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Review: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Another Scratch into a Postmodern Rabbit Hole

One way to talk about Haruki Murakami’s eighteenth work of fiction, Killing Commendatore, is as a bingo square. Many of Murakami’s usual suspects, whimsical tropes, and narrative-style of blurring the fantastic with the mundane in his works are present. Murakami creates a space for a nameless, recently divorced man as a protagonist, a space for supernatural occurrences, another for vivid descriptions about domestic chores. He creates a center space for female characters who are complex, supernatural forces at best, and reduced to coy, sexual objects at worst.  The dialogue often consists of repeating what the protagonist has said. Bingo! Murakami’s characters’ lives are often described through a litany of what and how they ate and how they slept. The precise articulation of the mundane makes his more fantastical elements even more complicated and gorgeously weird.

Similarly to other Murakami’s protagonists self-exiled from society, the narrator is a 36-year old portrait artist who, after a divorce, takes refuge in solitude in Odawara, a forest region south-west of Tokyo, belonging to the fictional acclaimed Japanese artist, Tomohiko Amada. The title, another nod to Murakami’s rich intimacy with Western music, refers to a mesmerizing and ambiguous painting found in the attic of the famous artist who, after studying in Vienna in the 1930s, mysteriously rejected Western models of art. The title of the painting derives from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, in which a licentious nobleman, based on the myths of fiction’s most famous seducer and libertine, Don Juan, slays his lover’s father, the eponymous Commendatore. Living in solitude, the nameless narrator is then commissioned to make a portrait of a charming, mysterious, rich loner, Wataru Menshiki. The relationship between the nameless narrator and Mr. Menshiki enacts a strange homage to The Great Gatsby, a text Murakami has famously translated into Japanese. As the plot continues the connection between the novel and Fitzgerald’s becomes more of a nod rather than a literary roadmap. The novel becomes a phantasmagoria full of elements such as rescuing a precocious and supernatural thirteen-year-old girl, tiny samurais, the destruction of Nanjing, and scenes dealing with Nazis. Murakami showcases his mechanical knowledge about vehicles, such as Jaguars. In Japan, a player will yell “Reach” when they are one space away from bingo. There is a lot of global and fantastical reaching.

The blockbuster success of Murakami’s work in America punctures the stone-hard floor of literary realism as the predominant mode of fiction. Despite his visual and narrative whimsy, netted in the same threads of potent questions about isolation, fate, and the unheimlich of simply being human, Murakami is not fond of the term, “magical realism.” In a recent interview with Oliver Burkeman published by The Guardian, Murakami responded to the term magical realism by stating, “ I like Gabriel García Márquez very much, but I don’t think he thought of what he wrote as magic realism. It was just his realism. My style is like my eyeglasses: through those lenses, the world makes sense to me.” What type of ontological power is being negotiated when fiction from outside the West is termed “magical realism?”

In a 2011 New York Times article, Murakami estimated he owned over 10,000 records. The range of music present in Murakami’s work ranges from the likes of The Beach Boys, Styx, and Duke Ellington to artists that have fallen into obscurity in the Western classical music canon. An article from The Japan Times relates how Murakami’s literary propensity to interject Western music into the plot of his novels has led to a shift in musical trends in Japan. Following the Japanese release of 1Q84 , Leoš Janáček’s “Sinfonietta”—a key element of the plot—sold as many copies in one week as it had sold over the previous 20 years. Yet for being such a musical aficionado, the owner of a jazz club, and the curator of a popular podcast about music, there isn’t a sense of music and tenacity conveyed in the language.

Published in Japan in February, the American edition released this month is translated by Phillip Gabriel and Ted Goossen. Murakami’s usual translator Jay Rubin is sorely missed. In relationship to translation, Murakami told The New York Times, “It takes a year or two to translate these big books,” he says. “So by the time I read the translation, I’ve forgotten everything.” He mimes excitedly turning the pages. “What’s going to happen? And then the translator calls me, ‘Hi, Haruki, how did you like my translation?’ And I reply, ‘This is a great story! I like it very much!’.” Gabriel and Goossen’s translation leaves me hungry for the “simple meal” of language so many of Murakami’s protagonists enjoy cooking and eating. In Jim Jarmusch mumblecore-masterwork film, Patterson (2017) an anonymous, solitary Japanese tourist, perhaps an aged Murakami protagonist, tells Adam Driver’s eponymous character, “…translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” In Murakami’s world the showerhead would squeeze through fish, and then after describing the minute details of after-shower routine, the protagonist would make pasta, listening to jazz with a cat. For those of us who like checking off the squares, Killing Commendatore is another entry in Murakami’s canon of sensory and supernatural games of chance.

About the author

Jai Hamid Bashir is a Pakistani-American writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University.

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