Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (5 page)

“I don't have any real need for the Internet,” I told him.

“If you want to know what's going on in the world, then the only choice is to listen to the news on the transistor radio on the shelf in the kitchen. Since we're in the mountains the signal isn't great, but you can at least pick up the NHK station in Shizuoka. Better than nothing, I suppose.”

“I'm not that interested in what's going on in the world.”

“That's fine. Sounds like you and my father would get along fine.”

“Is your father a fan of opera?” I asked.

“Yes, he paints Japanese paintings, but always liked to listen to opera while he painted. He went to the opera house a lot when he was a student in Vienna. Do you listen to opera?”

“A little.”

“I'm not into it at all. Way too long and boring for me. There are a lot of records, so feel free to listen to them as much as you'd like. My father has no need of them anymore and I know he'd be happy if you listened to them.”

“No need of them?”

“His dementia's getting bad. Right now he doesn't know the difference between an opera and a frying pan.”

“Vienna, you said? Did he study Japanese painting in Vienna?”

“Nobody's that eccentric—to go all the way to Vienna to study Japanese painting. My father originally worked on Western painting. That's why he went to study in Vienna. At the time he did very cutting-edge modern oil paintings. But after he came back to Japan he suddenly switched styles, and began painting Japanese-style. Not totally unheard of, I suppose. Going abroad awakens your own ethnic identity or something.”

“And he was very successful at it.”

Amada made a small shrug. “According to the public he was. But from a child's perspective, he was just a grouchy old man. All he thought about was painting, and did exactly as he pleased. No trace of that now, though.”

“How old is he?”

“Ninety-two. When he was young he was apparently pretty wild. I never heard the details.”

I thanked him. “Thank you for everything. I'm really grateful. This really helps me out.”

“You like it here?”

“Yes, I'm really happy you're letting me stay.”

“I'm glad. Though I'm hoping you and Yuzu can get back together again.”

I didn't respond. Masahiko himself wasn't married. I'd heard a rumor he was bisexual, though I didn't know if it was true or not. We'd known each other for a long time, but had never spoken about it.

“Are you going to keep doing portraits?” Amada asked as we were leaving.

I explained how I'd made a clean break with portrait painting.

“Then how are you going to make a living?” Amada asked, the same thing my agent had wanted to know.

I'll cut back on expenses and get by on my savings for a while, I replied, echoing my first answer. I also wanted to try painting whatever I wanted, something I hadn't been able to do for ages.

“Sounds good,” Amada said. “Do what you like for a while. But would you consider teaching art part time too? There's this arts-and-culture center near Odawara Station and they have painting classes. Most of them are for children, but they have some community art classes for adults set up as well. They teach sketching and watercolor, but not oil painting. The man who runs the school knows my father, he's not really in it for the money. And he needs a teacher. I'm sure he'd be overjoyed if you'd help out. It doesn't pay much, but you could make a little extra to live on. You'd only need to teach twice a week, and it shouldn't be too much trouble.”

“But I've never taught painting, and don't know much about watercolors.”

“It's simple,” he said. “You're not training professionals. You just teach the basics. You'll pick it up in a day. Teaching children should be good for you, too. And if you're going to live up here all by yourself, you have to get down off the mountain a couple of times a week and be with other people, even if you don't want to, or else you'll go a little stir-crazy. Don't want you ending up like
The Shining
.”

Masahiko screwed up his face like Jack Nicholson. He's always been good at impressions.

I laughed. “I'll give it a try. Whether I'll do a good job or not, I don't know.”

“I'll get in touch with him and let him know,” he said.

Then Masahiko drove me to the used Toyota dealership next to the highway, where I paid cash for the Corolla station wagon. My life alone on a mountaintop in Odawara began that day. I'd been on the move for nearly two months, but now I'd take up a sedentary life. It was quite a switch.

—

Starting the following week, I began teaching art classes on Wednesdays and Fridays at the arts-and-culture center near Odawara Station. There was a perfunctory interview beforehand, but Masahiko's introduction meant that I was as good as hired already. I was to teach two classes for adults, plus one for children on Fridays. I quickly got used to teaching the kids. I enjoyed seeing the paintings they did, and, as Masahiko said, it was a good stimulus for me as well. I quickly got to be friends with the children. All I did was go around the room, check on the paintings they did, give them a few words of technical advice, find good points about their paintings, and praise and encourage them. My approach was to have them paint the same subject matter several times, to instill in them the idea that the same object could appear quite different if viewed from a different angle. Just as people had many facets, so too did objects. The kids immediately picked up on how fascinating this could be.

