Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (41 page)

Our salad plates were cleared, replaced by the spaghetti with Japanese lobster.

Masahiko took his fork and stared at it for a moment. As if inspecting an implement used for some special task.

“Hey man,” he said. “This isn't really something I want to talk about when I'm eating.”

“No problem. Let's talk about something else.”

“Like what, for example.”

“Something as far removed from your uncle's testament as possible.”

So we talked golf as we ate our spaghetti. Of course, I had never played the game. No one around me had either. I didn't even know the rules. Masahiko, however, had taken it up in order to play with the people he did business with. And to get back into some kind of shape after years of inactivity. He had purchased a set of clubs, and spent his weekends on the golf course.

“You may not know this,” he told me, “but golf is the oddest game you can imagine. As weird as it gets. You could say it's a sport unto itself. Yet I'm not even sure if it can be called a true sport. The funny thing is, once you get used to its weirdness you can't go back.”

Masahiko went on and on about the strangeness of golf, telling me one off-the-wall story after another. A great conversationalist, he made our lunch extremely entertaining. We laughed together as we hadn't in ages.

Our plates were cleared away and coffee was brought in, although Masahiko opted for another glass of white wine.

“Anyway, back to my uncle's suicide letter,” he said, his voice abruptly serious. “According to my father, Uncle Tsuguhiko wrote about being forced to behead a Chinese prisoner. He described it in painful detail. Of course, a common soldier like him didn't carry a sword. In fact, he had never touched a sword up to that point. I mean, he was a pianist, right? He could read a complex musical score, but wielding an executioner's sword was beyond him. But his commanding officer handed him one and ordered, ‘Chop off his head!' The prisoner wasn't in uniform and had no weapon when he was picked up. Nor was he a young man. He claimed he was a civilian, not a soldier. But the army was grabbing any likely men they could find and dragging them in to be killed. If your palms were callused, you were deemed a peasant and might be released. If they were soft, however, it was assumed that you were a soldier who'd tossed his uniform to pass as a civilian, and you were summarily executed. Arguing the sentence was a waste of breath. The method of execution was either being gutted by a bayonet or decapitated by a sword. If a machine gun unit was in the area, prisoners might be lined up in a row and shot, but there was a general reluctance to ‘waste' ammunition that way—bullets were always in short supply—so bayonets and swords were used. The bodies were collected and dumped in the Yangtze River, where they fed the many catfish who lived there. I don't know if it's fact or fiction, but it was said that some grew as big as ponies on that diet.

“My uncle took the sword from the officer, a young second lieutenant who had just completed officer training school, and prepared to cut off the prisoner's head. Of course, he didn't want to do it. But it was unthinkable to refuse an order. Not something corrected by a simple reprimand. An order from an officer in Japan's Imperial Army was an order from the Emperor himself. My uncle's hands were shaking. He wasn't a strong man, and to make matters worse it was a crummy, mass-produced sword. The human neck isn't that easy to sever. His attempt failed. Blood sprayed everywhere, the prisoner thrashed about—it was gruesome.”

Masahiko shook his head. I sipped my coffee.

“When it was finally over my uncle started puking. When there was nothing left he puked gastric juice, and when that was gone he puked air. His comrades ridiculed him. The officer called him a ‘pitiful excuse for a soldier' and kicked him hard in the side with his army boots. No one sympathized. Instead, he was ordered to decapitate two more prisoners. This was for
practice
, to help him become
accustomed
to cutting off people's heads. A soldier's rite of passage, it was thought. Participating in such carnage made a man a ‘true warrior.' But my uncle was never meant to be a warrior in the first place. He wasn't put on this earth for that. He was born to make beautiful music, to perform Chopin and Debussy. Not to chop the heads off other human beings.”

“Are some people born to chop off heads?” I asked.

Masahiko shook his head again. “I can't answer that. But I do know there must be quite a few who are able to
get used to it
. People can become accustomed to almost anything, especially when they're pushed to the limit. It may become surprisingly easy then.”

“Or when they're given justification for their actions.”

“You're right there,” Masahiko said. “In most cases, they're provided with some justification for what they do. I'm not confident that I'd be any different, to tell the truth. I might not be strong enough to stand up and say no if I were thrown into a system as violent as the military, even if I knew the order was horribly wrong or inhuman.”

