OCTOBER 23, 2018
READING A BIG Haruki Murakami novel is like tunneling beneath the earth. At first, things are familiar. You’re digging along through everyday rock. But then you arrive at these enormous underground caves with beautiful stalagmite and stalactite formations. The caves link to each other through narrow passageways, and every time you head into another tight tunnel you come out into a cavern even more enormous and deep and lovely. It doesn’t seem possible that such miraculous things exist, but they do. “The cave,” writes St. Maximos in the Philokalia, “is the hidden sanctuary of wisdom within the intellect; he who enters it will mystically perceive the spiritual knowledge that is beyond perception.”
In Murakami’s Killing Commendatore (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen), another masterpiece as good as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–’95) and 1Q84 (2009–’10), both the characters and the reader traverse such magnificent subterranean chambers.
In the beginning of the story, Murakami’s protagonist, an unnamed portrait artist, says he wants to do his utmost to “set down a systematic, logical account” of what happened to him during the nine months of “inexplicable chaos and confusion” he experienced while living in a house in the mountains. Informed by his wife of six years that she couldn’t live with him anymore, he had taken off on a road trip north and settled in the home of his friend’s father, a famous painter named Tomohiko Amada who now has dementia. Like other Murakami characters, the artist abandoned his vocation — painting portraits — and planned to live a modest life in the secluded house while teaching a local art class once a week. Sometime later, he thinks about how the divorce affected his life: “[It’s] [l]ike you’re walking along as always, sure you’re on the right path, when the path suddenly vanishes, and you’re facing an empty space, no sense of direction, no clue where to go, and you just keep trudging along.” And in that trudging along, new opportunities present themselves that otherwise wouldn’t.
In this case, the artist’s world becomes re-enchanted. It begins with the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Menshiki, a cagey stranger who seems to precipitate a series of odd discoveries: a disconcerting artwork, a miniaturized human symbol. Then, the artist hears a ghostly bell late one night. Curious, he follows the sound into the woods and comes to an ancient shrine. The ringing sounds as if it’s coming from beneath the pile of stones. As if someone were trapped under there.
Here, Murakami is riffing on an ancient Japanese folk legend, adapted as “Fate Over Two Generations” by the 18th-century writer Ueda Akinari, that seems to be the inspiration for Killing Commendatore. In the tale, a son of a wealthy farmer hears the sound of a gong coming from beneath a rock in the corner of their garden. Underneath, he finds a coffin in which a fleshless, emaciated Buddhist priest with hair down to his knees strikes a gong with a wooden hammer. The priest had had himself buried alive in what was called an act of zenjo, during which he recites sutras and rings the gong until he dies. The man has been performing the ritual for hundreds of years.
So now of course we, as much as the portrait artist, want to know: Who or what is ringing the bell under the shrine?
Amada is famous for his Japanese-style paintings, which earned him Japan’s Order of Cultural Merit, an award he turned down. Yet Killing Commendatore, a large work of Amada’s that the portrait artist finds hidden in the house’s attic, is strikingly different in its violently bloody nature. In the painting, two men — one young, one old — are dueling with heavy, ancient swords. The young man’s sword is plunged deep into the old man’s chest as spurting blood soaks his white clothes. The young man’s eyes — cold, without a sign of regret — are fixed on his opponent.
Mulling the work’s title, the artist realizes that Mozart’s Don Giovanni opens with the scene of a Commendatore being killed and that the men in the painting are characters from the opera reframed in Japan’s Asuka period. Intrigued, the artist hangs it in his studio. For some days, he just sits there looking at the painting and listening to Don Giovanni.
Murakami states this so simply, but it’s actually quite unbelievable. It’s a feat of asceticism beyond most disciplined monks, much less the rest of us. But if we believe exaggerations like this, we’ll believe what is to come. Like the bell-ringing from beneath a shrine. Or the two-foot-tall man dressed like the Commendatore from the painting who shows up in the painter’s house. He hasn’t come off the painting, the little man explains, and he’s not a spirit. He’s actually the embodiment of an idea and merely took the form of the character in the painting.
What are we to make of this? In a meta turn, Murakami has the little Commendatore guide the reader through this tangle of magical realism by explaining how he wants us to interpret it:
The truth is a symbol, and symbols are the truth. It is best to grasp symbols the way they are. There’s no logic or facts […] when people try to use a method other than the truth to follow along the path of understanding, it is like trying to use a sieve to hold water. I am telling you this for your own good. Better to give it up.
So, we shouldn’t try to figure out what’s going on? We should accept things as they come? The Commendatore continues:
Cannot you just let the painting speak for itself? If that painting wants to say something, then best to let it speak. Let metaphors be metaphors, a code a code, a sieve a sieve […] [I]t is, in essence, allegory and metaphor. Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain in words. You just grasp them and accept them.
Okay then. We’re not supposed to understand what’s going on. We’re supposed to let metaphors be metaphors.
But what, then, to make of Mr. Menshiki?
In his 50s, with vibrant white hair, Waturu Menshiki comes into the artist’s life asking to have his portrait painted. The artist says he doesn’t do that anymore, but Menshiki offers him an exorbitant fee, and like that the stranger starts using his vast wealth to execute grand plans he’s been plotting for years. He’s a peculiar man who made his money in something tech-and-information-based, but he no longer works. (The Japanese characters for his name mean “avoiding colors.”)
He lives in a mansion across the valley, and at night “the building floated white in the distance like an elegant ocean liner sailing the night sea.” When the artist visits Menshiki’s home for dinner one evening, he’s taken out to the deck and shown his own, much smaller house across the valley. Menshiki reveals that he has a pair of high-powered binoculars. Like Gatsby buying his mansion on West Egg so he can stare across the water at the green light on the dock of Daisy Buchanan’s house, Menshiki stares across the valley at a house where a 13-year-old girl lives. No, no, nothing like that — he thinks the girl could be his daughter.
Halfway through the novel, when the artist signs his divorce papers, he receives a thank-you note from his new ex-wife. He puts the note away in a drawer and says, “Once I shut the drawer it felt like things had progressed one step forward. Like with a click the scale had moved one line up. Not that this was my doing. Someone, something had prepared this new stage in my stead, and I was simply going along with the program.” Later in the book his wife says something similar: “This is my life, sure, but in the end almost all that happens in it may be decided arbitrarily, quite apart from me. In other words, although I may presume I have free will, in fact I may not be making any of the major decisions that affect me.”
It’s not that these characters are fatalists. And they’re certainly not putting things in God’s hands or anything like that. Rather, Murakami is having them express the truth that despite how rational and stable we may be, our lives are actually out of our control. We do not choose whom we love, or who will love us, or who will hire us, or any of the most important aspects of our lives.
And not only are we not in control, there is much more going on than we can see, know, or understand. That so much that happens is inexplicable seems miraculous. Murakami writes, “There are channels through which reality can become unreal. Or unreality can enter the realm of the real.”
By writing about metaphors and ideas, by ringing bells underground and animating two-foot-tall men, by having the desperate desires of others intrude on the simplest of plans and a whole lot else, Murakami is reminding us that the world is more enchanted than we might think. And an enchanted world is a wonderful place to live.