Murakami, as is his habit, shares a number of interests with his unnamed narrator (the films of Akira Kurosawa, the albums of Bruce Springsteen). Let’s assume he shares some of his uncertainty, too. As such, Killing Commendatore, his 14th novel, feels almost like a debut. It’s a voyage of discovery, loquacious and digressive, largely making itself up as it goes along. The deeper into the woods it progresses, the more abundantly woolly the scenery grows. I suspect a real first-time novelist would probably start to panic at this point, desperately attempting to impose some order on events. But Murakami is happy to exist in a state of flux, entirely unperturbed by the circuitous course he has taken. His pace remains easy and unhurried. His prose is warm, conversational and studded with quiet profundities. He’s eminently good company; that most precious of qualities that we look for in an author. We trust him to get us entertainingly lost, just as we trust that he’ll eventually get us home.
There is plenty that he is brilliant at writing about. In this novel, he captures the creative process compellingly: the fragile transmutation of emotional disturbance into art, the staring at the blank canvas, the brushes with incoherence or even madness, the sudden certainty of what can and must be done, the doubt about whether or not it is being realized, and above all, the need to clear a space within which something new and unexpected can emerge. The complex landscape that Murakami assembles in Killing Commendatore is a word portrait of the artist’s inner life.
...Murakami’s is one of these baggy old monstrous novels into which the author stuffs anything that takes his fancy... Murakami is a light and fluent writer and it is easy to understand why he has become so popular. His narrative rattles along and does so without being disturbing... if you can bring yourself to overlook or excuse such errors of taste, and if you are not disturbed by a novel that veers from the apparently realistic into whimsy and absurdity, you will doubtless find much to enjoy here... There is an engaging, albeit slight, story here, but it is smothered in the verbiage. Murakami might have been well advised to recall the brevity with which Fitzgerald treats his theme, and said “that’s the way to do it”.
Murakami has always loved writing about other arts, and particularly music. Killing Commendatore has opera as its principal soundtrack, though increasingly Bruce Springsteen’s The River album joins in. Other sounds — the natural music of a rustling, hooting night owl, the subterranean knell of a long-buried bell — help compose a novel that rings in one’s ears as surely as does Gatsby, with its yellow cocktail music, Klipspringer’s piano playing, and those ‘muffled and suffocating chords’ that fight their way up from the Plaza ballroom... Neither longtime inspirations nor his own imagination fail Murakami here; Commendatore is a perfect balance of tradition and individual talent... Murakami dancing along ‘the inky blackness of the Path of Metaphor’ is like Fred Astaire dancing across a floor, then up the walls and onto the ceiling. No other writer so commands that manner of storytelling wrought from a stream of rich ideas, the thought-river, the word-hoard long used and newly brought to life, flowing ‘along the interstice between presence and absence’.
References to other texts, paintings and music are woven densely, like thick clothes-line rope, into the narrative, but, despite its length, its multi layers, its complexity, Killing Commendatore often feels lazy, like a painting-by-numbers version of an Old Master done in crayons.
However, it is the Crayola effect that makes this work original – childlike in its telling, but grand in the big, loud, colourful marks it makes. Too contrived in its madness, too garish and long, the words spill out over the pages like the clutter of a hoarder in therapy. But it’s one hell of a session. One hell of a tale.
Murakami the master? The ringmaster maybe – a funny, entertaining performer; a clever imagination playing the crowd.
Sir, I applaud you, I scribble across the last page!
Killing Commendatore feels like a rehash of his earlier, wildly successful novels, a mish-mash of deeply familiar stylistic tics and narrative formulae... On the surface Killing Commendatore is about how artists become inspired. The trouble is, surface is all you get here
Change the angle, as our hero finds with his portraits, and you change the picture. Murakami’s reality has many sides; some plain, some fancy. Translators Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen capture every colour on this mind-altering palette. For all his prolixity, no other author mixes domestic, fantastic and esoteric elements into such weirdly bewitching shades. Murakami’s “Land of Metaphor” remains a country where wonders never cease.
