I have come to Haruki Murakami comparatively late in life, a fact that is in itself a cause for great joy. Not only do I think I wouldn’t have appreciated him as completely as I do now had I been younger – I did in fact read Norwegian Wood aged about sixteen and found it relatively impossible to get on with – but I suddenly find myself in love with an author who has a huge back catalogue of work for me to devour. In terms of reading enjoyment, I can think of few better treats.
Of course I have long been aware of Murakami as a contemporary literary great, but my approach to him has been rather meandering – I have read many of his interviews, quotes and non-fiction, in particular his absolutely masterful almost-autobiography, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. In as far as it is possible to know any author through their words alone, I thus have a sense of understanding a bit about Murakami’s character, which I was quick to recognise in the narrator of Killing Commendatore.
Flawlessly (I believe) translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen – the book reads as though it was written in English, with a perfectly consistent narrative tone, idiomatic use of language and never an awkward phrasing or linguistic slip – Killing Commendatore is a 600-page romp through Murakami’s quite astonishing imagination. It is a well-known fact that his own personal obsessions (which include music, especially jazz, cats and doing the ironing) often crop up in his novels, and this one is no exception. Classical music is a driving force here, and while I didn’t notice many cats there is one particular scene that reminded me of a 2014 interview with Murakami in which he stated that his lifelong ambition is to spend time sitting at the bottom of a well. Enter the mysterious character Menshiki, who spends a memorable few pages sitting in utter darkness at the bottom of a sealed pit. Although his reasons are hinted at, like many things in the novel they remain for ever unclear.
While Menshiki provides a dose of darkness and intrigue to counterbalance the narrator’s more straightforward character (though he does actually prove surprisingly open to the absurd), my absolute favourite figure in the book was the pint-sized Commendatore, who walks out of a painting quite early on and has a wonderfully defined voice. It was his manner of speaking that often had me laughing just when things were otherwise getting a bit too dark, yet this is just one example of the ways in which Murakami delivers his story so masterfully. I am not a fan of the supernatural, and at times this novel definitely verges on that, but Murakami is such a skilful storyteller that at just the right moment he is able to tip the narrative into the utterly absurd, such as with the line I have chosen for the title of this review. This in itself made me smile, coming at a moment of heightened tension, and when it was quickly followed by a straight-faced warning about the dangers of encountering a Double Metaphor in the dark, I found myself actually laughing out loud. Murakami, I got the sense, was poking fun at me and my imagined fears. He has claimed before that he has fun when writing, and Killing Commendatore is surely evidence of that.
Shining with details that make the action and characters leap off the page and into real life, set indisputably in modern-day Japan and tackling issues of love, loss, family, war, fathers and sons, trauma and emotional displacement, Killing Commendatore is that rarest of beasts: a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining ride. Having become hooked by around page three, I stayed up late one night to finish it and then had to flick through a cookbook in order to calm down enough to fall asleep. Not everyone will have this reaction, I’m sure – Murakami certainly does have a riotous imagination and for some readers this novel will no doubt prove too ridiculous – but as an introduction to his storytelling genius, I found this to be perfect.
The rest of this year is going to be quite Murakami-heavy, I fear, as I attempt to catch up with all the gems of literature I feel sure I have missed. Hats off to Haruki, one of the living authors whose hands I would most like to shake.
My rating: 5/5