Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online
Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
“Yet despite that, we are playing the game by a set of hypothetical rules. Right?”
“When you put it that way, I guess you have a point.”
“So this is what I think,” she said. “I'm playing the game according to my set of rules. And you're playing according to yours. The two of us
respect each other's rules. As long as the two sets don't conflict and mess things up, we can go on like this without a hitch. Don't you agree?”
I considered what she had said. “Maybe you're right. We basically respect each other's rules.”
“But you know, I think there's something even more important than respect and trust. And that's etiquette.”
“You may be right there,” I agreed.
“If all those thingsâtrust, respect, etiquetteâstop functioning, the rules clash and the game breaks down. Then we either suspend the game and come up with a new set of rules we can both follow, or we end it and leave the playing field. The big question then would be which of those two routes we decide to follow.”
That was precisely what had happened to my marriage. I had called a halt to the game and walked off the field. On that cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in March.
“So are you suggesting that we should talk out the rules of our relationship?”
“You don't get what I'm saying at all,” she said, shaking her head. “What I want is
to have to discuss the rules of the game. That's why I'm able to be naked with you like this. You don't mind, do you?”
“Not a bit,” I said.
“So that leaves us with trust and respect. And most of all etiquette.”
“And most of all etiquette,” I repeated.
She reached down and squeezed a part of my body.
“It's getting hard again,” she whispered in my ear.
“Maybe that's because today is Monday,” I said.
“What does Monday have to do with it?”
“Or maybe because it's raining. Or winter is coming. Or we're starting to see migrating birds. Or there's a bumper crop of mushrooms this year. Or my cup is a sixteenth full of water. Or the shape of your breasts under your green sweater turns me on.”
She giggled. My answer appeared to have done the trick.
Menshiki called that evening. He thanked me for the day before.
I had done nothing worthy of his gratitude, I replied. All I had done was introduce him to two people. What developed after that, and how, had nothing to do with meâin that sense, I was a mere outsider. And I would like to keep it that way (though I had a premonition things might not work out so conveniently).
“Actually, I'm calling about something else,” Menshiki said once the pleasantries were over. “I've received some new information about Tomohiko Amada.”
So he was continuing his investigation. He might not be doing it himself, but arranging for such detailed work was certainly costing him a lot. Menshiki was a man who poured money into anything he thought necessary, sparing no expense. But why, and to what degree, was tracking down Tomohiko Amada's experiences in Vienna necessary to him? I didn't have a clue.
“What we've turned up may not have a direct connection with Amada's stay in Vienna,” Menshiki went on. “But it overlaps with that time, and it's clear that it had a huge personal impact on him. So I thought you would like to hear about it.”
“It overlapped with that time?”
“As I told you before, Tomohiko Amada returned to Japan from Vienna in early 1939. On paper, he was deported, but in fact he was rescued by the Gestapo. Officials from the foreign ministries of Japan and Nazi Germany had met in secret, and agreed that he be extradited but not charged with any crime. The failed assassination attempt had taken place in 1938, but it was linked to two other important events of that year: the
âHitler's annexation of Austriaâand
took place in March, and
in November. Once they occurred, the brutality of Hitler's plan was obvious to everyone. Austria was firmly installed as a part of the Nazi war effort. An inextricable cog in the machine. Hoping to block this flow of events, students organized an underground resistance movement, and in the same year, Tomohiko Amada was arrested for his role in the assassination plot. Get the picture?”
“In a general sort of way, yes,” I said.
“Do you like history?”
“I'm no expert, but I love books that deal with history,” I said.
“A number of important events were taking place in Japan that year as well. Fatal, irrevocable events, which led to eventual disaster. Does anything spring to mind?”
I dusted off my store of historical knowledge, so long untouched. What had taken place in 1938? In Europe, the Spanish Civil War had intensified. German Condor bombers had flattened Guernica. But in Japanâ¦?
“Did the Marco Polo Bridge Incident take place that year?” I asked.
“That was the year before,” Menshiki said. “On July 7, 1937. With the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the war between China and Japan went into full swing. Then in December of that year, another serious event took place.”
What had happened in December of 1937?
“The fall of Nanjing?” I asked.
“That's right. What's known today as the Nanjing Massacre. After a hard-fought battle, Japanese troops occupied the city, and many people were killed. Some died in the fighting, others after the fighting ended. The Japanese army lacked the means to keep prisoners, so they killed the Chinese soldiers who surrendered as well as thousands of civilians. Historians disagree on exactly how many died, but no one can deny that a massive number of noncombatants were sucked into the conflict and lost their lives. Some say 400,000, others 100,000. But what difference is there really between 400,000 lives and 100,000?”
He had me on that one.
“So Nanjing fell in December, and many were killed. But what does that have to do with what happened to Tomohiko Amada in Vienna?” I asked.
“I'm getting to that,” Menshiki said. “The Anti-Comintern Pact was signed by Japan and Germany in November of 1936, cementing their alliance, but Vienna and Nanjing were so far apart it's doubtful much news about Japan's war in China was getting through to Vienna. In fact, however, Tomohiko Amada's younger brother, Tsuguhiko, had been part of the assault on Nanjing as a private in the Japanese army. He had been drafted and assigned to one of the units fighting there. He was twenty, and a full-time student at the Tokyo Music School, now the Faculty of Music at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He studied the piano.”
“That's strange,” I said. “To my knowledge, full-time university students were exempt from the draft at that time.”
“You're absolutely right. Full-time students were given a deferment until graduation. Yet for some reason Tsuguhiko was drafted and sent to China. In any case, he was inducted in June of 1937 and spent the next twelve months as a private second-class in the army. He was living in Tokyo, but his birth was registered in Kumamoto, so he was assigned to the 6th Division based there. That much is documented. After basic training, he was sent to China, and participated in the December assault on Nanjing. He was demobilized in June of the following year, and was expected to return to the conservatory.”
I waited for Menshiki to continue.
“Not long after his discharge, however, Tsuguhiko Amada took his own life. He slit his wrists with a razor in the attic of the family home, which was where they found him. Right around the end of summer.”
Slit his wrists in the attic?
“If it was toward the end of summer in 1938â¦then Tomohiko was still an exchange student in Vienna when his brother Tsuguhiko slit his wrists, right?”
“That's correct. He didn't return home for the funeral. Commercial air travel was still in its infancy. You could only travel between Austria and Japan by rail and ship. There was no way he could have made it back in time.”
“Are you suggesting that there's a connection between Tomohiko's involvement in the failed assassination and his brother's suicide? They seem to have happened almost simultaneously.”
“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Menshiki said. “That's in the realm of conjecture. What I'm reporting to you now are the facts our investigation was able to uncover.”
“Did Tomohiko Amada have any other siblings?”
“There was an older brother. Tomohiko was the second son. Tsuguhiko was the third and last. The manner of his death was concealed, though, to protect the family's honor. Kumamoto's 6th Division was celebrated as a band of fearless warriors. If word had gotten out that their son had returned from the battlefield bathed in glory only to turn around and kill himself, they could not have faced the world. Still, as you know, rumors have a way of spreading.”
I thanked Menshiki for updating me. Though what the new information meant in concrete terms escaped me.
“I'm planning to dig a bit deeper into this,” he said. “I'll let you know if we turn up something more.”
“So then I'll stop by next Sunday shortly after noon,” Menshiki said. “I'll drive the Akikawas over to my place. To show them your painting. That's okay with you, right?”
“Of course. The painting is yours now. You're free to show it or not to whomever you like.”
Menshiki paused. As if searching for just the right words. “To tell you the honest truth,” he said. “Sometimes I'm very envious of you.” There was resignation in his voice.
Envious? Of me?
What could he possibly be talking about? Why would Menshiki envy me? It made no sense. He had everything, while I had nothing to my name.
“What could you possibly be envious about?” I asked.
“I see you as the kind of person who doesn't really envy anyone. Am I right?”
I thought for a moment before replying. “You have a point. I don't think I've ever envied another person.”
“That's what I'm trying to say.”
All the same, I don't have Yuzu, I thought. She had left me for the arms of another man. There were times I felt abandoned at the edge of the world. Yet even then I felt no envy toward that other man. Did that make me strange?
After our phone call, I sat on the sofa and thought about Tomohiko Amada's brother slitting his wrists in the attic. It wasn't the attic of this house, that was for sure. Tomohiko had bought this place after the war. No, Tsuguhiko Amada had committed suicide in the attic of their family home. In Aso, no doubt. Nevertheless, the brother's death and the painting
might be connected by that dark, secret room above the ceiling. Sure, it might have been pure coincidence. Or perhaps Tomohiko had his brother in mind when he hid the painting in the attic here. Still, why was Tsuguhiko compelled to take his own life so soon after returning from the front? After all, he had survived the bloody conflict in China and come home with all his limbs intact.
I picked up the phone and dialed Masahiko's number.
“Let's get together in Tokyo,” I said. “I have to visit the art supply shop soon to stock up on paints. Maybe we could meet and talk then.”
