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Under the Murakami Spell

Truth and Power in Negative Space

ISSUE:  Spring 2019

<em>Killing Commendatore</em>. By Haruki Murakami. Knopf, 2018. 704p. HB, $30.</p>

Haruki Murakami’s fourteenth novel and nineteenth book of fiction, begins with a “faceless man” who appears to the unnamed narrator as he wakes from a nap, asking for his portrait to be drawn. When he vanishes, the narrator thinks, “If this was a dream, then the world I’m living in itself must all be a dream.” Even more inscrutable is the next line: “Maybe someday I’ll be able to draw a portrait of nothingness.”   

The narrator is a portrait painter, his clients the “so-called pillars of society” who seek his talents and pay him handsomely. Despite that, he does the work “reluctantly” since it’s not the artistic path he originally pursued as a young man. At thirty-six, he’s found himself at a crossroads: “I should have washed my hands of that person I’d become. I should have stood up and done something about it.” We promptly learn why: His wife is leaving him and has asked him not to ask her why. In his confusion and grief, he takes off on a months-long road trip and eventually comes to rest in the mountains outside Odawara, in central Japan, in a cabin owned by his friend’s father, a famous painter. It is here that he decides to retire from his portraits and return to the kind of painting that most matters to him. In essence, he hopes to find his “real self.” In the mirror, he sees only “a virtual fragment of myself that had been split in two. The self there was the one I hadn’t chosen.” 

It’s also here that the story becomes ever more Murakamian. The narrator strikes up an uneasy friendship with the mysterious millionaire who lives Gatsby-style in the white mansion across the valley. He’s visited regularly by two girlfriends, one of whom investigates the millionaire’s shady past for him. He discovers a mesmerizingly violent painting hidden in the attic, painted long ago by the cabin’s owner. He is offered an outrageous sum by the millionaire to paint the portrait of a thirteen-year-old girl in town who might be the millionaire’s daughter. Then an ominous bell starts ringing in the forest at night, always at the same time. Then he and the millionaire unearth an underground chamber in the forest which contains the bell but not the bell-ringer. Then a character from the violent painting comes to life, a two-foot gremlin who speaks in riddles and refers to the narrator as “our friends.” 

This is all a mere third of the way through this nearly 700-page novel. If you’d read more than a few of Murakami’s works going into Killing Commendatore, you wouldn’t be alone in your déjà vu. Most reviews of his novels over the past two decades make this very point. Yet dismissing this one for its unabashed Murakamianness might be to dismiss the very thing that makes the Murakami world a dark, dry well worth descending over and over. I’ve been reading and rereading him for twenty years, having made my way through nearly all those nineteen books, and I still find it hard to explain both why he’s infuriating and why he remains one of my favorite writers. 

 I first heard his name when I arrived at my MFA program in sleepy Iowa City. I was twenty-four, with a Bachelor’s and Master’s in English and a reading of contemporary literature limited woefully to the Western writers my English professors had canonized for me. So I was intrigued by this Japanese writer whom my classmates—in workshop, at the bar, at parties—were proselytizing with giddy devotion, as though they were part of some underground society of hipster bookworms. 

My first try was the book that made Murakami so famous he fled Japan: Norwegian Wood,a slim, melancholy novel, first published in 1987, about a thirty-seven-year-old man’s look back on a tragic love affair and friendship from his youth. I found it sentimental and stilted and blamed the translation, managing only twenty pages. I moved on to A Wild Sheep Chase, from 1982, a lively and surreal take on the detective novel with characters called the Boss and the Sheep Man and a chain-smoking narrator with a fetish for women’s ears. This one I finished easily. It felt emotionally shallow, but the stylishness of its weirdness appealed to me, as did the novelty of Japanese characters who loved spaghetti and the Beatles and spoke as though they’d consumed as much American pop culture as I had. East and West coexisted in this landscape with a muted tension that somehow deepened all that weirdness.

Neither of those two books prepared me for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published in the US in 1997 and still the most successful synthesis of all of Murakami’s talents, concerns, and aesthetic idiosyncrasies. It begins—this may sound familiar—with a passive and markedly average middle-aged man, Toru Okada, whose wife is about to leave him and soon disappears altogether. A Murakami novel is a novel of estrangement and strangers, and here, as Toru searches for his wife (and for her cat), he encounters a slew of peculiar strangers who each displace some element of her: the troubled teenage girl down the street with whom he has morbid existential conversations; a psychic woman who helps him find the missing cat; the woman’s sister, a prostitute, who claims she was raped by Toru’s brother-in-law; a mysterious healer whose husband was violently murdered; the healer’s son, a handsome young man who’s been mute since the age of six. There’s also the elderly Lieutenant Mamiya, who recounts to Toru the horrors he witnessed from his time in Outer Mongolia (try to forget his story of the “bear-like Mongolian officer” flaying another man alive as though he were “skinning a peach”). These characters appear at first like random and discrete oddities, but their connections to one another, both thematically and plot-wise, gradually emerge. This kaleidoscopic dramatic structure is a hallmark of Murakami’s work, particularly in his longer and more ambitious novels, where a complex of outlandish characters slowly intersect and overlap in their desires and experiences. It’s not merely a reflection of Buddhist interconnectedness, which suffuses much of his writing; Murakami also seems to believe that we all live essentially the same experience, that we are individualized merely in the way our consciousness chooses to see and interpret the world. Every journey in his novels—and they always have one—moves toward a reinterpretation of the world, of the self, and of the ways we configure the world to obscure the self. 

