Killing Commendatore is Haruki Murakami’s fourteenth novel. It has already sold more than one million copies in Japan. Fans around the world, also called “Harukists”, pre-order his books by the bushel. Purists often denounce Murakami’s fiction, saying he writes the same novel over and over again. His novels range from the realistic, like Norwegian Wood, to surreal works like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

His newest novel is the story of an unnamed 36-year-old portrait painter from Tokyo. This is a return to the first-person narrative style of Murakami’s earlier work (conventionally referred to in jun-bungaku or Japanese literature, as “Boku”), which began to change with Kafka on the Shore (2002), the novel that was narrated in both the first and the third persons. Murakami abandoned the first-person narrative completely in IQ84 (2009).

Enter the artist

The narrator’s wife, Yuzu, wants a divorce, admitting that she’s in a relationship with someone else. In a state of calamitous shock, the narrator proceeds on a meandering road trip to Hokkaido and Tohoku before finally moving into the mountain home of his old art college friend Masahiko Amada’s father, the famous painter Tomohiko Amada, who is incapacitated with severe dementia in a care facility. He expects to move from portraiture to abstract painting. The motif of abstract art serves as a metaphor for self-discovery.

The novel starts slowly, as an exploration of the narrator’s loneliness. The empty house on the mountain, filled with the memories of Tomohiko Amada, stands in for the narrator’s soul. Murakami’s recurrent theme of keeping his characters off-kilter continues with Killing Commendatore. The narrator spends most of his time in the house staring at a blank canvas, cooking, reading Tomohiko Amada’s books in the library, and listening to classical music records. “You should be careful,” Masahiko tells him. “Don’t get possessed by my dad’s spirit. He’s a guy with a strong spirit.”

The narrator deals with the grief of his broken marriage and uses his art to work out what to do next. He is also haunted by recurrent memories of his younger sister, Komi, who died in school. We enter firmly into surreal territory, Murakami style, when the narrator discovers one of Amada’s paintings, titled “Killing Commendatore”, hidden in the attic. Amada is a famous traditional Japanese artist. The narrator interprets the painting as a depiction of a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.

His plan of moving away from portraiture is stymied when his agent calls with a commission from a mysterious stranger. The fee offered by the stranger is extravagantly large and this reels the narrator in. The stranger, named Wataru Menshiki, lives across the valley in a palatial white mansion, a hat-tip to Jay Gatsby (Haruki Murakami has translated F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into Japanese).

The thin edge of reality

In most Murakami novels, there is often an inflection point, where the story jumps into surreal territory. Menshiki’s entry is that point in Killing Commendatore. Murakami himself states that he plots as he writes. The uniqueness of this approach has some pitfalls. Some sub-plots are developed and some fade away to nothingness.

Soon, the narrator is haunted by a ringing bell, which seems to be coming from beneath an arrangement of stones behind a makeshift shrine on the property. Menshiki arranges to excavate the stones, and a ten-foot deep, well-like cavern is unearthed. This too, is a recurrent Murakami obsession, a fascination with wells. During the entirety of the novel, the narrator makes frequent trips to this cavern. The standard Murakami narrative has characters vanish, juggles with several plots, and does not always tie up all the strings neatly in the end. There are often multiple realities, personalities crack with a loud pop, and alternate worlds appear. Dreams, often like hallucinations, play powerful roles. Then there are ears, wells, blocked water ways, jazz clubs, and cats.

“Menshiki has an ulterior motive for everything. Never wastes a move, that fellow. It is the only way he knows”.

Menshiki, a master manipulator, works his way insidiously into the narrator’s life. The narrator paints Menshiki’s portrait and Menshiki is extremely pleased with the result. He now wants the narrator to paint the portrait of a thirteen-year-old girl, Mariye Akikawa. Menshiki thinks that Mariye could be his daughter – but we never know for sure if this is indeed true. He arranges to visit the narrator’s studio while her portrait sittings are taking place. Mariye’s mother died early, and she now lives with her aunt and her father. Menshiki seduces her aunt. His character now has turned dark and has sinister overtones.

Grand themes of the unknown

Killing Commendatore is Murakami’s meditation on art – abstracts versus portraits, Western versus Japanese styles, whether, and how, art can capture the essence of a person, the importance of art and the role of the artist in society. As these themes are played out, the plot veers towards greater surrealism, and out pops an idea – the Commendatore, who is a two-foot-tall figure wearing traditional Japanese clothing, a character from Amada’s painting come to life. The Commendatore is the vital link that stitches the plot together. Key questions hang in the air: Is the character real or a figment of the narrator’s imagination? Is he an illusion created from the narrator’s steadfast viewing of Amada’s “Killing Commendatore”?

Murakami also alludes to his own critically acclaimed work, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, bringing in Amada’s time studying abroad in pre-World War II Vienna, against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism.

The narrator takes a long “underground’ journey, ending up in the underground pit beneath the shrine. It is a journey to save Mariye who has disappeared, and the narrator is the only one who can save her. En route, he has to face old fears, and emerges as a fundamentally changed person. This journey is fraught with dangers, most of which are the narrator dealing with his own subconscious issues.

The story at least is compulsive

Killing Commendatore is a Bildungsromanesque journey of self-discovery, though somewhat atypical. The length of the narrator’s stay in Amada’s mountain retreat encompasses nine months, which is a telling point. Murakami narrates the novel in retrospect, and we know that the narrator has reconciled with his wife.

It is odd to see Murkami write like a creepy old man with a breast fixation, however. Mariye is obsessed with her flat chest and wonders if her breasts will fill out. This obsession was also evident in Murakami’s 2013 novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

It is also true that the narrator does not seem to have learnt much from his nine-month retreat into himself. Murakami tries hard to write with the felicity of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, but his earlier sure touch is often missing as he vacillates between the real and the surreal.

Still, there is much to like in the novel. After the first third, the plotting is compulsive and drives the narrative forward. There are fewer strands to tie together here, and the ending, though a bit rushed, is satisfactory. By design, his protagonists are incomplete males in their mid-thirties, passive and unsure of themselves, and his novels engage with themes of existentialism, alienation and loneliness and unrequited love.

Killing Commendatore is one of Murakami’s most accessible works, possessing a sense of other-worldliness through the translation to English. It may not be as sublime as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84, but it is well worth a read as the writer returns to big ideas in his fiction.

Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen and Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker.