Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (11 page)

I shook my head. “I've been on my own less than a year. Still an amateur.”

Menshiki gave a slight nod, but didn't ask any questions or offer any comments. “Are you close to Tomohiko Amada?” he asked.

“No, I've never even met him. I was with his son in art school, and through that connection he asked me if I wanted to take care of the vacant house. Some things came up in my life and I didn't have any place to live then, so I decided to accept the offer. For the time being.”

Menshiki gave a few more small nods. “It's not very convenient for anyone working at a regular job, but for folks like you two, I imagine it's a wonderful environment.”

I gave a forced smile. “We might both be painters, but Tomohiko Amada and I are on totally different levels. It's embarrassing to even be mentioned in the same breath as him.”

Menshiki raised his head and looked at me, his eyes serious. “It's too soon to say that. You might become a well-known artist someday.”

There was nothing I could say to that, so I was silent.

“Sometimes people go through huge transformations,” Menshiki said. “They obliterate the style they've worked in, and out of the ruins they rise up again. Tomohiko Amada was that way. When he was young he painted Western-style work. You've heard about this, I'm sure?”

“I have. Before the war he was a promising young painter of Western-style art. But after he came back from studying in Vienna he changed to being a Japanese-style artist, and after the war was amazingly successful.”

“The way I see it,” Menshiki said, “there's a point in everybody's life where they need a major transformation. And when that time comes you have to grab it by the tail. Grab it hard, and never let go. There are some people who are able to, and others who can't. Tomohiko Amada was one who could.”

A major transformation. The words suddenly made me think of
Killing Commendatore
. And the young man stabbing the Commendatore to death.

“Do you know much about Japanese-style painting?” Menshiki asked.

I shook my head. “I'm basically a layman. I attended lectures on it when I was in art school, but that's the extent of my knowledge.”

“This is a very basic question, but how is Japanese art defined, professionally?”

“It's not so easy to define. It's usually taken to mean paintings done using glue and pigment and foil leaf. And done not with a paintbrush, but with a writing brush. In other words Japanese paintings are defined mainly by the materials used to paint them. The transmission of ancient, traditional techniques is one feature, though there are lots of Japanese paintings done using avant-garde techniques, and with colors, too, there is a lot of use of new materials. So the definition has steadily become increasingly vague. But as far as Tomohiko Amada's paintings go, they're classic Japanese art. Archetypal, you might call them. They're done in a style that's recognizably his own, of course. I just mean as far as techniques are concerned.”

“So you're saying that if the definition based on materials and techniques gets vague, all you're left with is the mental aspect, right?”

“Maybe so. But the mental aspect of Japanese paintings isn't easily defined. They are, from the beginning, rather eclectic.”

“By eclectic you mean…?”

I searched the depths of memory and recalled what I'd learned in art history class. “The Meiji Restoration took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and along with other aspects of Western culture Western art also was introduced into Japan, but until then the genre of ‘Japanese painting' didn't actually exist. The term didn't even exist. Just like up till then the name of the country, Japan, was hardly ever used. With the appearance of Western art from abroad, the concept of Japanese art was born as a way of asserting something that could be distinguished as standing in opposition to Western art. What had existed up until then in various forms and styles was, for the sake of simplicity, lumped together under the new name of ‘Japanese painting.' Of course, there were some types of painting that were excluded from that and fell into decline. Chinese ink paintings, for instance. The Meiji government established and cultivated so-called Japanese painting as a kind of national art, as part of Japanese cultural identity that could stand shoulder to shoulder with Western culture—the ‘Japanese spirit' part of the popular slogan at the time—‘Japanese Spirit with Western Learning.' What had been everyday designs, arts and crafts designs such as paintings on folding screens and
sliding doors and bowls and plates, were now set in frames and featured in art exhibitions. To put it another way, items done in a natural style as part of everyday life were now accommodated to the Western system and elevated to the status of ‘works of art.' ”

I paused for a moment and studied Menshiki's face. He seemed to be listening closely to what I said. I went on.