“Sure thing,” he said, checking his schedule. Thursday just after noon was best for him, so we arranged to have lunch together.
“The art supply store in Yotsuya, correct?”
“That's the one. I've got to pick up fresh canvases, too, and I'm running out of linseed oil. It'll be quite a load, so I'll take the car.”
“There's a quiet restaurant not far from my office. We could have a nice relaxed chat over lunch.”
“By the way,” I said, “divorce papers from Yuzu came in the mail, so I signed and returned them. It looks like our divorce will become official pretty soon.”
“Is that so,” Masahiko said in a subdued voice.
“What can you do? It was just a matter of time.”
“Still, from where I stand it's a real shame. You guys seemed like such a good match.”
“It was great as long as things were going well,” I said. Just like an old-model Jaguar. A wonderful ride until the problems start.
“So what will you do now?”
“No big changes. Just keep on as I am for the time being. Can't think of what else to do.”
“Are you painting?”
“Yeah, I've got a couple of paintings I'm working on. Not sure what will happen with them, but at least I'm at it.”
“That's the way to go.” Masahiko hesitated before adding, “I'm glad you called. There's something I want to discuss with you as well.”
“It's just the factsâI can't say if they're good or bad.”
“Does it have to do with Yuzu?”
“It's hard to talk about over the phone.”
“Okay, on Thursday then.”
I ended the call and walked out to the terrace. The rain had stopped, and the cool night air was clear and bracing. I could see stars peeping from the cracks between the clouds. They looked like scattered crystals of ice. Hard crystals, millions of years old, never melting. Hard to their very core. Across the valley, Menshiki's house glimmered in the cool light of its lanterns.
As I looked at his house, I thought of trust, respect, and etiquette. Especially etiquette. As I expected, though, none of those thoughts led me to any definite conclusions.
It turned out to be a long haul from my mountaintop perch on the outskirts of Odawara to downtown Tokyo. I took several wrong turns en route, which ate up a lot of time. My old used car had no navigation system or electronic pass for the highway tolls. (I guess I should have been grateful it came with a cup holder!) It took me ages to find the Odawara-Atsugi Road, and when I moved from the Tomei Expressway onto the Metropolitan Expressway it was jammed, so I opted to get off at the Shibuya exit and drive to Yotsuya via Aoyama Avenue. Even the city roads were crowded, thoughâjust choosing the correct lane was a huge pain in the ass. Parking the car wasn't easy, either. It seems as if, year after year, the world becomes a more difficult place to live.
By the time I picked up what I needed at the art supply store, loaded it into the trunk, drove to Masahiko Amada's office in Aoyama, and found a parking spot, I was exhausted. I felt like the country mouse visiting his city cousin. When I reached his office it was past one by my watch, which meant I was more than a half hour late.
I asked the receptionist to call Masahiko. He came right down. I apologized for being so tardy.
“Don't worry about it,” he laughed. “My office can adjust, and so can the restaurant.”
Masahiko took me to an Italian place in the neighborhood, located in the basement of a small building. Masahiko was obviously well known there, for no sooner had they seen his face than we were guided to a private room in the back. It was very quiet: the sound of voices did not reach us and no music was playing. A quite passable landscape painting hung on the wall. It showed a white lighthouse on a green peninsula under a blue sky. Super-ordinary scene, sure, but done well enough to let the viewer think, “Hey, that place might be nice to check out.”
Masahiko ordered a glass of white wine, while I asked for Perrier.
“I've got to drive back after this,” I explained. “It's quite a trek.”
“No kidding,” said Masahiko. “Still, it's a heck of a lot better than Hayama or Zushi. I lived in Hayama once, and driving back and forth to Tokyo in the summer was awful. The whole route was jammed with people heading to the ocean from the city. A round trip was a half day's work. Compared to that, driving in from Odawara is nothing.”
The menus arrived and we ordered the prix fixe lunch: prosciutto as appetizer followed by asparagus salad and spaghetti with Japanese lobster.
“So you finally decided to do some serious painting,” Masahiko said.
“Well, I'm living alone now, and I don't need commissions to get by. Maybe that's why the urge to paint my own stuff hit me.”
Masahiko nodded. “Everything has a bright side,” he said. “The top of even the blackest, thickest cloud shines like silver.”
“Yeah, but getting up there to see it is no picnic.”
“I was speaking more theoretically,” Masahiko said.
“I think living on top of a mountain may be affecting me too. It's the perfect spot to focus on my art.”