Teaching adults was a bit more of a challenge. The students were either elderly retirees, or housewives whose children were grown and in school, and had time on their hands. As you might imagine, they weren't as adaptable as the kids, and when I pointed out something, they didn't easily accept my suggestions. A few of them, though, were willing to learn, and there were a couple who did some pretty appealing paintings. Whenever they asked, I gave them helpful pointers, but for the most part I let them paint however they liked. I confined myself to praising them whenever I found something nice about what they'd done. That seemed to please them. I figured it was enough for them to simply enjoy painting.

And I started sleeping with two housewives, both of whom attended the art classes and received my so-called instruction. Both my students, in other words, and incidentally both fairly decent painters. It's hard for me to tell whether that was something permissible for a teacher—even a casual teacher like me with no proper license. I basically think mutually consenting adults having sex isn't a problem, though certainly society might frown at this kind of relationship.

I'm not trying to excuse my actions, but at the time I really didn't have the mental wherewithal to decide whether I was right or wrong. I was desperately clinging to a scrap of wood that had been swept away. In pitch-black darkness, not a single star, or the moon, visible in the sky. As long as I clung to that piece of wood I wouldn't drown, but I had no clue where I was, where I was heading.

It was a couple of months after I'd moved there that I discovered Tomohiko Amada's painting
Killing Commendatore
. I couldn't know it at the time, but that one painting changed my world forever.

4

FROM A DISTANCE, MOST THINGS LOOK BEAUTIFUL

One sunny morning near the end of May I carried all my painting materials into the studio Mr. Amada had been using, and for the first time in what seemed like forever stood before a brand-new canvas. (Nothing of the master's painting materials was left in the studio. I assume that Masahiko had packed them all away somewhere.) The studio was a large, square room sixteen feet on a side, with a wood floor and white walls. The floor was bare wood, with not a single rug. There was a large open window on the north side, with simple white curtains. The window on the east side was smaller, with no curtains. As elsewhere in the house, there was nothing hanging on the walls. In one corner of the room was a large porcelain sink for washing away paint. The sink must have been in long use, for its surface was dyed with a mix of different colors. Next to the sink was an old-fashioned kerosene stove, and there was a large ceiling fan. A worktable and a round wooden stool. A compact stereo set was on a built-in shelf so he could listen to opera while painting. The wind blowing in the open window carried with it the fresh fragrance of trees. This was, without doubt, a space for an artist to focus on his work. Everything you might need was here, and not one thing extra.

Now that I had this environment to work in, the feeling of
wanting to paint something
grew stronger, like a quiet ache. And there were no limits on the amount of time I could spend for myself. No need any longer to paint things I didn't want to in order to earn a living, no more obligation to prepare dinner for my wife when she came home. (Not that I minded making dinner, though that didn't change the fact that it was an obligation.) And it wasn't just preparing meals—I had the right to stop eating altogether and starve if I felt like it. I was utterly free to do exactly what I wanted, without worrying about anybody else.

In the end, though, I couldn't paint a thing. No matter how long I stood in front of the canvas and stared at that white, blank space, not a single idea of what to paint came to me. I had no clue where to begin, how to start. Like a novelist who has lost words, or a musician who has lost his instrument, I stood there in that bare, square studio, at a complete loss.

I'd never felt that way before, not ever. Once I faced a canvas, my mind would immediately leave the horizon of the everyday, and
something
would well up in my imagination. Sometimes it would be a productive image, at other times a useless illusion. But still, something would always come to me. From there, I'd latch onto it, transfer it to the canvas, and continue to develop it, letting my intuition lead the way. If I did it that way, the work completed itself. But now I couldn't see
anything
that would provide the initial spark. You can have all the desire and ache inside you want, but what you really need is a concrete starting point.

—

I would get up early in the morning (I generally always wake before six), brew coffee in the kitchen, and then, mug in hand, pad off to the studio and sit on the stool in front of the canvas. And focus my feelings. Listen closely to the echoes in my heart, trying to grasp the image of something that had to be there. But this always ended in a fruitless retreat. I'd try concentrating for a while, then plunk down on the studio floor, lean back against the wall, and listen to a Puccini opera. (I'm not sure why, but all I seemed to listen to then was Puccini.)
Turandot
,
La Bohème
. I'd sit there, staring at the languidly rotating ceiling fan, waiting for an idea or motif to come to me. But nothing ever came. Just the early-summer sun that rose sluggishly in the sky.