“Tenshin Okakura and Ernest Fenollosa were at the forefront of this movement. What happened with art could be counted as one of the amazing success stories during this period when aspects of Japanese culture were rapidly being reconfigured. A similar process was taking place in the worlds of music, literature, and thought. It must have been a pretty hectic time for Japanese back then, since they had tons of important work they had to accomplish in a very short period of time. Looking back on it now, I'd say we did a pretty clever and skillful job of it. The merging and compartmentalizing of Western aspects and non-Western aspects took place very smoothly. Maybe Japanese are intrinsically suited to that kind of process.

“So Japanese painting wasn't clearly defined originally. You might say it was a concept based on a vague consensus. There wasn't initially a clear division, and it only came about tangentially, when external and internal pressure created one.”

Menshiki seemed to be considering all this. “It might have been vague,” he finally said, “but this was a consensus born of necessity, right?”

“Exactly. A consensus arising out of necessity.”

“Not having a set framework was both a strength and a weakness of Japanese painting. Could we interpret it this way?”

“I think so.”

“But when we look at a painting, in most cases we have the sense whether it's a Japanese painting or not. Right?”

“That's right. There's an intrinsic method used. A kind of trend, or tone. And a tacit, shared understanding. It's hard sometimes to define it, though.”

Menshiki was silent for a while. “If a painting is non-Western, then does it have the form of a Japanese painting?”

“Not necessarily,” I replied. “In principle there are Western paintings that have a non-Western form.”

“I see,” he said. He tilted his head ever so slightly. “But if it's a Japanese painting, then to some extent it will have a non-Western form about it. Would that be accurate?”

I gave it some thought. “Put that way, yes, you could say so. I hadn't thought about it that way, to tell you the truth.”

“It's self-evident, but still difficult to put into words.”

I nodded in agreement.

He paused for a moment, and then went on. “If you think about it, it's akin to defining yourself as compared with another person. The difference is self-evident, but still difficult to verbalize. As you said, you can perhaps only understand it as a kind of tangent produced when external and internal pressure combine to create it.”

Menshiki gave a slight smile. “Fascinating,” he added in a small voice, as if to himself.

What are we talking about? I suddenly thought. An intriguing topic in its own right, but what significance did this conversation hold for him? Was it mere intellectual curiosity? Or was he testing my intellect? What was the point?

“By the way, I'm left-handed,” Menshiki said at one point, as if he'd just recalled this fact. “I don't know if that will be helpful, but it's another piece of information about me. If I'm told to go left or right, I always choose left. It's become a habit.”


It was finally near three o'clock, and we set the date and time of our next session. He would come to my house in three days, on Monday at one p.m. As he did this day, we would spend two hours together in my studio, and I would attempt to sketch him again.

“I'm in no rush,” Menshiki said. “As I said in the beginning, take as much time as you need. I have all the time in the world.”

And then he left. Through the window I watched him get into his Jaguar and drive away. I picked up all the sketches I'd done of him, studied them for a time, then tossed them aside.

A terrible silence descended over the house. Now alone, it was as if the silence had become all the more weighty. I went out on the terrace and there was no wind, the air jelly-thick and chilly. It felt like it was going to rain.

I sat down on the living room sofa, reviewing the conversation Menshiki and I had had, in order. How we'd talked about posing for a portrait. About Strauss's opera
Der Rosenkavalier
. About how Menshiki had started a tech company, sold off his stock, and with the sizable profit retired young. How he lived all alone in that huge house. His first name was Wataru. Written with the character that means “to cross a river.” He'd always been a bachelor, and his hair had turned white early on. He was left-handed and was now fifty-four. How Tomohiko Amada had made a bold pivot, how one should grab opportunity by the tail and never let go. The definition of Japanese painting. And finally, about the relationship between Self and Other.

What in the world did he want from me?

And why wasn't I able to do any decent sketches of him?

