Arts & Books Books

Experimental novelist Murakami is sounding like a broken record

Murakami winning the Jerusalem Book Prize in 2009, seated next to Shimon Peres (Getty)

Killing Commendatore
by Haruki Murakami,
Harvill Secker, 702pp, £20/$30

Isolation is central to the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. A familiar scene in his books and stories is a character finding himself utterly alone, often at the bottom of a well (Murakami once told an interviewer this was an actual dream of his). But in his latest novel, Killing Commendatore, he considers the religious dimension of this isolation.

The unnamed protagonist, a portrait painter in his 30s, has lucked out: a friend’s father, and famous artist, is nearing the end of his life and his apartment lies empty. The portrait painter can move into the apartment, which is well-stocked not just with artist’s materials but also with tens of thousands of classical music LPs. The only thing that disturbs his peace is a strange ringing coming from a covered-over hole in the back garden in the early hours of the morning.

Builders working on the property are baffled. The protagonist’s neighbour, a mysterious tech-billionaire named Menshiki, believes the stone-lined chamber was once inhabited by a priest who “probably breathed his last there, underground, ringing this bell and chanting sutras”. The shrine might have started out as a well, and the priest may have been deeply spiritual or crazy, but either way, the ringing bell is some sort of sign.

Murakami leads something of a monastic life himself, and it is clear that he identifies both with the isolated priest and the lucky portrait painter. Having had enormous commercial success, he still rises at an extremely early time in the morning to write, after which he goes for a long run. He is not religious but does believe there is more than one plane of existence, a theme he returns to over and over in his books.

Murakami is also a music fanatic (when I met him years ago, he immediately asked me to direct him to the nearest record store that sold jazz records on vinyl), and the most interesting passages in the early part of the book concern the protagonist’s thoughts on classical composers (especially Richard Strauss) as he potters about his apartment painting.

Murakami has fair claim to be the world’s most successful experimental novelist. His books have sold millions of copies in Japan and he is the best-known Japanese novelist in the world. For many years, he has been mooted as a likely recipient of the Nobel Prize. But, in recent years, his reputation has dimmed slightly. Partly, this is to do with overproduction. Alongside many long novels, there are also multiple collections of stories, books of his thoughts on running and music, and even an anthology he edited of short stories about birthdays. But some readers and critics feel that he has lost his way in recent years, with his last two novels being much weaker than his earlier books.

Alongside his own fiction, Murakami also translates American novels into Japanese, and this novel was inspired in part by his experience translating F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which particularly influenced his depiction of the relationship between Murakami’s narrator and his billionaire friend, who pays the artist to paint his portrait.

The companionship between these two men, which develops as they drink whisky together in the early hours of the morning to listen out for the aforementioned bell, is by far the most engaging part of the novel (spoiler alert). The ringing turns out not to be a priest but (bear with me here) a two-foot “manifestation of an Idea”: the Commendatore of the title, who takes physical form and encourages the narrator on various strange missions.

Unlike many late works by significant male authors, this is not a small, condensed version of themes he has been pursuing throughout his life, but a massive 700-page exercise in narrative suspense. Reading the novel, you keep waiting for the book to fall to pieces, stunned that Murakami is getting so much from so little.

However, there are two later developments in the narrative which made me uneasy. The protagonist’s friend encourages him to paint a portrait of the adolescent girl he believes is his daughter. Older men and younger women often form friendships in Murakami’s novels, but this one feels slightly creepy, especially given the girl’s concerns about puberty.

The other development, and this is common in Murakami’s novels, is the reaching back in history to the Nazi era to give what is essentially a shaggy dog story dramatic heft. Rather than achieving this effect, it instead casts doubt on the moral validity of the whole project.

Almost uniquely among writers of his literary calibre, Murakami is obsessed with how to tell a story, believing it the only way to capture readers’ attention. This in itself is a noble aim: he doesn’t need the Nazis to make us care about his art.