Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (6 page)

I turned the pages and followed along, in chronological order, to see how he shifted gears to become a painter of Japanese-style art. In his early period these works were still a bit awkward, imitating the methods of previous artists, but then gradually, and undeniably, he discovered his own unique style. I could see how it progressed. A bit of trial and error at times, but no hesitation. After he took up painting Japanese-style art, his works all had something unique that only he could paint, and he himself was well aware of this. He always strode confidently toward the core of that special
something
. No more did you get the impression, as with his Western paintings, of something missing. It was less a shift and more akin to a conversion.

—

Like most artists of Japanese-style paintings, at first Tomohiko Amada painted realistic scenery and flowers, but eventually (and there must have been some motive for this) he began painting scenes from ancient Japan. Some were themes from the Heian and Kamakura periods, but what he was most fond of was the Asuka period at the beginning of the seventh century, specifically the period when Prince Shotoku Taishi, the legendary regent, was alive…On his canvases he boldly, minutely, reproduced the scenery, historical events, and lives of the people of that period. Naturally he had never witnessed those scenes in reality with his own eyes. But with his inner eye he
saw
them, clearly and vividly. Why he chose the Asuka period, I have no idea. But that became his own special period, done in an inimitable style. And with the passage of time his technique in painting Japanese-style paintings became even more refined.

If you pay close attention you can see that from a certain point on he painted exactly what he wanted to paint. From then on his brush seemed to freely leap across the canvas. The wonderful part about his paintings was the use of blank space. Paradoxically, the best part was what was
not
depicted. By not painting certain things he clearly accentuated what he
did
want to paint. This is undoubtedly one of the areas that Japanese painting excels at. At least I'd never seen such bold use of blank space in any Western paintings. Seeing this, I could somehow understand why Tomohiko Amada converted to painting Japanese art. But what I didn't understand was exactly when and how he made that daring conversion and put it into practice.

According to his brief biography at the end of the book, he was born in the mountainous Aso district in Kumamoto. His father was a great landowner, an influential local figure, and his family was quite affluent. He was always artistically talented and distinguished himself while still quite young. He graduated from the Tokyo Fine Arts School (later Tokyo University of the Arts), and with great expectations for his career studied abroad in Vienna from the end of 1936 to 1939. At the beginning of 1939, before World War Two began, he boarded a passenger ship from Bremen and returned to Japan. Hitler was in power during this time. Austria was annexed by Germany, the so-called
Anschluss
taking place in March 1938. And the young Tomohiko Amada was right there in Vienna in the midst of this turbulent period. He must have witnessed a number of historical events at that time.

So what happened to him then?

I read through a long essay in one of the collections titled “Theory of Tomohiko Amada,” only to find that almost nothing was known about his time in Vienna. The essay went into great detail about his career as a painter of Japanese-style paintings after he returned to Japan, yet there was only vague, baseless speculation about the motives and details of the conversion he must have experienced during his time in Vienna. What he had done in Vienna, and what had led him to his dramatic conversion, remained a mystery.

Tomohiko Amada returned to Japan in February 1939, and settled into a rented house in Sendagi in Tokyo. By this point he had completely abandoned Western painting. But he still received an allowance every month from his family, so he wanted for nothing. His mother, in particular, doted on her son. During this period he was, apparently, studying Japanese-style painting on his own. A number of times he tried to have established painters take him under their wing, but it never worked out. Tomohiko was, from the first, not exactly the humblest of people. Maintaining calm, friendly ties with others was not his forte. Isolation from others was a leitmotif that ran through his entire life.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan entered an all-out war, and Amada left turbulent Tokyo and moved back to his parents' home in Aso. As the second son, he avoided all the problems involved in succeeding to his father's estate, and was given a small house with a maid, and lived a quiet life there pretty much isolated from the war. For better or worse, he had a congenital lung defect and thus there was no worry he would be drafted. (Though this could have been the excuse they used for the public, and his family may have worked behind the scenes to make sure he didn't have to be a soldier.) He also avoided the severe food shortages and near starvation that plagued most Japanese citizens at the time. Living deep in the mountains of rural Japan, unless some major mistake was made he could also be pretty certain that no U.S. planes would be dropping any bombs on them. So until the surrender in 1945 he lived, holed up alone, deep in the mountains of Aso. His ties with society were severed, and he devoted himself entirely to mastering the techniques of Japanese-style painting. He didn't display a single work during this time.