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the byzantine plot enables our hero’s journey toward clarity, a confrontation with his own absence as a husband and as a citizen of his country. His character arc, in turn, dramatizes an indictment of Japan’s complicity in the horrors of World War II, as well as its postwar amnesia—a level of historical and national consciousness that no previous Murakami novel had shown. And as it moves deeper into its phantasmagoric plot, the novel delves into an existential space that Murakami returns to again and again in his work: the porous boundaries between our normal world and an alternate one, between reality and unreality, fact and fantasy, wakefulness and dreams, life and death. Here—as in novels like Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1Q84, and now Killing Commendatore—these dual worlds are quite literal. We erect these boundaries, Murakami suggests, to make sense of the inexplicable—things like death, love, the subconscious. In the process, we also conceal the scariest truths from ourselves, and it’s only in crossing and even erasing those boundaries that we can live comfortably in these uncomfortable truths. And even then, how does one define comfort? The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures this dilemma in the drama of the dry well in Toru’s neighborhood. Faced with the mysteries of his desolated life, he descends repeatedly to the bottom of the well to lie there in silence and darkness, confronting at last himself and the world at large. When the ladder is mysteriously pulled up at one point, he is trapped in a state of sublime terror that reflects the psychic crisis inevitable in all confrontations with the self. It’s from there that Toru is able to cross into the alternate world.

 Even back in my MFA days, people who knew me knew I wrote at night, usually until four in the morning. At the time, a friend of mine directed a two-week writing camp that brought the most talented high-school writers in the country to Iowa City. She called me up one summer day with a situation. A sixteen-year-old boy at the camp was having an emotional crisis. His best friend, also attending the camp, had confessed his sexuality to him, and somehow the shock of this had left the boy entirely out of sorts, so much so that his parents had decided to bring him home early. They were arriving in the morning, but in the meantime, my friend was concerned about the boy’s state of mind. Out of an abundance of caution, she proposed that I station myself outside his dorm room from eleven in the evening to six in the morning. All I had to do was sit in the hallway and call her if anything came up. I would get paid, and chances were, I’d never even see the boy. It was 2002, before one could bring along an iPhone or an iPad to pass the time, but I was more than happy to read for those seven hours. And the book I had just started was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  

It was July and the corridors of the fifties-era dorm were unair-conditioned, windowless, and bright with fluorescent light. Reading in that stark stuffy silence was like reading inside the world of the book itself, and so there I sat by the door of the boy’s room, hour after hour, devouring the novel. Around 4:30 in the morning, I reached page 445 and read the last two lines of a chapter: “The darknesses inside and out began to blend, and I began to move outside of my self, the container that held me. As always.” I had 162 pages and one and a half hours left. When I turned the page, however, the book skipped to 520. My copy was used but pristine. Nothing had been torn out. I finally realized that it was a misprint: seventy-five pages that were never there. I was desperate to finish but unable to move forward, and in my sudden impotence, with nothing to do and nowhere to go until 6:00, I too started feeling trapped. My thoughts turned to the boy behind the door, and I realized I hadn’t taken the situation seriously until then. Was he sound asleep, or awake and pondering the worst? Did he even know I was there, hoping he wouldn’t do something awful? Had he already done that awful something, and how would I know if he had? And how would I myself have responded at that age to what he’d just gone through? 

Turned out, nothing bad happened to the boy that night, as far as I was told. I never did meet him or even know what he looked like. In my memory, he’s something like the faceless man that Toru encounters in the dream world (or the one who opens Killing Commendatore), if only in that his facelessness keeps him an empty screen for my own projections of what I felt that night. 

That reading experience captures something of the Murakami spell: the mystery and menace behind a locked door; the intrusion on normalcy of the surreal and the liminal, the ridiculous and the indeterminant. At his best, Murakami ushers you casually into an escalating drama of questions, where normalcy struggles against the weight of curiosity. His typically bland, passive hero is a kind of faceless man in his very ordinariness, both an everyman and a blank slate, thoroughly susceptible to the outlandish mysteries that will send him on his solitary journey of transformation. As readers, we follow the journey just as blindly, down a seemingly endless corridor of tantalizing questions. Murakami wants us to turn the page, of course, but he’s also investigating the very nature of questions themselves and how they vitalize us. 