What was the problem? Maybe it's because I'd spent so many years doing portraits for a living. Maybe that diminished any natural intuition I had. Like sand slowly washed away by the tide. Somehow the flow of my life had gone off in the wrong direction. I needed time, I thought. I had to be patient.
Make time be on my side.
Do that, and I was sure to seize the right flow. That channel would surely come back to me. Truthfully, though, I wasn't sure it ever would.

It was during this period, too, that I slept with the two married women. I think I was looking for some kind of inner breakthrough. Come what may, I wanted to break out of the rut I was in, and the only way for me to do so was to jolt my psyche, give it a prod (it didn't matter what kind). Plus I'd started to tire of being alone. And it had been a long time since I'd slept with a woman.

—

It occurs to me now that my days back then were pretty strange. I'd wake up early, go into that small square, white-walled studio, have no ideas for what to paint as I stared at the blank canvas, then flop down on the floor and listen to Puccini. When it came to the realm of creativity, I was basically facing a pure nothingness. When Claude Debussy had writer's block while composing an opera, he wrote, “Day after day I produce
rien
—nothingness.” That summer was the same for me—day after day I took part in
producing nothingness
. Perhaps I was quite used to facing nothingness day after day—though I wouldn't go so far as to say we were intimate.

About twice a week in the afternoon, the second of the married women would drive to my place in her red Mini. We'd go straight to bed and make love. In the early afternoon we'd devour each other's flesh. What this produced was, of course, not nothingness. No doubt about it, actual flesh-and-blood bodies were involved. Bodies you could actually touch with your hands, every inch, even run your lips over them. In this way, as if I'd flipped a switch on my consciousness, I began moving between an ambiguous, vague
rien
and a vivid, living reality. The woman said her husband hadn't made love to her in nearly two years. He was ten years older than she was, and busy with work, never returning home until late at night. She tried many ways of enticing him, but nothing seemed to rouse his interest.

“I wonder why. I mean, you have such a lovely body,” I said.

She gave a small shrug. “We've been married over fifteen years and have two kids. I guess I'm no longer as fresh as I used to be.”

“You seem plenty fresh to me.”

“Thanks. Though that makes it sound like I'm being recycled or something.”

“Like recycling resources?”

“Exactly.”

“It's a very precious resource, though,” I said. “Contributes to society, too.”

She giggled. “As long as you sort everything correctly.”

A little while later, we eagerly set out to sort out resources once more.

—

Truthfully I wasn't all that drawn to her as a person at first. In that sense there was a different tone about our relationship than with the women I'd dated. She and I had almost nothing in common to talk about. There was hardly anything about our present lives, or our personal histories until then, that overlapped. I'm not generally a talkative person, so when we were together, she did most of the talking. She'd tell me personal things and I'd make the appropriate responses, giving my feedback, I guess you'd call it, though it was hardly a real conversation.

This was a first for me. With other women, I'd always been attracted to their personalities. Physical relationships came later, something that accompanied the initial appeal…That was the usual pattern. But not with her. With her the physical came first. Not that I'm complaining. When I was with her I could enjoy the act in a pure, unfettered way. And I think she could, too. She came many times as we made love, and I came many times too.

She told me this was the first time since she got married that she'd slept with another man. I had no reason to doubt her. And for me, too, this was the first time I'd slept with another woman since I got married. (No, actually there was one exception, when I shared a bed with another woman. Not that it was something I was looking for. I'll get into that later on.)

“But my friends the same age, all of them are married but most of them are having affairs,” she said. “They talk about it a lot.”

“Recycling,” I said.

“I never imagined I'd join them.”

I gazed up at the ceiling and thought about Yuzu. Was she off somewhere, in bed with somebody?

—

After the woman left, I felt at loose ends. The bed still showed the hollows where she had lain. I didn't feel like doing anything, so I lay out on a lounge chair on the terrace and killed time reading a book. All the books on Mr. Amada's bookshelf were old, among them a few unusual novels that would be hard to get hold of these days. Works that in the past had been pretty popular but had been forgotten, read by no one. I enjoyed reading this kind of out-of-date novel. Doing so let me share—with this old man I'd never met—the feeling of being left behind by time.