“Yeah, when no one's there to distract you and it's that quiet, you can really concentrate. A more normal person might get a bit lonely, but I figured you're the kind of guy who can handle it.”
The door opened and the appetizer was brought in. We fell quiet as the plates were laid out.
“I think the studio has a lot to do with it as well,” I said once the waiter had gone. “There's something about being in that room that makes me want to paint. At times it feels like the center of the whole house.”
“If the house were human, it'd be the heart, perhaps.”
“Yeah, or the consciousness.”
“Body and Mind,”
Masahiko said in English. “To tell the truth, though, it's hard for me to spend time in his studio.
smell has sunk in too deep. I can still feel him in the air. When I was a boy, he'd isolate himself in that room almost all day, painting away without a word to anyone. It was his sanctum, off-limits to a kid like me. I tend to steer clear of the studio when I'm there, even now. You should be careful too.”
“Be careful? Why?”
“So you don't become possessed by his spirit. It's a strong one.”
“Maybe âpsychic energy' is a better term. Or âflow of being.' His is intense enough to sweep you away. At any rate, when someone like him spends a long time in a particular place, it soaks in his aura. Like particles of smell.”
“And that's what could possess me?”
“Maybe âpossessed' isn't the best way to put it. âAbsorb his influence,' perhaps? It's like he invested that room with some special
“I wonder. I'm only looking after his home, and I never met him. So maybe it won't weigh on me as much.”
“You're probably right,” Masahiko said. He took a sip of white wine. “Being related to him may make me more sensitive to those things. And if it turns out that his âaura' inspires you in your work, so much the better.”
“So how's he doing these days?”
“Nothing in particular is wrong with him. He's past ninety, so I can't say he's the picture of health, and his mind is confused, but he can still manage to get around with a cane, his appetite's fine, and his eyes and teeth are in good shape. You know, his teeth are better than mineânever had a cavity!”
“How bad is his memory? Can he recall anything?”
“Not a whole lot. He doesn't recognize me. He's lost the concept of family, of father and son. Even the distinction between himself and other people may have blurred. Still, maybe it's easier when those things are swept away, and you don't have to think about them anymore.”
I sipped my slender glass of Perrier and nodded. So Tomohiko Amada had forgotten even his son's face. Memories of student days in Vienna must have set sail for the far shore of forgetfulness some time ago.
“All the same, what I called his âflow of being' is still strong,” Masahiko said, as if in wonder. “It's strange: he remembers almost nothing, but his will is the same as always. It's obvious when you look at him. That psychic power is what makes him who he is. I feel a bit guilty sometimes that I didn't inherit that temperament, but there's nothing I can do about it. We're all born with different abilities. Being linked to someone by blood doesn't mean you have similar gifts.”
I looked in his face. It was rare to see Masahiko bare his true feelings.
“It must be awfully hard to have such a famous father,” I said. “I can't even imagine what it's like. My dad was nothing special, just a small businessman.”
“There are some benefits to having a famous father, but there are times that it really sucks. I think the latter are a bit more frequent, actually. You're lucky you don't have to deal with that. You're free to be who you want.”
“You look like the one with a free life.”
“In a sense,” Masahiko said. He turned his wineglass around in his hand. “But in another sense, no.”
Masahiko possessed a keen artistic sensibility of his own. He had taken a job with a medium-sized ad agency after finishing school. By now, his salary had increased, and he looked for all the world like a bachelor enjoying everything city life had to offer. I had no way of knowing if that was true, however.
“I was hoping to ask you a few things about your father,” I said, broaching the reason for my visit.
“What sort of things? You know, I really don't know that much about him.”
“I heard that he had a younger brother named Tsuguhiko.”
“Yeah, that's true. That would be my uncle, I guess. But he died a long time ago. Before Pearl Harbor.”
“I heard he committed suicide.”
A shadow passed across Masahiko's face. “That's supposed to be a family secret, but it happened so long ago, and part of it's public knowledge now anyway. So I guess it's okay to tell you. He cut his wrists with a razor. He was only twenty.”
“What made him do it?”
“Why do you want to know something like that?”
“I've been trying to learn more about your father. I stumbled across your uncle's story when I was looking through some documents.”
“You want to learn more about my father?”
“I wanted to learn more about his paintings, but as I looked at his career I became more and more interested in his personal life. I'd like to know the kind of man he was.”
Masahiko studied my face from across the table. “All right,” he said. “You've taken an interest in my father's life. There may be some significance in that. Living in that house has created some sort of bond between the two of you.”
He took a swallow of white wine before launching into his story.