For Tomohiko Amada, after being in the spotlight as a promising painter of Western art, and then going to study in Vienna, it must have been a trying experience to maintain total silence for over six years, forgotten by the art world. But he was not the type to easily lose heart. When the long war was finally over, and as people struggled to recover from the chaos, a reborn Tomohiko Amada debuted again, this time as an up-and-coming painter in the Japanese style. One by one he displayed the works he'd completed during the war. This was the period when most artists, having painted stirring propaganda pieces, were forced to take responsibility for their actions and, under the watchful eye of the Occupation, were fairly compelled into retirement. Which is precisely why Tomohiko's works, revealing the possibility of a revolution in Japanese painting, garnered so much attention. The times, one could say, were his ally.

There was little to say of his career after this time. Once an artist is successful, his life is often quite boring. Of course there are some artists who, once they are successful, head straight toward a colorful downfall, but Tomohiko Amada wasn't one of them. He won countless awards over the years (though he turned down the Order of Cultural Merit award from the government, claiming it would be “distracting”) and became very famous. Over the years the price for his works rose, and most were displayed in public exhibitions. There was no end to the number of commissions, and he gained a high reputation abroad, too. Smooth sailing all around. The artist himself, though, avoided center stage, and turned down any official positions. He also refused any invitations, domestic or international. Instead he stayed holed up alone in the mountaintop house in Odawara (the house I was now living in) painting whatever he liked.

Now he was ninety-two and in a nursing home in Izu Kogen, and no longer knew the difference between an opera and a frying pan.

I shut the book of paintings and returned it to the library counter.

—

When the weather was good I liked to lie on a lounge chair out on the terrace after dinner and enjoy a glass of white wine. And as I gazed at the twinkling stars to the south, I would consider what lessons I might draw from Tomohiko Amada's life. Naturally there should be a few lessons I should learn. The courage not to fear a change in one's lifestyle, the importance of having time on your side. And above all, discovering your own uniquely creative style and themes. Not an easy thing, of course. Though if you make a living creating things, it's something you have to accomplish no matter what. If possible, before you turn forty…

But what kind of experiences did Tomohiko Amada have in Vienna? What scenes did he witness? And most of all, what exactly made him decide to lay down his oil paintbrush forever? I pictured red-and-black Nazi swastika flags fluttering over a street in Vienna, a young Tomohiko Amada walking down that street. For some reason the season is winter. He has on a thick coat, a scarf, and a cloth cap pulled down low. His face isn't visible. A streetcar rounds the corner and approaches in the newly falling sleet. As he walks, he exhales white breath into the air like the very embodiment of silence. The Viennese are in warm cafés, sipping coffee with a spot of rum.

I tried visualizing his later paintings of Japanese scenes in the Asuka period overlapping with this old Viennese street scene. But my imagination was unequal to the task, and I couldn't discover any similarities between the two.

—

My terrace faced the narrow valley to the west, and across the way was a range of mountains about the same height as mine. And on the slopes of those mountains were a number of houses with generous space separating them, surrounded by lush greenery. To the right, diagonally across from the house I was living in, was a particularly striking modern-style house. The mountaintop house, built of white concrete and plenty of bluish tinted glass, was so elegant and luxurious the word “mansion” seemed a better term. It was built in three levels that ran along the slope. Most likely some first-rate architect had designed it. There are lots of summer homes in this area, but someone seemed to live in this house all year long, with lights on behind the windows every night. Of course it could be that the lights were on timers as a safety precaution. But I gathered otherwise, since the lights came on and turned off at different times, depending on the day. Sometimes all the lights were on at once and the windows were lit like brilliant window displays on a main street, while at other times the whole house sank back into darkness, the only light a faint glow from lanterns in the yard.

Sometimes a person would appear on the deck that faced my direction (the one that resembled the top deck of an ocean liner). At twilight I would often see the figure of whoever lived there. I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. The silhouette was small and usually backlit and in shadow. But from the outline of the silhouette, and the movements, my guess was that it was a man. And this person was always alone. Perhaps he didn't have any family.

What kind of person lived in a place like that? In spare moments I tried to imagine. Did this person really live all by himself on this out-of-the-way mountaintop? What sort of work did he do? No doubt his life in that chic, glass-enclosed mansion was one of luxury and ease. He couldn't be commuting every day to Tokyo from such an inconvenient spot. He must be living a life free of worries. But viewed from his perspective, looking at me from his side of the valley, I might appear to also be living a life of ease and leisure. From a distance, most things look beautiful.

