ARTFUL REVIEW(s): “Killing Commendatore” by Haruki Murakami

Some days you want the MoMA, others you want a whole bunch of Bottecellis. – N.J

In other words, sometimes you want to read a contemporary novel, and other times you want to pick up a tried and true classic. In this artful review, I will share a few thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s intriguing new novel, Killing Commendatore. The post shares three artworks that came to mind while I read this book and that I use to further illustrate the plot.

I chose Killing Commendatore because I enjoy Murakami’s writing style; my favorite book by him is Norwegian Wood. The author has a keen ability to paint a visceral picture with sharp prose and refreshing descriptions. Murakami’s work also pushes me out of my comfort zone – tackling subject matters like adultery, depression, and suicide. His new novel is no exception. I set my heart on reading the book after finding out that the protagonist is a thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo who is abandoned by his wife. The character decides to shed his city life to live in the abandoned home of a famous (fictional) Japanese artist, Tomohiko Amada.

While the narrator is living in the remote countryside, a mysterious and wealthy man named Menshiki approaches the unnamed narrator to paint his portrait; even though the narrator quit commercial forms of portraiture. The protagonist agrees to paint the portrait due to the incredible sum of money offered. Menshiki and the narrator are further entwined by their discovery of a secret pit located near a shrine on Tomohiko Amada’s property. This pit, and what they discover there, set off a chain of metaphorical events that move the plot into a philosophical direction.

Toshi Yoshida - Sacred Grove
Toshi Yoshida, Sacred Grove, 1941 – Image: WikiArt

Murakami’s description of the holy shrine in the forested setting made me think of a few Japanese woodblock prints I saw while I worked at The Wolfsonian–FIU. This print, entitled Sacred Grove by Toshi Yoshida, perfectly illustrates the nocturnal scene described by the protagonist. Yoshida came from a family of woodblock artists focused on Japanese Flora and Fauna. The ancient towering trees surrounding the dark sanctuary coupled with the printmaker’s blue/green color palette give the scene a mystical tone and make it hard to determine the hour or the season.

The book is woven with other subtle threads of mystery and surreal elements that all begin to unravel after the narrator finds a wrapped painting in the attic. The house in which the protagonist lives belongs to his friend’s senile father and renowned artist, Tomohiko Amada. The artist painted in a style the narrator described as from the “Edo Period” but with his unique style.

Kano Einō, One Hundred Boys, 17th Century – Image: The Metropolitan Museum

I am no expert in Japanese art and needed to look up the style when I read this reference. According to the Metropolitan Museum, the art of the Edo period ranges from 1615 to 1868. This detail is part of six wood panels, entitled the One Hundred Boys. Although the theme of this painting first appeared in China, the message is decidedly peaceful – which is characteristic of this style of painting.

Amada’s Edo style painting is inspired by Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. The protagonist identifies the story as the opening of the opera when the Commendatore is stabbed to death by Don Giovanni. The contrast of the elegant painting style with the violent subject matter becomes a significant catalyst for the subsequent plot. The painting is so compelling to the narrator that it becomes a driving muse and force in his own artistic practice.

Through Amada’s painting and Menshiki’s portrait commission, the storyteller is finally able to break through his creative block to create his style of contemporary work – a combination of his early abstract work and his commercial practice. He describes this new style of painting as less portrait and more his compelling desire to paint and in the process extracts the essence of his subject.

Murakami’s discussion of this style of contemporary portraiture brought to mind the artwork of Marlene Dumas; a South African painter whose work delves into themes of sexuality, love, mortality, and shame – issues that Murakami also explores. Dumas finds inspiration through art history, contemporary culture, and political events.

Marlene Dumas, Genetic Longing, 1984 – Image: Tate Modern

Similar to Murakami’s narrator, Dumas never paints from life; instead, she relies on “secondary” images to produce “primary” emotions. In this portrait, Dumas uses bold colors to compose a figure of contrasting hues and possibly different races. She sits at a table, arms crossed, and sideways glance that does not meet the viewer. This painting captures sentiments rather than likeness.

The narrator of Killing Commendatore hoped to capture a feeling and the soul of individuals. In the process, his life is thrown into alternative realms of reality and mixed into the convoluted lives of those surrounding him. Murakami’s pointed representation of artists and their creative process was realistic and relatable.

Although I enjoyed Murakami’s writing style and the subject matter of this novel,  I found the novel hard to finish because of the detailed minutia and redundant descriptions. The unnamed narrator, although likable, felt flat for me; not knowing his name may have added to my inability to form a connection. Each night I picked up the 600 plus page book, felt similar to the last. A slow-moving plot and lack of secondary character developments contributed to my slow reading pace. That said, I do appreciate Murakami’s exploration into the power of art and will continue to read the author’s works.

Interested in learning more? Check out the links below for people, places, and artworks referenced in this article.

Haruki Murakami

Edo Period

Don Giovanni Opera

Marlene Dumas

Killing Commendatore 

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