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.
At 69, Murakami has probably spent far more time slaving over Gatsby than anyone – certainly more than Fitzgerald ever did. Killing Commendatore strips out all the bling-bling parties but retains the kernel of the tragic story about a lonely dreamer whose fantasies provide a “satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality”. The novel spins wide, exploring ideas about art, grief and rebirth with echoes of Alice in Wonderland, Don Giovanni, Bluebeard’s Castle and an 18th-century story by Ueda Akinari about a mummy who comes back to life. The result is an exhausting epic that is at once more absorbing than it deserves to be and less profound than the author intended.
Otherwise it’s an enjoyably low-key performance. Murakami pulls his readers through on soft threads of mystery. If it all feels a bit pointless in the end, well, who cares? It’s good enough fun and Murakami fans will feel thoroughly at home. Who needs a Nobel prize anyway?
Yet despite this conceptual intricacy, Killing Commendatore avoids being schematic or dull. Murakami finds plenty of room for his customary tropes, not just the ones that obviously suit his theme – enjoyment of music, food and drink, car design, architecture – but animals and phantoms and doubles. The novel will only burnish his reputation, barely rivalled since the days of Dickens, as the living novelist who best combines literary excellence and commercial popularity. That he has achieved this balance is mainly a product of his taste for a kind of existential inquiry that is best served by noirish plotting.
Killing Commendatore is one of his longest and, it must be said, least engaging novels to date. Set in rural eastern Japan, an unnamed 36-year-old portrait painter has set up residence in a mountaintop retreat after divorcing his wife. ...Admirers of Murakami’s best-known novels — Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — will be disappointed. Japan’s best-known literary export seems to have lost his magic; let us hope it is temporary.
The friction between these elements, together with the equally matter-of-fact way they’re described, generates an undeniable comic voltage, but you’re never sure how far Murakami is in control of it. Melding the aftershocks of 20th-century conflict with those of private tragedy, Killing Commendatore is essentially a haunted-house tale in which the narrator, following the collapse of his marriage, leaves Tokyo for a mountainside village where a friend has invited him to house-sit for his elderly father, Tomohiko. This man is a celebrated artist who, now in a care home, has never spoken about what he saw while studying in Vienna at the time of Hitler’s Anschluss...It’s safe to say that there’s no one like Murakami, which is possibly a good thing in two senses. Although Killing Commendatore is clearly meant as an exploration of buried grief and desire, there are many things preventing it from being taken seriously: a fondness for recapitulation (a cause of the book’s size), time-stretching repetition (‘I got up from the table and walked slowly to the door’ ends one chapter; the next begins, ‘I walked slowly to the door’) and a figurative repertoire borrowed from The Fast Show’s Swiss Toni (the taste of Bordeaux is likened to ‘a mysterious woman whose beauty changes slightly depending on the angle and light’; a finished painting refuses the narrator’s brush ‘like a sexually satisfied woman’). The result is a roller coaster that leaves you dizzy, maybe even nauseous. He won’t get the Nobel Prize this year: it has been suspended and he has asked to be omitted from a shortlist of names for an alternative award. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award, on the other hand…
What makes his voice so distinctive, and so captivating, is the mix of precise observation, clarity and deadpan humour. When it all seems to be going just a bit too far, a flash of wit will remind us that this is agame, and we have been invited to play it. We are, in fact, in on the joke... Murakami is a master storyteller and he knows how to keep us hooked. But there are moments when the cliffhangers seem a little bit too clunking, and the echoes, of the narrator’s dead sister, for example, just a bit overdone... “Everyone,” says the narrator towards the end, “is always a work in progress.” It’s true for him, as he tries to develop as an artist, and it’s true for Murakami, as he continues his quest to try new things, push new boundaries and invite us along for a wild, thrilling, and in this case slightly bumpy, ride.