On the one hand, Killing Commendatore is Haruki Murakami's sprawling new ode to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. But on the other hand, it's the stunning tale of a middle-aged artist coming to terms with the death of his sister and learning how to paint abstract souls. And on the surreal, impossible, third hand, it's the harrowing story of two people who find a magical bell in a pit in the woods, which brings to life a two-foot-tall man from a very violent painting (he's the Commendatore himself, of course, but also he's a sentient Idea?).
In short, it's a Murakmai novel. It's weird. It's poignant. It's a beautiful, exhilarating descent into a magical world and an exploration of the nature of art and just about everything else in between. Our narrator is a portrait-painter by trade. He's also suffering from bizarre nightmares and a total breakdown of his marriage, so he decides to leave Tokyo for some much needed perspective. He winds up in an empty house in the mountains, with a disturbing painting in the attic, and a wealthy, charming neighbor who's obsessed with erasing his own internet presence (and obsessed with the girl who lives on the mountain next door). It's an intriguing place to start anew. And then, of course, our portrait-painter starts to hear the bell...
I won't give any more away. Suffice it to say that if you're looking for a Gatsby-esque tale of broken dreams by way of Don Giovanni and visions of a creepy man with no face, then this is the book for you. Here are a few of Killing Commendatore's most mind-bending quotes, to get you started:
1. "I stood up and retrieved a sketchbook and a soft pencil from my studio. I sat back down on the sofa, ready to draw a portrait of the man with no face. But I had no idea where to begin, or how to get started. There was only a void, and how are you supposed to give form to something that does not exist? And the milky fog that surrounded the void was continually changing shape."
2. “Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface is fogged up (which was more than the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again. Otherwise the darker side would naturally reveal itself in the portrait.”
3. "Like a mist suddenly blown away by a freshening breeze, he vanished into thin air. All that remained was the unoccupied chair and the glass table. The penguin charm was gone from the tabletop."
4. "She said no more about painting. She might have lost interest. Most people in the world, unless they're the ones being painted, have zero interest in portraits."
5. "The pit was thinking too, I could tell. It was alive — I could feel it breathing. My thoughts an those of the pit were like trees grown together: our roots joined in the dark, our sap intermingled. In this condition, self and other blended like the paints on my palette, their borders ever more indistinct."
6. "At last the dark clouds covering the sky began to part, and a shaft of moonlight entered the room. It was as if an ancient tombstone had been bathed in pure, silent water, baring the secrets carved on its surface."
7. "When people photograph an object, they often put a pack of cigarettes next to it to give the viewer a sense of the object’s actual size, but the pack of cigarettes next to the images in my memory expanded and contracted, depending on my mood at the time. Like the objects and events in constant flux, or perhaps in opposition to them, what should have been a fixed yardstick inside the framework of my memory seemed instead to be in perpetual motion."
8. “A face is like reading a palm. More than the features you’re born with, a face is gradually formed over the passage of time, through all the experiences a person goes through, and no two faces are alike.”
9. "Deep in the valley it rained constantly in the summer, but outside the valley it was usually sunny. This was due to the southwest wind that blew off the ocean. Moist clouds carried by the wind entered the valley, bringing rain as they made their way up the slopes. The house was built right on the boundary line, so often it would be sunny out in front while heavy rain fell in back. At first I found this disconcerting, but as I got used to it, it came to seem natural."
10. “I was desperately clinging to a scrap of wood that had been swept away. In pitch-black darkness, not a single star, or the moon, visible in the sky. As long as I clung to that piece of wood I wouldn’t drown, but I had no clue where I was, where I was heading.”
11. "All well and good, but who had moved the stool in the studio? (It had most definitely been moved.) And who had spoken in my ear in that strange voice? (I had clearly heard the voice.) And who had suggested to me what was missing from the painting? (A suggestion that had clearly been effective.)"
12. "'There's something about your paintings that 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.'"
13. "It was like some dark secret that I'd hidden away for years was being revealed, layer by layer, by the powerful, insistent tip of that machine. The problem lay in the fact that even I didn't know what secret I was hiding. Several times I felt I had to get them to stop the operation. Bringing in some large machinery like this backhoe couldn't be the solution. As Masahiko had told me on the phone, all 'mysterious things' should be left buried."
14. “As I gazed at my reflection I wondered, Where am I headed? Before that, though, the question was Where have I come to? Where is this place? No, before that even I needed to ask, Who the hell am I?"
15. “It felt like he’d opened the lid to invite me, personally, to the world underground. No one else, just me.”
16. "The stone room was completely empty. No one there calling for help, no beef jerky mummy. Just a bell-like object lying on the ground."
17. "For a few week I just silently stared at that painting. With it in front of me, I couldn't bring myself to do any painting of my own. I barely even felt like eating. I'd grab whatever vegetables were in the fridge, dip them in mayo, and chew on that, or else heat up a can of whatever I had on hand...All day long I'd sit on the floor of the studio, endlessly listening to the record of 'Don Giovanni,' staring enthralled at 'Killing Commendatore.'"
18. "From far off, that slice of ocean was nothing more than a dull lump of lead. Why people insisted on having an ocean view was beyond me. I much preferred gazing at the surrounding mountains. The mountains on the opposite side of the valley were in constant flux, transforming with the seasons and the weather, and I never grew tired of these changes."
19. "No matter how vivid a memory, the power of time was stronger. I knew this instinctively."
20. "Things are really moving along here, I thought. Everything's evolving amazingly quickly and smoothly, like a ball rolling down a slope...I pictured Franz Kafka seated halfway down the slope, watching the ball roll by. I needed to be cautious."
21. “That sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. Than boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.”