Disconcerting, mysterious and riveting, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami is the story of a nine month period in the life of a portrait painter. Newly separated from his wife, he holes up in a mountaintop retreat where his discovery of a hidden painting sets in train a circular series of extraordinary events that reveal aspects of himself – and the world of instincts and ideas – that both change him forever and give him back his future.
There is a strong otherworldly feel to this novel, which opens with a dream in which the narrator is asked to do something impossible: paint a portrait of a man with no face. Artistic endeavour, portraiture, appearance, colour and the lack of colour, blank canvases, observing and being observed – these are all preoccupations of the book in which the spirit of place becomes something tangible and real.
He declares he is telling his story as a way to find some perspective on what happened during his time on the mountain, ‘like a drowning man clinging to a log’. The telling of the tale is not entirely linear, with repetitions, backs and forths, new elaborations on events we already know about, a little like a portrait gradually revealing itself with outlines appearing and disappearing as more layers of paint are added. To be fair, he admits it is an incomprehensible, mixed-up story.
His friend from art school has allowed him to stay in the house which had belonged to his celebrated artist father – now suffering from dementia in a nursing home. With no television, internet or mobile phone, just a collection of classical records, there is a sense that we are cut off from the modern world and from normal life. Time slows, he sits in the studio and waits for inspiration to strike. Painting, he knows, will be his way of forgetting the pain of his broken marriage.
One night he hears a scuffling in the attic and discovers a small owl and a brilliant but violent artistic work entitled Killing Commendatore which has clearly been concealed here for a reason. This painting seems to hold secrets of its own, with its strange characters and powerful sense of horror, and our hero is compelled to find out more. His journey of discovery takes him along a circuitous route involving a bell that rings in the dead of night, an ancient shrine, underground caves and secret passages. Along the way he meets people who all have symbolic roles to play, and symbols and concepts that come to life. Chapter titles include ‘The Moment When Existence and NonExistence Coalesce’. Confused? Stay with me. It’s a long and rich book and is definitely worth persevering with.
Dominating the book is the wealthy, urbane but obsessive Menshiki who lives alone in an isolated mansion:
‘The two of us were motivated not by what we had got hold of, or were trying to get, but by what we’d lost, what we did not now have. I can’t say I understood his actions. They were beyond my comprehension. But I could understand what spurred him on’.
Not quite the puppet master he would like to be, Menshiki nevertheless has his own agenda which involves a precocious young girl on the verge of womanhood, her attractive aunt, and yet another portrait. Underpinning the narrative though is the covered pit behind the house, which takes on a life of its own:
‘The pit was thinking too, I could tell. It was alive – I could feel it breathing. My thoughts and those of the pit were like trees grown together: our roots joined in the dark, our sap intermingled. In this condition, self and other blended like the paints on my palette, their borders ever more indistinct.’
With its themes of journeys, dreams, lost children and beautiful un-knowable women I was reminded of the densely allegorical works of Bunyan and Spenser, the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland and the profound sense of yearning and loss of The Great Gatsby. It’s about everyday concerns – what it means to be a man, a parent, a lover, a friend – but also about bringing to light things that are not visible, about drawing out the truth of a person, a thing or an event. ‘What you need to do is open your eyes wide and look at it. You can judge it later on.’
So suspend your disbelief and let this book take you on its path. It’s probably not perfect but it is certainly ambitious. Like painting a portrait of a man with no face, Murakami is attempting to elucidate those things that are beyond description.
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami is published by Harvill Secker, 704 pages.
Interested in other Murakami books? See our review of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.