In “UFO in Kushiro,” from his story collection After the Quake, a man’s wife spends five days watching news coverage of the Kobe earthquake, then abruptly leaves him, claiming later that “living with him is like living with a chunk of air.” From there, the man takes a leave from work and is promptly asked by a colleague to deliver a small package to his sister in Hakkaido. On the trip, the man spends time with the sister and her beautiful friend, who ends up seducing him and telling him stranger and stranger stories. All the while, the contents of the package remain a tense mystery—until the beautiful girl insinuates its significance to the man: “It’s because that box contains the something that was inside you. You didn’t know that when you carried it here and gave it to Keiko with your own hands. Now, you will never get it back.” The man’s response—a thrilling jolt to both the reader and the girl—is to look at her with rage, on the verge in that split second “of committing an act of overwhelming violence.” The moment illustrates the power of questions not just to feed us in our emptiness, but to remind us—in their absence, in the loss of what they promise—the unbearable agony of such emptiness. Answers might bring knowledge and relief, but questions give us life. The package is the man himself: If it is empty, if what was inside is lost forever, so is he. Just as the tragedy of the Kobe earthquake awakens his wife to what is missing in her marriage, so too does this moment awaken him to what he—and everyone—needs to exist. 

I’m reminded of John Keats’s thoughts on “negative capability”: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” To Keats, this is an unstable yet productive state of mind, especially for an artist and their imagination. Murakami’s characters consistently reach for fact and reason, but their stories derive their dramatic and thematic energy from the interplay between what is asked, what is answered, and particularly what is left unresolved. I’m reminded similarly of the Japanese concept of ma, which foregrounds the depth and value of negative space. We can find significant meaning in the pause between musical notes, as in the gap between words on the page, as in the silence and emptiness of a house. In the vehicle of a novel, such negative space prompts the reader to complete what is missing. If certain questions are not answered for us, might their power reside in that tension, in that inevitable need to interpret and wonder, which might then be generative, perhaps even transformational? 

Every Murakami work sees this void as a deeply spiritual and existential state. Who can forget Miu, in Sputnik Sweetheart, trapped overnight on a broken Ferris Wheel and, through binoculars, seeing her very self in her apartment nearby, making love to the man she despises? Or Murakami himself, in his otherwise anemic memoir, What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, describing the out-of-body sublimity of running the last few miles of a sixty-two-mile marathon?

Even a realistic novel like Norwegian Wood—which I did finish years later—conjures the power of that void. In the opening pages, Watanabe recounts “that day in the meadow” eighteen years ago with the emotionally fragile Naoko, whom he still loves. He remembers her describing a well somewhere in the meadow, which he did not see himself, but he “was never able to think of that meadow scene without the well…All I knew about it was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darkness had been boiled down to their ultimate density.” Here, as in later novels, the well suggests the endless mysteries of existence, the questions and indeterminacies that can never be resolved, particularly about those we love the most and can access the least. It also suggests the immeasurable depth and darkness of Naoko’s imagination, which Watanabe participates in out of love and empathy. For these characters and for Murakami, the imagination is the most powerful force in the world: the most creative as well as the most destructive. 

 The well makes a reappearance in Killing Commendatore. This time it’s the pit that the narrator and the millionaire uncover in the forest, the source of the ringing bell haunting them both. The millionaire suspects a connection to zenjo, an ancient Buddhist practice where a monk buries himself alive to achieve enlightenment and, therein, strikes a gong in perpetuity. The narrator suspects a connection to the painting he found in the attic, which depicts a blood-soaked scene from Don Giovanni, where Don Giovanni is stabbing the father of the woman he’s trying to seduce, the Commendatore. The scene is reimagined with characters from feudal Japan, and the narrator is entranced, soon discovering that its painter, the cabin’s owner who now resides in the hospital with dementia, was once involved in a failed political assassination in Vienna in the 1930s. That incident, more importantly, may have brought about the death of his Viennese lover. Soon the Commendatore comes to life, quite possibly an embodiment of the spirit that rang the bell in the pit. 

