Idea, Metaphor & Reality: The Strange World of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Killing Commendatore’

In which Murakami delves into an all too familiar, yet convoluted version of reality.

killing commendatore haruki murakami book review
Killing Commendatore Book Cover Killing Commendatore
Haruki Murakami
Contemporary, Asian Literature, Adult Fiction
October 9, 2018

In Killing Commendatore, a thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. When he discovers a previously unseen painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors. A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art—as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers.

At first glance, the plot of Killing Commendatore is deceptively simple and plays off of themes of love and loss reminiscent of Men Without Women. Within its pages, Haruki Murakami paints a portrait of an uninspired artist that has learned his wife has been cheating on him with a coworker of a mutual friend. Shocked and at a loss, the unnamed narrator leaves at her request and takes solace in an old house in the mountains, where he stumbles across a strange painting titled ‘Killing Commendatore’. Part allegory, part history lesson (Mozart’s Don Giovanni meets traditional Japanese portraiture), the painting inspires the narrator and sets him on a strange course of events where he discovers himself artistically through a mysterious man named Menshiki and a thirteen-year-old girl named Mariye.

This review contains quotes and minor spoilers from the book.

By playing on cyclical imagery – in the unnamed first-person narrator’s lonely home on a mountain that experiences rain and snow at the same time; in following the narrator’s journey across Japan through areas hit by the Tohoku earthquake (primarily Iwate and Fukushima); and in revisiting the past (both real and imaginary) through a painting – Murakami weaves a complex web of blurred lines that provoke thought on the nature of reality through a retelling of the separation between the narrator and his wife of six years.

That may be the reason why, when I think back on the time (as you guessed, these events took place some years ago), the importance, perspective, and connections between events sometimes fluctuate, and if I take my eyes off them even for a second, the sequence I apply to them is quickly supplanted by something different.

– excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore

Although the question of what constitutes reality is not inherently unique to Killing Commendatore, nor, in fact, are many other aspects of the narrative – from brief encounters with women and an obsession with sex, to the idea of a surreal journey to save one’s identity after a period of emotional turmoil – Murakami compels readers to question their own reality through the eyes of the unnamed narrator. During periods of emotional turmoil, stress, and loss, facts and memories may become blurred in favor of the things we hear, experience and tell ourselves in order to get by, all of which may alter the nature of reality as we know it.

Murakami’s simple, evocative language continues to shine even if some elements of Killing Commendatore feel a little too familiar – the idea that the narrator was able to impregnate his wife during a dream (a strange occurrence that takes place in 1Q84) included. Although the pacing does lag at times, Murakami’s focus on the intricacies of language, along with subtle odes to the surrealism of Kafka and the grotesque and mysterious of Ranpo in the life-like painting ‘Killing Commendatore’ (and the strange, allegorical quest for identity that comes with it) help to balance out his latest work in translation.

Delving into the intricacies of the Japanese language, by discussing, at length, the kanji (traditional Chinese characters originally used to form Japanese words and sounds) used to write them, will help ground new readers in the original language, while speaking to those who know Japanese. Meanwhile, Murakami continues to excel at crafting realistic characters despite their strange circumstances, as the unnamed narrator’s artistry is described in full. From thought-provoking descriptions on the process of painting portraiture to the vibrancy and lush detail with which he describes the artist’s process and finished works, Murakami deftly weaves art and identity together.

Drawing someone means understanding and interpreting another person. Not with words, but with lines, shapes and colors.

– excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore

Although Killing Commendatore suffers from a muddy middle, the near seven-hundred-page narrative is a complex web that encompasses Murakami’s entire canon, and while there are stark resemblances that feel a little too close for comfort, the narrative ebbs and flows into an artful masterpiece of its own. Killing Commendatore is an artwork to be cherished and interpreted that combines history, music, art, and culture with idea and metaphor to create a complex and fascinating image of the world.

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Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.