I thought of myself. Would I be any different if I were in his uncle's shoes? The image of the strange woman I had spent the night with in the port town in Miyagi popped into my head. The young woman who had handed me the belt of her bathrobe and asked me to strangle her in the middle of sex. I still remembered how the belt felt wrapped tight around my hands. Probably I would never forget.

“Uncle Tsuguhiko couldn't refuse his superior's order,” Masahiko said. “He lacked the guts to do that. Yet later he was able to sharpen a razor and use it to kill himself. In that sense, I don't think he was weak at all. Only by taking his own life was my uncle able to recover his humanity.”

“The news must have been a terrible shock to your father in Vienna.”

“That hardly needs saying,” Masahiko replied.

“I've heard that your father got caught up in some political events in Vienna that got him deported back to Japan. Did those have any connection to his brother's suicide?”

Masahiko folded his arms and frowned. “It's hard for me to say. You see, my father never said a word about what happened.”

“What I heard was that your father fell in love with a girl who belonged to a resistance organization, and that she was involved in a failed assassination attempt.”

“Yes, I know about that. Apparently she was an Austrian student at the university, and they were planning to get married. But when the plot came to light, she was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Mauthausen. She probably died there. My father was arrested by the Gestapo and forcibly repatriated as an ‘undesirable alien' in early 1939. Of course, this didn't come from my father but from someone in the family—a credible source.”

“Do you think someone somewhere prevented your father from speaking about what had happened in Vienna?”

“Yeah, I'm sure that's true. I'm sure authorities on both sides—Japan and Germany—laid down the law in no uncertain terms when they arranged his deportation. He knew he had to keep his mouth shut—that was the price he paid for saving his own neck. But I don't think he wanted to talk about those events, either. Otherwise he wouldn't have remained so close-mouthed when the war ended and the threat was gone.”

Masahiko paused for a moment before continuing.

“I think it's entirely possible that Uncle Tsuguhiko's suicide played a role in my father's involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance in Vienna. The Munich Conference removed the threat of war for the time being, but it also strengthened the Berlin-Tokyo axis, and set the world moving in an even more dangerous direction. My guess is that my father was determined to try to put the brakes on that movement. He was a man who prized freedom above all else. Fascism and militarism ran against everything he believed. The death of his younger brother could only have strengthened those convictions.”

“Do we know anything more?”

“My father never talked to anyone about his life. He did no interviews with the media, and left nothing written down for posterity. He was like someone who walks backward, erasing his own footsteps with a broom.”

“He kept his silence as a painter too, didn't he,” I said. “He exhibited none of his work from the time he returned from Vienna to the end of the war.”

“Yeah, eight years in total, from 1939 until 1947. All that time, he stayed as far removed as possible from what we might call ‘artistic circles.' He couldn't stand that crowd anyway, and their ‘nationalist art' glorifying the war effort made him like them even less. Lucky for him, his family was well off, so he didn't have to worry about getting by. And, thankfully, he wasn't drafted to be a soldier during the war. In any case, once the postwar chaos had settled down, Tomohiko Amada reemerged, having metamorphosed into a purely Japanese-style painter. He had jettisoned his old style and adopted a totally new one.”

“And thus was born a legend.”

“That's right,” Masahiko said. “The rest is legend.” He waved his hand, as if shooing something away. As if the legend were a mote in the air, interfering with his breathing.

“As I hear you tell the story,” I said, “I begin to think your father's student days in Vienna cast a shadow over his whole life. Whatever the exact circumstances may have been.”

Masahiko nodded. “Yeah, I think that too. Those events changed the course of his life in a drastic way. The failure of the assassination plot must have led to a number of dreadful things. Things too horrible to speak of.”

“Still, we don't know the details.”

“No, we don't. I didn't know them growing up, and it's an even bigger riddle now. The man in question can't have a clue either.”

Perhaps, I thought. People can forget what they should remember, and remember what by all rights and purposes they should forget. Especially when death approaches.

Masahiko polished off his second glass of white wine and glanced at his watch. He gave a slight frown.

“I've got to head back to the office,” he said.

“Wasn't there something you wanted to tell me?” I asked, suddenly remembering.

He rapped his knuckles on the tabletop as if to echo my feeling. “You're right,” he said. “There is something. But we spent all our time talking about my father. It'll have to be next time. It's nothing that urgent.”

I looked at his face again as we were about to get up. “Why are you being so open with me?” I asked. “Showing me the skeletons in your family's closet.”

