Saturday, 1 December 2018

Book review: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami (2018)

You know that feeling when you’re reading a book and you get shivers of pleasure running along your arms and your neck. That’s the sign of good literature, and this book delivers that kind of experience. It’s an experience that is unmistakeable to the committed reader, the person who prefers, to just about any other kind of activity, a quiet few hours ensconced in the living room on the couch with a book.

This is a remarkable work from a master of the novel form. Since ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ (1999, English translation 2001) Murakami has produced a series of novels that have done the job in a practical sense, but have not equalled his early phase of magical realistic ventures, those masterpieces like ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ (1985, English translation 1989), ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ (1985, English translation 1991), and ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ (1994-95, English translation 1997). But now Murakami has regained the heights he had earlier scaled and is, some might with reason argue, the foremost novelist working in the field today.

I want to start this review with some criticisms though. The first has to do with the translation, which is into American English so you get localisms like “in back of” instead of “behind”. You also get measurements converted into empirical units like feet and inches (which is inaccurate because Japan, where the book is set, uses the metric system in all cases). But more disturbingly you get some strange things like the use of the word “district” instead of the more accurate “prefecture”. Japanese number plates show on them the prefecture the car is registered in, and using the word “district” instead just because your American audience can’t be bothered learning something new, is idiotic.

The other criticism I have stems from a choice Murakami himself has made in the book, which deals in part with a painter named Tomohiko Amada who was a master of what Murakami calls the “Japanese style”. To make his point he refers to the Asuka period (538AD to 710AD) which was precisely the period when Tang Chinese calligraphy and Buddhist practice were imported into Japan along with other elements of their culture such as painting with a brush on paper. So to call it “Japanese-style painting” is to do violence to the truth. It was precisely Chinese-style painting that Amada was practicing in the 20th century in Japan.

The way that China is depicted in the novel is of some interest because of certain elements of the plot and of characterisation. In what follows there are spoilers so people who don't want to know what happens in the novel before reading it should stop reading this review here.

‘Killing Commendatore’ deals with events in the life of an unnamed artist who is aged 36 and whose wife Yuzu one day tells him that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore. They live in an apartment in Hiroo, in central Tokyo, and the protagonist decides to move out immediately. He goes on a sort of pilgrimage around the north of the country to assuage his grief but eventually a friend of his named Masahiko Amano (the son of the painter) offers him the use of his father’s house in Odawara, in Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour by train from the metropolitan centre. There, he is approached by a man named Wataru Menshiki who lives in a big house across the valley. The protagonist has also started hearing the sound of a bell in the dead of night, and together with Menshiki he digs up a mound of stones that had been placed on the ground behind a shrine on the famous artist’s property. They discover a hole in the ground that had been constructed using stone, and in the hole there is a small bell that can be held in your hand that is of a type traditionally used in Buddhist ceremonies. Then things start to happen that he would never have expected.

One day after the hole has been revealed a small man appears in the protagonist’s house who looks like a character from a painting titled ‘Killing Commendatore’ that, before he was moved to a nursing home due to dementia, Tomohiko Amano had painted and hidden away in the ceiling of the house. The character is the ‘Commendatore’ of the title, a character taken from Mozart’s opera ‘Don Giovanni’ who is killed by the hero of the opera, Don Giovanni, who has tried to seduce or rape the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna. The Commendatore is an older man in the opera and Don Giovanni represents impetuous and dissolute youth. The Commendatore as he appears to the protagonist is about two feet high and carries a sword and is dressed exactly as he appears in the painting, which is done in what Murakami calls the “Japanese style”. The little man when he refers to the protagonist uses the third-person plural “their” (as in “my friends have their ideas”) instead of “you” (there are different styles of second-person pronoun in Japanese that vary depending on who is talking to whom, but usually this kind of nuance does not come across in translation, for obvious reasons). The Commendatore calls himself an “Idea” and he appears to be able to read the minds of his interlocutors. He vanishes suddenly when the effort required to keep himself visible becomes too much, and he tends to appear at night. Only the protagonist can see the little man when he appears (until the end of the novel, but that part will have to remain hidden for now).

More things start to happen when Menshiki asks the protagonist to do him a favour. Menshiki wants the painter to paint a portrait of a thirteen-year-old girl, who lives in a house next to the painter and who Menshiki thinks is his biological daughter. The painter has already done Menshiki’s portrait, for a fee, and now the girl, Mariye Akigawa, comes to the painter’s house to sit for her portrait, accompanied by her aunt, Shoko Akigawa, a woman who is probably in her late thirties or early forties and who is the sister of Mariye’s father. The two come to the painter’s house several times, each time on a Sunday, and the portrait progresses as the artist plies his trade with intent focus in order to capture the essence of the strange girl, a girl who loves art and who is as headstrong and as unformed as most people are at her age. It should be noted here that Mariye is more well-defined than women and girls are in other Murakami novels, possibly because the writer has been taken to task from some quarters because of his way of handling females. This novel seems to answer critics on this count.

