I often cite Kafka on the Shore as my favorite Murakami novel. It was also the first novel of his that I read. I suspect that this is a pattern: people who first read Wind-Up Bird generally prefer that, people who first read 1Q84 prefer that, and so on. That isn't a coincidence. Our first exposure to his dreamy, calm, detailed, otherworldly prose has a big impact. Murakami is well-known (and often liked) for his adherence to repeating tropes and touchstones: cats, wells, moons, vanishing people and animals, passive male protagonists, classical music, jazz records, small humanoids, ears, weird sexual encounters. These motifs can build resonance across multiple unconnected novels; unlike David Mitchell, there are never any overt links between his books (except, I suppose, for the Trilogy of the Rat), but the interior of most of his novels have to do with the unexplained correspondence between seemingly disparate objects and events, and that sense of quantum entanglement may be amplified across multiple novels. For better and worse, though, the later novels you read will grow less surprising. You're expecting something odd and unexplained to occur, so it's no longer a shock when it does.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed Killing Commendatore more if it was the first Murakami novel I'd read and not the twelfth. The start was especially slow and unengaging. I was reminded of a meme making the rounds on Twitter recently that took the format "We forced a bot to [read/watch] over 1000 [pages/hours] of [White House press briefings / Friends episodes / TED talks / etc.] and made it write its own. Here's what it came up with." The first 40 pages or so of this novel feel a bit like a Mad Libs parody of a Murakami book. Aimless male protagonist? Check. Woman leaving? Check. Attractive woman initiating sex for seemingly no reason? Check.
The book starts hitting its stride when the actual Killing Commendatore appears: there's finally some mystery and purpose to the story. It still feels very drawn-out: the writing is quite good, and it's interesting to learn more about (but never fully understand) Menshiki. The book gets really good at about 500 pages in, but that just leaves around 100 pages to explore this heightened, fascinating world before ending. The length itself isn't a problem - I was completely gripped by 1Q84 from start to finish - but if I hadn't already been determined to finish this book I might not have stuck around until it started getting good.
One aspect that struck me almost immediately was the protagonist's profession as a painter. I found myself thinking of Bluebeard, a Vonnegut novel that also featured a painter and is also one of my less-favorite books from a novelist I generally adore. Murakami writes a lot about painting: technique, motivation, impact, the creative process. I'm fairly certain that this is all a metaphor for writing. Painters and writers seem to follow fairly similar creative processes: it's an activity a person does by themself, in a solitary setting, putting in a great deal of work over a long period of time, before sharing the finished project with the world. The creator must balance their commercial and artistic needs. The artist/writer develops a distinctive style over time, and can evolve that style or mindlessly replicate it or rebel against it. The artist/writer tries to reveal something in their work, and in the process may find something new about it.
Color is a big element of painting, and the protagonist spends some time mixing his paints to get things right. I was struck by how, late in the novel, he repeatedly refers to Menshiki as "Colorless", which, of course, is also how Tsukuru Tazaki was called in his previous novel. I don't remember characters in earlier Murakami novels being called "colorless," and I'm curious if this is a newly-emerging Murakami trope. Menshiki remains an enigma throughout the novel, even though he probably speaks more than any other character. Why, exactly, is he colorless? He does seem to have some passion, or at least motivation: he harbors some feelings for his old girlfriend, and has some sentimental and/or emotional connection to Mariye. He seems to be carefully-controlled and deliberate, a man of habits and purpose. There's an intriguing comment by the Commendatore late in the book which suggests that Menshiki is missing something. There's a kind of absence inside of him, and that absence creates a danger, something malign that may threaten Mariye. Is that absence the loss of her mother? I don't think so; I don't get the impression that his life significantly changed after they broke up. It seems more like that absence is an inherent quality of Menshiki himself, something he has always lacked.
Menshiki and the protagonist have a lot of (fairly oblique) conversations about things being "natural". This seems to be especially important to the protagonist; it feels like it takes Menshiki a little while to grok what he means, then afterwards he also often references natural-ness. I'm not totally sure if this is something Menshiki truly believes, or if it's his method to endear himself to the protagonist. In some ways, the "natural"-ness seems to be the polar opposite of Menshiki. As far as I can tell, to be "natural" an event must be unplanned, unforced. It can flow from circumstance or emotion, but not from logic, and it must have no exterior motivation. The irony is that the protagonist wants events to seem natural even though they very much are not. He's constantly pulled into lies of omission and commission, creating an environment that will strike others as natural even though they're highly staged. But this seems to only mildly bother him. I guess that, as long as the space he's created feels natural and people can act "naturally" within it, it's fine if the actions outside of that space, that created that space in the first place, are "unnatural".
Seen from this perspective, Murakami probably thinks that the slow and ambling pace of the book is a feature and not a bug. The protagonist's life definitely feels natural: he brews coffee, cooks delicious lunches, listens to insects, goes for strolls, praises his students. And takes naps - so many naps! I'm pretty sure there are more naps in Killing Commendatore than in any other book I've read, I'm very jealous.
By contrast, my favorite part of the book is the least "natural": Mariye's disappearance, the meeting with the senile and dying Tomohiko Amada, and especially descending through Long Face's trapdoor into the underworld. This segment reminded me a bit of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (the other contender for my favorite Murakami novel): the dark, claustrophobic underground caverns with ill-defined malevolent forces lurking at the periphery of perception is an incredible atmosphere. This all helped the novel end on a very high note for me, like a rousing political speech that leaves you wanting more.