He spread his hands on the table and thought for a minute. He scratched his ear.

“Let's see. For one thing, I'm getting a little tired carrying these ‘family skeletons' around all by myself. Maybe I wanted to share them with someone. Someone who has nothing to gain from them, and who'll keep his mouth shut. In that sense, you're an ideal person to unburden myself to. Also, to tell the truth I'm feeling a little guilty where you're concerned, so this may be my way of trying to pay you back.”

“Guilty?” I burst out. “In what way?”

Masahiko half closed his eyes. “I'd intended to tell you about that,” he said. “But there's no more time today. My next appointment is one I can't miss. Let's meet again soon. Then we can talk all we want.”

Masahiko paid the tab. “Don't worry,” he said. “This much I can write off.” I accepted with gratitude.

After that, I drove the Corolla station wagon back to Odawara. By the time I parked the dusty old heap in front of the house, the sun had almost reached the ridge of the western mountains. A large flock of cawing crows was winging across the valley, heading to their nests.

38
HE COULD NEVER BE A DOLPHIN

By the time Sunday rolled around, I had a pretty good idea how to attack the canvas I'd set aside for Mariye Akikawa's portrait. I still wasn't sure exactly what form the painting would take. But I did know
how I should begin
. Those first steps—which brush to use, what color, the direction of the first stroke—had come to me out of nowhere: they had gained a foothold in my mind and, bit by bit, taken on a tangible reality of their own. I loved this process.

It was a chilly morning. The kind of morning that heralds the coming of winter. I brewed coffee, ate a simple breakfast, went to the studio, laid out what I needed to paint, and then stood before my easel, which held the empty canvas. In front of the canvas, however, sat my sketchbook, open to the detailed pencil drawing I had done of the pit in the woods. I had tossed it off several mornings earlier without giving it much thought. I had even forgotten I had drawn it.

Nevertheless, the longer I stood there facing the drawing, the more it sucked me in. The mysterious stone chamber in the woods, the secret opening. The sodden earth, the patchwork of fallen leaves. The sunlight filtering through the branches. As my imagination filled in the penciled sketch, I began to see it as a colorful painting. I could breathe in the air of the place, smell the grass, hear the birds singing.

The pit I had drawn with such precision in my big sketchbook was beckoning me, luring me toward something—or was it somewhere?
The pit was demanding that I paint it.
I seldom thought of painting landscapes. I mean, I'd done virtually nothing but portraits for nearly ten years. But maybe a landscape painting wasn't such a bad idea.
The Pit in the Woods.
This pencil sketch could be a first step in that direction.

I removed my sketchbook and closed it. The unblemished white canvas remained on the easel. The canvas that would soon be graced by my portrait of Mariye.

—

At a few minutes before ten, as before, the blue Toyota Prius rolled silently up the slope. The doors opened, and Mariye and her aunt Shoko stepped out. Shoko Akikawa was wearing a long, dark-gray herringbone jacket, a light-gray wool skirt, and patterned black stockings. Wrapped around her neck was a bright Missoni scarf. A chic late-fall outfit. Mariye was dressed much like before: a baggy varsity jacket, a windbreaker, jeans with holes in them, and dark-blue Converse sneakers. Her head was bare. The air was chilly, and a thin blanket of clouds covered the sky.

After a simple exchange of greetings, Shoko curled up on the sofa and, once again, immersed herself in her thick paperback. Mariye and I left her there and went into the studio. I sat on the same wooden stool, Mariye on the same simple straight-backed chair. Six feet or so separated us. Mariye took off her jacket, folded it, and laid it next to her chair. Then she removed her windbreaker. Underneath was a blue short-sleeved T-shirt and, beneath that, a gray long-sleeved T-shirt. Her chest was as flat as ever. She ran her fingers through her straight black hair.

“Aren't you cold?” I asked. There was an old-fashioned kerosene space heater in the studio, but it was unlit.

Mariye gave a slight shake of her head. As if to say
No, not particularly
.

“I'll start painting today,” I said. “You don't have to do anything. It's enough if you just sit there. You can leave the rest to me.”

“I can't not do anything,” she said, looking me straight in the eye.

“What does that mean?” I asked, my hands on my knees.

“Like, I'm living and breathing and thinking all kinds of stuff.”

“Of course,” I said. “Please, breathe as much as you want and think as many thoughts as you can. All I meant was, there's nothing special you have to do. I just want you to be yourself.”