That evening the figure appeared again. Like me, he sat, barely moving, in a chair out on the deck. As if he too was gazing at the twinkling stars, mulling over something. Thinking, no doubt, about things for which there was no answer, no matter how hard you thought about them. At least that's how he looked to me. Everybody has something they speculate and wonder about, no matter how blessed their circumstances. I raised my wineglass a couple of inches, a secret gesture of solidarity to this person across the valley.

—

Naturally at the time I never imagined that this person would soon enter my life and change its direction entirely. Without him, none of the events that happened to me would have ever taken place. At the same time, if he hadn't been there I might very well have lost my life in the darkness, with no one ever the wiser.

Our lives really
do
seem strange and mysterious when you look back on them. Filled with unbelievably bizarre coincidences and unpredictable, zigzagging developments. While they are unfolding, it's hard to see anything weird about them, no matter how closely you pay attention to your surroundings. In the midst of the everyday, these things may strike you as simply ordinary things, a matter of course. They might not be logical, but time has to pass before you can see if something is logical.

Generally speaking, whether something is logical or isn't, what's meaningful about it are the effects. Effects are there for anyone to see, and can have a real influence. But pinpointing the cause that produced the effect isn't easy. It's even harder to show people something concrete that caused it, in a “Look, see?” kind of way. Of course there is a cause somewhere. Can't be an effect without a cause. You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Like falling dominoes, one domino (cause) knocks over the adjacent domino (cause), which then knocks over the domino (cause) next to it. As this sequence continues on and on, you no longer know what was the original cause. Maybe it doesn't matter. Or people don't care to know. And the story comes down to “What happened was, a lot of dominoes fell over.” The story I'll be telling here may very well follow a similar route.

In any case, the first things I want to describe—the first two dominoes I have to bring up, in other words—are the mysterious neighbor who lived on the mountaintop across the valley, and the painting titled
Killing Commendatore
. I'll start with the painting.

5

HE HAS STOPPED BREATHING…HIS LIMBS ARE COLD

The first thing I found odd after I moved into the house was the utter lack of any paintings. Not only were none hanging on the walls, but there wasn't a single painting of any kind even stuffed away in a shed or closet. No paintings by Tomohiko Amada, but none by any other artists either. Every wall was bare, with no traces even of nails that might have once been used to hang paintings. Artists almost always had at least some paintings around them—their own paintings, or those by other artists. Before they knew what had hit them, they'd be surrounded by all kinds of paintings, like when you endlessly shovel the snow but it keeps on piling up.

Once when I called Masahiko about something else, I happened to raise the topic. How come there's not a painting of any kind in this house? Did somebody take them away, or there weren't any to begin with?

“My father didn't like keeping his own paintings around,” Masahiko said. “He'd call up his art dealers when he finished a work and leave it with them. If he wasn't happy with a painting, he burned it in the incinerator in the yard. So it's not so strange that there's not a single one of his paintings there.”

“He didn't own any paintings by other artists either?”

“He owned a handful. An old Matisse or Braque and the like. All of them small paintings he bought in Europe before the war. He got them from acquaintances, and they weren't so expensive at the time. Now, of course, they would bring a hefty price. When he went into the nursing home I took all those paintings to an art dealer I know and let him handle them. Can't leave them sitting there in an empty house now, can I? I imagine they're in a special air-conditioned art storage warehouse. Apart from those, I've never seen any other artists' works in the house. To tell the truth, my father didn't much like other artists. And they didn't like him either. A lone wolf, you might call him, or if we're not being nice about it, a misfit.”

“Your father was in Vienna from 1936 to 1939, wasn't he?”

“Right, he was there for about two years. I don't know why he chose Vienna, since the artists he liked were mainly French.”

“And then he returned to Japan and suddenly switched to Japanese-style paintings,” I said. “Why do you think he made such a monumental decision? Did something unusual happen while he was abroad?”

“Hmm. It's a mystery. My father never spoke much about his time in Vienna. Occasionally he'd talk about things nobody cared about—the Vienna zoo, or food, or the opera house. But when it came to talking about himself, he was a man of few words. And I never dared to ask him. We mostly lived apart, and rarely saw each other. He was less like a father to me than an uncle who came to visit every once in a while. When I got to junior high he seemed even more annoying, and I avoided contact with him. When I went into the art institute, too, I never consulted him about it. It's not like our family was complicated, though it wasn't exactly a normal family either. You get the general idea?”

“I do.”

“Anyway, my father's memories of the past are all gone now. Or have sunk away into deep mud. He won't answer you, no matter what you ask. He doesn't even know who I am. Probably doesn't even know who
he
is. Sometimes I think I should have asked all kinds of things before he got this way. Well, it's too late now.”

