by Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 704 pp., $19.49
“But at three o’ clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work — and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retreating into an infantile dream — but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza — one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.” –Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)
In Killing Commendatore, the sprawling, new novel by Haruki Murakami, the dark night of the soul which confronts Murakami’s nameless protagonist, is met with a sort of bewildered impassivity, and resigned stoicism — qualities that have often factored into the emotional color schemes of Murakami’s “leading men.” In this case, the man is a thirty-six-year old portrait painter, who is blindsided by his wife’s decision to leave him. Aligning itself with this unexpected upheaval, is the realization and fact that his deeper artistic passions, the true signature of his soul-fire, have gone away, or settled into the quasi-comfortable numbness which has colonized many areas of his life. “I hadn’t become that sort of artist, or that type of person because I’d wanted to. Carried along by circumstances, I’d given up doing paintings for myself. I’d married and needed to make stable income, but that wasn’t the only reason. Honestly, I’d already lost the desire to paint for myself. I might have been using marriage as an excuse. I wasn’t young anymore, and something — like a flame burning inside me — was steadily fading away. The feeling of that flame warming me from within was receding even further.”
Ebb-flamed and disillusioned, the man gives up his portrait painting gigs and takes up residence in the isolated, mountain home of his friend’s father, Tomohiko Amada, a legendary Japanese painter who has been hospitalized for dementia. One night the man discovers one of Amada’s paintings, hidden in an attic. This unknown masterpiece, titled Killing Commendatore, refers both in title and content to Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, with several of its characters serving as allegorical stand-ins for the painting’s enigmatic meaning, which is metaphysically connected to the rabbit hole the protagonist soon finds himself thrust into. And this is where Murakami quintessentially excels, rendering a domain that indisputably bears his fingerprints and sensibility. His leisurely pacing, which generously allows space for digressions and detours, brings to mind the lingering opiate rhythms of Taiwanese New Cinema from the 1980s, or the Japanese master of cinematic meditation, Yasujiro Ozu. Imagine yourself in a bath, slowly filling with water, whose temperature subtly, somewhat casually, spikes from lukewarm to hot, from pleasant to uncomfortable, and there you have the metaphorical equivalent of Murakami’s style. His transitions from the mundane to the mystical are handled with an ease and equanimity that leaves one feeling grounded and dislocated at the same time. Or exiled to a strangely familiar place.
Murakami’s protagonist muses, “I’ve always enjoyed this time, early in the morning, gazing intently at a pure white canvas. ‘Canvas Zen’ is my term for it. Nothing is painted there yet, but it’s more than a simple blank space. Hidden on that canvas is what must eventually must emerge. As I look more closely, I discover various possibilities, which congeal into a perfect clue as to how to proceed. That’s the moment I really enjoy. The moment when existence and nonexistence coalesce.”
The haunted marriage between existence and nonexistence takes place among a memorable cast of characters, including: an “idea” that comes to life as a two-foot version of “The Commendatore,” a shadowy man in a Subaru Forester, Mariye, a self-possessed thirteen-year-old girl whose existence is the catalyst behind the covert actions of the wealthy and mysterious, Mr. Menshiki. Menshiki, whose name translates to “Avoiding Colors,” is a Zen-inflected remix of Meursault, the protagonist from Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and is also the novel’s white-towered Gatsby, with Murakami painting an oblique homage to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. And it is through the “white space” in Menshiki’s character, his not-thereness, that Murakami deftly demonstrates what you might call his Sumi-e rendering of interior lives. This sense of yearning coiled within absence, or muted tenderness, echoes throughout the book: “I’d begun to feel a closeness to Menshiki, a closeness I’d never felt to anyone before . . . In a sense, we were very similar — that’s what I thought. The two of us were motivated not by what we had got hold of, or were trying to get, but by what we’d lost, what we did not now have.” Or, “I could feel the tension drain from Mariye’s body. Little by little, that part of her that had become so rigid was beginning to unclench. I stroked her head on my shoulder. Her soft, straight hair. When my hand touched her cheek, I realized she was crying. The tears were so warm it felt as if blood was spilling from her heart. I continued to hold her like that. The girl has needed to cry. But she hadn’t been able to. Probably for a very long time. The horned owl and I kept watch over as she wept.”
At one point, the protagonist reflects: “I had a dream, a short one. It was clear and very vivid. But I couldn’t remember anything about it. Just that it was clear and vivid. I felt as though a fragment of real life had slipped into my sleeping mind by mistake. Then the moment I awoke, it fled like a quick-footed animal, leaving no trace behind.” The same could be said for Killing Commendatore, except in the case of Murakami’s dream-work, the traces left behind are indelible.