Yet Mariye continued to stare straight at me. As if my explanation was too simple to swallow.

“But I want to do something,” she said.

“Like what?”

“I want to help you paint.”

“I appreciate that, but what do you mean exactly? Help me in what way?”

“Mentally, of course.”

“I see,” I said. Yet I couldn't think of anything specific she could do “mentally” to help.

“I'd like to see things as you see them,” she said. “Look at myself through your eyes while you're painting me. I think I'd understand myself better if I did that. And you'd probably understand me better, too.”

“I'd love that,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“It might get pretty scary sometimes.”

“Knowing more about yourself, you mean?”

Mariye nodded. “If you want to know yourself better you have to bring in something different from someplace else.”

“Are you saying you can't know yourself unless you add a third-person perspective?”

“A third-person perspective?”

“In other words,” I explained, “to understand the relationship between A and B you might need C, a third point of view. What we call ‘triangulation.' ”

Mariye thought for a moment. “Maybe,” she said with a shrug.

“Are you saying that what you bring in might be scary, depending on the situation?”

Mariye nodded.

“Have you had that scary feeling before?”

Mariye didn't respond.

“If I can draw you the right way, maybe you'll be able to see yourself through my eyes,” I said. “If all goes well, of course.”

“That's why we need pictures.”

“You're right—that's why we need pictures. Or literature, or music, or anything of that sort.”

If all goes well, I said to myself.

“So let's get started,” I said to Mariye. Looking at her face, I started mixing the brown for the underdrawing. Then I selected the first brush I would use on the painting.

—

The work progressed slowly but smoothly. The painting would show her from the waist up. She was a beautiful girl, but beauty wasn't what I was after. Instead, I had to find what was hidden beneath the surface. What underlay her personality—what allowed it to subsist. I had to find that
something
and bring it to the canvas. It didn't have to be pretty. Sometimes it might even be ugly. In either case, though, I had to know her well enough to discover what that something was. Not through words or logic, but as a singular form, a composite of light and shadow.

I concentrated on layering lines and color on the canvas. Rapidly at times, at other times with painstaking care. Mariye sat, unmoving, on the straight-backed chair, her expression never wavering. She had mustered her willpower, I sensed, and was sustaining it for as long as necessary. I could feel her strength. “I can't not do anything,” she had said. And indeed, she was
doing something
. To help me, most likely. An unmistakable current of some kind was flowing between this thirteen-year-old girl and myself.

I recalled my sister's hands. She had taken my hand in hers when we entered the chilly darkness of the wind cave on Mt. Fuji. Her hand was small and warm—yet her fingers were surprisingly strong. A definite life force connected us. Each was giving something to the other, and at the same moment receiving something. It was an exchange limited to a particular time and place. It was bound to fade and disappear. But the memory remained. Memory can give warmth to time. And art can—when it goes well—give shape to that memory, even fix it in history. Much as Van Gogh inscribed the figure of a country mailman on our collective memory so well that he lives on, even today.

—

For the next two hours, we focused on our respective jobs without exchanging a word.

Thinning the paint with linseed oil, I began by roughing in her form in a single color. That would be the portrait's underdrawing. Mariye sat quietly in the chair, continuing to be herself. At noon, as they did every day, chimes rang in the distance, announcing that our time was up. I put down my palette and paintbrush, straightened my back, and stretched. Only then did I realize how tired I was. I took a deep breath to break my concentration, whereupon Mariye finally let her body relax.

The monochrome outline of Mariye's head and shoulders was there on the canvas before me. This was the structure upon which the portrait would be built. It was skeletal, but at its core was the source of the heat that made her who she was. That was still hidden, but if I could grasp its general location I would be able to make adjustments further down the line. Then all that would be left was fleshing out the skeleton.

Mariye didn't ask anything about what I had painted, nor did she ask to see it. I said little on my part, as well. I was just too worn out. We left the studio together and moved to the living room without a word. Shoko was still absorbed in her paperback. She marked her spot, closed the book, removed her black-rimmed reading glasses, and looked up at us. I could see that she was a bit alarmed. Our fatigue must have been written on our faces.

“Did it go all right?” she asked in a slightly worried tone.

“We're only partway through the process, but we're right on schedule.”

“That's so good to hear,” she said. “Would you mind if I made some nice hot tea? I've already set the water to boil. And I know where you keep the tea leaves.”

