Killing Commendatore: Homage to The Great Gatsby(*)

“So, again my friends, everything is caveat emptor in the Universe” says one day the Commendatore, a tiny but intimidating two feet height being that seems to have come out of a cereal box, when he was talking with the narrator of Killing Commendatore (1). This 681 page book, the fourteenth novel by Haruki Murakami, was published in 2018 and translated into English, as other novels by this author have been, by Philip Gabriel. This notion that the seller does not bear any responsibility regarding how the customer uses what she buys seems to be, in many ways, a code and a coda to the book. For example, knowing that the novel is a tribute to The Great Gatsby, one might think that the author excuses himself in advance with his readers with this veiled warning, as if he were telling them that the book is not at all a contemporary Japanese version of The Great Gatsby (published in 1925), novel that has been deemed by both critics and readers as Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s most memorable novel and which Murakami, in an earlier act of admiration towards this work, translated into Japanese in 2006. For that translation, Murakami wrote an Afterword in which he confessed that The Great Gatsby is, along with The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, one of the three most significant novels he had read and had influenced him the most. He further adds that, were he to be forced to choose just one, he would stick with The Great Gatsby without hesitation. Here are his words: Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there). And yet, Killing Commendatore is not a roman a clef, in which readers must find hidden correspondences between the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel and those in Killing Commedatore. All of which lead us to think that the phrase pronounced by the Commendatore should be read as a request for permission to make a free interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel. One that mixes, combines and recombines the characters of that novel and the events that happen to them. That phrase can also be interpreted as a request of permission to carry on a second task of recombination of characters and events from another famous literary work, in this case the libretto for the opera Don Giovanni, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, and based on El Burlador de Sevilla and el Convidado de Piedra ( published in 1630), and written by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina. We can find a third meaning to this phrase and think that it refers to the fact that, in the same way as the narrator of Murakami’s novel, who is an artist, can take what life gives him with indifference, and even with displeasure (because of the suffering it causes him), if he gives things a second thought, he will realize that this experience constitutes a training process, that some of those he has encountered may have been his teachers in any specific art or craft deemed necessary to achieve happiness and meaning in his own life; because, everything he has to go through, included the suffering, educates him as an artist and also as a human being. Conclusion that could be extended to the reader,who can receive what he reads in a novel (in a short story, a poem, a memoir) with disgust, indifference, interest, passion. It would be up to him to decide what to do with what is written in any book.

Killing Commendatore is a book that demands from the reader: concentration, discipline, commitment, curiosity, and the confidence that the story it narrates will be able to resort, without any announcement, to presenting us with extraordinary events carried out by ordinary or extraordinary characters and, occasionally, to put us in contact with a heterogeneous and improbable gallery of real, unreal, surreal characters: Writers, painters, precocious adolescents, non-practicing lawyers, editors, transgender booksellers, mediums, goblins, spirits, ghosts, animated and anthropomorphized corporate brands, beings from the other side, prostitutes and pimps, and more. This talent of Murakami is one of the traits that distinguishes his work. He has a unique ability to bring together the heterogeneous, heteroclite and diverse in his novels. Perhaps it is easy for him to integrate such a diversity of characters into the fictional text because Japanese culture has an old tradition of attributing a soul, a spirit, or even consciousness to inanimate things. It was this tradition that triggered a sort of demographic explosion of countless fantastic beings in Japanese culture. These animated characters are inserted by Murakami in a wide diversity of plots, interspersed with bits of fragments of historical facts, testimonies, dreams, scientific data. With this, Murakami seems to be attempting to convey to us the idea that the real (everything that occupies Heaven and Earth) is, as Hamlet tells his friend Horace, a plethora of many more things than can be dreamed of in any one’s philosophy. Menshiki, one of the characters in this novel, says: Sometimes in life we cannot grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That limit seems to be always shifting. As if the border between two countries moved from one day to the next depending on the mood. We must pay attention to this movement, otherwise we may not know which side we are on. However, in order for us to connect with this enriched reality (get in touch with its inhabitants), which Murakami builds for his readers in his novels, we must adopt an extraordinary attitude towards life that (Murakami seems to believe) awakens certain events or processes that are even able to shake the foundations of our lives. Elsewhere Menshiki says something that supports this conjecture: There is a point in the life of each person in which he needs a radical transformation. When that time comes you have to grab it by the tail. Grab it tightly and don’t let it get away. Some people are capable of this. Others are not. In these words lies one of the keys to reading this novel. Because Killing Commendatore narrates the events that happen to an unnamed 36-year-old narrator for several months in which he was separated from his wife Yuzu, with whom he eventually meets and manages to rebuild his marriage. At the end of the novel, the reader may be left with the belief that it was all illusory, perhaps even delusional. But one could say this is not true, because the events that are narrated in the novel leave an indelible mark on the narrator. And as proof of this, Murakami inserts a Prologue where a brief conversation takes place-many months after the events of the novel ended-between the narrator and one of those strange beings: the Faceless Man. On that occasion, this subject shows the narrator, but does not hand him on, the only object that could constitute concrete proof that what he experienced, he had actually lived it.

