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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Killing Commendatore

by
Murakami Haruki


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Killing Commendatore



Title: Killing Commendatore
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 619 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Killing Commendatore - US
Killing Commendatore - UK
Killing Commendatore - Canada
Die Ermordung des Commendatore: I / II - Deutschland
La muerte del comendador - España
  • Japanese title: 騎士団長殺し
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

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Our Assessment:

B : typical and enjoyable Murakami, though fizzles at the end

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 8/10/2018 David Canfield
Evening Standard . 4/10/2018 Ian Thomson
Financial Times . 12/10/2018 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian . 17/10/2018 Xan Brooks
The Japan Times . 1/4/2017 Daniel Morales
Literary Review . 10/2018 Anthony Cummins
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/10/2018 Hari Kunzru
The Observer . 7/10/2018 J.Thomas-Corr
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/9/2018 Kevin Canfield
The Spectator . 20/10/2018 A.M.Daniel
Sunday Times . 30/9/2018 Christina Patterson
Sydney Morning Herald . 19/10/2018 Ronnie Scott
The Telegraph . 5/10/2018 Leo Robson
The Times . 6/10/2018 James Marriott
Wall St. Journal . 5/10/2018 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 8/10/2018 Charles Finch
World Lit. Today A 11-12/2018 R.A. Papinchak
Die Zeit¹ . 25/1/2018 Ronald Düker
Die Zeit² . 30/5/2018 Iris Radisch
¹ review of the first part
² review of the second part

  From the Reviews:
  • "Haruki Murakami sticks to what he knows in Killing Commendatore: poignant middle-aged male ennui, asides on cats roaming and spaghetti cooking, lengthy stretches of mundanity punctuated by flashes of the surreal. (...) The bookís missteps, from painfully dry historical analysis to some offensive treatment of the female characters, undermine its affecting melancholy. But for as wild and unwieldy as Commendatore gets, Murakami executes his mission with metatextual ingenuity. He reveals how an artist sees the world." - David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(A) dark metaphysical fancy that owes a good deal to Stephen King. (...) Admirers of Murakamiís best-known novels (...) will be disappointed. Japanís best-known literary export seems to have lost his magic; let us hope it is temporary." - Ian Thomson, Evening Standard

  • "Pantomime and philosophy promiscuously mix -- at length. If the 670 pages of Killing Commendatore look compact compared with (say) the 1,000-plus of 1Q84, its leisurely unfolding still strays down many snaking paths. Murakami addicts love this slow-burn storytelling, which has (as Menshiki says of his beloved Jag) "a charm all its own". Newcomers, however, may initially feel bemused. " - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Absurdity piles on absurdity. The tale grows more antic as the chapters mount up. As ever, Murakami is brilliant at folding the humdrum alongside the supernatural; finding the magic thatís nested in lifeís quotidian details. Yet on this occasion he allows his disparate elements to spin out too widely, to the point where they begin to appear only tenuously connected. (...) Murakami is happy to exist in a state of flux, entirely unperturbed by the circuitous course he has taken. His pace remains easy and unhurried. His prose is warm, conversational and studded with quiet profundities. Heís eminently good company; that most precious of qualities that we look for in an author." - Xan Brooks, The Guardian

  • "This novel, then, is a sort of bildungsroman, as the character attempts to rediscover his inspiration for painting and create his own unique artistic style. Murakamiís obsession with isolating his characters continues (.....) This book fails most in its narrative point of view. Murakami tells story in retrospect: We know from the opening pages that the protagonist is in Odawara for nine months, that he reconciles with his wife in the end and that heís telling the story from a point in the future." - Daniel Morales, The Japan Times