Masahiko was silent for a time, lost in thought. “Why do you want to know that?” he finally asked. “Did something spark an interest in him?”

“Not particularly,” I said. “It's just that, living in this house, I sense something like your father's shadow lurking about. I also did a little research into his life at the library.”

“My father's shadow?”

“Like a reminder of his existence, maybe.”

“Don't you find that a little creepy?”

Over the phone I shook my head. “No. Not at all. It's just like the presence of Tomohiko Amada is still hovering over things. Like it's in the air.”

Masahiko was lost in thought again. “My father lived in that house for a long time, and did a lot of work there,” he said, “so maybe his presence remains. Who knows? To tell the truth, that's why I don't want to go near the place.”

I listened without comment.

“Like I said before,” he went on, “to me, Tomohiko Amada was basically just a grouchy old man I knew. Always holed up in his studio, painting, with a sour look on his face. He didn't talk much, so I had no idea what was on his mind. When we were under the same roof my mom always told me, ‘Don't bother your father when he's working.' I couldn't run around or yell or anything. The world saw him as a famous artist, but to a little kid, he was simply a pain. Plus when I decided to go into art myself, having him as a father was a burden. Every time I introduced myself people would ask if I was related to Tomohiko Amada. I even thought about changing my name. I realize now he wasn't such a bad person, really. I suppose he showed me affection in his own way. Though he wasn't the type to show unconditional love toward a child. But that can't be helped. Painting was always his top priority. That's what artists are like.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“I could never be an artist,” Masahiko said with a sigh. “That might be the only thing I learned from my father.”

“Didn't you tell me before that when he was young he was pretty wild and did whatever he liked?”

“By the time I was big, he wasn't like that anymore, but when he was young he played around a lot apparently. He was tall, good-looking, a young guy from a wealthy family, and a talented painter. How could women not be drawn to him? And he was certainly fond of the ladies. Rumor is that he had some affairs that his family had to pay to clear up. But my relatives said that after he returned from his time abroad, he was a different person.”

“A different person?”

“After he returned to Japan, he didn't play around anymore, and just stayed at home focusing on his painting. And he didn't socialize anymore. After he got back to Tokyo he was a bachelor for a long time, but once he could earn a good living painting, like the idea had just occurred to him, he suddenly and unexpectedly married a distant relative back home. For all the world like he was balancing the account book of his life or something. It was a late marriage for him. And then I was born. I have no clue if he ever played around with other women after he got married. Though I can say that he no longer made a show of having a good time.”

“Quite a change.”

“His parents were really happy, though, at how he'd changed. No more messy affairs for them to clean up. But none of our relatives could tell me what had happened to him in Vienna, or why he rejected Western painting in favor of Japanese-style art. When it came to those things my father's mouth was clamped shut, like an oyster at the bottom of the sea.”

And even if you pried open that shell now, there would be nothing inside. I thanked Masahiko and hung up.

—

It was by total coincidence that I discovered the painting by Tomohiko Amada, the one with the unusual title,
Killing Commendatore
.

Sometimes in the middle of the night I'd hear a faint rustling sound from the attic above the bedroom. At first I thought it must be mice, or a squirrel that had found its way into the attic. But the sound was clearly not that of a rodent's feet scurrying around. Nor that of a slithering snake. It sounded more like oil paper being crumpled up. Not loud enough to keep me from sleeping, but it did concern me that there was some unknown creature in the house. I figured it might be an animal that could cause some damage.

After searching around, I located the opening to the attic in the ceiling in the back of the guest bedroom closet. I lugged over the aluminum ladder from the storage shed and, flashlight in one hand, pushed open the cover. I timidly stuck my head through and looked around. The attic was bigger than I'd thought, and dark. A small amount of sunlight filtered in through the small vent holes on either side. I shone the flashlight around but didn't see anything. At least nothing was moving. I took the plunge and hauled myself up into the attic.

The place smelled dusty, but not enough to bother me. The attic was apparently well ventilated and there wasn't much dust on the floor. Several thick beams hung low on the ceiling, but as long as I avoided them I could walk around okay. I edged forward and checked both vents. Both were covered with screens so no animals could get in, but the screen on the north vent had a gap in it. Something might have knocked against it and ripped it. Or else an animal had intentionally ripped the wire to get inside. Either way, the opening was large enough for a smallish animal to easily scramble in.