It all begins with the departure of Yuzu who, by asking the narrator to split up, leaves him in a situation of mismatch with the world around him that leads him to start a pilgrimage, perhaps seeking to rediscover his place in the world, and adjust to a reality and an order that the separation has subverted. From the beginning, we readers think that this separation may have affected the reason of the narrator, and it could well be that what he narrates exists only in his head, the head of a man on the verge of delirium. However, reading this alleged delusional, we become, without being able to prevent it, accomplices in his delusion. It was then the separation from Yuzu that created the opportunity (accumulating his unfulfilled desire) to venture into the strange, brief and wild sexual encounter (one night only) in a motel room with the woman who, before dawn left him, abandoned him without any notice. Is it possible that this event, about which the narrator will think time and again in the novel, may have been what, when he meets (again), the next morning, the man with the cap who was driving the white Subaru, he interpreted his gazes, when the man raised his head from the plate, as threatening, even though those gazes barely lasted a matter of seconds? Does perchance make any sense that the gazes from such an unknown man could be interpreted by the narrator as intimidating since he was convinced those gazes were a sign that the man was aware of what the narrator had done in his bedroom with the enigmatic woman the night before? From these initial incidents that impress the narrator in a special way (and that play a role in his transformation process), the reader realizes that the novel is told by a meticulous observer of the reality that surrounds him, one who pays attention down to the smallest detail (he tells us about the gray hair and even tiny details in the cap of the Man in the White Subaru). One consequence of this style is that the novel at times, advances slowly, and at times the reader will feel that it demands a lot of patience, since the narrator meticulously describes not only the physical characteristics of each person who enters his life, but also the houses (and other real or fantastic locations) where the events take place), or what he and his friends cook and eat, or the clothes being worn by each of the characters, as well as the positions adopted by the characters when they carry out the events of the plot (standing, sitting, lying down, kneeling, embracing, etc) or the textures and color palettes that prevail in each scene or instant of the plot. In short, this overwhelming plethora of details makes the reader feel that they are facing a novel that could indeed have been written by an exquisite painter.

After a month’s-long journey by land, when the narrator is back in Tokyo, he calls his friend from art school, Masahiko Amada, to ask him for somewhere to stay. The friend offers him the house of his father, the painter Tomohiko Amada, located on the outskirts of the city, on top of a mountain. The house is empty because he had to move his father into a nursing home when he began to suffer from an aggressive dementia that made him unable to tell the difference between an opera and a frying pan. About two months after starting to live in that house, the narrator hears a sound in the attic. Once there, he discovers in a corner a well-wrapped canvas that has written in blue marker: Killing Commendatore. He presumes that this is the title of the work and, after pondering with some length on the subject, he unwraps it, hangs it up and begins to contemplate it. Over and over again the narrator will wonder whether or not this act could have worked as the trigger of the sequence of events, many of them extraordinary, that he experienced during the following months (if this were the case, the separation from Yuzu would become a prolegomenon to the action, or a simple staging of the pieces to start the action).