  • "Haruki Murakamiís overlong and somewhat undercooked tale of supernatural happenings in rural Japan. (...) As historical secrets and hauntings begin to pile on top of one another, one has the sense of a writer throwing a lot of ideas against a wall in the hope that something will stick. The plot is full of melodramatic bustle, but its wheels spin without gaining much traction. This is partly a result of Murakamiís customary detachment. (...) Killing Commendatore is a baggy monster, a disappointment from a writer who has made much better work." - Hari Kunzru, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel spins wide, exploring ideas about art, grief and rebirth with echoes of Alice in Wonderland, Don Giovanni, Bluebeardís Castle and an 18th-century story by Ueda Akinari about a mummy who comes back to life. The result is an exhausting epic that is at once more absorbing than it deserves to be and less profound than the author intended. (...) Whatís so confounding here is the way Murakami squanders his meticulous work in creating Menshiki to settle for his own authorly comfort zone. A purer homage to Gatsby would have been far more compelling (.....) But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Killing Commendatore is a reminder of the authorís breast fetishism. I counted 80 mentions." - Johanna Thomas-Corr, The Observer

  • "Itís all pretty daffy, even by Murakamiís standards, yet he has a way of imbuing the supernatural with uncommon urgency. His placid narrative voice belies the utter strangeness of his plot, and the storyís many idiosyncrasies come to feel reasonable and necessary. (...) The bookís one shortcoming -- an abundance of cliches -- is something weíve seen before from Murakami. (...) But this book wonít be sunk by a bit of subpar prose. The worldview of Murakamiís novels is consistent, and itís invigorating." - Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Neither longtime inspirations nor his own imagination fail Murakami here; Commendatore is a perfect balance of tradition and individual talent. (...) No other writer so commands that manner of storytelling wrought from a stream of rich ideas, the thought-river, the word-hoard long used and newly brought to life, flowing Ďalong the interstice between presence and absenceí." - Anne Margaret Daniel, The Spectator

  • "Killing Commendatore may be the most Murakami of the Murakami novels, and whether or not you'll like it will probably depend on whether or not this is the kind of thing you like. (...) It's serious underneath, but up above, it's pretty trippy, with a character from the painting coming to life and speaking to the narrator in Yoda-like riddles. It's so much fun that it's easy to get sucked along." - Ronnie Scott, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "What unites this rigmarole is the notion that a great work of art serves as a conduit between the conscious and the unconscious mind. (...) So is it worth submitting to the whims of Mr. Murakamiís wandering id ? Not for the writing, it must be said -- the translation by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen is as blandly functional as the translations of all the authorís previous books. But what canít be denied is Mr. Murakamiís irresistible storytelling ability." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "(T)hereís a strong sense in Murakamiís work that his allegorical instincts are secondary, the radiation of his charactersí inner sense of dislocation. He took this method to its outermost limits in his monumental 1Q84 (is it time to admit that that book is something of a mess?), but Killing Commendatore gets the balance right. Perhaps this lies in its exhilarating portrayal of how it feels to make art." - Charles Finch, The Washington Post

  • "Haruki Murakamiís massive, elegantly eerie sixteenth novel, Killing Commendatore, is a successful, surreal mashup of Thomas Mannís The Magic Mountain, F. Scott Fitzgeraldís The Great Gatsby, and Lewis Carrollís Aliceís Adventures in Wonderland. (...) Killing Commendatore is another wonderfully elaborate Murakami concoction." - Robert Allen Papinchak, World Literature Today

  • "Viel spricht dafür, dass dieser erste Band nur die Exposition eines im nächsten Teil noch viel turbulenteren Geschehens ist. Murakami war so freundlich, die Mäuselöcher dorthin wenigstens freizulegen. In die Grube, aus der zum ersten Mal das nächtliche Läuten drang, führt nun eine Leiter hinab. (...) Man liest dieses Buch in einem Atemzug und stellt dann fest, dass eigentlich alle Erzählstränge noch offen zutage liegen." - Ronald Düker, Die Zeit

  • "Im Großen und Ganzen ereignet sich nicht viel mehr, als dass zwei einsame Vorruheständler in einem betörenden Retro-Idyll in den japanischen Bergen tausend Seiten und neun Monate lang um ein halbwüchsiges Mädchen kreisen, über dessen Busengröße ein etwas penetrantes Gewese veranstaltet wird. (...) Die Fernsehbilder vom Erdbeben und von der Nuklearkatastrophe von Fukushima, die auf den letzten Seiten durch den Roman huschen, machen die Sehnsucht nach der literarisch ansprechend möblierten Privat-Grabkammer, als die sich dieser Roman empfiehlt, nur noch dringender." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note that the English translation of Killing Commendatore has a page-count that is significantly lower than that of the Japanese original or, for example, the German and Dutch translations (all of which were originally printed in two separate volumes). While page-count comparisons do not necessarily reflect fidelity to the original (word-count will obviously differ from language to language; the number of words per page can differ greatly from edition to edition, etc.), the disparity here is large enough (hundreds of pages) to suggest that, as with several previous Murakami translations into English, significant portions of the text were, unconscionably, cut in the US/UK version(s).]

