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Slaughtering an idea

Koby Ofek

In the last ten years, I probably read all long-form works written by acclaimed Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. This probably makes me a fan, though I can't say I lack criticism of his writings. For me, reading a Murakami is not about the ideas or the plot or the abundance of cultural references. It is about a warm and fuzzy feeling of being at home with an author. Murakami's writings surround me with soft goose feathers. I know what to expect of his books, and it's something beyond plot, style or ideas. It's an atmosphere.

The author's protagonists are detached from our world in many ways. Their relationships with people, animals and food are mechanical, automatic. They are controlled by events which they seem to have no command or impact of. They seem to accept the dramatic or even the tragic with bleak fatalism, almost robotic in nature. In a way, it all seems like a big culturally-referenced puppet show, as people don't seem to actually participate in Murakami's extravaganzas.

And yet all this mechanical being, often contoured with magical realism, is so real.

Reading Murakami, there is a huge gazer of truth that spits out from within. It's not about the concepts or thoughts the characters raise. It's about their way of being, of carrying themselves within the Murakami world.

In Killing Commendatore, the main plotline centers on a young mid-age portrait painter, seeking refuge in a mountain hut after his wife asks for a surprise divorce. The hut's former resident was a famous Japanese painter who kept a marvelous unpublished painting in the attic. Upon discovering said work and taking it out of hiding, a series of imaginary or real events is triggered. Both options are equally plausible.

His sequence of actions, whether listening to music, having sex with a married partner, making food or taking walks in the mysterious woods by his hut, make for the core of the book for me. They bring memories of the actions of other male Murakami heroes who found themselves at unfortunate circumstances, stranded in the world. Their mechanical coping mechanisms are both unreal and so human. Inexcusable and so understandable. Infuriating but familiar.

I could easily imagine the exchange of words between a therapist and Murakami's heroes. The patient would give a detailed register of events, recording all his life setbacks in the same tone as used for describing his meticulous preparations of fish soup with bonito. The therapist will ask for any display of emotion, just to receive an ordered account of mental states.

Killing Commendatore also features a subplot which can be seen again as happening mainly in the un-named protagonist's mind or at least in part, in reality. A wealthy eccentric neighbor appears and asks for his help in approaching a teenage girl who lives nearby. The Great Gatsby-esque neighbor suspects that she might be his daughter, and makes some bold, borderline legitimate moves in making her acquittance.

*** Major spoiler ahead ***

At a certain point, the hero needs to take some major action to advance the plot. A mystical gnome-like creature called the Commendatore, which appears in the excavated painting, makes several cameos for our protagonist. He presents himself as a mere idea, rather than flash and blood.

The hero, equally indifferent to tragedy and supernaturalism, requests his help in finding a missing girl (the one who may be his neighbor's daughter). The commendatore agrees to help, but in return, he has to murder him. Slaughtering a pure idea with a fish knife is the only way for him to find the girl, to find himself, to remember his dead sister and his roots.

How does one murder a pure idea? Can it really be done with a fish knife? What kind of leap do we need to make to abandon our strongest beliefs, and what happens right after that? In western culture, we usually call it to take a leap of faith. The hero does it successfully and goes on a mythical journey in a greek mythology inspired underworld.

Think of the expression "changing our minds". It seems rather harsh, or even brutal, doesn't it? While we may change our mind about going to a restaurant or the movies, the metaphor here is about really changing our mind, as in having another mind instead of our current one. For replacing our deepest notions, our perspectives of the world, our understanding of the being of things. It really can evoke the notion of a slaughter. One needs to kill to advance.

As observed by British philosopher, Julian Baggini, fundamental opinion-changes seem to be rare and slow. Think of a religious man going secular or the other way around, when a laic finds god. Is that more like replacing your perspective about the world, or about taking a fish knife and butchering your former self?

For Murakami, and not for the first time, dead ends lead to reflection (often in deep bottomed wells, but that's for another discussion) which leads to changes in one's mind. It is a radical move, but for him, there's a twist.

After doing "what's necessary" to get to know himself, making a Cartesian move of disbanding his former ideas, and crawling into a Platonic cave where he can witness the truth as it manifests itself, something changes within him but also something also retracts backward.

In the end, our protagonists goes back to square one. He requests to meet his wife, which is then pregnant with (probably) another men's baby. He wants to go back home and reunite with her and she agrees to take him back.

Is he in the same place? Was it even necessary to murder a pure idea to get there? Or maybe he is in a similar, though higher place, now with a baby girl? Evoking Hegel's idea of synthesis, after clashing his former marriage lifestyle with his gnarly bachelor conduct, the only solution possible was to murder the essence that brought him thus far, and build on something which is somewhat new and old.

The lengthy book builds quite a lot of tension that somehow explodes during the end without much understanding of what happened. But two major things remain with me:

That warm and fuzzy feeling and some bloodstains from the idea's execution. While they seem to contradict, this warmth and the darkness are at the heart of Murakami's works and all our lives.

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