A new Murakami is a strange and wonderful thing. A tome, destined to be read by millions and perfectly formed as a material object – bound in circles, that seemingly constant shape that seems to run throughout his work, and echoed across dust covers and paperbacks alike.
How does one begin when writing about the new Murakami? An author that needs no introduction, and one that has such a cult following I doubt a review would change the minds (and hearts) of those who will buy Killing Commendatore anyway. Maybe I could write about its size, the controversy it has already caused, the parallels to Gatsby. I could speak of the setting – the mountains some miles out of Tokyo – and how they are reminiscent of the mountain community we find Naoko in in Norwegian Wood, or those in 1Q84, or South of the Border, West of the Sun, or even the dense forest in Kafka on the Shore. Murakami has more often than not been heralded as a writer of the urban, but in balance of the rural too.
But, more than anything, I could write about how Killing Commendatore is a book about art. It’s not an art book – one of those glossy-paged books pulled from the dusty shelves every few years, decreasingly so since the dawn of the internet and the ability to be content with instant information (I still like to look up words in the dictionary, I like to search for something in a reference book, to flip through the pages to find what I need and find more than that in the process) – but a novel that so wonderfully muses on art and the self and how our creatives selves are so closely tied to all other aspects of our lives.
Our protagonist is an artist, talented, who has been making a living painting portraits for Tokyo’s elite – businessmen, lawyers, the like – who retreats to a house in the mountains following the demise of his marriage. The house was once the home and studio of a famous Japanese painter, Tomohiko Amada, an enigmatic character whose solitary life was led in simplicity. Alone in the empty house, the narrator uncovers a lost painting in the attic, Killing Commendatore.
Murakami has long been heralded (and criticised) for his distinct style. One can play bingo with his books. Fall into the familiar spaces, and see the elements begin to show up, one after the other. In my final year of university much of my year was spent reading the entirety of Murakami’s backlist, culminating in a haze-like stupor of surrealism. I didn’t quite know where one book ended and another began. The strange women walked in and out of the page, as did the cats, and the coffee, the whiskey, the jazz, trains, phone-calls, precocious teenagers, loneliness, weird sex, wells, cooking. It’s not just the aesthetic elements that make a Murakami, but the prose too – the simple yet striking way that has me obsessed. It’s comforting, returning to the world of Murakami.
I don’t think authors who have a distinct style – instantly recognisable – are spoken of and celebrated enough. Filmmakers are cult icons due to their idiosyncratic films. What is a Wes Anderson if there’s no symmetry, uniforms, or Bill Murray? What is a Sofia Coppola without sunlight through trees and complex female characters? They are Auteurs, and those who flit from style to style are not considered serious filmmakers. Visual Artists are the same – one with only a basic knowledge of art will still be able to spot a Picasso, an O’Keeffe, or a da Vinci. No one called for Matisse to paint landscapes or Hopper to paint the eyes and clocks of surrealism. Authors are the artists of the written world, and the elements of style is what makes an author truly successful. To cultivate a sense of style is to be perfectly in tune with one’s work, and to notice it, one must be well read.
Maybe that’s why style is is forgotten, oft found below character and genre and setting, because it takes time to notice. To recognise the style of a filmmaker, one has to watch only a few of their films. Hours at most spent. And of an artist – mere seconds. But to truly recognise the style of an author, a reader must dedicate days, weeks, months to reading their work.
The plot of Killing Commendatore takes the narrator and the reader across the mountains, into the home of his wealthy neighbour, and down to a surreal landscape that is so undeniably Murakami. There is a mystery, someone disappears, and questions need to be answered, yet in the narrator’s navigation of this world he finds himself with underlying need and desire to cultivate a sense of style as an artist. It’s a quest to find his identity within his art, and in Murakami’s use of the familiar tropes we realise that Murakami’s identity has been found within his. And like an artist, he the master of his style.
When this copy was pushed through my letterbox – a thump and clang – I revered it. And I carried the tome everywhere with me. The pages are warped by reading too soon after swims, and the cover dented and peeling from the movement that came from it being my constant companion.
Is that the new Murakami? they would ask, voices thick with envy. How is it?
So overwhelmingly Murakami, I would reply, it has it all. The most Murakami of all Murakamis – cats, wells, cooking, mysterious strangers, lonely men, coffee, whiskey, parallel worlds, telephone calls, ears, beautiful clothes, jazz.
The most Muramaki of all Murakamis: unlike Killing Commendatore’s narrator, Murakami has no need to retreat to the mountains to realise his true style, he’s already a master of his form, and he knows it.
The author is the artist.