In Da Ponte’s libretto for Don Giovanni, which was set to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Juan kills Commendatore Gonzalo de Ulloa in the first scene. In the final scene of that opera, the Commendatore, turned into an animated stone statue, appears at Don Juan’s house to order him to repent of the life of unbridled license he lives, under penalty of dragging him to Hell. Don Juan, of course, in a final act of courage and coherence with his dissipated life, does not repent and the play concludes with his plunging into Hell surrounded by demons. Tomohiko Amada has created a variant (with Japanese characters dressed in the old fashion of the Asuka period) of the Commendatore’s assassination scene. The narrator thinks the painting is a masterpiece and wonders why Amada could have hidden it. Shortly after the narrator hangs it on a wall in Amada’s study, and strange things begin to happen. For example, one day his agent tells him that there is a client that would like the narrator to make a portrait of him. The request is enigmatic because the client lives very close to Amada’s house and is willing to meet him there. Although at first the narrator refuses, after meeting Wataru Menshiki, he accepts the assignment. Possibly, the exorbitant fee that Menshiki offered him must have had an important weight in that decision. But also, the narrator noticed something in Menshiki’s face that caught his attention; or perhaps it was the firm delicacy of his manner, his compelling physical presence, his bearing, with white hair crowning his impeccable, unconcealed elegance, and his ability to make his wealth express itself in everyone of his actions and decisions. Over time, the narrator will realize that wealth was one more of the many means Menshiki used to conduct his life in accordance with an absolute and obsessive discipline and order. Menshiki is not only the narrator’s neighbor but also the owner of the white mansion of a modern style that contrasts with the rest of the houses in the area. Shortly after meeting him, one night the narrator hears a rhythmic sound that seems to come from the lot next to the house. The narrator tells Menshiki about this sound and this arouses in him the curiosity to listen to it. When this happens, he is astonished and promises to help him investigate the phenomenon. In this conversation, Menshiki evokes one of the tales by the Japanese writer Ueda Akinari, which is part of the anthology Tales of the Spring Rain. Menshiki explains that certain practitioners of Buddhism achieve enlightenment by entering a state of deep meditation, called zenjo or nyujo, which makes it possible for the soul to reach nirvana while the physical body remains mummified. Menshiki wonders if what they had heard was not a mummified Buddhist monk crying out to be released from the place where he seems to be locked up. All this curiosity leads Menshiki to hire the removal of the stones from an old ditch, in the forest next to the house, from where the sound seems to come. When uncovering the moat, just a bell is discovered on the bottom of the moat, but not the mummy of a Buddhist monk. It is going to be through this bell that Murakami will introduce a supernatural element in the novel, and start the slow task of amalgamating the real, the surreal, the dreamlike and the fantastic realms, weaving them with elegance and patience.

The narrator is not the only character who undergoes a transformation over the time in which the events of the novel take place. There is another character, a 13-year-old teenager named Mariye Akikawa—whom Menshiki suspects may be her daughter—and whom she loves from afar and in silence. Although the narrator had known Mariye before he met Menshiki (since he teaches at her local art school), the narrator asks him as a special favor to do Mariye’s portrait. To this end, he will provoke a meeting between her and the narrator. Mariye is a girl with an enigmatic and disruptive charm whose beauty, undoubtedly strange, seemed to: destroy the balance, demolish an established framework (…) pursue an asymmetrical friction. Although Mariye reminds the narrator of his sister Komi, who died when she was 12 and he was 15, and he had intense feelings for her, Murakami does not suggest that there was a hidden desire in the narrator for his sister that could have been transferred to Mariye. 

However, his relationship with her turns very close, even intimate. Indeed, beside the narrator, Mariye is the only person who has looked at Amada’s masterpiece, Killing Commendatore.This turns Mariye into an accomplice and companion to the narrator’s spiritual adventures. Furthermore, from the moment she appears on the scene, the meeting seems to trigger a new phase of her development into a woman. It is as if a centrifugal energy emanated from those who are experiencing change processes that shake the foundations of their lives, and this energy had the power to induce or shape change processes in those who are closest (or most connected). Which makes us presume that this is one of the subjects addressed by the novel. This would confer meaning to Mariye’s words towards the end of the novel, when she comments on the portrait that the narrator has made of herself and given her as a present: It is a work in progress, and I am also a work in progress. Now and always. To which the narrator responds: None of us are ever finished. We are all always a work in progress. And the conversation concludes with the shared view that even Menshiki is a work in progress.

