Books Columnist Emily Hay reviews literary giant Haruki Murakami’s latest book: "It's by no means his best"
It’s always an event in the literary world when a prolific author, particularly one as lauded and established as Haruki Murakami, publishes a new book. Yet even more excitement-inducing is when that new novel is based on one of literature’s supposed greats.
I take issue with defining a novel by its relationship to or influence of other novels – I mean, it’s 2018, we all know that completely original ideas don’t really exist in literature anymore. I would prefer not to describe a book as an ode to another, as it detracts from its status as a creative work in its own right. However, Killing Commendatore is a bit of an anomaly in this way, as Murakami himself chooses to describe it as an “homage to The Great Gatsby”. Gatsby is a novel he has had a long love affair with; indeed, he cites that were it not for Fitzgerald’s novel he probably wouldn’t be writing at all. You could argue that no one knows Gatsby better than Murakami, having spent years translating it into his native Japanese, longer in fact than Fitzgerald actually spent writing the book. The idea of this book intrigued me; what I’ve read previously of Murakami I’ve liked, and my distaste for Gatsby isn’t exactly a close-guarded secret. So, in I delved to the narrative of Killing Commendatore, curious to see what I would have discovered by the time I resurfaced.
Murakami’s novel follows a Tokyo portrait painter going through a divorce, who finds himself living in the former home of a famous Japanese artist high in the mountains outside the city. It is here he encounters Waturu Menshiki, the strange, wealthy businessman who commissions him to paint his portrait, as well as the portrait of his maybe-daughter who lives in the house directly across the mountains. She neither knows of Menshiki’s existence, nor that he silently watches her from the expensive home he purchased precisely for its proximity to hers. You can see the Fitzgerald influence from a mile away.
My opinions on Gatsby are well known, but I was keen to separate my general dislike for that book from my reading of this one. Yet, I soon realised that that was going to be a difficult task to undertake. Whilst I am in no way a fan of Gatsby, I know it very well having tried multiple times to read it and understand its longevity. In this, I then found it near impossible to overlook the myriad of references to the characters, plots and allusions of that earlier novel. A brief encounter with the lone, wealthy stranger-come-friend who lives in the extraordinary house across the valley; the clothes hanging in his wardrobe waiting for a partner long gone; the mystery surrounding his background and source of wealth – short of Menshiki uttering the infamous phrase “old sport”, the novel couldn’t reference Gatsby more if it tried.
It is a tale of longing and also of dreams, but it explores the idea of dreams in a far more literal sense than the novel it so admires does. Murakami has said that he prefers to think of the dream in The Great Gatsby not as the American Dream, but just as the dream of a young man. In Killing Commendatore he certainly does this, giving a tangible existence to dreams and abstract thought which interrupt the monotony of the narrator’s daily life. The novel delves into fantasy, as Murakami’s novels often do, attempting to negotiate that space between knowledge and ignorance, between dreams and reality.
The stance he takes on this dream, however, is neither as pessimistic as the stance Fitzgerald takes, nor entirely uplifting. Instead, he takes the reader on a roundabout journey, tinged with fantasy, and spits us out on the other end, unsure really of what has happened along the way. It’s a big task to undertake, this profound exploration of the nature of our dreams, and it’s not one I think Killing Commendatore does particularly well. To me, this sudden attempt at deep meaning comes across as rather forced from the initial, superficial plotline. As you read further the narrative threads appear to unravel, the strings of subplot no longer converge and the story just seems to lose all sense of coherence. It tries too hard to do too much, spreading itself too thin and grasping at straws for a deeper meaning that really isn’t there.
It ends with the same sense of circularity for our narrator as Gatsby does for Nick, he goes back to life as normal after the peculiar events he experiences, like waking up from some bizarre dream. Yet, Menshiki all but disappears without a trace or mention, he seems to be merely there to act as that Gatsby-esque figure. The lack of him in the end may attempt to make some other sweeping point about getting lost in your dream and forgetting to live, but it really just feels hollow. I closed the book with no profound feelings except that of emptiness at a story that hadn’t really delivered what I felt it had promised. I had waded through a murky narrative like a muddy puddle, and I’m not all that sure I received any reward for doing so.
I think the Gatsby references and the marketing of it as an ode to F. Scott Fitzgerald has done Killing Commendatore no favours. If the story was given the chance to stand on its own creative legs, then perhaps it would have gotten itself less tangled in its plot threads. If you’re a long-time fan of Murakami then maybe you’ll enjoy the arc he takes you on, but make no mistake – this novel is by no means his best.