Murakami’s Killing Commendatore got me thinking about art within literature. We can easily find examples of literature within art: Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Millais’ Ophelia, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in Dali’s Mad Tea Party, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallott in Waterhouse’s painting of the same name. Leonardo da Vinci famously said that “painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt”. But art within literature seems to be something entirely different – for Murakami it is the threshold between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Paintings in Killing Commendatore are “channels through which reality can become unreal – or unreality can enter the realm of the real”. If reading Killing Commendatore can be likened to deep-sea diving, then paintings are the magnificent underwater caverns you might encounter after miles of seaweed. As you find yourself surrounded by chandelier-like rock formations and coral gardens, you struggle with the concept that these worlds can exist within the realm of the sea. The moment is transitory though, and suddenly you’re negotiating murky water again. Art is Murakami’s doorway to surrealism.
Murakami’s nameless narrator is a portrait artist who attempts to document the turbulent nine months following his flight from a failed marriage. He settles in the remote mountain home of Tomohiko Amada, a famous ex-painter and his friend’s father. There, he uncovers the evocative painting Killing Commendatore, an Asuka-style depiction of the opening scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (art within art within art?), which ultimately takes him down a rabbit hole of self-discovery. Thrown in there somewhere is a ringing bell from a pit in the woods, a thirteen-year-old girl obsessed with the size of her breasts, and a Gatsby-esque tycoon living in a mansion across the valley on an elaborate mission to prove said girl is his daughter. Best of all is the “sentient idea”, a two-foot-tall apparition of the Commendatore from the painting, who acts as a kind of tour guide in Murakami’s museum of magical realism. “The truth is a symbol, and symbols are the truth,” he says. “It’s best to grasp symbols the way they are”. He also warns against an “underworld haunted by double metaphors”. I don’t understand – but I’m not sure Murakami wants me to.
The oscillation between natural and supernatural is seamless. It becomes impossible to extract one from the other. Boundaries “always seem to be shifting […] we need to pay close attention to that movement otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on”. The plot is so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe this is Murakami’s fourteenth novel; it has the chaotic nature of a debut. But (and this is the source of our wonderful confusion) Murakami’s writing, at all points, remains exquisitely controlled. Perhaps here it’s worth mentioning his legendary daily routine when working on a novel. “I wake up at four a.m.,” he explains in a 2004 interview for the Paris Review, “and work continuously for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run ten kilometers, read a bit or listen to music, and go to bed at nine p.m.” He describes the routine, to which he adheres without variation for six months to a year, as “a form of mesmerism”. To remain grounded, to regulate the pace of his writing in the face of a tumultuous and volatile plot line, “is like survival training,” he continues. “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
Murakami’s narrator likes to leave some of his portraits unfinished, and, suitably, the ending of Killing Commendatore leaves a multitude of questions unanswered. The narrator simply returns home to make amends with his ex-wife. Maybe he has been liberated as an artist; maybe he has rebuilt his identity from the initial wreckage of the relationship. But he echoes my mild dismay with the line “I couldn’t be sure if I had moved forward or fallen behind, or if I was just circling over the same spot”.
It seems like both characters and reader have traversed the depths of the ocean, only to be dragged anticlimactically to the surface. But with this comes an awareness of the transcendence of art, and the knot of magical realism we have left behind. “If this was a dream, then the world I’m living in itself must be a dream,” Murakami insists. “The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know – reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy”. Killing Commendatore is a reminder of the enchantment within life’s humdrum events – to disregard it is to disregard life itself.