“Killing Commendatore”: A First Look at Murakami Haruki’s Latest Novel


Murakami Haruki’s new novel Kishidanchō goroshi (Killing Commendatore) was released in Japan on February 24, 2017. There have been no announcements about when an English translation will see the light of day, but fans will probably have to be patient. 1Q84 came out in English a year and a half after the 2010 publication of the third volume in Japanese. There was also over a year between the Japanese release of Murakami’s last novel, the 2013 Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, kare no junrei no toshi, and the English Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

The English title Killing Commendatore appears prominently on the covers of both Japanese volumes. This refers to the plot of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni—although Murakami’s story is very different—as well as a painting named after the opera that appears in the novel. The title might change by the time an English translation is published, but the conspicuous branding at this stage suggests otherwise.

Early Mysteries

The story revolves around an unnamed protagonist, a painter specializing in portraits. Separated from his wife, he is living temporarily in an old house belonging to a famed artist named Amada Tomohiko, whose son is a friend from art school. Amada—92 years old and suffering from dementia—is being looked after in a distant care facility.

The narrator sometimes hears faint rustling noises at night from the attic. Concerned that there might be rats, he takes a flashlight to investigate. He discovers an owl, but that is not all. Beside the entrance, he also finds a large painting wrapped in brown paper. An attached label identifies it as Killing Commendatore, an undiscovered work by Amada that places a bloody scene from Don Giovanni in ancient Japan.

The work, painted in the traditional Japanese nihonga style, features four main figures. A young man thrusts a sword deep into the chest of an older, white-bearded man, while a young woman and a male servant look on in shock. In the lower left-hand corner, the head of one more character, a witness to this event, pokes out of a hole in the ground, holding its square cover half-open. The narrator becomes obsessed with the scene and in particular with its mysterious witness, who has an abnormally long face, like an eggplant.

In a further strange episode, the narrator is woken at night by unnatural silence. The familiar endless singing of autumn cicadas is somehow absent. When he goes to the kitchen to make himself a whisky, through the silence he hears the distant ringing of a bell. On stepping outside, he finds that the ringing appears to be coming from the vicinity of a small shrine. Behind the shrine there is a burial mound. The ringing continues from beneath the mound . . .

Intriguing Situations

The above is just a taste of the complete story. The novel develops from these early scenes, centered on characters living in the neighborhood of Amada’s house. Murakami serves up his distinctive blend of the fantastic and the mundane and displays his customary expertise at setting up intriguing situations to draw readers into the story. While some narrative strands are tantalizingly undeveloped, he also offers more satisfactory resolution here than in some of his recent works. Music is a familiar presence too, this time mainly classical.

With an artist as protagonist, it is tempting to draw parallels with Murakami himself. The question of whether portraits are art suggests connections with whether the author is a writer of popular fiction or literature. However one interprets them, these scattered comments on the nature of art are of interest for understanding his approach. This expansion of the Murakami universe will please fans. I hope, for their sake, that the translation will arrive sooner rather than later.

(Banner photo: Copies of Kishidanchō goroshi (Killing Commendatore) on sale at a Tsutaya store in Daikanyama, Tokyo, on February 24, 2017. © Jiji.)

literature Murakami Haruki