Book review: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, world-wide bestseller and, apparently, devoted admirer of Scott Fitzgerald, translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese, and this new novel has been described as a homage to Fitzgerald, or at least Gatsby. There is a resemblance in his latest novel, in that there is a mysteriously and tantalisingly rich Gatsby-like figure at the heart of the fiction, but whereas Fitzgerald's novel is slim, elegant and true to experience, Murakami's is one of these baggy old monstrous novels into which the author stuffs anything that takes his fancy. It has recently been deemed obscene in Hong Kong on account of explicit descriptions of sex, though they are no more explicit than anything found in lots of novels.

Haruki Murakami PIC: Henning Bagger/AFP/Getty Images

It’s true that Murakami appears to have an obsession with women’s breasts – adolescent ones also – and I doubt if ten pages of this 674-page novel go by without breasts popping up. In today’s climate, however, this seems more old-fashioned than obscene.

The hero, a portrait painter, recently divorced, is now living in a remote house in mountainous country. It seems an ideal retreat, and was formerly owned by a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. Soon, however, he finds his retreat less than perfect. The house seems to be haunted. Bells ring at night and the furniture moves around. All this is agreeably old-fashioned.

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The painter finds it disturbing and affairs with local wives fail to calm his anxiety. More interestingly, he happens upon a painting by the late master; it seems to depict a peculiarly gruesome murder of a man in seventh-century Japanese dress. However, it transpires that it is really intended to be a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – the murder of the Commendatore by the Don. It may, however, be intended as an allegory representing Nazi horror, for Amada may or may not have been engaged in anti-Nazi work in Vienna after the Anschluss.

Meanwhile, the hero has also become fascinated by a neighbour – the Gatsby figure, Walter Menshiki – who in turn invites the hero to paint his portrait, choosing as the setting an abandoned shrine.

All of this is credible enough – even the ease with which the hero beds the local women. At this point, however, such realism as there has been goes out of the window and absurdity takes over. It does so in the form of a dwarf in early mediaeval Japanese dress who appears to have stepped out of the canvas, purporting to be the Commendatore risen from the dead. From now on we are engaged in the sort of fantasy in which anything can happen and nothing that happens matters.

Murakami is a light and fluent writer and it is easy to understand why he has become so popular. His narrative rattles along and does so without being disturbing. It’s true that introducing reflections or speculations about the Nazi death-camps to spice up a novel that has lost its way and descended into puerile make-believe is an example of deplorable taste – so deplorable, indeed, that it might be more fairly called immoral than the sex-scenes the Hong Kong censors found objectionable. Nevertheless, if you can bring yourself to overlook or excuse such errors of taste, and if you are not disturbed by a novel that veers from the apparently realistic into whimsy and absurdity, you will doubtless find much to enjoy here.

Even so, some readers who have been pleased by the novels which have made Murakami a bestseller are likely to be disappointed by this one, while anyone alerted by the suggestion that Killing Commendatore plays off Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and is in a sense homage to it will surely find that the resemblance is at most superficial.

There is an engaging, albeit slight, story here, but it is smothered in the verbiage. Murakami might have been well advised to recall the brevity with which Fitzgerald treats his theme, and said “that’s the way to do it”.

Murakami has recently withdrawn from the “alternative” Nobel Prize to devote more time to his writing. Good career move, a cynic might say – and it gives him a better chance of the real one when the Swedish Academy recovers from its disgrace and resumes activity. - Allan Massie

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, 674pp, £20