Five works of art play an important role in underpinning the narrative thread. Amada’s hidden work that the narrator discovers in the attic and that gives the novel its title; the portrait of Wataru Menshiki; that of Mariye Akikawa; the portrait of the Man in the White Subaru (the stranger whom the narrator met at the motel); and the portrait of the Pit in the woods (the one in which the monk they expected to find did not appear, only the bell). Each of these works has a different role and meaning in the narrative: They can be: a signal in the path that must be taken (Amada’s work); a reminder of the critical points in the road that has been traveled (the portrait of the Man in the White Subaru, the Portrait of the Pit in the Forest), or instruments of knowledge of the artist of people with whom he has come across and with whom he feels some connection. These works may represent the ideas and theories of the narrator (who is an artist) about the ways in which art relates to the world and to the sensitive people who encounter it.

Of these five works, Killing Commendatore is the germ and origin of the plot. And if one thinks in terms of Aristotle’s theory of causes, this work would be the material cause of the events that take place in the novel in a similar way as the narrator would be the efficient cause and the discovery that he makes of this work in the attic would be the formal cause of the novel (with respect to the final cause, this is a question that could be left open). Killing Commendatore, the painting, is a realistic, crude, violent and severe work, from which an extraordinary energy emanates. It is a work very different from those for which Amada was known and gained fame in Japan. The narrator thinks that the work must have been inspired by tragic events that the artist experienced during the years of Nazi occupation when he lived in Vienna. A work that possesses a magical and dangerous beauty (because of the acts that it could induce), or because of the events that it could engender. Going back to the idea of the work as the material cause of the novel, one might believe that it was a sort of magical instrument that woke up from his trance a monk who had been immersed in deep meditation for centuries; and perhaps it was also this work (when discovered) that revived and made visible (so that they can be perceived by sensitive people like the narrator or Mariye), the characters that appear in it:The Commendatore, who is dressed in the old Japanese fashion, is armed with a tiny but real sword, describes himself as an Idea, can read the narrator’s mind; Long Face (another of the figures in Amada’s painting, the only one that does not represent a Don Juan’s character), who is described as a metaphor and warns the narrator just before entering the dark world: The Path of Metaphor is fraught with danger. If a mortal like you strays from that path, even once, he may find himself in danger. And there are Double Metaphors everywhere. (…) lurking in the dark. The most vile and dangerous creatures. Or Doña Ana, who, like a protective fairy, offers to guide the narrator during a stretch of his journey through the dark world. Amada’s painting also seems to have the power to open portals to another world. This occurs in Amada’s room, just when the narrator is going to perpetrate the murder of the Commendatore—a ritual that himself had told him was a necessary act to open the way to the other world—Long Face appears, once again, to witness the Commendatore’s death from a hole suddenly opened in the floor of the room. After a brief conversation with this character, the narrator enters the hole, which is a portal to another world. The Commendatore had told him that only by going through that portal, which he would open when he killed him, would he be able to rescue Mariye. The narrator, as if he were Dante chasing Beatriz, begins his descent into the other world at that moment. A world so dark that imagining it produces what H.P. Lovecraft called cosmic terror: The blackness that surrounded me was so thick, so complete, that it seemed as if it had a will of its own. It felt like one was walking on the ocean floor, where not even a particle of light could penetrate. Shortly after starting to walk, the narrator meets the Faceless Man whose voice emerges from a featureless face and comes as if it were the wind from a deep cavern. This psychopomp from the dark world tells the narrator that if he wants him to cross it to the other shore he must give him something as payment. Through this kind of portals, a reader might think, it would be easy for evil or dangerous creatures to enter our world; reciprocally, unsuspecting beings from our world could enter through it and not be able to return. Amada could have realized the power that his work held inside it and decided that the world would be better off if nobody knew about it. This is a reflection similar to the one the narrator makes at the end of the novel, when the work has already been destroyed: It occurred to me that it could have been a work that had to be lost. Tomohiko Amada had given it too much of his passion and his soul to be later exposed to the public. He had filled it with his spirit. Thus, although it was a masterpiece, it did possess a certain vicious power, an ability to conjure things from the other side.