       Killing Commendatore is the story of a thirty-six-year-old painter whose life was upended when his wife of six years, Yuzu, suddenly told him that she couldn't live with him any longer. The break up was sudden and abrupt, the husband -- the narrator of the story -- accepting what happens and immediately moving out -- it's his only condition: "That I'm the one who leaves here. And I do it today. I'd like you to stay behind".
       At the time, a Sunday in mid-March, and in the months that follow the break also seems to be an almost entirely complete one. The narrator tosses his phone, has practically no contact with Yuzu, and signs the divorce papers as soon as he receives them. But in the novel's first pages he sums up that time and slips in that, in the end, everything worked out after all:

     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.
       Killing Commendatore is mostly about those 'things that happened', during those nine months (a time period pregnant with meaning ...) they were separated.
       As he revealed at the beginning of the novel, the narrator spent most of this time -- "From May until early the following year" -- in one place (after driving around somewhat aimlessly and lost for a while). A friend from his art school days, Masahiko Amada, provides him with the place to settle down for the time, Masahiko's father's old house in the mountains outside Odawara (on the Pacific coast, not too far south of Yokohama and Tokyo). Masahiko's father is Tomohiko Amada, "a famous painter of Japanese-style paintings" who is now ninety-two and suffering from dementia, and was moved to a high-end nursing home a few months earlier. The quiet spot, an artist's studio, but with none of the master's paintings left there (but a great classical record collection), is a perfect retreat for the narrator.
       After finishing art school the narrator wasn't able to continue with abstract painting -- there just wasn't any money in it --, but he found a comfortable niche as a portrait-painter -- something that: "ran totally counter to my artistic aims", but which it turns out he has a real feel for. Even though he felt he was only: "trudging through one assignment after another", his customers were satisfied and he found himself in some demand. But when he separates from his wife he leaves that behind him too. In Odawara he does agree to teach a few art classes at the local arts and culture center, but even living in the space previously inhabited by renowned artist Tomohiko Amada can't immediately inspire him to pick up the brushes again and create his own art.
       It turns out that one of Amada's paintings was left in the house -- wrapped up and well-hidden -- and when the narrator discovers it he is naturally curious. It is a startling work -- "one of his true masterpieces" -- but no one knew of its existence. A tag on the package has 'Killing Commendatore' written on it, clearly the name given to the painting. The scene it depicts is of two men fighting, with a few figures observing the scene; eventually the narrator figures out that the 'Commendatore' is taken from the opera Don Giovanni -- the old man killed at the beginning of that work -- and that:
Tomohiko Amada had "adapted" the world of Mozart's opera into the Asuka period. A fascinating experiment, for sure. That, I recognized. But why was that adaption necessary ?
       Amada's own background continues to interest the narrator: the famous painter had started out painting Western-style paintings, but when he returned to Japan after spending time in Vienna, just before the Second World War started, he switched to Japanese-style painting -- achieving great success at it. Over the course of his time in the artist's home the narrator comes to learn more about Amada, and the circumstances of his stay and departure from Vienna -- but the 'Killing Commendatore'-painting is, of course, a key to more than just Amada.
       After a few months the narrator is contacted by his agent, who tells him that a client has contacted him, wanting his portrait painted. The narrator isn't inclined to pick up his brush again, but the fee the client is willing to pay is "unbelievable", so he can't help but be tempted. The client does have one other demand: to be painted "live and in person" -- which isn't how the portraitist usually works: an introductory conversation, and a few photographs are all he usually relies on.
       The narrator agrees to meet the man -- who, conveniently, lives close by. His name is Menshiki Wataru -- 免色 渉. "'Avoiding colors,' is what it means", he explains about the characters for Menshiki, while: "The wataru [渉] in my name is the character that means 'to cross a river'". Needless to say, in this symbol- and meaning-laden (i.e. typical) Murakami work all the parts of the name are meaning-full, too .....