As the sun set, I opened a bottle of wine (drinking wine was my one and only luxury at the time, though of course this was inexpensive wine) and listened to some old LPs. The record collection was comprised entirely of classical music, the majority of which was opera and chamber music. All of them looked like they'd been lovingly cared for, without a single scratch. During the day I listened to opera, while at night I favored Beethoven and Schubert string quartets.

Having a relationship with that older married woman, being able to hold a real live woman in my arms regularly, brought me a certain level of calm. The soft touch of a mature woman's skin eased the pent-up emotions I'd had. At the very least, while I made love to her I was able to shelve the doubts and problems I'd been carrying around. Yet I still wasn't able to come up with an idea of what to paint. Occasionally in bed I'd do a pencil sketch of her in the nude. Most of these were pornographic. Pictures of my cock inside her, or her sucking me off. The sketches made her blush, but she enjoyed looking at them. I imagine that if these had been photos most women wouldn't have liked them, and would even have been disgusted with the man who made them, and on their guard. But I found that with rough sketches, if they were done well, women were actually happy to see them. Because they had the warmth of life in them—or, at least, they didn't have a mechanical coldness. But still, no matter how well I managed these sketches, not even a fragment of an image of what I really wanted to paint came to me.

The kind of paintings I did as a student, so-called abstracts, no longer appealed to me. My heart wasn't drawn to them anymore. Looking back on it now, I see that what I'd been wrapped up in back then was nothing more than the pursuit of form. Back when I was young, I was completely drawn to the beauty of form, and to balance. Nothing wrong with that. But in my case I didn't reach the soulful depth that should lie beyond. Now I see it very clearly, but at the time, all I could grasp was the
appeal
of shape at a superficial level. Nothing really moved me. My paintings were
smart
but nothing more.

And now I was thirty-six. Forty was just around the corner. I felt that by the time I turned forty, I'd have to secure my own unique artistic world. Forty was a sort of watershed for people. Once you get past that age, you can't keep going on as you were before. I still had four years to go, but I knew that those four years might flash by in an instant. Painting portraits for a living had taken me on a wide detour. Somehow I had to get time on my side once again.

—

While I lived in that house in the mountains I found myself wanting to know more about Tomohiko Amada. I'd never been interested in Japanese-style painting, and though I'd heard the name Tomohiko Amada, and he happened to be my friend's father, I had no idea what kind of person he was, or what kind of paintings he did. He might be a heavyweight in the world of Japanese painting, but he had totally stayed out of the limelight, turning his back on his worldly renown, and alone, quietly—or one might say stubbornly—focused on creating his art. This was about the extent of what I knew about him.

But as I listened to his record collection on the stereo he'd left behind, borrowed his books, slept in his bed, made meals every day in his kitchen, and used his studio, I gradually became more interested in Tomohiko Amada as a person. Something close to curiosity, you could say. The path he'd taken aroused my interest—the way he'd been focused on modernist painting, traveled all the way to Vienna to study, then after returning to Japan made a sudden return to Japanese-style painting. I didn't know the details, but in general you would think that it couldn't have been very easy for someone who'd done Western painting for so long to shift over to Japanese-style painting. You'd need to decide to abandon all the techniques you'd spent so much time and effort mastering, and begin again from zero. Despite this, Tomohiko Amada had chosen that arduous path. There must have been a compelling reason.

One day, before my art class, I went to the Odawara city library to search out collections of Tomohiko Amada's artwork. Probably because he was an artist living in the area, the library had three beautiful volumes of his work. One of them included some of the Western paintings he'd done in his twenties as reference material. What surprised me was that the series of Western-style paintings he'd done as a young man reminded me somewhat of the abstract paintings I'd done myself in the past. The style wasn't specifically the same (in the prewar period he'd been heavily influenced by Cubism), yet his stance of “greedily pursuing form” in no small way had something in common with my own approach. As you might expect from someone who went on to become a first-class artist, his paintings also had much more depth and persuasive power than mine. Technically, too, there were things about them that were, simply, astounding. I imagine they must have been highly acclaimed at the time. Still, there was
something missing
.

I sat there in the reading room at the library and carefully examined his works for a long time. So what was it that was lacking from his work? I couldn't pinpoint it. But if I had to give an opinion, I'd say they were paintings that
weren't really necessary
. The kind of paintings that, if they disappeared somewhere forever, wouldn't put anybody out. A cruel way of putting it, perhaps, but it's the truth. From the present perspective, some seventy years on, I could see that quite well.

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