Book Review: Killing Commendatore

How do you write a plot when the main character has lost the plot? The answer is as you would expect.

Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore starts off with a lost plot. The main character, a 36-year-old portrait painter with artist’s block (who remains mysteriously unnamed), begins his story with the unexpected separation from his wife, whom he suspects is sleeping with another man. Following a long winding road trip, meandering through Japan like a lost thought, trying to rediscover himself, he ends up taking residence in a mountaintop estate owned by the delipidating famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. During a quick scan of the attic on a non-particular evening, the unnamed artist finds a portrait titled Killing Commendatore, undoubtedly painted by the house’s owner, and this discovery leads to some bizarre events. To remedy the wacky world around him, the main character must undertake an expedition that involves “a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl [with an odd obsession over her unformed breasts], a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.” It seems a lost plot can be remedied by losing the plot.

Favourite quote within Murakami’s Killing Commendatore. Image: Chris Kelly

The irony of using the “losing the plot” idiom is that the story itself is extremely calm and collected for the first half of the book. It takes its time. So I can’t really say “losing the plot” without explaining that the “plot losing” aspect is a very gradual process. It’s like a concept rolling down a hill that begins with a gentle slope and minutely but surely steepens with every chapter, until it tumbles over a steep decline, picking up plot points in the shape of eccentricities, then levels spectacularly and rises up to the surface, smashing along a path of wild thoughts, then coming to rest like a final summary that has been freshly laid down. Freytag’s pyramid can sometimes be better understood as a rollercoaster drop.

With the main character being an artist, and with the main story written through his eyes and mind, the reader can expect details of the world that would be lost to an ordinary businessman. The narrator himself is curiously captivating, and the fact he doesn’t give his name adds to the intrigue. He falls into the same boat as most of Murakami’s other characters; the reclusive, introverted types who yearn to learn something. What’s different about this character is his wild appreciation for the little things in life, his respect and admiration for the characters around him – however bizarre they appear, and his unwavering memory.

Killing Commendatore simply grabs your hand and says, “come along, we’ve got much to see!”

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