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Haruki Murakami defies categorisation in Killing Commendatore

Haruki Murakami: characters remain as unflappable and self-possessed as always. Photo/Alamy

Japanese master Haruki Murakami paints a far-fetched but serene picture of the act of creation. 

In Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Killing Commendatore, an unnamed 36-year-old portrait artist spends nine months living alone in an elderly artist’s vacated house atop a mountain overlooking a nearly deserted valley. The book’s nameless narrator is separated from his wife and disillusioned with his portrait-painting career. But he finds himself enlivened and inspired as he settles into the home studio formerly occupied by prominent painter Tomohiko Amada.

But, this being a Murakami novel, the seemingly straightforward setup gives way to a story that’s part-uncanny mystery, part-unsettling magical realism, partweighty philosophical reverie and part-understated realistic fiction comprising scenes in which characters spend lots of time listening to Puccini and Thelonious Monk records while preparing food.

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The narrator agrees to paint two portraits: one of his wealthy, mysterious neighbour Wataru Menshiki, who, à la Jay Gatsby, lives in a massive white home across the valley, and one of another neighbour, Mariye Akikawa – a young girl who may be connected to Wataru.

Killing Commendatore explores what it means to create, what the imagination is capable of, what dreams are and what reality is. The narrator muses at length about how, as an artist, he gives form to something that does not exist, how what he produces is “the idea made visible”. His preternatural ability to paint portraits that capture something elusive about a person verges on the fantastic. When the narrator paints a person, he creates something singular, a work that is practically more the person than the actual person is. It’s the narrator’s unparalleled skill of truly seeing and expressing the unknown and unknowable in others that invites the fantastic into the story.

As he paints others, he reveals things previously unknown. His work seems to open up other worlds, other ways of knowing and understanding. His art invites the strange into the open. Soon after he moves into Amada’s property, a series of increasingly inexplicable and surreal events begin to happen around the narrator, and these strange incidents touch the lives of Wataru and Mariye as well.

Murakami’s novel has already been shortlisted for the 26th annual Literary Review “Bad Sex in Fiction” award for a scene that is as odd as it is awkward. To be fair, the occurrence in question is part of a plot twist that is meant to be barely believable to begin with. No matter how baffling the turns of events become, Murakami’s characters remain as unflappable and self-possessed as always.

The plot, though steeped in the unreal and far-fetched, remains serene, with almost affect-less, even deadpan, conversations between characters. It’s a novel that unfolds in very plain language and quietly.

Murakami’s new novel has traces of The Great Gatsby, Alice in Wonderland, Stranger Things and Stephen King’s The Outsider. But as with the writer’s previous work, it defies easy categorisation.

KILLING COMMENDATORE, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, $45)

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.