The answer was simple, really.
Because I had not yet grasped what lay at the core of his being.

After talking with him I felt uneasy. Yet at the same time, my curiosity about him had grown all the stronger.

Thirty minutes later heavy drops of rain began to fall. The little birds had by then already vanished.


When I was fifteen my younger sister died. It happened very suddenly. She was twelve then, in her first year of junior high. She had been born with a congenital heart problem, but since the time she was in the upper grades of elementary school she hadn't shown any more symptoms, and our family had felt reassured, holding out the faint hope that her life would go on, without incident. But in May of that year her heartbeat became more irregular. It was especially bad when she lay down, and she suffered many sleepless nights. She underwent tests at the university hospital, but no matter how detailed the tests the doctors couldn't pinpoint any changes in her physical condition. The basic issue was supposed to have been resolved back when she'd had her operations, and the doctors were baffled.

“Avoid strenuous exercise, and follow a regular routine, and things should settle down soon,” the doctor said. That was probably all he could say. And he wrote out a few prescriptions for her.

But her arrhythmia didn't settle down. As I sat across from her at the dining table I often looked at her chest and imagined the defective heart inside it. Her breasts were beginning to noticeably develop. Her heart might have problems, but her flesh continued growing nonetheless. It felt strange to see my little sister's breasts grow by the day. Up till then she'd just been a little child, but now she'd suddenly had her first period, and her breasts were slowly starting to take shape. Yet within that tiny chest, my sister's heart was defective. And even a specialist couldn't pinpoint the defect. That fact alone had my brain in constant turmoil. I spent my adolescence in a state of anxiety, fearful that, at any moment, I might lose my little sister.

My parents told me to watch over her, since her body was so delicate. While we attended the same elementary school I always kept my eye on her. If need be, I was willing to risk my life to protect her and her tiny heart. Though the opportunity never presented itself.

She was on her way home from junior high one day when she collapsed and lost consciousness while climbing the stairs at Seibu Shinjuku Station. She was rushed by ambulance to the nearest emergency room. By the time I got home and then raced to the hospital, her heart had already stopped. It all happened in the blink of an eye. That morning we'd eaten breakfast together, said goodbye to each other at the front door, me going off to high school, she to junior high. And the next time I saw her she'd stopped breathing. Her large eyes were closed forever, her mouth slightly open as if she were about to say something. Her developing breasts would never grow.

The next time I saw her she was in a coffin. She was dressed in her favorite black velvet dress, with a touch of makeup, her hair neatly combed. She had on black patent-leather shoes and lay faceup in the modestly sized coffin. The dress had a white lace collar, so white it looked unnatural.

Lying there, she appeared to be peacefully sleeping. Shake her lightly and she'd wake up, it seemed. But that was an illusion. Shake her all you want, but she would never awaken again.

I didn't want my sister's delicate little body to be stuffed into that cramped, confining box. Her body should be laid to rest on a much more spacious place. In the middle of a meadow, for instance. We would wordlessly go to visit her, pushing aside the lush green grass as we went. The wind would slowly rustle the grass, and birds and insects would call out from all around her. The raw smell of wildflowers would fill the air, pollen swirling. When night fell, the sky above her would be dotted with countless silvery stars. In the morning a new sun would make the dew on the blades of grass sparkle like jewels. But in reality she was packed away in some ridiculous coffin. The only decorations were ominous white flowers that had been snipped by scissors and stuck in vases. The narrow room had fluorescent lighting that was drained of color. From a small speaker set into the ceiling came the artificial strains of organ music.

I couldn't stand to see her be cremated. When the coffin lid was shut and locked, I couldn't take it anymore and left the cremation room. I didn't help when the family ritually placed her bones inside a vase. I went out into the crematorium courtyard and cried soundlessly by myself. During her all-too-short life, I'd never once helped my little sister, a thought that hurt me deeply.

