Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (7 page)

Underneath the layers of wrapping paper was a painting in a simple frame, wrapped in a soft white cloth like bleached cotton. I gently lifted off that cloth, as carefully as if I were removing the bandages from a burn victim.

What was revealed under the white cloth was, as expected, a Japanese-style painting. A long, rectangular painting. I stood it up on a shelf, stood back a bit, and studied it.

It was Tomohiko Amada's work, no doubt about it. Clearly done in his style and inimitable technique, with his signature bold use of space and dynamic composition. The painting depicted men and women dressed in the fashions of the Asuka period, the clothes and hairstyles of that age. But the painting startled me nonetheless. What it depicted was so violent it took my breath away.

As far as I knew, Tomohiko Amada hardly ever painted pictures that were harsh and violent. Maybe never. His paintings mostly summoned up feelings of nostalgia, gentleness, and peace. Occasionally they would take up historical events as his theme, but the people depicted in them generally faded away into the overall composition. They were shown as part of a close community in the midst of the abundant natural scenery of ancient times, esteeming harmony above all. Ego was submerged in the collective will, or absorbed into a calm fate. And the circle of life was quietly drawn closed. For Tomohiko Amada that very well may have been utopia. Over the years he continued to depict that world from all sorts of angles, all sorts of perspectives. Many called his style a “rejection of modernity” or a “return to antiquity.” Of course there were some who criticized it as escapist. In any case, after he returned to Japan from studying in Vienna he abandoned modernist oil painting, and shut himself away inside that kind of serene world, without a single word of explanation or justification.

But this painting titled
Killing Commendatore
was full of blood. Realistic blood flowing all over. Two men were fighting with heavy, ancient swords, in what seemed to be a duel. One of the men fighting was young, the other old. The young man had plunged his sword deep into the old man's chest. The young man had a thin black mustache and wore tight-fitting light-greenish clothes. The old man was dressed in white and had a lush white beard. Around his neck was a necklace of beads. He had dropped his sword, which had not yet struck the ground. Blood was spewing from his chest. The tip of the sword must have pierced his aorta. The blood had soaked his white clothes, and his mouth was twisted in agony. His eyes were wide open, staring in disbelief into space. He realized he was defeated. But the real pain had yet to hit him.

For his part, the young man's eyes were cold, fixed on his opponent. Not a sign of regret in those eyes, not a hint of confusion or fear, or a trace of agitation. Totally composed, those eyes were simply watching the impending death of another, and his own unmistakable victory. The gushing blood was nothing more than proof of that, and elicited no emotional reaction whatsoever.

Honestly, until then I had thought of Japanese-style paintings as static and formulaic, their techniques and subject matter ill-suited to the expression of strong emotion. A world that had nothing to do with me. But looking now at Tomohiko Amada's
Killing Commendatore
I realized that had been nothing but prejudice on my part. In Amada's depiction of the two men's violent duel to the death was something that shook the viewer to the core. The man who won, the man who lost. The man who stabbed and the man who was stabbed. My heart was captured by the discrepancy. There is something very special about this painting, I thought.

There were a few other figures nearby watching the duel. One was a young woman. She had on refined, pure white clothes. Her hair was done up, with a large hair ornament. She held one hand in front of her mouth, which was slightly parted. She looked like she was about to take a deep breath and let out a scream. Her lovely eyes were wide open.

And there was another young man there. His clothes were not as splendid. Dark clothes, bereft of any ornaments, the kind of outfit designed to be easy to move around in. On his feet were plain-looking zori sandals. He looked like a servant. He had no long sword, just a short sword hanging from his waist. He was short and thickset, with a scraggly beard. In his left hand he held a kind of account book, like a clipboard that a company employee nowadays might have. His right hand was reaching out in the air as if to grab something. But it couldn't grab anything. You couldn't tell from the painting if he was the servant of the old man, or of the young man, or of the woman. One thing that was clear, though, was that this duel had taken place quickly, and neither the woman nor the servant had expected it to happen. Both of their faces revealed an unmistakable shock at the sudden turn of events.

The only one of the four who wasn't surprised was the young man doing the killing. Probably nothing ever took him by surprise. He was not a born killer, and he didn't enjoy killing. But if it served his purpose he wouldn't hesitate to kill. He was young, burning with idealism (though of what kind I have no idea), a man overflowing with strength. And he was skilled in the art of wielding a sword. Seeing an old man past his prime dying by his hand didn't surprise him. It was, in fact, a natural, rational act.

There was one other person there, an odd observer. The man was at the bottom left of the painting, much like a footnote in a text. His head was peeking out from a lid in the ground that he had partially pushed open. The lid was square, and made of boards. It reminded me of the attic cover in this house. The shape and size were identical. From there the man was watching the people on the surface.

A hole opening up to the surface? A square manhole? No way. They didn't have sewers back in the Asuka period. And the duel was taking place outdoors, in an empty vacant lot. The only thing visible in the background was a pine tree, with low-hanging branches. Why would there be a hole with a cover there, in the middle of a vacant lot? It didn't make any sense.

The man who was sticking his head out of the hole was weird looking. He had an unusually long face, like a twisted eggplant. His face was overgrown with a black beard, his hair long and tangled. He looked like some sort of vagabond or hermit who'd abandoned the world. In a way he also looked like someone who'd lost his mind. But the glint in his eyes was surprisingly sharp, insightful, even. That said, the insight there wasn't the product of reason, but rather something induced by a sort of deviance—perhaps something akin to madness. I couldn't tell the details of what he was wearing, since all that I could see was from the neck up. He, too, was watching the duel. But unlike the others, he showed no surprise at the turn of events. He was a mere observer of something that was supposed to take place, as if checking all the details of the incident, just to be sure. The young woman and the servant weren't aware of the man with the long face behind them. Their eyes were riveted on the bloody duel. No one was about to turn around.

But who
this person? And why was he hiding beneath the ground back in ancient times? What was Tomohiko Amada's purpose in deliberately including this uncanny, mysterious figure in one corner of the painting, and thus forcibly destroying the balance of the overall composition?

And why in the world was this painting given the title
Killing Commendatore
? True, an apparently high-ranking person was being killed in the picture. But that old man in his ancient garb certainly didn't deserve to be called a commendatore—a knight commander. That was a title clearly from the European Middle Ages or the early modern period. There was no position like that in Japanese history. But still Tomohiko Amada gave it this strange-sounding title—
Killing Commendatore
. There had to be a

The term “commendatore” sparked a faint memory. I'd heard the word before. I followed that trace of memory, as if tugging a thin thread toward me. I'd run across the word in a novel or drama. And it was a famous work. I knew I'd seen it somewhere…

And then it hit me. Mozart's opera
Don Giovanni
. In the beginning of that opera was a scene, I was sure, of
Killing Commendatore
. I went over to the shelf of records in the living room, took out the boxed set of
Don Giovanni
, and read through the accompanying commentary. And sure enough, the person killed in the opening scene was the Commendatore. He didn't have a name. He was simply listed as “Commendatore.”

The libretto was in Italian, and the old man killed in the beginning was called
Il Commendatore
. Whoever translated the libretto into Japanese had rendered it as
—literally, “the knight commander”—and that had become the standard term in Japanese. I had no clue what sort of rank or position the term “commendatore” referred to in reality. The commentary in a few other boxed sets didn't elaborate. He was merely a nameless commendatore appearing in the opera with the sole function of being stabbed to death by Don Giovanni in the opening of the opera. And in the end he transformed into an ominous statue that appeared to Don Giovanni and took him down to hell.

Pretty obvious, if you think about it, I thought. The handsome young man in this painting is the rake Don Giovanni (Don Juan in Spanish) and the older man being killed is the honored knight commander. The young woman is the Commendatore's beautiful daughter Donna Anna, the servant is Don Giovanni's man, Leporello. What he had in his hands was the detailed list of all the women Don Giovanni had seduced up until then, a lengthy catalog of names. Don Giovanni had forced himself on Donna Anna, and when her father confronted him with this violation, they had a duel, and Don Giovanni stabbed the older man to death. It's a famous scene. Why hadn't I picked up on that?

Probably because Mozart's opera and a Japanese-style painting depicting the Asuka period were so remote from each other. So of course I hadn't been able to make the connection. But once I did, everything fell into place. Tomohiko Amada had “adapted” the world of Mozart's opera into the Asuka period. A fascinating experiment, for sure. That, I recognized. But why was that adaptation
? It was so very different from his usual style of painting. And why did he tightly wrap the painting and hide it away in the attic?