I spotted the culprit I'd been hearing at night, silently settled on top of a beam in the dark. It was a small, gray horned owl. The owl's eyes were closed and it seemed to be sleeping. I switched off my flashlight and stood away to silently observe without frightening it. I'd never seen a horned owl up close before. It looked less like an owl than like a cat with wings. It was a beautiful creature.

The owl most likely rested here during the day and then at night went out the vent hole to hunt for prey in the mountains. The sound of it going in and out must have been what woke me. No harm done. Having an owl in the attic also meant I needn't worry about mice and snakes settling in. I figured I should just leave it be. I felt close to the little owl. Both of us just happened to be borrowing this house and sharing it. It could have the run of the attic as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed observing it for a time, then tiptoed back where I'd come from. That's when I discovered the large wrapped package near the entrance.

One look told me it was a wrapped-up painting. About three feet in height and five feet in length, it was wrapped tightly in brown Japanese wrapping paper, with string tied several times around it. Nothing else was in the attic. The faint sunlight filtering in from the vent holes, the gray horned owl on top of a beam, the wrapped painting propped up against a wall. The combination felt magical, somehow, and captivated me.

I gingerly lifted the package. It wasn't heavy—the weight of a painting set in a simple frame. The wrapping paper was slightly dusty. It must have been placed here, out of anyone's sight, quite some time ago. A name tag was attached tightly with wire to the string. In blue ballpoint ink was written
Killing Commendatore
. The writing was done in a very careful hand. Most likely this was the title of the painting.

Naturally, I had no clue why that one painting would be hidden away in the attic. I considered what I should do. Obviously the correct thing to do would be to leave it where it was. This was Tomohiko Amada's house, not mine, the painting clearly his possession (presumably it was one that he himself had painted), one that, for whatever reason, he had hidden away so no one would see it. That being the case, I thought I shouldn't do anything uncalled for, and should let it continue to silently share the attic with the owl. I should just leave it be.

That made the most sense, but still I couldn't suppress the curiosity surging up inside. The words in (what appeared to be) the title—
Killing Commendatore
—grabbed me. What kind of painting could it be? And why did Tomohiko Amada have to hide away
this
painting alone in the attic?

I picked up the painting and tested to see if it could squeeze through the opening to the attic. Logic dictated that a painting that had been brought up here shouldn't have any problem being carried down. And there was no other entrance to the attic. But still I checked to see if it would squeeze through. As expected, it was a tight fit, but when I held it diagonally, it squeezed through the square opening. I imagined Tomohiko Amada carrying the painting up to the attic. He must have been by himself then, carrying around some secret inside him. I could vividly imagine the scene, as if I were actually witnessing it.

I don't think Amada would be angry if he found out I'd brought the painting down from the attic. His mind was buried now in a deep maelstrom, according to his son, “unable to distinguish an opera from a frying pan.” He would never be coming back to this home. And if I left this painting in an attic with the screen over the vent hole ripped, mice and squirrels might gnaw away at it someday. Or else bugs might get to it. And if this painting really was by Tomohiko Amada, this would be a substantial loss to the art world.

I lowered the package on top of the shelf in the closet, gave a little wave to the horned owl huddled on the beam, then clambered down and quietly shut the lid to the entrance.

—

I didn't unwrap the painting right away. I left that brown package propped up against the wall in the studio for several days. And I sat on the floor, gazing vaguely at it. It was hard for me to decide whether I should unwrap it or not. I mean, it belonged to somebody else, and whatever positive spin you might try to put on it, I didn't have the right to unwrap it. If I wanted to, at least I should get permission from his son, Masahiko. I'm not sure why, but I didn't feel like letting Masahiko know the painting existed. I felt like it was something personal, just between me and Tomohiko Amada. I can't explain why. But that's how I felt.

I stared at the painting (my assumption, of course, that it was actually a painting)—wrapped in Japanese paper and tied tightly with string—so hard I almost burned a hole in it, and after running the next step through my mind, over and over, I finally decided to unwrap it. It was no contest: my curiosity won out over any sense of etiquette or common sense. Whether this was the professional curiosity of an artist, or simple personal curiosity, I couldn't say. Whatever, I just had to see what was inside. I don't care what anyone says, I told myself. I brought over scissors, cut the tightly bound string, and peeled away the brown wrapping paper. I took my time, and did it carefully, in case I needed to rewrap it again later on.

Other books
Dragon and Phoenix by Joanne Bertin
Legacy by Cayla Kluver
Shameless by Burston, Paul
Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson
Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein
Acropolis by Ryals, R.K.
The Hansa Protocol by Norman Russell