Few writers captivate readers quite like Haruki Murakami. The international superstar and perennial Nobel Prize favorite is in a class of his own, having amassed an insatiable readership the whole world ‘round. When his latest novel was first released in his native Japan, an initial run of 1.3 million first edition copies flew off the shelves. Now, almost a year later and finally translated into English, Killing Commendatore arrives in the U.S. to a growing amount of intrigue following the partial censorship of its release in China for supposed “indecency.” Domestic readers, however, can expect a lush, doorstop epic à la 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The novel is a practice in what Murakami does best (tales populated by lovelorn middle-aged men, cats, classical music, exquisite meals, and fantastic happenings) as well as a bold re-imagining of The Great Gatsby.
Killing Commendatore unfurls during “a period of inexplicable chaos and confusion.” Our unnamed narrator, a portrait painter by trade, abandoned by his wife and suffering from a severe case of artist’s block, takes to living a cloistered existence in a mountaintop estate hoping to find inspiration in solitude. Awash in a sanctuary of his thoughts and an endless library of operas on vinyl, a set of increasingly mysterious events begin to disturb the peace.
This chain is set off by the discovery of a grisly painting, the titular Killing Commendatore, depicting a murder that occurs early on in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Transfixed by its violence and composition, more questions than answers arise as our narrator discovers it to be a remnant of the estate’s previous tenant, the eminent Japanese artist, Tomohiko Amada. But before our narrator can reach a sensible conclusion regarding its abandonment, the string of oddities persist in the form of an ominous nighttime ringing and the appearance of a Wataru Menshiki, a shady tech tycoon hoping to solicit the artistic talents of our narrator.
By circumstance, the two become fast friends and eventually, with our narrator serving as the Nick Carraway to Menshiki’s Jay Gatsby, exchange the personal tragedies that brought them together. It is this budding relationship that drives the novel forward, from their discovery of an underground chamber in the estate’s backyard housing an ancient bell to Menshiki’s prevailing motives. Here, the novel’s more surreal elements begin to present themselves and meaning is bridged between the narrative’s seemingly disparate elements, revealing the role our narrator plays in widening circle of mystery.
In true Murakami fashion, Killing Commendatore operates on many levels: as a philosophical and psychological mind-bender; a meditative discourse on art and obsession; a journey of spiritual transformation; and as an homage to an American classic. At just under seven-hundred pages, this hefty tome flows to a tragic and propulsive rhythm as we’re transported across time and space, from wartime Vienna to a spirit world of ideas come true, culminating in Murakami’s most bizarre, satisfying and addictively readable novel yet.