And what was the significance of that figure in the bottom left, the man with the long face sticking his head out from underground? In Mozart's
Don Giovanni
no one like that appeared. There must have been a reason Tomohiko Amada had added him. Also in the opera Donna Anna didn't actually witness her father being stabbed to death. She was off asking her lover, the knight Don Ottavio, for help. By the time they got back to the scene, her father had already breathed his last. Amada had—no doubt for dramatic purposes—subtly changed the way the scene played out. But there was no way the man sticking his head out of the ground was Don Ottavio. That man's features weren't anything found in this world. It was impossible that this was the upright, righteous knight who could help Donna Anna.

Was he a demon from hell? Scouting out the situation in anticipation of dragging Don Giovanni down to hell? But he didn't look like a demon or devil. A demon wouldn't have such strangely sparkling eyes. A devil wouldn't push a square wooden lid up and peek out. The figure more resembled a trickster who had come to intervene. “Long Face” is what I called him, for lack of a better term.


For a few weeks I just silently stared at that painting. With it in front of me, I couldn't bring myself to do any painting of my own. I barely even felt like eating. I'd grab whatever vegetables were in the fridge, dip them in mayo, and chew on that, or else heat up a can of whatever I had on hand. That's about the size of it. All day long I'd sit on the floor of the studio, endlessly listening to the record of
Don Giovanni
, staring enthralled at
Killing Commendatore
. When the sun set, I'd have a glass of wine.

The painting was amazing. As far as I knew, though, it wasn't reprinted in any collection of Amada's work, which meant no one else knew it existed. If it were made public it would no doubt become one of his best-known paintings. If they held a retrospective of his art, it wouldn't be surprising if this was the painting used on the promotional poster. This wasn't simply a painting that was wonderfully done, though. The painting was brimming with an extraordinary sort of energy. Anyone with even a little knowledge of art couldn't miss that fact. There was something in this painting that appealed to the deepest part of the viewer's heart, something suggestive that enticed the imagination to another realm.

I couldn't take my eyes off the bearded Long Face on the left side of the painting. It felt like he'd opened the lid to invite me, personally, to the world underground. No one else, just
. I couldn't stop thinking about what sort of realm lay beneath. Where in the world had he come from? And what did he do there? Would that lid be closed up again, or would it be left open?

As I stared at the painting I listened to that scene from
Don Giovanni
over and over. Act 1, scene 3, soon after the overture. And I nearly memorized the lyrics and the lines.

Ah, the assassin

has struck him down! This blood…

this wound…his face

discolored with the pallor of death…

He has stopped breathing…his limbs are cold.

Oh father, dear father, dearest father!

I'm fainting…I'm dying!


Summer was winding down when the call came in from my agent. It had been a while since anyone had called me. The summer heat still lingered during the day, though when the sun set the air in the mountains was chilly. The noisy clamor of the summer cicadas was slowly fading away, but now a chorus of other insects had taken their place. Unlike when I lived in the city, I was surrounded by nature now and one season freely chipped away at portions of the preceding one.

We brought each other up to date, though there wasn't much to tell on my end.

“How's your painting coming along?” he asked.

“Slowly but surely,” I said. This was a lie, of course. It was more than four months since I'd moved here, yet the canvas I'd prepared was still blank.

“Glad to hear it,” he said. “I'd like to see how you're doing sometime. Maybe there's something I can do to help out.”

“Thanks. We'll do that sometime.”

Then he told me why he'd called. “I have a request. Are you sure you're not willing to do one more portrait? What do you think?”

“I told you I've given up doing portraits.”

“I know. But the fee this time is unbelievable.”


“It's amazing.”

“How amazing?”

He told me the figure. I nearly let out a whistle of surprise. “There have got to be a lot of other people besides me who specialize in portraits,” I replied calmly.

“There aren't all that many, really, though there are a few besides you who are fairly decent.”

“Then you should ask them. With a fee like that anybody would jump at the chance.”

“The thing is, the other party specifically asked for
. That's their condition. No one else will do.”

