Famed for creating mystical worlds, Haruki Murakami may leave the reader dissatisfied with his latest novel about a portrait artist
My love for Haruki Murakami has dwindled ever since I read him first in the winter of 2010. I now wonder whether several of his famed works offer multiple readings, an essential attribute of a great book. A nearly fixed pattern of motifs, stock characters, familiar situations recur through his oeuvre. A mysterious teenage girl, dark wells, parallel worlds, people with unusual names, vanishing characters et al. The cosmos he weaves continues to amaze a reader, at least in the first reading, yet, one now wishes that he left his familiar territory and explored new vistas in fiction.
His latest novel Killing Commendatore is about a portrait artist, a man in his mid-30s, whose wife has left him for another man. Lonely and dejected, the narrator-artist comes to live in the hilly cottage of a dying painter Tomohika Amada, one of whose paintings he finds in the attic. A painting that soon begins shaping his life, and the narrative of the novel. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first Murakami I read, had a similar protagonist, who begins a journey to self-discovery after his wife leaves him for another man.
Through the prism of Killing Commendatore, let’s approach a bigger question: what is the contribution of Murakami to the art of the novel? Why has this fiction writer captivated readers the world over in a short span of a mere three decades?
It’s a universe of people who suddenly find themselves staring at a dark hole, in the middle of nowhere. The choices they now make will determine their future. On surface, it’s a quintessential modernist narrative. But Murakami makes a major intervention by introducing elements that can only loosely be termed as supernatural. His characters create a cosmos of their own within the historical time. The conversations of the artist with Commendatore, an apparition that calls itself an Idea, may appear dreamy, but they are steeped in history.
The politics of the world may appear absent on the surface in his fiction. It may appear that his characters live in silos, unaffected by historical events, but history enters through another door, defining the narrative. The shadow of World War II, the years Amada spent in Europe and the suicide of his brother who was forcibly drafted into the Japanese army, hover over the novel. Nirmal Verma, among the greatest fiction writers of India post-independence, also employs history in a similar manner. History remains invisible on the surface, but it determines the lives of characters.
Portrayed thus, absences in Murakami, the gaps through which nightmares seep in, suddenly become haunting. “The wonderful part about his paintings was the use of blank space. Paradoxically, the best part was what was not depicted. By not painting certain things he clearly accentuated what he did want to paint.” This remark about a painting of Amada rings true about the novel as well.
The blank spaces are reflected in the novelist’s emphasis over the inalienable inability of humans to grasp their lives. A possibility of Oedipus complex lurks over the novel, with the teenage girl Mariye capturing the attention of both the narrator and his mysterious neighbour Wataru Menshiki. Yet, one doesn’t really get to enter their silences because their “solitude comes from a certain sort of secret.”
All of this, sequences that erase the distinction between dreams and reality, pulls a reader in. Not to speak of the marvellous observations about human life the fiction of Murakami is peppered with. In this novel, a character is baffled that the left and the right sides of a woman’s face don’t match. If one joins the mirror image of the either side, two lefts or the two rights, it brings up two different persons. “I didn’t know if it was her right or the left side that I was embracing.”
Yet, the novel may leave the reader dissatisfied because one finds images and episodes that have appeared in his earlier fiction, whose narrative thread doesn’t see any major development. Murakami is not a connoisseur of brevity. His prose flows and overflows, drawing up images and metaphors one after another, fusing a lot of diverse things like record players and war and earthquakes. He has done it with elan earlier, but now it appears that many chapters in the novel could have been pruned. Even the climax seems a bit contrived.
Menshiki tells the narrator during a conversation: “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand how I feel. How much loneliness the truth can cause sometimes…Instead of a stable truth, I choose unstable possibilities.”
That was the Murakami one admired. The master of unstable narratives. Sadly, the magic is fading under an ocean of predictability.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla