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A world governed by connectivity

By Sally Bland - Dec 09,2018 - Last updated at Dec 09,2018

Killing Commendatore

Haruki Murakami 

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

Pp. 681

 

Haruki Murakami’s latest book contains all the elements usually found in his epic novels: There is a first-person narrator, in this case, an artist who remains nameless; flashbacks to historical instances of human cruelty; a parallel world, and so on. But nothing is really the same. In “Killing Commendatore”, Murakami creates a handful of totally original characters and settings, while connecting several seemingly disparate stories from Japan to Vienna to the underworld into a single plot.

The story opens with a riddle elicited by a visit from the supernatural world. The artist-narrator is awakened by a faceless man who demands that he draw his portrait. The artist tries to beg off: “There was only a void, and how are you supposed to give form to something that does not exist?” (p. 4)

Yet, he is convinced that the incident is real: “If this was a dream, then the world I’m living in itself must all be a dream.” (p. 5)

This conviction steers the plot seamlessly between reality and the parallel world—a world governed by connectivity, according to a logic that is all of Murakami’s making. 

Rich cultural references, especially to music, are typical of Murakami’s novels, but this time though music is often mentioned, visual art predominates. Added to the protagonist’s work as an artist, there is the fact that it is a masterful but obscure painting that unleashes the plot. After the protagonist’s wife breaks off their marriage without notice, a friend offers him a place to stay in the mountains. The house belongs to his friend’s father who was a famous painter, but is now sinking into dementia in a care facility. Quite by chance, the protagonist discovers one of the old man’s paintings that he had hidden in the attic, as it records an incident in his youth he has tried to forget. When the protagonist unwraps it, he opens a perilous chasm that can only be closed if he undertakes certain acts: “The longer I looked at the painting, the less clear was the threshold between reality and unreality, flat and solid, substance and image.” (p. 240) 

The threshold is further undermined by the ringing of a mysterious bell in the night, and the appearance of a miniature human form that embodies an idea. They both intrigue and frighten him, but he soon understands that they provide the clues to what he must do to rescue Mariye, his art student who has disappeared. He undertakes a perilous journey somewhat like that of ancient mythical heroes. On the way, he realises he is living in a world governed by connectivity: As one of the guides on his journey says, “No one can tell what is or is not the real thing… All that we see is a product of connectivity. Light here is a metaphor for shadow, shadow a metaphor for light.” (p. 573)

The protagonist’s journey in the world of connectivity is intense and raises interesting philosophical questions, but it is less convincing and absorbing than the parallel worlds in other Murakami’s novels. More fascinating by far are the psychological implications of the interaction between the characters and the protagonist’s reaction to his otherworldly encounters, which account for the bulk of the narrative. 

While married, the artist had painted portraits on commission in order to have a steady income. Alone in the house in the mountains, he is free to return to his original intent of doing oil paintings with various themes. Yet, as soon as he meets Menshiki, his new neighbour, the latter, a mysterious, seemingly generous and cultured man, asks the artist to paint his portrait; he will pay any price. That done, Menshiki proceeds to request one of a young girl, who is the artist’s student and whom Menshiki thinks may be his daughter. While his commissioned portraits were replicas done to please the subject, in the new ones, the artist sets out to capture the subject’s soul. He is so technically skilful that he doesn’t need the subject to sit for him but takes up his paintbrush alone after extensive conversations with these two subjects. Though there is no sign that Murakami is himself an artist, his descriptions of this creative process are fascinating. The painting sessions are a play on appearance and reality as is much of the story.

Besides Murakami’s unique blend of fantasy and reality, his tone is also what makes his writing so distinctive. In the narrative, there is a constant collision of mundane actions and extraordinary occurrences, yet all is described in a matter-of-fact tone. The protagonist’s emotional reactions to even the most dramatic events are always understated. This may be what gives credibility to the fantasy elements in the story. It can also be Murakami’s take on the world where anything can happen.

 

 

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