Top positive review
Consummate Murakami—for better or for worse
Reviewed in the United States on October 9, 2018
It is hard to believe that Murakami is almost 70. On the one hand, it feels like his presence has loomed large in the Japanese (and now world) literary scene for a very long time; on the other, there is something eternal and unchanging about Murakami’s works—one can pick up Hear the Wind Sing (written almost 40 years ago!) and instantly identify the author as the same one who penned Killing Commendatore. This is not to say that Murakami has not changed at all—he has experimented with style and perspective, and perhaps most critically, balanced cool detachment with worldly engagement as a result of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks in 1995. And yet, the many themes that appear in Killing Commendatore—subterranean adventures, strained relationships, World War II, men coping with the loss of women, music, art, mysterious creatures with strange speaking patterns, metaphysical sex—will be instantly apparent to the experienced Murakami reader. In many ways, where Killing Commendatore is a success it is precisely because Murakami returns to his roots in many ways.
Of the story itself, I will not say too much; in part to avoid spoilers, and in part because trying to summarize Murakami’s works are a near-impossible exercise. Yes, the “tl;dr” of this book would be “Artist separated from wife paints portraits, encounters odd situations, gets back with wife” (don’t worry, I’m not revealing anything the reader isn’t told within the first couple of pages). I can even tell you that the book is about ideas, metaphors, and history (both shared and personal histories and experiences) ... as well as a fixation with a young girl's breasts that quickly becomes uncomfortable for the reader. But, that doesn’t tell you what the book is *about*—for that, you need to read it yourself, of course.
Where does this book rank in the pantheon of Murakami works? This is, of course, a very subjective question; as someone who tends to favor Murakami’s earlier works such as Hardboiled Wonderland over later works such as Kafka and 1Q84, my opinion might not align with yours. However, for me, this was a nicely crafted tale, easily the most *complete* Murakami novel. As much as I love Murakami’s work, I have been frustrated in the past by his novels that leave too many story lines unraveled, too many questions unaddressed, and the book just ending without fanfare. This is not to say that there are no unresolved story lines in Killing Commendatore (for instance, I’m still haunted by the prologue of all things—once you finish the novel, go back and re-read the very beginning and think about the questions it raises). However, Murakami provides a surprising amount of closure in the last few chapters, and while he doesn’t provide The Answers, he does provide enough detail to at least figure out what *questions* the reader should be asking.
That said, while I was spell-bound much of the time, there were sections where the book dragged (compared to a work such as Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, not that much ‘happens’—a couple hundred pages probably could’ve been chopped from this book and would not have been missed), some of the characters did not quite live up to their promise (I kept waiting for a little bit more substance where characters such as Menshiki, Mariye, and the Man with the White Subaru are concerned, but I did love Commendatore—even if it’s hard not to compare him to the Sheep Man from A Wild Sheep Chase), and while the plot was pretty well explained (for a Murakami novel), I kept waiting for a little bit more of a twist (many events were a bit predictable for an old Murakami hand), or a clearer picture of what were the consequences or importance of certain seemingly-portentous events (especially toward the end), or just something new, exciting, and surprising—as an artist, Murakami is as confident and polished in his brushstrokes as ever … but it feels like Killing Commendatore traces elegantly and masterfully over a canvas he has already worked on many times before. I admit, the more time that goes by since finishing this novel (confession: I read the original novel when it came out in 2017, so I've had a year and a half to think about it), the more my enthusiasm wanes—I worry that my initial excitement was due to relief that Murakami ‘landed the plane’ more so than enthusiasm about the flight itself. Killing Commendatore feels like a consummation of Murakami’s work to this point, but I’d love to see him break new ground and go in new directions in his next novel.