And there is a sixth artwork that appears in the novel as a promise or a task to fulfill. It is the portrait of the Faceless Man, who has all the time in the world to wait for it. And when the narrator is ready and his transformation process has concluded he will be able to carry it out and keep his word. The narrator knows that the challenge is summed up in being able to portray Nothingness. (Perhaps one day I will be able to make a portrait out of nothing. In the same way as another artist was able to complete a work entitled Killing Commendatore. This Faceless Man keeps in his pocket proof that what the narrator experienced was not dream or hallucination. It is the penguin-shaped earring that belonged to Mariye. Someday the narrator will obtain that proof that he once gave as a pledge. In some ways, this earring has a function similar to that flower that Coleridge received and that Borges made reference in his essay «The Flower of Coleridge»: If a man crossed Paradise in a dream, and was given a flower as proof that he had been there, and if upon awakening he found that flower in his hand… then what «This flower and the earring fulfill the same function, that of being evidence that what was experienced was not dreamed nor hallucinated. How many times before waking up have we not closed our hand tightly with a diamond gripped tightly? And what if at least once would that diamond appear in our hand?

Just as the novel has a material cause that is the origin and germ of the facts, it also has a vortex, which is the moat in the garden at the bottom of which, by removing the stones that covered it, Menshiki and the narrator discovered the ancient bell. This pit, into which Menshiki voluntarily enters one day (to find out what it feels like) and in which the narrator remains locked up for several hours (because it is the return portal from the dark world), is also a metaphor for the rabbit hole through which Alice accidentally slips when she arrives in Wonderland and from the narrow crack through which Komichi gets lost one day for a few hours, the time they went to explore a cave as children. The holes are so important to Japanese culture that they even have a typology. Fuketsu designates the large holes into which people can enter; and kaza-ana, those so narrow that a person does not fit in. The holes, as moats or as wells, are a theme that has appeared in other Murakami novels. In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya, an officer in the Kwantung Army during the occupation of Manchukuo, is thrown down a well and remains trapped at the bottom for several days until he is rescued by Corporal Honda. Also in this novel, the main character, Toru Okada, descends to the bottom of a dry well seeking solitude to meditate and there he finds a portal that leads him to a dark hotel room where he finds a woman who seduces him. Every hole could be a doorway to the dark world. Just as it turns out to be the hole through which Long Face emerges at the moment in which the narrator carried out the ritual murder of the Commendatore. Perhaps the hole, as a pit or as a well, as a fuketsu or as a kaza-ana, is, as it was, the Holy Grail for the writers of the Middle Ages (especially for Robert de Boron, Chretien de Troyes, Thomas Malory and all the anonymous or almost forgotten authors who contributed to the stories of the Arthurian Cycle known as the Vulgate), a recurring metaphor for the maternal womb, a symbol of the Virgin, an archetype of the feminine. Hole, well or ditch in which, when it has a sufficiently large diameter, there is a risk of falling into it by accident and being trapped inside without being able to get out, and experiencing the densest darkness. Like when Komi tells her brother, the narrator, about what she felt during the long minutes she stayed inside the crack: [That place] was so dark that when I turned off the flashlight, I felt like I could grab the darkness with my hands. hands. And when you’re there alone in the dark, it feels like your body gradually dissolves and disappears. But because it’s dark, you can’t see what’s going on. You cannot know whether or not you still have a body. Hole, well or pit that can, indistinctly, depending on the case, be an access to Hell (the dark world) or stairs to Paradise. Hole, pit or well that, as a reservoir and source of shadow, or as a portal to the dark world, is essential to achieve balance. Because, in the same way that the shadow is (according to Jung) an essential element of the personality of those who have completed their individuation process, neither a work of art nor life will be complete if they do not include both light and shadow, its opposite; if they do not induce in the spectator, both the placid aesthetic enjoyment that leads to calm, and the disturbing awakening of that indomitable energy that is the unconscious. Perhaps Amada sensed that the energy of his masterpiece Killing Commendatore was so powerful that if he left it exposed to the public, those who gravitated around him and contemplated it closely enough, it would point the way to the shadow (equivalent to saying to the nearest hole, pit or ditch). Some of them could also be involved in plots that would lead them to the very door of the dark world. But only those with the necessary intelligence and courage would be able to enter that other world and then return (as Orpheus, or Dante). So works of art that have that power should have a short life. Or be contemplated only by the chosen ones. We suspect that Komi, the narrator, and Mariye, each in their own way, are examples of characters who have taken the circular journey that (we believe) Murakami thinks is dangerous but necessary for our growth. By this, I do not mean that Murakami intended to condense and concentrate the novel’s dark matter in or around the forest moat in which the bell was found, and any other holes that are referred to in the novel. In the work of Tirso de Molina, the murderer of Commendatore Don Gonzalo de Ulloa is Don Juan Tenorio, nicknamed the Trickster of Seville. This character represents various dark aspects (traits and behaviors) that appear in the novel. Víctor Said Armesto has described Don Juan Tenorio as follows: [W]e have in his fascinating eyes embers and poisons from hell and on his malignant lips smiles and May blossoms, he presents himself (…) as a symbol and cipher of a enterprising generation, of boisterous and wayward instincts, of indomitable pride, of powerful arrests for action, for war, for debauchery, skillful in concocting the plots of courtship and eternally eager to drain the charms of life with that beautiful madness of youth (1908: 24). That is, he is someone who masters the arts of deception and seduction. Of course, countless other things can be said about that mischievous and trickster that is Don Juan. That he is irreverent, that he rejects or despises established values (among them the honor of ladies), that he takes life lightly, and that he can be indifferent to someone’s death, whether or not he has taken his own life because of the pain that something he did caused him, either because he killed him with his sword. This explains why he assassinates ruthlessly and without regret, Commendatore, who is the father of Doña Ana, another woman whom he dishonors. If Don Juan does not feel guilty for cheating on husbands and fiancés, and dishonoring the women who attract him, regardless of their feelings, he does not seem to have felt guilty for killing Commendatore either. That lack of guilt in the face of the moral and physical  pain he causes reveals him as a psychopath, or at least as someone with the potential to become one. This is how the cheerful, light and mischievous trickster of the Castilian oral tradition can, given certain conditions, become a murderer not very different from the Joker of the Batman comics, who begins in some way as a trickster (who earns a living doing stand-up comedy). A Joker who, in the version of the film written and directed by Todd Philips, enjoys the subversion of the social order (and the consequent propagation of chaos), but not because he wishes (utopianly) to erect a new order on the ashes of the affected current order, but because chaos , destruction, death, apocalypse arouses in him a pleasure akin to sexual desire. Amada captured the murderer of the Commendatore in his artwork, taking as molds a bunch of Nazi officers who ordered the death of his girlfriend (who was a member of the resistance and planned a failed crime against a high-ranking Nazi official) when he lived in Vienna. On the other hand, Murakami imbues the figure of the Commendatore with wisdom and lucidity, and strips him of the negative aspects that could be associated with the character of an avenger, nevertheless preserving the strength needed by a being who is the only one who has the power to restore balance in the world. The fact that the Commendatore is invited by Menshiki to the dinner to which he invites the narrator, bears a structural similarity with the invitation made (sneeringly) by Don Juan to the already dead Commendatore when he chanced upon his tomb in a church. Which suggests that the moat in the forest can also be considered a tomb, that of the Buddhist monk whose body is never found (which allows the reader to speculate that he adopted the Commendatore as his visible form). The Commendatore does not drag Menshiki to hell. Perhaps, because he has not yet committed a crime that justifies such a punishment. And Menshiki, although he jokes about it, still tells the narrator that the Commendatore will also be invited to dinner: Unlike Don Juan in the opera, I haven’t done anything so bad that I deserve to be thrown into Hell. Although it is not possible to rule out that under his seductive physical appearance and the multiple layers of whiteness with which he has covered himself (white mansion all lit up, white hair, impeccable clothes) Menshiki hides dark passions and obscure drives within.

