The plight of the commercial artist is a difficult one: talented enough to make a living, but to gain his skill, he must study in the shadows of the uncompromising talents that came before him – cultural giants who have denoted the maestro from the sell-out. Such is the subject of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Killing Commendatore. A painter who has made a comfortable living in commercial portraiture finds his predictable life upended when his wife suddenly announces she’s been sleeping with another man and thus wants a divorce. Newly single, he moves into a secluded cabin in the mountains, swearing off painting portraits to finally dedicate himself to his real artistic ambitions…just as soon as he figures out what they are.
If this sounds like clichéd plotting, it’s because elements of it are just that. After all, who hasn’t seen the same setup in movies and literature before? The talented-but-complacent artist lives in exile following heartbreak, makes some quirky new relationships, and in the process regains his creative soul.
In the hands of a different author, this story could’ve been of the same substance, but Murakami isn’t content to be so typical. Fans of his work, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, understand his tendency to engage in the supernatural and the surreal, and following the twisting narratives through to the end is sometimes an act of trust. The casual reader may be less inclined to follow along and jump into the dark pit of introspection, but those who enjoy exploring the psyche of the artist will find themselves rewarded, though some heavy-lifting will be required. Multiple plot lines orbit the narrator and juggling them can be difficult.
One thread involves a rich stranger who commissions the portrait of a young girl who may or may not be his daughter; another reveals in flashbacks the traumatic origins behind an elderly legend’s greatest work of art, the “Killing Commendatore” painting that’s been hidden away; still another focuses on the Commendatore himself, a character from the aforementioned painting who has literally manifested himself into the real-world as an “Idea”, but can only be seen by the narrator at certain hours of the night.
If this seems hard to follow, it’s because at times it can be, and it’s a wonder how much might have been lost in translation from the original Japanese two-volume set (a mammoth undertaking that required two translators, Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen). At heart, however, is the moving story of a lost soul experiencing an existential crisis, which is the plight of any artist, regardless of their medium. By the book’s end, Murakami appears to suggest that being noteworthy requires a sacrifice in happiness and contentment at a deep personal level, as pain and solitude are what fuels any act of genius.
These are thoughts the narrator dwells on as he muddles through what is tantamount to a mid-life crisis, an uncertain future and doubting what he’s become. During his seclusion our protagonist is haunted by the literal manifestations of the creative process, allowing him to overcome his past traumas while forging a new artistic style that he can call his own.
The novel’s end satisfies, but not wholly. Some aspects, such as The Man in the White Subaru or the arc involving the narrator’s married-girlfriend, feel unresolved, or worse, unnecessary. Likewise, some readers may be turned off by the sexual aspects of the narrator’s soul-search, as Murakami spares few details and has no qualms reveling in those intimate moments. If the book only relied on its plot, all of this might be problematic, but thankfully its strength comes from the nuanced look into the mind of the artist – ambitions and fears, included. That alone makes Killing Commendatore worth the time, and it’s certain to entice readers to explore his previous works if they haven’t already familiar.