amada’s painting Killing Commendatore. I couldn’t know it at the time, but that one painting changed my world forever."

Book Review: Killing Commendatore: Magical realism by my favorite author, Haruki Murakami. An artist, after breaking up with his wife, secludes himself in a mountain cabin belonging to a dying famous Japanese artist whose long hidden secrets emerge from a covered well. A-

After the jump, my full review.

Haruki Murakami's writes in a style of magical realism. In magical realism, fantastical events occur within an ordinary setting without being treated as extraordinary. In this case, figures from an old painting come to life, or at least they appear to the main character, the unnamed narrator of our story. He's a middle-aged artist who has made a living painting portraits of businessmen, the kind that hang in corporate boardrooms. Not great art, but easy money. When his wife decides one day to leave him, he packs up, moves to a remote cabin, and waits for inspiration. He doesn't know what he wants to paint; he just knows he's done with portraits. He takes a part-time job in a nearby village teaching painting to children. One of his students is thirteen-year-old Mariye.

About a third of the way through the novel, the first magical occurrence happens. During the middle of the night, our narrator hears a bell ringing. He tracks it to a pit near an old shrine near the house. With the aid of a too-friendly neighbor, Menshiki, he excavates the pit to find an old bell, but no explanation for who could have been ringing it from the bottom of an old, covered up pit. Menshiki is single, rich, and our narrator is a bit suspicious about his motives.

Much of the novel deals with the interactions of our narrator, his neighbor Menshiki, and student Mariye. Oh, and Tomohiko Amada, even though he's an old man with dementia dying in a nursing home far away. The interactions aren't with Tomohiko Amada, but with a character in one of his paintings, the Commendatore. Suspend your disbelief and the story becomes a page-turning mystery.

On the plus side, like almost all of Murakami's protagonists, our unnamed Japanese painter likes classical Western music and literature and single malt Scotch whiskey. He's explains his artistic style in a way that sounds authentic (to this non-artist). Some of Murakami's characters here who are clearly magical explain themselves as being merely "ideas" and "metaphors." What it would mean for a character in a novel to be an idea gets some consideration by our narrator. I like all of that.

On the negative side, the women in this novel are all there for only one purpose, to be counterpoints to the men in the novel. The prepubescent Mariye, who is cool to everyone, including men, is obsessed with her flat chest, and raises the subject multiple times with our narrator. Is this believable or is Murakami creepy? I've never been a prepubuscent girl, but those passages made this aging man uncomfortable.

Overall, there's so much more to like here than to wish would have been excised by an editor. Maybe Murakami is an acquired taste. But if so, I definitely have acquired it. Most of it.

Grade: A-

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