Dramatic as they are, the clear echoes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle feel stale at first. When the millionaire asks the narrator to enclose him for a day inside the pit, the intriguing act loses much of its intrigue extratextually, as do the characters’ enigmatic backstories during wartime. In fact, it’s difficult not to judge the book for how it recycles the Murakami tropes even more blatantly than usual—in the narrator alone: a middle-aged man who claims that “boredom is an indispensable part of my life”; his unsatisfied and underdeveloped wife who disappears; the precocious thirteen-year-old girl who develops a close relationship with him; the faceless and unnamed women who seduce him; his sexual encounter in a dream; his often misogynist obsession with breasts and other female parts; even his constant references to classical music. At this point, it’s quite justifiable to see these kinds of characters as ciphers, these plots as repetitive and formulaic, these mysteries as often arbitrary and aimless—the work increasingly of an unedited writer who has either run out of ideas or become too lazy to develop them effectively. 

Murakami does himself no favors with his prose, which I often find the most egregious flaw in his work. Even translation cannot excuse the narrator from describing his passion “like a flame burning inside me,” or his falling for someone “like I’d been struck by lightning.” And Killing Commendatore feels long not for its seven hundred pages, but for the superfluousness of so much of its information. Murakami can hardly write a scene without describing every abject detail of the furniture or the characters’ clothes. The millionaire’s Jaguar is briefly an object of importance to another character, but then the narrator inexplicably comments on its “eight-cylinder, 4.2-liter engine with power to spare burning (most elegantly, of course) high-octane fossil fuel.” The most illogical section of the novel occurs toward the end, when the narrative goes into the third person, ostensibly the narrator’s narration of what the thirteen-year-old girl is recounting to him, except we can’t imagine her telling him her story with his same fetishistic level of detail. Murakami also has an old habit of articulating things the reader already knows, particularly when it comes to his characters not knowing things. Pondering a list of clearly unanswerable questions about the cabin’s owner, the narrator thinks: “But why, and to what degree, was tracking down Tomohiko Amada’s experiences in Vienna necessary to him? I didn’t have a clue.” Later on, when he wonders about his estranged wife and her pregnancy, he thinks, “What would she be thinking? Was she happy? Of course, I had no way to know any of these things.” This is not merely superfluous writing. It’s distractingly awkward and insubstantial writing.  

But even as the work can test our patience and frustrate our hopes, Murakami’s plots can still mesmerize, occasionally pulling off some thought-provoking magic. What saves Killing Commendatore is its persuasive and captivating portrait of artistry and the artist. Unlike in most Murakami works, the protagonist’s profession here truly matters. His painting is at the center of the story: the source of his passion and the vehicle for his rediscovery of himself. When they first meet, the millionaire tells him that his portraits “strikes the viewer’s heart from an unexpected angle. At first they seem like ordinary, typical portraits, but if you look carefully you see something hidden inside them.” Indeed, the narrator has an uncanny talent for capturing a client’s essence. Instead of having them model for him, he has long and intimate conversations with them: “What I needed was less the actual person in front of me than my vivid memories of that person…These memories were three-dimensional, and all I had to do was transfer them to the canvas.” Once he secludes himself in the mountains, his portraits—of the millionaire, of the thirteen-year-old girl, of a menacing man he encountered in his travels—become more abstract yet precise evocations of the people they portray. The passages that detail his thinking through of color, shapes, and imagery are the novel’s most intimate and convincing:

I knew the painting was incomplete. There was a vivid outburst to it, a type of violence that had propelled me forward. A wildness I had not seen in some time. But something was still missing, a core element to control and quell that raw throng, an idea to bring emotion under control. But I needed more time to discover that… I had to wait for it, like patiently waiting for the phone to ring. And in order to wait that patiently, I had to put my faith in time.

This is Murakamian prose at its best: simply expressed yet complex in what it articulates; concrete just enough in its abstractions to make real what is otherwise impossible to describe in words. A reader could describe a good Murakami novel in much the same way. In fact, I suspect that he finally found the perfect subject matter to mirror his elliptical storytelling style. Painting, after all, yearns to express the inexpressible. Like the little Commendatore says, painting is “in essence, allegory and metaphor. Allegories and metaphors are not something you should explain with words. You just grasp them and accept them.” In other words, you feel their truth. 

Killing Commendatore offers a portrait of a portrait painter who strives to find a person’s “real self,” but what we ultimately see is the painter finding his own “real self” through his art. Part of the frustration of reading Murakami is that often his characters arrive at truth, but just what that truth is is left rather vague. Here, the narrator clearly arrives at a better version of himself, awakened finally to what he needs and loves in his life: his art, his wife, their child (possibly), and the life they’re capable of living together. More so than in any of his novels, Murakami allows in this one actual reconciliation—a kind of happy ending, or at least one imbued with hope. “I’m endowed,” the narrator says at the end, “with the capacity to believe. I believe in all honesty that something will appear to guide me through the darkest and narrowest tunnel, or across the most desolate plain.” I can’t help believing that Murakami, the writer, would say the same about his work, about his writing process itself. It seems fitting that one would have to travel a long, labyrinthine, and perilous path to reach a point where one can truly believe in something this simple and potent. 


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