While the overall shape of the novel was sometimes frustrating, the nuts-and-bolts writing was as excellent as always. Here are a few segments that particularly stuck out to me:
"It's like an earthquake deep under the sea. In an unseen world, a place where light doesn't reach, in the realm of the unconscious. In other words, a major transformation is taking place. It reaches the surface, where it sets off a series of reactions and eventually takes form where we can see it with our own eyes. I'm no artist, but I can grasp the basic idea behind that process. Outstanding ideas in the business world, too, emerge through a similar series of stages. The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark."
I really like the writing here, as well as the underlying idea. That's a cool left-field turn in the penultimate sentence: how did we get from art to business so quickly? This kind of reminds me of when I try to describe the sensation of programming to non-programmers. From the outside programming or business may seem like very dry, analytical, rote activities. But people who are immersed in them see that they're just as creative and passionate as any artistic endeavor.
"The Commendatore is not trademarked. If I had appeared as Mickey Mouse or Pocahontas, the Walt Disney Company would be only too happy to slap me with a huge lawsuit, but if I am the Commendatore, I think we are safe, my friends."
This just makes me laugh. Although his personality is very different, the Commodotore reminded me of Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker from Kafka on the Shore, and I'm curious if any threats or fears of litigation from that work informed this presentation here. Also, I'm not sure if it's intentional, but it's intriguing that Pocahontas is treated as a copyrighted character here, when she was of course a real historical person. Murakami hasn't engaged as explicitly with popular culture in his recent novels, and it's interesting to think of the nexus between history, culture, creativity, and commerce. Walt Disney is free to appropriate native peoples' culture in its movies, but attempts to reinterpret those same characters may run up against an army of lawyers.
Truthfully the physical pleasure she provided me left nothing to be desired. Up till then I'd had sexual relationships with a number of women - not so many I could brag about it - but her vagina was more exquisite, more wondrously varied, than any other I'd ever known. And it was a deplorable thing that it had lain there, unused, for so many years.
Even when he's writing about fairly conventional sex, Murakami always sounds so weird. But I'll take a dozen pages of this oddly affected prose over one more description of a thirteen-year-old girl's developing breasts.
He said, "There is very little I can explain to my friends about Tomohiko Amada's Killing Commendatore. That is because it is, in essence, allegory and metaphor. Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain in words. You just grasp them and accept them."
I feel like this one paragraph is the best explanation I've read yet of Murakami's writing.
All of us are, without exception, born to die, and now he was face-to-face with that final stage.
Brutal and honest and powerful. I am curious if Murakami is feeling his own mortality more now as a nearly 70-year-old man.
"Goodness, no! I am a Metaphor, nothing more."
"Yes. A meager Metaphor. Used to link two things together. So please, untie my bonds, I beseech you."
I was getting confused. "If you are as you say, then give me a metaphor now, off the top of your head."
"I am the most humble and lowly form of Metaphor, sir. I cannot devise anything of quality."
"A metaphor of any kind is all right - it doesn't have to be brilliant."
"He was someone who stood out," he said after a moment's pause, "like a man wearing an orange cone hat in a packed commuter train."
Not an impressive metaphor, to be sure. In fact, not really a metaphor at all.
"That's a simile, not a metaphor," I pointed out.
"A million pardons," he said, swear pouring from his forehead. "Let me try again. `He lived as though he were wearing an orange cone hat in a crowded train.'"
"That makes no sense. It's still not a true metaphor. Your story doesn't hold. I'll just have to kill you."
I laughed out loud at this. This novel is finally getting good! And it only took 550 pages!
"To tell the truth," she said, "I'm pregnant. I'm happy to see you, but don't be shocked to see how big my belly's grown."
"I know. Masahiko told me. He said you asked him to."
"That I did," she said.
"I don't know how big you've gotten, but I'd like to see you in any case. If it's not too much of an imposition."
"Can you wait a moment?" she asked.
I waited. She appeared to be leafing through her appointment book. Meanwhile, I tried hard to remember what kind of songs the Go-Go's sang. I doubted they were as good as Masahiko had claimed, but then maybe he was right, and my view was perverse.
"Next Monday evening is good for me," Yuzu said.
I included a bit more context here just to hopefully help capture how completely random it is for the protagonist to start thinking about the Go-Go's music. Another laugh-out-loud moment for me, sandwiched inside a really moving and emotional scene.
"Menshiki himself is not an evil man. He is a decent sort, one could say, with abilities that exceed those of most people. There is even a hint of nobility in him, if one looks hard enough. Yet there is a gap in his heart, an empty space that attracts the abnormal and the dangerous. It is there that the problem lies."
I talked about this a little up above. It's an interesting concept, that there isn't an evil presence inside a person so much as a space that allows entry to an alien danger. Unlike David Mitchell, Murakami very rarely depicts straight-up evil; the sense you get more often is of something harmful and mysterious.
"I think it's cool," Mariye said. "It's a work in progress, and I'm a work in progress too, now and forever."
This is really sweet. I love this metaphor.
"Perhaps nothing can be certain in this world," I said. "But at least we can believe in something."
Man, I love this. It sums up my personal attitude towards religion and politics and all sorts of important, controversial domains. We can't know the truth, and it's important to remember that fact and remain humble. But we can decide to believe something, and then pursue that belief with our full hearts.
I liked Killing Commendatore a lot. Particularly after the mild disappointment of Men Without Women, it was encouraging to read something so engaging. It's one of my least favorite Murakami novels, but that says much more about me and about the strength of his other books than it does about this entry. There are still elements that I'll be mentally chewing over for a while, and it's that lingering sense of intrigue and unexplained phenomena that I most treasure about this author.