I’ve been a fan of Haruki Murakami’s novels for several, recent years, and have read nine or ten of them already. Those I’ve read have all fit into the category of “magical realism”; a style of fiction that was made famous by Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez (you would have encountered this in his bestselling book, 100 years of Solitude).* It’s a technique of writing where the imagined, or the fantastic enters the mundane world and is treated as natural. Or as Britannica notes:
… the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction.
I finished Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore, earlier this month. And it, too, fits into the magical realism genre. However, it was the first of his novels I really didn’t connect with, and took a long time to finish. Not that it was a bad read, just that unlike the others of his I’ve read over the years, I just didn’t put down everything else to read his novel exclusively as I have previously.
I think that, in part, it’s because Murakami takes longer in Killing Commendatore than in other of his novels to enter the magical realm and to explore and expose the fantastic elements we expect. Much of the first three-quarters of the novel recounts the life of an unnamed artist whose wife has left him and he goes on a journey of self-discovery. A sort of modern Japanese On The Road. While not quite a Proustian self-focus, it is nonetheless a running, personal monologue about art and the artist’s life.
Reviewer Xan Brooks called the novel “a rambling voyage of discovery” and wrote in the Guardian back in 2018:
As ever, Murakami is brilliant at folding the humdrum alongside the supernatural; finding the magic that’s nested in life’s quotidian details. Yet on this occasion he allows his disparate elements to spin out too widely, to the point where they begin to appear only tenuously connected.
I got to like the slow pace, the digressions on art and music, the intensely personal descriptions and emotions. I felt at times like I was receiving insight into an actual artist’s methods and techniques. When the magical realism entered the story, it felt almost jarring, out of place, although I was expecting it. And unlike how I received his other novels, it felt more intrusive and not fully connected to the rest. But Murakami doesn’t lose his focus on the main character even when the fantasy threatens to become risible. And he keeps his list of characters short so it’s easy to keep track of them all. That kept me reading.
Risible may be the wrong word. Murakami’s Commendatore character comes from a cultural background with which I am not intimately familiar. Murakami takes some time to explain it, I suspect mostly for his Western audiences. And while I understood, I still felt his explanation lacked something. The character of the Commendatore was oddly disconnected from the rest of the novel. Perhaps the fault lies in the translation.
But perhaps that’s just my take on it. I’ll continue to read Murakami (I have two or three of his earlier novels here in my to-read pile) and no doubt enjoy him as always. Having one novel that doesn’t quite move me as did his others is not enough to stop reading him.**
* It was also the style of other Latin American authors like Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, and Isabel Allende — authors I was introduced to in the early to mid- 1970s when translations of their works were first printed in paperback editions. Other authors have embraced this style, including Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has its magical realism.
** Long-time followers of my blog have read before that most of my reading is in non-fiction. I do read novels, and I am trying to read more of them now than ever before. I understand the importance of fiction and storytelling in our lives. Yet I am easily seduced by books about history, politics, and science to put the novel down and pick them up. And I will often read a book about storytelling rather than read a story itself. Mea culpa, but such is my weakness for nonfiction.