Killing Commendatore

Haruki Murakami

KILLING COMMENDATORE

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

PART 1

THE IDEA MADE VISIBLE

Prologue

Today when I awoke from a nap the faceless man was there before me. He was seated on the chair across from the sofa I’d been sleeping on, staring straight at me with a pair of imaginary eyes in a face that wasn’t.

The man was tall, and he was dressed the same as when I had seen him last. His face-that-wasn’t-a-face was half hidden by a wide-brimmed black hat, and he had on a long, equally dark coat.

“I came here so you could draw my portrait,” the faceless man said, after he’d made sure I was fully awake. His voice was low, toneless, flat. “You promised you would. You remember?”

“Yes, I remember. But I couldn’t draw it then because I didn’t have any paper,” I said. My voice, too, was toneless and flat. “So to make up for it I gave you a little penguin charm.”

“Yes, I brought it with me,” he said, and held out his right hand. In his hand—which was extremely long—he held a small plastic penguin, the kind you often see attached to a cell phone strap as a good-luck charm. He dropped it on top of the glass coffee table, where it landed with a small clunk.

“I’m returning this. You probably need it. This little penguin will be the charm that should protect those you love. In exchange, I want you to draw my portrait.”

I was perplexed. “I get it, but I’ve never drawn a portrait of a person without a face.”

My throat was parched.

“From what I hear, you’re an outstanding portrait artist. And there’s a first time for everything,” the faceless man said. And then he laughed. At least, I think he did. That laugh-like voice was like the empty sound of wind blowing up from deep inside a cavern.

He took off the hat that hid half of his face. Where the face should have been, there was nothing, just the slow whirl of a fog.

I stood up and retrieved a sketchbook and a soft pencil from my studio. I sat back down on the sofa, ready to draw a portrait of the man with no face. But I had no idea where to begin, or how to get started. There was only a void, and how are you supposed to give form to something that does not exist? And the milky fog that surrounded the void was continually changing shape.

“You’d better hurry,” the faceless man said. “I can’t stay here for long.”

My heart was beating dully inside my chest. I didn’t have much time. I had to hurry. But my fingers holding the pencil just hung there in midair, immobilized. It was as though everything from my wrist down into my hand were numb. There were several people I had to protect, and all I was able to do was draw pictures. Even so, there was no way I could draw him. I stared at the whirling fog. “I’m sorry, but your time’s up,” the man without a face said a little while later. From his faceless mouth, he let out a deep breath, like pale fog hovering over a river.

“Please wait. If you give me just a little more time—”

The man put his black hat back on, once again hiding half of his face. “One day I’ll visit you again. Maybe by then you’ll be able to draw me. Until then, I’ll keep this penguin charm.”

Then he vanished. Like a mist suddenly blown away by a freshening breeze, he vanished into thin air. All that remained was the unoccupied chair and the glass table. The penguin charm was gone from the tabletop.

It all seemed like a short dream. But I knew very well that it wasn’t. If this was a dream, then the world I’m living in itself must all be a dream.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to draw a portrait of nothingness. Just like another artist was able to complete a painting titled Killing Commendatore. But to do so I would need time to get to that point. I would have to have time on my side.

1

IF THE SURFACE IS FOGGED UP

From May until early the following year, I lived on top of a mountain near the entrance to a narrow valley. Deep in the valley it rained constantly in the summer, but outside the valley it was usually sunny. This was due to the southwest wind that blew off the ocean. Moist clouds carried by the wind entered the valley, bringing rain as they made their way up the slopes. The house was built right on the boundary line, so often it would be sunny out in front while heavy rain fell in back. At first I found this disconcerting, but as I got used to it, it came to seem natural.

Low patches of clouds hung over the surrounding mountains. When the wind blew, these cloud fragments, like some wandering spirits from the past, drifted uncertainly along the surface of the mountains, as if in search of lost memories. The pure white rain, like fine snow, silently swirled around on the wind. Since the wind rarely let up, I could even get by in the summer without air conditioning.

The house itself was old and small, but the garden in back was spacious. Left to its own devices it was a riot of tall green weeds, and a family of cats made its home there. When a gardener came over to trim the grass, the cat family moved elsewhere. I imagine they felt too exposed. The family consisted of a striped mother cat and her three kittens. The mother was thin, with a stern look about her, as if life had dealt her a bad hand.

The house was on top of the mountain, and when I went out on the terrace and faced southwest, I could catch a glimpse of the ocean through the woods. From there the ocean was the size of water in a washbowl, a minuscule sliver of the huge Pacific. A real estate agent I know told me that even if you can see a tiny portion of the ocean like I could here, it made all the difference in the price of the land. Not that I cared about an ocean view. From far off, that slice of ocean was nothing more than a dull lump of lead. Why people insisted on having an ocean view was beyond me. I much preferred gazing at the surrounding mountains. The mountains on the opposite side of the valley were in constant flux, transforming with the seasons and the weather, and I never grew tired of these changes.

Back then my wife and I had dissolved our marriage, the divorce papers all signed and sealed, but afterward things happened and we ended up making a go of marriage one more time.

I can’t explain it. The cause and effect of how this all came about eluded even those of us directly involved, but if I were to sum it up in a word, it would come down to some overly trite phrase like “we reconciled.” Though the nine-month gap before the second time we married (between the dissolution of our first marriage and the beginning of our second marriage, in other words) stood there, a mouth agape like some deep canal carved out of an isthmus.

Nine months—I had no idea if this was a long period or a short period for a separation. Looking back on it later, it sometimes seemed as though it lasted forever, but then again it passed by in an instant. My impression changed depending on the day. When people photograph an object, they often put a pack of cigarettes next to it to give the viewer a sense of the object’s actual size, but the pack of cigarettes next to the images in my memory expanded and contracted, depending on my mood at the time. Like the objects and events in constant flux, or perhaps in opposition to them, what should have been a fixed yardstick inside the framework of my memory seemed instead to be in perpetual motion.

Not to imply that all my memories were haphazard, expanding and contracting at will. My life was basically placid, well adjusted, and, for the most part, rational. But those nine months were different, a period of inexplicable chaos and confusion. In all senses of the word that period was the exception, a time unlike any other in my life, as though I were a swimmer in the middle of a calm sea caught up in a mysterious whirlpool that came out of nowhere.

That may be the reason why, when I think back on that time (as you guessed, these events took place some years ago), the importance, perspective, and connections between events sometimes fluctuate, and if I take my eyes off them even for a second, the sequence I apply to them is quickly supplanted by something different. Still, here I want to do my utmost, as far as I can, to set down a systematic, logical account. Maybe it will be a wasted effort, but even so I want to cling tightly to the hypothetical yardstick I’ve managed to fashion. Like a helpless swimmer who snatches at a scrap of wood that floats his way.

When I moved into that house, the first thing I did was buy a cheap used car. I’d basically driven my previous car into the ground and had to scrap it, so I needed to get a new one. In a suburban town, especially living alone on top of a mountain, a car was a must in order to go shopping. I went to a used Toyota dealership outside Odawara and found a great deal on a Corolla station wagon. The salesman called it powder blue, though it reminded me more of a sick person’s p ...

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