“My uncle, Tsuguhiko Amada, was a student at the Tokyo Music School back then. A talented pianist, they say. He loved Chopin and Debussy, and high hopes were held for his future. Forgive me for sounding arrogant, but artistic talent seems to run in our family. To varying degrees, of course. However, in the midst of his studies my uncle was drafted. He should have received a student deferment, but his papers had been mishandled when he enrolled in the conservatory. If those forms had been properly filed, he could have put off military service until graduation, and probably avoided it altogether. My grandfather was a big landowner in the area, and influential in political circles. But there was a slip-up in the paperwork. It came as a great shock to my uncle. But once the system grinds into motion there's not a whole lot anyone can do to stop it. Protest was futile: the army grabbed him, gave him his basic training in Japan, and then loaded him onto a troop transport and shipped him off to Hangzhou. At the time, his elder brother Tomohikoâin other words, my fatherâwas studying painting under a famous artist in Vienna.”
I didn't say anything.
“Everyone knew that my uncle wasn't cut out for the rugged life of a soldier or the carnage of the battlefieldâhe was a high-strung young man, and physically weak. To make matters worse, the young men of southern Kyushu who made up the 6th Division were a rough group, known for their violence. My father agonized over the news that his brother had been drafted and sent off to war. My father was egotistic and highly competitive, a typical second son, but his younger brother was shy and retiring, the somewhat pampered baby of the family. As a pianist, he had to be careful to protect his hands. Even as a child, my father learned to look out for his little brother, who was three years younger, and shield him from the outside world. It became second nature to himâhe was his brother's protector. But all he could do in faraway Vienna was sit and fret. The only information he got came in his brother's letters from the front.
“Of course those letters were strictly censored, but the two brothers were so close that the elder could read the younger's feelings between the lines. Moreover, the true meaning of those lines was skillfully camouflaged, so only he could figure it out. My uncle's regiment had fought their way from Shanghai to Nanjing, engaging in fierce battles in the towns and cities en route, and leaving a trail of murder and plunder in their wake. Those bloody events left my high-strung uncle with deep emotional scars.
“One of my uncle's letters described a beautiful pipe organ they had come across in a church in occupied Nanjing. It had survived the fighting in perfect shape. For some unfathomable reason, though, the long description of the organ that followed had been inked out. What military secrets could an organ in a Christian church possibly have compromised? The standards used by the censor attached to their regiment were impossible to fathom. As a matter of fact, it was common for him to black out the most innocuous and unthreatening passages of a letter while overlooking the parts that really might have put troops at risk. As a consequence, my father was left in the dark as to whether his brother had been able to play that organ or not.
“Uncle Tsuguhiko's year in the army ended in June of 1938,” Masahiko continued. “Although he had arranged to reenter the conservatory right after his return, he went back to Kyushu instead and committed suicide in the attic of the family home. He sharpened a straight razor to a fine edge and slit his wrists. It must have taken tremendous resolve for a pianist to do that to his hands. I mean, if he had survived, he might never have been able to play again, right? They found him in a pool of blood. The fact that he had killed himself was kept a deep, dark secret. To the world, the official cause of death was heart failure or something like that.
“In fact, though, it was clear to everyone why Uncle Tsuguhiko had taken his own lifeâhis war experience had ruined his nerves, and wrecked him psychologically. I mean, here was a delicate young man of twenty, whose entire world was playing the piano, thrown into the bloodbath of the Nanjing campaign, surrounded by heaps of corpses. Today we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, but that phraseâeven that conceptâwas unknown then. In that deeply militaristic society, people like my uncle were dismissed as lacking courage, or patriotism, or strength of character. In wartime Japan, such âweakness' was neither understood nor accepted. So the family buried what had happened, as evidence of their shame.”
“Did he leave a suicide note?” I asked.
“Yes, they found a personal testament in his desk drawer. It was quite long, closer to a memoir, really. In it, Uncle Tsuguhiko recorded his war experiences in excruciating detail. The only people who saw it were his parentsâmy grandparents, in other wordsâhis eldest brother, and my father. When my father returned from Vienna and read it, he burned it while the other three watched.”
I waited for him to go on.
“My father kept his lips sealed about what that testament contained,” Masahiko continued. “It was the family's darkest secret: to use a metaphor, it was nailed shut, weighted with heavy stones, and sent to the bottom of the ocean. However, my father did tell me the gist of what was in it once, when he was drunk. I was in grade school, and it was the first time I learned that I had an uncle who committed suicide. To this day, I have no idea whether it was the alcohol that loosened my father's lips, or if he figured that I had to hear the story at some point.”