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Killing Commendatore

B+
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October 08, 2018 at 11:32 AM EDT

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. Oh, and a two-foot-tall man steps out of a painting and into the real world. (Murakami fans know that’s barely a spoiler.)

Commendatore launches with a bizarre, beautiful prologue about a faceless man hoping to have his portrait painted, before zigzagging into familiar terrain: A wife, dissatisfied and having an affair, decides to leave her husband. The husband — an unnamed artist and our narrator/hero — moves out of Tokyo and into a house in the mountains that a famous painter, Tomohiko Amada, once lived in. The narrator starts coming back to life as he embraces the solitude. He hopes to create art for himself again, to reclaim his vision. But when he finds an Amada painting hidden in the attic (taking the name of the book’s title), things get weird, fast. A wealthy Gatsby-esque neighbor named Walter Menshiki offers him a huge sum for the discovery. They’re soon drawn into a magical odyssey involving a 13-year old girl, her aunt, a ringing bell, and a mysterious well resting just outside the Amada home.

Murakami (1Q84) crafts notoriously windy novels, but he’s an equally gifted short-story writer. That quality is evident in Commendatore — even if it clocks in at around 700 pages — in the way it develops in slow, messy, often dazzling sections that build on one another. Murakami calls Commendatore his homage to The Great Gatsby, and the comparisons are obvious. Yet he aligns with F. Scott Fitzgerald in subtler, deeper ways, too — in the searching quality of the prose. The book’s 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. B+

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