Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami was first published in two volumes – The Idea Made Visible and The Shifting Metaphor in 2017 and is something of a homage to The Great Gatsby. This lengthy novel (which runs in at around 700 pages) tells the story of a professional portrait painter who has split up from his wife and after a brief period of travel and soul-searching ends up living at the mountain home of a friend’s father. The father is well-renowned Japanese artist, Tomohiko Amada, who is now seeing out his final years in a hospital.
The house stands in relative solitude atop a mountain with its nearest neighbour across the valley, a car journey away around a twisting road. The neighbouring house is a more modern and futuristic-looking building of concrete and glass in which lives a mysterious and rich loner of a man with white hair and a fancy sports car. The portrait artist quits his job and instead spends his time listening to the old man’s classical music records and pottering about the house on his own. He earns money for his meagre existence by teaching art classes for adults and for children in a nearby town. He has a couple of love affairs with two of his adult students, but makes no lasting connections with anyone.
One day hearing a sound in the attic, he goes to investigate and sees that an owl has taken up residence in the roof. He also discovers a painting hidden in the attic. Bringing it down into the light, he discovers that it is a very peculiar painting by Tomohiko Amada entitled Killing Commendatore showing the assassination of a man witnessed by a woman and a long-faced man coming out of a hole in the ground. Not long after discovering the painting, the artist is woken on consecutive nights by a distant ringing bell.
With the help of his mysterious neighbour, who wants him to paint his portrait, he uncovers the source of the bell – a pit covered with boards held down by rocks. The stone-walled pit is wider and shallower than a well, built it seems to imprison someone. But upon investigation the only thing they find down there is an old ceremonial bell – the sort a monk would use. There’s no other way out of the pit apart and there’s nobody or body down there. Not even the remains of a dead monk. So begins a rather drawn-out descent into a surreal story where fantasy rubs shoulders with the mundane.
The Commendatore soon manifests himself to the artist. He is a two-foot man straight out of the painting and claims that he is an Idea on the artist can see or hear. The rich neighbour bonds with the artist while sitting for his portrait and confesses that he bought the big house so he could spy on the house where a thirteen-year-old girl lives. The house is the only residence in the valley which allows such good views, albeit with binoculars, of the girl’s abode where she lives with her father and aunt. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds because the man has good reason to believe he is the girl’s father.
The man hatches a plan for the thirteen-year-old girl to sit for her portrait. She is in the artist’s children’s art class in town and chaperoned by her aunt she enters into his life. They soon warm to each other to the point where she is discussing when he breasts might start to grow with him. Having read pretty much all Murakami’s books it didn’t come as much of a shock and it’s also no surprise that she has exquisite ears. The girl’s obsession with her own breasts unfortunately seems to translate as a rather pervy penchant of the author, but I was willing to tiptoe around some dialogue in the hope that it didn’t descend too far into troublesome territory. Thankfully it doesn’t, this time, and when the girl goes missing the artist sets out to discover if there is connection between her and the Commendatore, so he might reunite her with her family.
What follows, at long last, in the final stages of the book is rather enthrallingly surreal journey through an imaginary underworld where the artist’s claustrophobia and mettle is tested to the limits. We also discover where the girl has been for four days and something of the nature of an evil that lurks in the valley.
While Killing Commendatore is not a patch on some of Murakami’s earlier novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or the more recent Kafka on the Shore, it’s certainly better than IQ84 which I really couldn’t get on with. The pacing of Killing Commendatore is typically slow, there is a lot of repetition (perhaps because it was published originally in two volumes) and the obsession with cooking, music and ears is still in evidence, but there is certainly a lasting sense of mystery that stays with you way beyond the final page.