       Menshiki is a wealthy man in his mid-fifties, with no family or other ties, living on his own within (distant) sight of the narrator's home. There are layers of mystery to him as well, slowly revealed. The narrator also can't help feeling a bit like he is being used -- though Menshiki also seems to be fairly straightforward and upfront with him (bit by bit). Still, as someone mentions to him:
Menshiki has an ulterior motive for everything. Never wastes a move, that fellow. It is the only way he knows.
       Menshiki not only wants the narrator to paint his portrait -- which goes well -- but paint another one. Of a thirteen-year-old local girl, Mariye Akikawa, who happens to be in one of the narrator's art classes -- and who Menshiki has good reason to believe might be his daughter, but whom he has never had any real contact with. Menshiki is good at orchestrating what he wants, and he practically stages this so that he will eventually be able to happen to drop by when Mariye is at the narrator's studio so that he can see her up-close -- after long having observed her from afar. Her mother died when she was young, and her aunt now lives with her and her rather distant father -- or at least the man her mother was married to and whom everyone has always taken to be her father, who has increasingly devoted his time and considerable resources to a religious cult.
       Menshiki is not interested in ascertaining whether or not Mariye is actually his daughter -- something that he could probably manage, if he set his mind (and money) to it. Rather, he finds satisfaction in the limbo state of uncertainty, the possibility she is his daughter. But he does want to get closer to her, and this portrait-painting scenario strikes him as a good way of doing that.
       There aren't many significant people in the narrator's life, past or present, and the most significant ones, such as his wife, are, during this period, out of his life. He's estranged from his parents and has no other family -- the one important figure to him being his sister, Komi, who died when she was twelve. Her death, though not entirely unexpected -- she had a congenital heart problem -- was a great blow to him, and the family. The narrator admits that one of the things that drew him to Yuzu was her resemblance to his sister -- not physical, but otherwise -- while Mariye is practically the same age as Komi was when she died, and he naturally can't help but be reminded of his sister when he paints her.
       Among the odd happenings at the house in Odawara is the ringing of a bell that the narrator begins to hear late at night. Menshiki helps him look into where it might originate, leading to the uncovering of a pit on the grounds nearby. It is a carefully constructed pit, only a bit more than eight feet deep, lined with stones, under six feet in diameter. It's not obvious what purpose it could serve; the foreman of the crew that helped uncover it observes:
But it's too wide for a well, and the stone wall around it is so elaborately constructed. It couldn't have been easy to build. I suppose they must have had some important purpose in mind to construct something that took this much time and effort.
       Despite not being very deep, the walls are constructed so that it is impossible to climb out; unsurprisingly, the narrator does at one point become yet another protagonist in a Murakami novel who finds himself stuck in a pit.
       Killing Commendatore is a two part novel, the first titled: 'The Idea made Visible', the second, 'The Shifting Metaphor'. Murakami isn't kidding with 'the idea made visible': it manifests itself for the narrator -- in unlikely form, but assuring him: "I am no dream, I can tell you." As to what it -- or he -- is, even it finds it difficult to explain: "At a certain point I became a pure Idea". But it can still take on physical form, visible at least to the narrator (though generally otherwise staying out of sight) and, though working on a different plane, where things like time aren't really significant, it helpfully gives the narrator (and Mariye) some tips and clues as to how to proceed.
       The manifest-idea isn't the only unusual or spiritual aspect of the novel. There are many significant and extremely vivid -- completely life-like -- dreams, for one thing. And the few paintings the narrator makes each have certain qualities -- as does, especially, Amada's 'Killing Commendatore'. And there's the pit, and some of the things surrounding it or originating there. And there's Amada himself, his mind almost completely gone, but his past, and how he captured and transformed it in 'Killing Commendatore' reverberating into the present day -- in spirit, in Amada's dimming mind, and in the narrator's reality.
       Eventually, the narrator has a truly otherworldly experience -- not the first, but the most elaborate --, a journey that is a sort of test that forces him to confront old fears and memories. He's warned it will require sacrifices -- and that: "Metaphorically speaking, there will be blood". (Murakami goes all in on this weird ride: "dangerous Double Metaphors were lurking out there, ready to pounce".)