Then Mariye disappears. She doesn’t come home from school one day and Shoko calls the artist to find out if the girl had gone to his house. He doesn’t know where Mariye has gone. At the same time, the protagonist goes with Masahiko to meet Tomohiko Amano at his nursing home. They drive in Masahiko’s old Volvo and arrive at the institution but then things take an even stranger turn. I won’t go into too many details but there is a sequence when the protagonist is walking through a dream-like landscape that to my mind resembled the underworld in Dante’s ‘Commedia’. There is a ferryman and a fee to pay to get across a river. There is a quest and a trial to be endured before the story can resolve itself; will it be tragedy or comedy? Will Mariye be found? What about Yuzu and her unborn child? And what about the man in the white Subaru Forester? Will he reappear and, if he does, what will happen to the painter?

These questions are obviously mostly answered in the book by its denouement but I won’t go into details. The metafictional aspects of this novel are also worth having a short look at. There is an effort made to place art within the ambit of human activity in a meaningful way. What does it mean when we tell stories? What is the relationship between reality and art? How are we to think of artists? What can they add to our lives that cannot be provided in any other way? What is art? What is an idea? A metaphor? And what, in the end, is so special about Japanese culture that it produces such great art, art like this wonderful novel?

Then there’s China. Tomohiko Amano’s younger brother was sent to China in the 1930s to fight and he killed himself after his return. Amano himself had been living in Vienna during the period leading up to the Anschluss, the moment when the Nazis annexed Austria and incorporated it into Germany. He had been involved in an assassination plot where the target was a Nazi official, but the plot had been discovered before it could be carried into action. Amano was sent back to Japan where he abandons the western style of art he had previously practiced and starts painting in the “Japanese style” he would use for the rest of his life (including for the painting titled ‘Killing Commendatore’). It is Menshiki who tells the protagonist many of these details, and then the protagonist gets more information from Masahiko when they meet up for lunch one day in central Tokyo. So the past has echoes that reverberate in the story, but more than that there is the relationship between children and parents that runs through this novel like a theme.

The notion that children have to challenge and defy their parents in order to find agency in their own right is explored here, which is why the China theme is so interesting. There is not only Masahiko and his father, and Mariye and her father, and the protagonist’s memories of his sister, who was younger than him and who died when she was 12, and Yuzu and the child whose paternity is unknown but who is probably not the protagonist’s because he was travelling on the night it was conceived, but there is also the two-foot-high Commendatore and his role as a metaphor for something deeper and more problematic. It can only be accepted as a truth that Japan is in many ways the older culture, relative to China, nowadays, after all the turmoil and change of the 20th century. China has been upended culturally in so many ways, not the least of which is the way the cities have been transformed by Capital. In many ways, the old ways have been better preserved in places like Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong, places where the Communist Party has been unable to reach. And if you read this novel in the light of such realities you can get a lot more from it.

There is also the fact of Amano’s borrowing of a dramatic scene from an Austrian opera, something that is not the only point of productive cultural appropriation being explored in this work. Asuka period Japanese artists likewise also borrowed tropes and styles from Chinese originals in order to establish the tradition that Murakami pays homage to in his story.

Then there is one final idea I wanted to touch on, and that is Japanese spirituality. Despite the fact that they are for the most part staunch secularists, Japanese people are very superstitious. And the way that they negotiate the divide between the spiritual and the physical is worth looking at in a bit more detail. Luckily, the metafictional aspects of this book explore such themes and there is in the narrative a fruitful exchange of ideas between the protagonist and his beliefs and his artistic practice that is full of interesting reverberations, textures that reveal unspoken realities that lie just beneath the surface of existence. But without question the real hero of this story is the Commendatore himself, although his true nature only becomes apparent at the end. To understand what the novel is “about” you have to consider where he was drawn from and how that idea fits into the lives of the main characters, particularly that of the unnamed protagonist.

But the spiritual thread extends further than this as well. In this novel for a change Murakami has paid a lot of attention to car makes and models. Japan is of course the premier car manufacturing nation in the world and in the 1970s rewrote the rules of manufacturing by adopting the “kaizen” (“just-in-time”) practices that led to the lowest rates of defects in manufactured products in the world, and hence to global manufacturing dominance in a range of industries.

And in this novel the “thingness” of objects comes through in unexpected ways, but in ways with which most people will already be primed to understand. Different characters have different cars and they also have different relationships with their vehicles, relationships that depend on their personalities. There is the old Peugeot the protagonist goes off driving in after Yuzu tells him she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore. There is the second-hand Toyota Corolla that he buys after he returns to Tokyo and goes to live in Odawara. There is the expensive Jaguar that Menshiki drives. There is the blue Prius that Shoko drives. And Shoko’s father had loved fine cars and she is able to talk meaningfully with Menshiki about the Jaguar. There is the white Subaru Forester already referred to. And there is the old Volvo that Masahiko drives. All these vehicles with their different personalities! It is as though physical things have souls that continue to exist after their physical forms has been destroyed. Like the bell in the hole in the ground. Like the knife that Masahiko brings to Odawara one day in order to fillet a fish and that unexpectedly goes missing. (It turns up later, but to tell you any more would really spoil the fun.)

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