“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can live with you anymore.” In an early scene in Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore, a 30-something portrait painter is blindsided with this news. In an instant, The estranged husband – who’s also the unnamed narrator – responds by first hitting the cold, drizzly streets of Tokyo and then drifting far, far away from everything about life as he knew it. “I can’t tell if it was a short time or a long time,” he says of his slippery nine-month void from reality he entered that afternoon, as he starts to thread a storyline together from his wounds, introspections and jarring experiences.
In the attic of the mountain rental house — owned by a famous artist whose mind is now lost to dementia — he discovers a hidden painting with a dark secret. Not long after that, he receives a strange call: an anonymous gentleman wants to pay an extravagant sum for him to come out of his work hiatus and paint a portrait. Uneasy with the offer but too curious to say no, he says yes to the commission—not realizing then that he’s opened a door for a whole series of mysteries to unravel.
Readers acquainted with Murakami’s work will recognize his signature surrealism, a cast of non-human characters who disturb and beckon. In this novel, a bell that rings by itself the middle of the night and a deep hole on the property — a spot that Buddhist monks may have starved to death in centuries ago trying to reach enlightenment — make recurring appearances. The Commendatore, a two-foot-tall embodiment of an Idea whose borrowed form is clad in ancient dress (complete with a shrunk-to-scale katana), graces the random scenes he appears in with Yoda-like wisdom and charm.
Intensely descriptive short sentences are another hallmark of Murakami’s writing, and in Killing Commendatore many half-pages are dedicated to them: what time our main character got up in the morning, how he prepped his eggs and whether he pulled out the vintage Don Giovanni vinyl again or put Beethoven on the turntable. These tedious passages are punctuated with surprising poetry. The way his handsome bachelor neighbor, Menshiki, is looking down at his now empty coffee cup is described as, “as if (he’s) nostalgic for some past age when it had been full of hot coffee.”
Overtime, the narrator notices that Tomohiko Amada — the creator of the secret masterpiece, is communicating through the painting. Invigorated, he channels himself boldly and intuitively on canvas as never before. Forgotten memories, his as well as Amada’s, arise and beg to be examined: the sister lost at a young age to illness, trauma from wartime massacres, the moles and markings on his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s body. Boundaries between self and others, past and present, this world and beyond becoming increasingly blurry, and hint at an ominous fate for all involved.
There’s one thing about Killing Commendatore that’s not typical for a Murakami novel. For all the anticipation the mysterious plot builds up, the closure doesn’t satisfy. Rather than answer “What happened in the end?” with a mix of facts and intentional ambiguity, the story simply cuts off. You get nothing but superficial facts about the portrait painter. How all the misadventures ultimately influenced the portrait painter is infuriatingly unknowable.
There’s a state anthropologists call liminality, meaning “the threshold”. In the liminal space, time isn’t linear. Even the distinction between life and death is vague. The identity of who you were is gone, but there isn’t a new you to be yet.
Killing Commendatore follows one man’s entry into the maddening discomfort of liminality, an in-between phase common in midlife that doesn’t always end with the person making a definitive crossing to the other side. Murkami may have written an unknowable ending because it was simply the truest way to end it.
Dive into the 700-plus page Killing Commendatore if a fascinating, imaginative immersion into life’s unanswerable questions is something that intrigues you. You can fully sink into its dreamlike landscape by putting on the book’s eclectic soundtrack in the background while you read, and keeping a cup of and coffee (or glass of whiskey) by your side.