       The painting 'Killing Commendatore' is a remarkable work, and one of the narrator's observations about it is:
The longer I looked at the painting, the less clear was the threshold between reality and unreality, flat and solid, substance and image.
       The painting is not directly a portal for him, but the environment and circumstances he finds himself in push him towards these bounds -- and beyond. Indeed, even after he has been on his wild ride -- definitely on the other side of conventional reality -- and everything seems to have stabilized, the narrator finds himself uncertain:
     But was this the real world ?
     I looked around. So much was familiar. The breeze through the window carried a familiar smell, the sounds outside were familiar sounds
     Just because it looked like the real world at first glance, however, didn't mean that was necessarily the case. It might be no more than my assumption.
       Shortly after he left his wife, still dazed by the sudden rupture and upending of his life, and while he's still on the road, before he's settled down in Odawara, the narrator catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror:
     As I gazed at my reflection I wondered, Where am I headed ? Before that, though, the question was Where have I come to ? Where is this place ? No, before that even I needed to ask, Who the hell am I ?
       Killing Commendatore is a typical Murakamiesque journey of self-discovery -- complete with guidance such as: "The destination is something you yourself must determine by following your own heart" -- not offering straightforward answers, but leading its protagonist (and some of the other characters) on a path to a future. Among the lessons he learns is: "We all live our lives carrying secrets we cannot disclose" -- though one wonders if more openness wouldn't actually be in the best interest of all involved. But it seems to work for the narrator, who winds up reconciled -- almost effortlessly -- with his wife and sharing a continued bond with sister-substitute Mariye.
       The long build-up of Killing Commendatore is very enjoyable, the narrator settling down into a rather simple, withdrawn life but intriguing surprises constantly keeping him, and the story, slightly on edge. Menshiki is an interesting counter-figure, effortlessly seeming to be able to control everything around him, while Mariye is an appealing figure to whom there's also more than first meets the eye. (Among the few touches Murakami doesn't quite get right is Mariye's obsession with her small breasts -- plausible as something that preöccupies her, but just plain uncomfortable in how the narrator also repeatedly addresses it.)
       Murakami does the art -- Amada's and the narrator's -- well, just like he's strong on everyday-living incidentals -- cooking a meal, listening to music, or the encounters with Menshiki or Masahiko where nothing significant happens (or that are at least less events of any sort -- almost every encounter and occurrence in the novel feels pregnant with meaning). Amada's experiences, including in Austria before the war, and the narrator's memories of his sister are also quite well blended into the larger story.
       The meaningful last journey, however, feels a bit rushed and forced. Mariye disappears, and the narrator understands he must act to help or save her -- while of course being clueless as to how he might do so. He is guided, in a way -- he doesn't really seem to have many options, beyond being called to act -- and he has to face some old fears, but it feels a bit anticlimactic -- a turn of events that allows the narrator to come out the other side changed in some fundamental way (but also not at all ...) that helps bring the story to its conclusion. Presenting what Mariye went through separately then -- and after the fact -- takes some of the power away from the whole thing too.
       So the ending does fizzle a bit, and the way many of the things are tied up feels a bit perfunctory -- perhaps understandable, the narrator focused on his return to his old life and wife, but still a bit too quick and simple (right down to burning down the Amada-house in Odawara after the narrator moves out again).
       On the whole, however, Killing Commendatore is an enjoyable ride and consistently entertaining. Arguably, Murakami relies a bit much on the over-familiar from his earlier work -- right down to the backyard pit -- but they work well enough here, too. As to the spiritual journey mumbo-jumbo, that's always hard to pull off, and Murakami does it about as well as he usually does -- reasonably if not entirely convincingly.
       Satisfying as a pretty typical Murakami work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 August 2018

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Links:

Killing Commendatore: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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© 2018 the complete review

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