After my sister's death, our family changed. My father became even more taciturn, my mother even more nervous and jumpy. Basically I kept on with the same life as always. I joined the mountaineering club at school, which kept me busy, and when I wasn't doing that I started oil painting. My art teacher recommended that I find a good instructor and really study painting. And when I finally did start attending art classes, my interest became serious. I think I was trying to keep myself busy so I wouldn't think about my dead sister.

For a long time, I'm not sure how many years, my parents kept her room exactly as it was. Textbooks and study guides, pens, erasers, and paper clips piled on her desk, the sheets, blankets, and pillows on her bed, her laundered and folded pajamas, her junior high school uniform hanging in the closet—all untouched. The calendar on the wall still had her schedule written in her tiny writing. It was left at the month she died, as if time had frozen solid at that point. It felt as if the door would open at any moment and she'd come inside. When no one else was at home I'd sometimes go into her room, sit down on the neatly made bed, and gaze around me. But I never touched anything. I didn't want to disturb, even a little, any of the silent little objects left behind, signs that my sister had once been among the living.

I often tried to imagine what sort of life my sister would have had if she hadn't died at twelve. Though there was no way I could know. I couldn't even picture how my own life would turn out, so I had no idea what her future would have held. But I knew that if only she hadn't had a problem with one of her heart valves, she would have grown to be a capable, attractive adult. I'm sure many men would have loved her, and held her gently in their arms. But I couldn't picture any of that in detail. For me, she was forever my little sister, three years younger, who needed my protection.

For a time after she died I drew sketches of her, over and over. Reproducing in my sketchbook, from all different angles, my memory of her face, so I wouldn't forget it. Not that I was about to forget her face. It will remain etched in my mind until the day I die. What I sought was not to forget the face I remembered at that point in time. In order to do that, I had to give form to it by drawing. I was only fifteen then, and there was so much I didn't know about memory, drawing, and the flow of time. But one thing I did know was that I needed to do something in order to hold on to an accurate record of my memory. Leave it alone, and it would disappear somewhere. No matter how vivid a memory, the power of time was stronger. I knew this instinctively.

I would sit alone in her room on her bed, drawing her, sketching her face over and over. I tried to reproduce onto the blank paper how she looked in my mind's eye. I lacked experience then, and the requisite technical skill, so it wasn't an easy process. I'd draw, rip up my effort, draw and rip up, endlessly. But now when I look at the drawings I did keep (I still treasure my sketchbook from back then), I can see that they are filled with a genuine sense of grief. They may be technically immature, but it was a sincere effort, my own soul trying to awaken my sister's. When I looked at those sketches, I couldn't help but cry. I've done countless drawings since, but never again has anything I've drawn brought me to tears.


There's one other effect my sister's death had on me—a very severe case of claustrophobia. Ever since I saw her be placed in that cramped little coffin, the lid shut and locked tight, and taken away to the crematorium, I haven't been able to go into tight, enclosed places. For a long time I couldn't take elevators. I'd stand in front of an elevator and all I could think about was it automatically shutting down in an earthquake, with me trapped inside that confined space. Just the thought of it was enough to send me into a choking sense of panic.

These symptoms didn't appear right after my sister's death. It took nearly three years for them to surface. The first time I had a panic attack was soon after I started art school, when I had a part-time job with a moving company. I was the driver's assistant in a covered truck, loading boxes and taking them out, and one time I got mistakenly locked inside the empty cargo compartment. Work was done for the day and the driver was checking to see if anything was left behind in the cargo compartment. He forgot to make sure if anyone was still inside, and locked the door from the outside.

About two and half hours passed until the door was opened and I was able to crawl out. That whole time I was locked inside a sealed, cramped, totally dark place. It wasn't a refrigerated truck or anything, so there were gaps where air could get in. If I'd thought about it calmly, I would have known I wouldn't suffocate.

