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'Killing Commendatore' a shift from loss to renewal: Haruki Murakami interview

Fans line up as Haruki Murakami's new novel "Kishidancho Goroshi" ("Killing Commendatore") goes on sale at midnight on Feb. 23, 2017, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi)

World-renowned writer Haruki Murakami, whose newest novel, "Kishidancho goroshi" ("Killing Commendatore"), was released in February, spoke recently with the Mainichi Shimbun and other media outlets about his latest work and the role of the novelist in the world today.

"Killing Commendatore" is Murakami's first multivolume work since "1Q84," which came out 2009-2010 in Japan. The first volume is titled "Arawaru Idea" (Emerging Idea) and the second volume, "Utsurou metaphor" (Moving metaphor).

The novel marks the first time in a while that Murakami has written in the first person. It is written in the voice of a 36-year-old painter whose wife left him abruptly.

"At first, I always wrote in the first person, and gradually shifted to the third person," Murakami said. "Having achieved a novel totally in the third-person with '1Q84,' I felt the urge to return to the first person. There was a strong sense that I was returning to my roots, but I think there was a certain maturing of the protagonist as well."

The "commendatore" originates with the Commendatore from Mozart's opera, "Don Giovanni," who is killed at the outset of the drama. Murakami said that the title, "Killing Commendatore," came to him before he even began writing the novel.

"I was drawn to the peculiarity of the words," he said. "What I had first was the title, and the place where the story takes place, which is atop a hill in (the Kanagawa Prefecture city of) Odawara. The protagonist became a painter as I was writing."

The painter -- separated from his wife and searching for something to paint amid his feelings of loss -- finds himself living in a house which belongs to the father of a friend. The father, aged 92, is a renowned Japanese-style painter who now lives in a seniors' home, thus leaving his house empty and available for the protagonist. It is after the protagonist discovers a painting titled "Killing Commendatore" in the attic that he becomes entangled in a cryptic series of events.

The protagonist is commissioned to paint a portrait by a man with the unusual surname Menshiki. Aged 54, the mysterious Menshiki is a successful businessman living alone in a huge mansion on a hilltop across the valley from the protagonist. According to Murakami, the character was "a type of homage" to the 1925 American classic "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which Murakami has translated into Japanese.

The protagonist hears a bell ringing in the middle of the night, and in his search for the source of the sound, he comes upon a well-like hole in the ground. With Menshiki's cooperation, the protagonist unseals the hole, in which he finds an old bell, the likes of which would be found in a Buddhist altar. As is addressed in the novel itself, the story surrounding the bell is a motif taken from Edo-period novelist Ueda Akinari's short story, "Nise no Enishi" ("A bond for two lifetimes"), which is included in Ueda's collection of short stories, "Harusame Monogatari" ("The tale of spring rain").

"The classics are valuable when they are cited or referenced," Murakami said. "I reference a lot of things, and that makes it fun. Remarkable tales have power as repositories, and are effective when referenced."

Once the hole is unsealed, an enigmatic figure called "Idea," who looks exactly like Commendatore in the painting, appears. What unfolds afterward is a world in which good and evil are enmeshed, and bloodshed ensues. The protagonist is led into an underground darkness by figures in the painting, at which point Murakami fans will recognize and savor the signature maze-like elements of the novelist's tales.

After the protagonist undergoes a gamut of trials and tribulations, he resumes life with his wife, and raises the child his wife became pregnant with while the two were apart. At the end of the book, the story jumps a few years to the period immediately after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and ends with the protagonist discussing his beliefs as to how he will live his life. The ending marks a shift from loss to renewal.

"My novels are open-ended, or have mostly ended with the stories still wide open," Murakami explained. "This time, I realized that I'd begun to need a 'sense of closure.' For me, the fact that the protagonist decides at the end to live with the child is to suggest a new kind of conclusion."

The backdrop against which this shift occurred was a trip that Murakami took in the fall of 2015, in which he drove along the coast from Fukushima to Miyagi prefectures, the area hit hardest by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"That was a significant experience. It's linked to the sense of renewal, to the feeling that I must create new things. It may also have to do with the responsibility I feel because of my age," the 68-year-old Murakami stated.

"I believe the disaster in the Tohoku region left a huge scar on the Japanese people's psyche. To portray the psyche of the people who lived through this particular time without parts that overlap (with the disaster) is unrealistic."

At the same time, however, the historical scars left by massacres such as the Holocaust and the Nanjing Massacre cast a shadow on the painting, "Killing Commendatore." What was Murakami's intent in inserting references to such historical events?

"Because history is the collective memory of a nation, I think it is a grave mistake to forget about the past or to replace memory with something else. We must fight against (historical revisionism). Novelists are limited in what we can do, but it is possible for us to fight such forces in the form of storytelling," he said.

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