I shifted the phone to my left hand and scratched behind my right ear.

The agent went on. “The person saw several portraits you've done and was very impressed. He felt that the vitality in your paintings can't easily be found elsewhere.”

“I don't get it. How could an ordinary person have seen
of my portraits? It's not like I have a one-man show at a gallery every year.”

“I really don't know the details,” he said, sounding perplexed. “I'm just passing along what the other party told me. I told him up front that you were no longer doing portraits. I said you seemed pretty firm about it, and even if I asked you you'd most likely turn him down. But he wouldn't give up. That's when this figure came up.”

I mulled over the offer. Honestly, it was a tempting amount. And I felt a bit of pride that someone saw that much value in my paintings—even if it was work I'd done half mechanically for money. But the thing was, I'd sworn I'd never paint commissioned portraits again. When my wife left me it spurred me to start over again, and I couldn't reverse my decision just because somebody was willing to shell out a pile of money.

“Why is he being so generous?” I asked.

“Even though we're in a recession, there are still people who have so much money they don't know what to do with it. There are a lot of people like that—ones who made a killing in online stock trading, or tech entrepreneurs. And getting a portrait done is something they can write off as a business expense.”

“Write off?”

“In their accounts a portrait isn't included as a work of art but as office equipment.”

“Talk about heartwarming,” I said.

But even if they have tons of excess cash, and even if they can write it off as a business expense, I can't see entrepreneurs or people who've made a fortune trading stocks online wanting to have their portraits painted and hung on their company walls as
. Most of these are young people decked out at work in faded jeans, sneakers, worn T-shirts, and Banana Republic jackets, proud to be drinking Starbucks from a paper cup. An imposing oil portrait didn't fit their lifestyle. But there are all kinds in the world. You can't generalize. It's not necessarily true that no one wants to be painted sipping Starbucks (or whatever) coffee (Fair Trade beans only, of course) from a paper cup.

“But there's one condition,” the agent said. “The other party wants you to use the client as a live model, and paint when you're actually together. They'll make the time to do that.”

“But I don't work that way.”

“I know. You meet the client but don't have them model for you. That's your way of working. I told them that. They said they understood but they'd like you to make an exception and paint the client live and in person. That's the other party's condition.”

“What's the purpose?”

“I don't know.”

“That's a pretty odd request. Why would they insist on that? You'd think they'd be happy not to actually have to sit for the portrait.”

“I agree it's unconventional. But it's hard to complain about the fee.”

“I'm with you there—hard to complain about the fee,” I agreed.

“It's all up to you. It's not like you're being asked to sell your soul or anything. You're a very skilled portrait painter, and they're counting on that skill.”

“I feel like a retired hit man in the mob,” I said. “Like I'm being asked to whack one more target.”

“Though no blood's going to be shed. What do you say—will you do it?”

No blood's going to be shed
, I silently repeated. The painting
Killing Commendatore
came to mind.

“What sort of person is the one I'd paint?” I asked.

“Actually, I don't know.”

“You don't even know if it's a man or a woman?”

“I don't. I haven't heard a thing about the sex or age or name. At this point he's a totally faceless client. A lawyer saying he was representing the client called me. That's the ‘other party' I spoke with about it.”

“Do you think it's legit?”

“I don't see anything suspect about it. The lawyer works at a reputable firm and said they'll transfer an advance as soon as you accept.”

Phone in hand, I sighed. “This is kind of sudden, and I don't think I can give you an answer right away. I need time to think.”

“Understood. Think about it as long as you need. It's not an urgent job, the other party said.”

I thanked him and hung up. I couldn't think of anything else to do so I went to the studio, turned on the light, plunked myself down on the floor, and stared vaguely at
Killing Commendatore
. After a while I started to get hungry and went to the kitchen, piled a plate with Ritz Crackers and ketchup, and went back to the studio. I dipped the crackers in the ketchup and munched them as I went back to staring at the painting. Nothing about that food tasted good. It was, if anything, pretty awful. But taste wasn't the issue. Keeping hunger at bay for a while was the priority.