Regarding the unnamed narrator, we said at the beginning of the text that the novel deals with his education as a young artist (not an adolescent, as in Joyce’s novel). An education that was in charge, mainly, of the art master who practically dies throughout the novel (until in the end he dies), which is Tomohiko Amada. But the narrator also meets other masters. Such as the Commendatore himself, Mariye, the teenager, who sensitizes him to better understand his sister and her personal universe; Menshiki and the rest of the curious characters he encountered during that turbulent period that lasted several months between Yuzu’s departure and his reconciliation. What has been learned in this educational (and transforming) process is summed up by the narrator at the end of the novel: I am endowed with the ability to believe. I sincerely believe that something is going to appear to guide me, through the darkest and narrowest tunnel, or across the most desolate plain. This is what I have learned from the strange events I experienced while living in the house on the top of the hill on the outskirts of Odawara. Perhaps the reader will have a similar lesson. Reading could have reinforced his conviction that life, sometimes, during the moments in which we are going through exceptional circumstances that shake its foundations, leads us along surprising itineraries in whose bends, breaks, milestones, we can meet facts and people that are difficult for us. Either they are or not real, does not take away from the key role they play in helping us going through those paths. Or perhaps reading this novel has simply reinforced the belief that we seek in novels what we would like our lives to have. And that, if we do not manage to have them, we know that we can find them in the literature.

