Killing Commendatore – Haruki Murakami

When a great writer releases a big book, I get excited. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off, but when it does I get to read an extended display of storytelling skill from an author with a lot to say.

Against the above criteria, this book is a dream. As the author with the second-most books on my shelf (no-one can overtake Atwood), I consider Murakami to be a great writer. At 681 pages, Killing Commendatore is definitely a big book. So a great writer had released a big book, and I was very, very excited.

The novel came out in English in October 2018, so this is a late review. I got it for my girlfriend as one of those gifts you hope finds its way back to you, so I had to wait for her to finish reading first. Nonetheless, it’s still in the “New Fiction” section of Waterstones. And this weekend is Haruki Murakami’s 70th birthday. The timing seems right for a review.

Murakami’s oeuvre is famously varied, from the completely nutty (Wild Sheep Chase) to the almost conventional (Norwegian Wood). Picking up one of his novels is always an adventure. Unusually, he’s already delivered at least one big book which I’d recommend as a pure dose of his off-the-rails genius (I’m thinking of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), so Killing Commendatore had the tough job of finding something new to say whilst living up to a well-loved back catalogue.

It fell short, but only just.

Let’s start with the great stuff. The writing and the translation come together to create direct, driving prose that hooks you. The plot is memorable. There’s enough intrigue that you want to keep picking up the book to see what happens. It’s got style, plot and surprises.

So where did it go wrong?

The pacing is weird. Murakami always confounds expectations with the attention span of his narrators, and that’s present in Killing Commendatore. For example, on page seven there’s this lyrical description of the view from the narrator’s house:

A real estate agent I know told me that even if you can see a tiny portion of the ocean like I could from here, it made all the difference in the price of the land. Not that I cared about an ocean view. From far off, that slice of ocean was nothing more than a dull lump of lead. Why people insisted on having an ocean view was beyond me. I much preferred gazing at the surrounding mountains. The mountains on the opposite side of the valley were in constant flux, transforming with the seasons and the weather, and I never grew tired of these changes.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore, p7

He juxtaposes this with the following summary of the narrator’s marriage:

Back then my wife and I had dissolved our marriage, the divorce papers all signed and sealed, but afterward things happened and we ended up making a go of marriage one more time.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore, p7

These two quotes are symptomatic of the way Murakami typically befuddles and beguiles his readers. Ten lines on how sea views aren’t what people say they are, followed by one sentence to divorce and rekindle a marriage, and he doesn’t limit this technique to paragraphs. He makes whole novels work this way, so as a reader you never know whether something is a major plot point or whether it will last 30+ pages before never coming up again. It keeps things fresh and is a big part of what makes him so compelling to keep returning to.

In Killing Commendatore, however, the plotting is linear and chronological. There are no wild jumps somewhere else, no major deviations from the central plot development. Everything progresses just as it should do. Doing something different (or I suppose you could say more “conventional”) from his earlier books doesn’t mean it’s bad, but does mean that the surprising and unpredictable prose is wasted on a calmly composed story.

The other problem with this novel: in places it was at pains to explain itself. Perhaps a cynical editor wasn’t expecting someone to read it as quickly as I did, or maybe it’s the opposite and need a more scrupulous edit, but the plot signposting is irritatingly inconsistent.

On one hand, the book is a master class in subtlety. The main character is a frustrated artist who gets inspired to paint by each strand of the main plot, meaning he can always return to the studio and remind the reader of the different things that are going on. I love this. It’s careful, considered and sophisticated. It feels completely in keeping with the work and helps a reader keep everything straight even if they haven’t picked up the book in weeks.

On the other hand, there are horrible, clunky reminders of minor plot points that really grated on me. For example, an older artist having moved from Vienna to Japan in his youth comes up several times in the first couple of hundred pages with such clumsy introductions as: “I’m calling you about the older artist who moved from Vienna to Japan in his youth”, “Oh yes, I remember that, he moved from Vienna to Japan in his youth”, or “Did you say he moved from Vienna to Japan in his youth? Let’s talk about that” (obviously I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea). Once or twice I didn’t mind it, but by the third or fourth time I found myself shouting “I know! I haven’t forgotten!” at the book.

Despite these objections, Killing Commendatore is a good book. There’s brilliant stuff to appreciate, from the parallels with The Great Gatsby, to a potentially unreliable narrator, to one of the main characters being an Idea. Regrettably, the slow pace and occasional over-explanations made too strong of an impression for the great things to make an impact. In fact, the book itself sums up the lasting affect it leaves:

I reread the letter many times, straining to decipher the feeling hidden behind those lines. But I couldn’t detect any implied emotion or intention. She seemed just to be transmitting the clearly stated message that the words conveyed.

Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore, p331

An enjoyable commitment with a compelling plot, direct prose and interesting twists. Unfortunately, the overall journey is more of a commute. It’s not uneventful, but it is forgettable. I can’t shake the feeling I should have liked this just a little more than I did.

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