That's how much the painting drew me in, from the overall composition to the small details. It truly held me captive. After a few weeks of exhaustive gazing at the painting, I ventured closer to it to inspect each detail. What most caught my attention were the expressions on each of the five people's faces. I did minute pencil sketches of each of them. From the Commendatore, to Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Leporello, and Long Face. Just like a reader might carefully copy down in a notebook each word and phrase he liked in a book.

This was the first time I'd ever sketched figures from a Japanese-style painting, and it was far more difficult than I'd expected. Japanese painting emphasized lines, and tended to be more flat than three-dimensional. Symbolism was emphasized over reality. It's inherently impossible to transfer a painting done from that perspective into the grammar of Western painting, though after much trial and error I was able to do a fairly decent job of it. Calling it “recasting” might be a bit much
but it was necessary to interpret and translate the painting in my own way. Which necessitated grasping the intent that went into the original painting. I had to come to an understanding of Tomohiko Amada, his viewpoint as an artist, and the kind of person he was. Figuratively speaking, I had to put myself in his shoes.

After I'd done this for a while, the thought struck me: maybe doing a portrait again wasn't such a bad idea. I mean, my painting wasn't going anywhere. I couldn't even get a hint of what I should paint, or what I wanted to paint. Even if I wasn't too keen on the job, getting my hands moving again wouldn't be a bad thing. If I kept on like this, unable to draw a thing, I might find myself unable to paint ever again.
Maybe I wouldn't even be able to paint a portrait.
The fee, of course, was also pretty tempting. My living expenses at this point were minimal, but my pay from the art classes wasn't enough to cover them. I'd gone on that long trip, bought a used Corolla station wagon, and my savings were diminishing. So a sizable fee like the one I'd get from doing the portrait was, admittedly, very appealing.

I called my agent and told him that just this one time, I would take on the job. Naturally, he was happy to hear this.

“But if I have to paint the client in person, that means I need to travel to wherever he is,” I said.

“No need to worry about that. The other party will come to your place in Odawara.”

“To Odawara?”

“That's right.”

“He knows where I'm living?”

“He apparently lives nearby. He even knows that you're living in Tomohiko Amada's place.”

This left me speechless. “That's strange. Hardly anybody knows I'm living here. Especially that I'm in Amada's house.”

“I didn't know that either,” the agent said.

“Then how does that person know?”

“I have no idea. But you can find out just about anything from the Internet these days. For people who know their way around it, privacy is a thing of the past.”

“Is it just a coincidence that that person lives near me? Or was the fact that I live nearby one of the reasons he chose me?”

“That, I couldn't say. When you meet the client, if there's something you want to know, you can ask.”

“I'll do that,” I said.

“So when can you start?” he asked.

“Anytime,” I said.

“All right, I'll let them know, and get back to you,” the agent said.

After I hung up I went out to the terrace, settled into the lounge chair, and thought about how things had turned out. The more I mulled it over, the more questions I had. First off, it bothered me that the client knew I was living here, in this house. It was like I was under surveillance, with somebody watching my every move. But why would anyone have that much interest in a person like me? Plus the whole thing sounded too good to be true. The portraits I'd done were certainly well received. And I had a certain amount of confidence in them. But these were, ultimately, the kind of portraits you could find anywhere. No way could you ever call them “works of art.” And as far as the world was concerned I was a completely unknown artist. No matter how many of my paintings someone had seen and liked (not that I accepted that story at face value), would that person really shell out such an enormous fee?

A thought suddenly struck me, out of nowhere: Could the client be the husband of the woman I was having an affair with? I had no proof to go on, yet the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a real possibility. When it came to an anonymous neighbor who was interested in me, that's all I could come up with. But why would her husband go to the trouble and expense of paying a huge fee to have his wife's lover paint his own portrait? It didn't add up. Unless he was some weird pervert or something.

Fine. If that's how things are working out, then just go with the flow. If the client has some hidden agenda, just let it play out. That was a much more sensible thing to do than remaining as I was, stuck, deadlocked in the mountains. Curiosity was also a factor. What kind of person
this client? What did he want from me in exchange for the huge fee? I had to discover what motivated him.

Once I'd made up my mind I felt relieved. That night, for the first time in a while, I fell into a deep sleep right away, with no thoughts buzzing around in my head. At one point I felt like I heard the rustling of the horned owl in the middle of the night. But that might have just been a piece of a fragmentary dream.

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