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Haruki Murakami: 騎士団長殺し (Killing Commendatore)

Our hero is an unnamed narrator, who is a painter. At art college, he liked to paint large abstract paintings but, once he has left college, he finds out that there is not much market for large abstract canvases by unknown artists, so he switches to portrait painting as a way of making a living. He paints the portraits of anyone who wants to pay him to do so. He is successful for two reasons. Firstly, he seems to be very good at capturing the spirit of the subject. Secondly, instead of having the subject sitting for hours in front of him, he interviews them at the beginning, trying to find out their inner spirit, and then paints the subject on the basis of the interview and a few photos given to him by the subjects. As many of the subjects are busy people, they appreciate this.

He had always planned to go back to the abstract painting but somehow never managed to do so, not least because he needed to earn a living. At the beginning of the novel he is thirty-six, married, with no children. His wife has just told him that she wants a divorce – she is having an affair – so, that same day, he sets out in the car and travels around Northern Japan for six weeks. Eventually, the car breaks down and he returns to Tokyo.

He learns from a friend that the friend has a house in the mountains available. The friend’s father, a successful painter, Tomohiko Amada, has now got dementia and is in a home. Tomohiko Amada had initially studied in Vienna, just before the war, but something had happened in Vienna and he returned home. He had initially painted in the European style but, once he returned home, had started painting in the Japanese style. He came from a rich family, so, during the war, he did not have to earn a living and health issues meant he did not have to serve in the army. As a result, when the war ended, he had a large stock of quality paintings in the traditional Japanese style, that were not in any way associated with the military regime, so he had considerable success. His son has less than a positive view of him, stating that he was not a good father.

When our narrator rents the house, he finds it is well stocked with opera LPs and other useful items but no paintings. The son points out that he had had them removed as he did not want to leave them in an unoccupied house. Our narrator plans on resuming his abstract painting career and tells his agent that he will paint no more portraits. He does teach at a local art class (and sleeps with two of his students) but, apart from that, has little contact with anyone.

One day he hears a noise in the attic and decides to investigate. He finds an owl in the attic and decides to leave him, to deal with mice and other pests. He also finds what seems like a wrapped up painting. He takes it down and, at first, feels that he should not open it. When he finally does, he finds a Japanese-style painting. It is called Killing Commendatore and features a man killing a commendatore. Why commendatore? He soon works out that it is, to a great extent, a Japanese version of the first scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which Don Giovanni kills the commendatore. Compared to other paintings by Tomohiko Amada, it is unusually violent.

Our narrator has told us that two events were going to have a big effect on him. This was the first. The second was when he received a phone call from his agent, saying that someone had offered an obscenely high amount of money for our narrator, and only our narrator, to paint his portrait. As he has painted nothing in the four months since he moved to the mountain retreat and he fears money might be a problem, he accepts. The subject turns out to be the owner of the house he can see across the valley. He also wants to be painted in the traditional way, i.e. sitting for the portrait. The man, Wataru Menshiki, turns out to be somewhat enigmatic, though he certainly makes no attempt to hide details of his life. However, it is from one of his girlfriends, who is in touch with the local grapevine, that our narrator learns most about the man.

As this is Murakami, from here on in, we can expect – and get – various things. Firstly, the hero is a loner, which our hero very much is. Secondly, there will be a complicated plot. Thirdly, the supernatural will creep in, using elements that we find in Japanese ghost stories. Fourthly, our hero will be seeking something, such as the origins of the Killing Commendatore painting, the life of Tomohiko Amada and who Wataru Menshiki really is and what he is up to. Fifthly, there will be a girl who will, more or less, save him. As our hero himself says Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood.

Murakami seems to have something about enclosed spaces. We can see it in several of his novels, particularly in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. However, it plays a particularly important role in this novel, affecting all three of the major characters (our hero, Menshiki and the girl). All are enclosed, physically, and all are very much affected mentally by their experience. Moreover, the enclosure plays a significant role in the plot of the story.

As always, Murakami tells an excellent if somewhat fanciful story, with a complicated plot which is not fully explained, even by the end, our hero gets the girl (though, this time, it is bit more complicated than that), the ghosts settle down (if ghosts they were), we get a sort of an explanation for (most of) the plot elements and people (more or less) live happily ever after. While I enjoyed his last novel, I felt that it was something of a drop in standard. While this one is not of the calibre of some of his earlier work, it is still an excellent novel and a good read, if you can accept a bit of fanciful and ghostly plotting.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchōsha in 2017
First English translation in 2018 by Knopf/Harvill Secker