But still, a terrible panic had me in its grip. There was plenty of oxygen, yet no matter how deeply I breathed in, I wasn't able to absorb it. My breathing got more and more ragged and I started hyperventilating. I felt dizzy, like I was choking, and was overwhelmed by an inexplicable panic. It's okay, calm down, I told myself. You'll be able to get out soon. It's impossible to suffocate here. But logic didn't work. The only thing in my mind was my little sister, crammed into a tiny coffin, and hauled off to the crematorium. Completely terrified, I pounded on the walls of the truck.

The truck was in the company parking lot, and all the employees, their workday done, had gone home. Nobody noticed that I wasn't around. I pounded like crazy, but no one seemed to hear. If I was unlucky I might be shut inside until morning. At the thought of that, it felt like all my muscles were about to disintegrate.

It was the night security guard, making his rounds of the parking lot, who finally heard the noise I was making and unlocked the door. When he saw how agitated and exhausted I was, he had me lie down on the bed in the company break room. And gave me a cup of hot tea. I don't know how long I lay there. But finally my breathing became normal again. Dawn was coming, so I thanked the guard and took the first train of the day back home. I slipped into my own bed and lay there, shaking like crazy for the longest time.

Ever since then, riding elevators has triggered the same panic. The incident must have awoken a fear that had been lurking within me. And I have little doubt this was set off by memories of my dead sister. And it wasn't only elevators, but any enclosed space. I couldn't even watch movies with scenes set in submarines or tanks. Just imagining myself shut inside such confined spaces—
imagining it—made me unable to breathe. Often I had to get up and leave the theater. If a scene came on of someone shut away in a confined space, I couldn't stand to watch. That's why I seldom watched movies with anyone else.

One time on a trip to Hokkaido I had no choice but to stay overnight in one of those capsule hotels. My breathing became labored, and I couldn't sleep, so I went outside and spent the night inside my car. It was early spring in Hokkaido, still quite cold, and the whole night was like a nightmare.

My wife often kidded me about my panic attacks. When we had to go to a floor high up in a building she would precede me in the elevator and would wait there, enjoying me huffing and puffing my way up sixteen or so flights of stairs. But I never explained to her why I had that phobia. I just told her I've always had a fear of elevators.

“Well, it might be healthier for you to walk,” she said.

I also had a feeling akin to fear about women with larger than normal breasts. I don't know if that has anything to do with my sister, or the way her breasts were just beginning to develop when she died. Still, I've always been attracted to women with more modest breasts, and every time I see them, every time I touch them, I remember my sister…Don't get me wrong, I wasn't sexually interested in my sister. I think I was just looking for a certain type of scene. A finite scene, lost and never to return.


On Saturday afternoon my hand was resting on the chest of my married lover. Her breasts weren't particularly small, or large. Just the right size, they fit neatly into my palm. Her nipples were still hard in my hand.

She'd never come to my house on a Saturday. She always spent the weekends with her family. But that weekend her husband was on a business trip to Mumbai and her two daughters were staying over at their cousin's house in Nasu in Tochigi. So she came to my place. And like we did on weekday afternoons, we leisurely enjoyed sex. Afterward we lay there in a lazy, indolent silence. Like always.

“Would you like to hear what the jungle grapevine turned up?” she asked.

“Jungle grapevine?” I suddenly couldn't think of what she was talking about.

“Don't tell me you forgot? The mystery man in the big white house across the valley. You asked me to look into this Mr. Menshiki the other day.”

“Ah, that's right. Of course I remember.”

“I found out a little bit about him. One of my housewife friends lives near him, and she could gather some info on him. Would you like to hear it?”

“Of course.”

“Mr. Menshiki bought that house with the gorgeous view about three years ago. Another family was living in it before then. They're the ones who built the house, but those original owners only lived there about two years. One sunny morning they suddenly packed up all their belongings and left, and Menshiki took their place. He bought the house, which was practically brand-new. How that all came about, though, nobody knows.”

“So he didn't build the house himself,” I said.

“That's right. He moved into a container that was already there. Like a quick-witted hermit crab.”

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