“A whole lot of craziness” – Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Okay. Before we do anything else: story. A guy, more or less your typical Murakami character, finds his wife has taken up with someone else, leaves the family home and sets up in a house on a mountain borrowed off a friend. The house once belonged to a famous Japanese painter who now resides in a care home. The guy, who is also a painter, albeit a painter of no great repute who earns his living painting portraits of wealthy CEOs and the like, discovers a painting by the famous painter in the attic of the house he is borrowing… and gradually all manner of craziness ensues. At first, the craziness is relatively low key: for instance, a wealthy neighbour asks the painter to paint his portrait for an astonishing sum of money. But then (gradually, like we said) the craziness ramps up: so, a bell rings in the middle of the night which leads our humble painter to discover a hidden well in the forest just behind the house; a character appears, similar to one of the characters in the famous painter’s hidden painting, a character who calls himself the Commendatore, even though he is, as he tells us, an Idea. Over the course of 700 pages, the lives of the humble painter, the wealthy neighbour, a young schoolgirl (who may or may not be the wealthy neighbour’s daughter) and, of course, the Idea that is Commendatore, swirl one about the other.

Now. If you’re anything like me, you may well have been looking forward to reading this book for two years or more. You arrive with high expectations, having read reviews in which people question the use of the number 36 or the wealthy neighbour’s relationship to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. It may be that you come having enjoyed IQ84, having not quite understood why people didn’t get along with that book. You don’t come expecting clumsiness. You don’t come expecting to be bored. You don’t come expecting a book in need of a savage edit. Such things don’t occur to you in the run-up to a new Murakami. But, blimey, by the time you’re a 100 or so pages in you’ll be thinking: really? Murakami? Are you going to disappoint me? Are you going to disappoint me to this extent? Yes. Yes, you are.

First of all, the clumsiness. Again, if you are anything like me, you may find yourself struck (‘being struck’ is the only way to describe it) by recurrences, small details I’d already been told. Killing Commendatore concerns a man on his way to 40 (being 40 concerns him) whose marriage is on the skids (his wife has taken a lover). Or rather, it concerned a man in his 40s because we learn, very early on, that the events of the book took place some years ago. The events of the book focus on a nine month period. Now, it should be said, being told that is risky because there can be no real peril – we know, whatever happens to the narrator, he survives in order to tell the story. But, given that this is Murakami (an artist like David Lynch who can wield the inexplicable in a way that stands outside of such routine worries as peril) it’s not overly a problem. What’s more, you reach a certain age and it may be that there are parts of your life that resemble mysteries to you, the person who lived through them (why did I act the way I did then?) – it’s an unusual jumping off point but an interesting one. Mild qualms, then, but resolvable qualms.

But there are less easily resolvable qualms. Our narrator moves out of the marital home and takes up a friend’s offer to live in an empty house on top of a mountain. In the first few weeks of his habitation, he takes a small job teaching children and older people how to paint. As a result of those classes, he starts different relationships with two women. We are told this on at least three separate occasions. To be struck (there’s that word again) by casual repetition so early in a big book is to be struck by the idea that here is a book in need of an edit. We also mentioned clumsiness. Here’s one powerful example that appears on p48:

“…this was the first time I’d slept with another woman since I got married. (No, actually there was one exception, when I shared a bed with another woman. Not that it was something I was looking for. I’ll get into that later on.)”

I might be wrong but this line strikes me with the force of error – the bracketed information has been added in a later draft when the story took a turn that wasn’t expected earlier on. To go from “this was the first time” to “actually there was one exception” clunks like a dead note on a piano. Barely 5% of the way through Killing Commendatore and there are unexpected rumbles of unease that brought to mind John Irving’s worst book, Until I Met You. Much later, when the prism of narration shifts to the young schoolgirl, our narrator keeps jumping in to explain where her narration is in relation to the narration earlier related by him and it clunks like that aforementioned piano being dropped from a great height.

By far the worst thing about Killing Commendatore, however, is the obsession with breasts. Not only do we get regular references to the breasts of most of the female characters, we also have a character – a 13 year old character – obsessed with her own breasts. She is yet to bloom, shall we say, and there is barely a paragraph involving her that does not include her looking at, squeezing or worrying about the absence of her breasts. It feels awkward and embarrassing to read and becomes a major source of irritation.

Much of the book is fairly typical of Murakami (in that characters do relatively mundane things like eat food or listen to music a lot of the time) and it may be that, breast obsession aside, it would have passed for a slightly lesser Murakami – until our main narrator climbs down a hatch in a room situated in a care home and is transported to the land of metaphor, where he has to be careful not to run foul of Double Metaphors and you think… wow. This is actually quite a bad book. If you think of the wealthy neighbour as a Gatsby manqué, as some people do, it’s like Killing Commendatore starts out wanting to be The Great Gatsby and ends up being a clumsy Pilgrim’s Progress. By the time you hit the 600 page mark, you just want the whole thing to be done.

I haven’t enjoyed a Murakami this little since I travelled through his back catalogue when I first read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and made my way through a whole batch of books Murakami wrote when (to my mind) he was finding his voice – think Dance Dance Dance or The Elephant Vanishes. Given that those books were written over 25 years ago, I think we’re pretty much in the clear when we say Killing Commendatore is the worst book Murakami has written for about 25 years. And never mind the Commendatore, it kills us to say that.

Any Cop?: Let’s just say we’re disappointed and leave it at that.

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