Arriving at this point, a reader of this text might wonder why no attempt has been made to analyze the ways in which Murakami’s novel pays homage to The Great Gatsby. The answer to this rhetorical question is that the task has been omitted on purpose because the homage, which exists, resembles a collection of winks, some of which could be worth noting. Without being able to defend the conjectures very convincingly, I would say that Gatsby shares with Menshiki several physical and personality traits such as: elegance, grace, manners, ambition, taste for the material pleasures that life can offer in general, and especially for that very peculiar good that is a house. Menshiki’s white house on top of the hill and Gatsby’s mansion in West Egg, Long Island, the place where the nouveau riche live. Both houses function as instruments for their owners to conquer the heart of their beloved (Daisy, Mariye). Also common to Gatsby and Menshiki is a nonchalant conception of the goods that fortune allows them to acquire and enjoy. For example, Gatsby was never seen enjoying himself at any of the many parties he organized, but instead always seemed aloof, watching the party unfold from some privileged observation point, as if he were a social scientist. And there is also the dark side of Gatsby and Menshiki. Nothing certain is known about the origin of Gatsby’s fortune, although the reader intuits that it came from the businesses that he learned to do with his business mentor Meyer Wolfshiem. In the case of Menshiki, his shadow is more enigmatic, more unfathomable and difficult to define. Sometimes one is left with the idea that a devilish, or at least perverse, side is hidden behind Menshiki’s perfect manners and elegance. Also, there are similarities between the narrator in Killing Commendatore and Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. There is an innocence in the narrator that to some extent is shared by Nick. Innocence that may have made them both vulnerable to the turbulences of the world. Coherent with this innocence is their strong senstiveness. Yuzu’s decision to split up may well have made the narrator sad and disturbed, so much that he decided he needed a long road trip. In Nick’s case, we read that he spent time in a sanitarium, mainly because of depression, anxiety. Both, as well, seem to have been raised with a strong moral awareness, but also with the tolerance needed to refrain themselves from making moral judgements of others. There are many other similarities or correspondences between the two novels. However, it seems to me it is advisable to stop now this endeavor of finding hidden or obvious admiration winks to Fitzgerald in the novel and leave the reader with the challenge of finding whichever other winks Murakami might have inserted in his novel. Presumably, many of those are related to the multiple and intricate connections that, allowed Murakami to express his admiration for Fitzgerald’s fantastic novel with the freedom that his readers granted him (an act that the author anticipated as the literary prophet that he is) when the Commendatore asked us for permission for free interpretation. We didn’t know at first, but we found out later, that we granted the author the right to make the most imaginative, fantastic and irreverent reading of the literary work that he most admires.


(*) The text is the English version of a post originally written in Spanish by the author and published in this blog. Occasionally, I will keep on translating to English selected posts and republish them here.

(1) The Japanese edition of Killing the Commander was published in February 2017 in two volumes (The Idea Made Visible, and The Moving Metaphor). The English version, translated by Philip Gabriel (translator of 1Q84, The Pilgrimages of the Colorless Child, and several other novels by this author) and Ted Goossen, and published in 2018. Compiles the two volumes into a single 681-page volume, still when divided into two parts, which correspond to the titles and content of each of the two volumes of the Japanese edition. This book is titled Killing Commendatore (Killing the Commander) and was edited by Alfred Knopf in NY. All the quotes referred to in the text were taken from this book. 

(2) The words that the Guest of Stone repeats at the moments in which he takes Don Juan to Hell, whom he holds firmly by the hand, are: «The marvels of God/ are, don Juan, investigateable,/ and so He wants your faults / at the hands of a dead man to pay, / and so you pay in this way. / This is God’s justice: / Who makes such a person pay «. Listening to these words, one deduces that the dead Don Gonzalo acts as an agent of justice (and not an avenger) to whom God has delegated execution. Tirso de Molina, Works I, El Burlador de Sevilla and Invitado de Piedra, Clásicos Castellanos (1910), Madrid: Editions of “La lectura”.

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