Taken somewhat aback, I glanced down at her. Her lips were curved in a refined smile.

“I fear I'm being a poor host, but yes, that would be wonderful,” I said. I was dying for some hot tea, but getting up and going to the kitchen to boil water was beyond me. I was exhausted. It had been ages since I'd gotten so tired painting. It felt good, though.

Shoko returned to the living room ten minutes later with three cups and a pot on a tray. We sat there quietly, each drinking our black tea. Mariye hadn't uttered a word since we left the studio. Every so often she'd reach up to push the hair back from her forehead. She had put her heavy jacket on again. As if she needed it to protect her from something.

The three of us sat there politely sipping our tea (not one of us slurped) and enjoying the lazy flow of the Sunday afternoon. No one spoke. The silence was easy and unforced, as if in accordance with the laws of nature. At a certain point, I heard a familiar sound, like waves on a distant shore, a listless and reluctant, yet somehow obligatory, lapping. Soon, however, the sound took on the unmistakable rhythm of a well-tuned engine. An eight-cylinder, 4.2-liter engine with power to spare burning (most elegantly, of course) high-octane fossil fuel. I got up from my chair, went to the window, and watched the approach of the silver car through a crack in the curtain.

—

Menshiki was wearing a lime-green cardigan over a cream-colored shirt. His pants were gray wool. They were clean and wrinkle-free, as if just back from the cleaners. None of his clothes appeared to be new—they all looked comfortably worn. That made them seem even cleaner. His hair, as always, was a glowing white. It seemed impervious to the seasons and the weather. I guessed that in summer or in winter, on sunny or cloudy days, its radiance would never fade. Only its tone would vary.

Menshiki got out of the car, closed the door, and looked up at the cloudy sky. He thought about the weather for a moment (at least that's how it looked to me), composed himself, and walked slowly to the front door. Then he rang the doorbell. Slowly and deliberately, like a poet selecting the precise word for a crucial passage. However you looked at it, though, it was just a common old doorbell.

I opened the door and showed Menshiki into the living room. Smiling, he greeted the two women. Shoko rose to welcome him. Mariye remained on the sofa, twirling her hair. She barely glanced his way. At my bidding, we all sat down. Would you like some tea, I asked Menshiki. Please don't bother, he replied, shaking his head several times and waving his hand in refusal.

“How is your work going?” he asked me.

Moving along as usual, I replied.

“Modeling is tiring, isn't it?” Menshiki asked Mariye. I couldn't remember him addressing her while looking her in the eye before. His tone was still a bit tense, but today at least he wasn't paling or blushing in her presence. His face looked almost normal. He was doing a good job controlling his emotions. I bet he'd been training hard to pull that off.

Mariye didn't answer. She seemed to mumble something, but it was entirely inaudible. Her hands were clasped tightly on her knees.

“You know she really looks forward to coming here Sunday mornings,” Shoko remarked, breaking the silence.

“Modeling is hard work,” I said, doing my humble best to back her up. “Mariye is doing a great job.”

“I served as a model here for a while,” Menshiki said. “I found it odd somehow. There were times it felt like my soul was being stolen from me.” He laughed.

“It's not like that at all,” Mariye said, in what was little more than a whisper.

The three of us turned in her direction.

Shoko looked as though she had popped something she shouldn't have into her mouth and bitten down on it. Menshiki's face registered unadulterated curiosity. I remained, as ever, the impartial observer.

“What do you mean?” asked Menshiki.

“Nothing's being stolen from me,” Mariye said in a monotone. “I'm giving something, and I'm getting something in return.”

“You're absolutely right,” Menshiki said quietly. He seemed impressed. “I was being too simplistic. There has to be an exchange. Artistic creation can never be a one-way street.”

Mariye was silent, her eyes fixed on the teapot on the table. She looked like a lone night heron motionless on the shore, glaring at the water's surface for hours on end. The teapot was simple white ceramic, the kind you can find anywhere. It was old (Tomohiko Amada had used it), and eminently practical, but apart from a small chip on the rim, nothing about it warranted close examination. Mariye just needed something to stare at right then.

Other books

Girl Code by Davis, LD
Orwell's Luck by Richard W. Jennings
From Now On by Louise Brooks
Are You Ready? by Amanda Hearty
The Troublesome Angel by Valerie Hansen
Chasing the Lost by Bob Mayer