“I am a Metaphor, nothing more… I only follow orders—acting as a link between phenomena and language. Like a helpless jellyfish adrift on the ocean.”—Long Face
As in many novels by Haruki Murakami, 2017’s Killing Commendatore doesn’t have an obvious antagonist. Yes, there are characters with ominous secrets, but, for most of the novel, there isn’t really a “bad guy.” The unnamed narrator doesn’t encounter any serious threats until he undertakes one of Murakami’s signature journeys through a surreal underworld along “the Path of Metaphor” at the novel’s climax.
The narrator’s Beatrice takes the form of Donna Anna, a character from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, as represented in a painting by the fictional Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada. She warns the narrator to
Make fast your heart… Do not let it flounder. Should that happen, you will surely fall prey to a Double Metaphor… they are within you… they grab hold of your true thoughts and feelings and devour them one after another, fattening themselves. That is what Double Metaphors are. They have been dwelling in the depth of your psyche since ancient times.
So what the hell is a Double Metaphor?
Looking to the Japanese provides little clarity. Killing Commendatore was originally published in two volumes—顕れるイデア編 (The Idea Made Visible) and ろうメタファー編 (The Shifting Metaphor). Note that both the idea and metaphor are spelled out in katakana; Murakami is invoking two words in English, not referencing native Japanese concepts. What the translators give the reader as Double Metaphor (二重メタファー) is the Japanese kanji for double, followed by the transliterated English word metaphor.
Double Metaphor is hardly a common phrase in English, either.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.
It’s a compelling hypothesis. Central to the plot is the role Tomohiko Amada played in an assassination conspiracy against a Nazi figure in Vienna in the 1930s. By bringing WWII and its antecedents into the narrative, Murakami calls to mind Japan’s wartime propaganda. As is characteristic of propaganda, slogans were rife with doublethink. “With the help of Japan, China, and Manchucho, the world can be in Peace.” “One Hundred Million with One Spirit.” “We are all equal”—probably an unintended reference to Orwell’s most famous doublespeak of all, “…but some animals are more equal than others.”
Many of Japan’s most distinguished minds actively supported Japan’s war machine in the lead up to WWII, much like some of America’s Hollywood elites threw tacit support behind German Führer Adolf Hitler.
Especially after Japan’s Peace Preservation Law of 1925, many artists promoted Kokutai, or the uniqueness of Japanese people and emperor-centric culture. Hundreds of fine artists like Tsuhuharu Foujita, Goro Tsuruta, and Ryohei Koiso joined the government’s war art program. Writers, too, joined the cause; for example, poet Yosano Akiko wrote pro-war poetry, including “Citizens of Japan, A Morning Song,” in which she coopted the samurai ethical code Bushido to praise a Japanese soldier for dying for his emperor.
(Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1986 An Artist of the Floating World deals with one artist’s need to accept his small responsibility for the buildup to WWII.)
If the Double Metaphor we are supposed to beware is indeed Orwellian doublethink, Murakami’s warning is a timely one in Japan and abroad. A 2019 survey found that 79% of Japanese people no longer believe Japanese statistics, which the current government has no apparent qualms about fabricating at its convenience. The Reiwa (令和) imperial era began that year; the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers the English translation Beautiful Harmony in place of the more literal and Orwellian Commanded Peace.
In the US, President Donald Trump famously spouts “alternative facts” while calling into question the legitimacy of the country’s journalists. After a recent (summer 2020) spat with social media giant Twitter, Trump tweeted, “…We will strongly regulate, or close [social media platforms] down…”
The transactional reader-response theory of critics Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser claims that a text’s meaning comes from the interaction between the text’s inferred meaning (what the author intended to say) and the reader’s unique experience. By experiencing a work (i.e., reading it or viewing it) the reader actively constructs meaning. Reader-response theory is highly fruitful for explaining the work of Haruki Murakami, and I think Killing Commendatore is itself a statement of—even an allegory for—reader-response theory.
In the novel’s first surrealist scene, the narrator finds a two-foot-tall man in the home he’s borrowing from a friend. The man resembles a figure from a painting the narrator has discovered in the attic several days before titled, like the novel, Killing Commendatore. The small man is not the Commendatore from the painting, only an Idea taking the character from the painting’s form. The Commendatore defines his own existence on the basis of “his friends’” experience:
I am no spirit. I am just an Idea. A spirit is basically supernaturally free, which I am not. I live under all sorts of restrictions…
As with Double Metaphor, here Murakami uses the transliterated English word for Idea.
I need some sort of shape in order to speak with my friends…
I can’t take any form I want. There is a limit to the wardrobe.
In other words, it’s the narrator’s experience of the painting Killing Commendatore that gives the Idea shape. Mariye, a young girl in the narrator’s art class, is the only other character to seriously consider the painting; she is also the only other character who meets the Idea as the Commendatore.
Dr. Rebecca Suter identifies characters in Killing Commendatore as “producers of text,” continues that they “invested with the task of rearranging fragments of reality into narrative form…” The narrator and Mariye give the Idea form out of their own experiences.
Murakami has explained that he approaches his work with this kind of reader-centric experience in mind:
The reader receives [a novel] as it is, and it must be chewed and digested by the reader. If the author, before passing it into the readers’ hands, chews it for them, the meaning of the text is greatly damaged.
It sounds a lot like the way in which readers construct meaning makes everything in the novel a potential Double Metaphor… or Triple Metaphor… or… Nth x Metaphor.
Then why does Donna Anna warn the narrator how dangerous Double Metaphors are? We take for granted that she is a reliable source of information about the “Path of Metaphor.” Is she?
To me, one of the great disappointments of Killing Commendatore is that the dénouement seems to undermine the climax. The narrator undertakes that journey along the “Path of Metaphor” so he can rescue Mariye, who has disappeared. After his own difficult trial, he finds out that Mariye was simply hiding in another character’s basement for four days. The Commendatore insinuates to Mariye that she may have been in danger, but there is no evidence to support his claim. Perhaps the Double Metaphor, too, is less dangerous than it seems.
If Double Metaphor isn’t sinister, if it comes from readers’ own experiences of the novel, the painting Killing Commendatore is the novel’s principle Double Metaphor. Consider Donna Anna.
Donna Anna is first and foremost a character from Mozart’s opera who looks on helplessly as the Commendatore is slain in cold blood.
She is also a figure in Tomohiko Amada’s painting, which transplants Mozart’s early modern Europe to early medieval Japan.
The narrator “has a hunch” that Donna Anna represents one of Amada’s coconspirators, with whom he was in love in his youth.
She might, at the same time, be Mariye’s mother, who died when Mariye was very young.
The narrator even wonders if Donna Anna is also his own long-dead sister.
As the narrator obverses, “Depending on who was looking at her, Donna Anna might embody many things.” I propose that we, the readers, have the right (responsibility?) to find our own meaning in Killing Commendatore as well.
Murakami’s novels are so elusive because he approaches his work with certain themes he wants to explore, perhaps even messages to convey, but he ultimately invites the reader to create meaning for herself.
More by Haruki Murakami: After Dark; After the Quake (short stories); Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: Stories; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Dance Dance Dance; The Elephant Vanishes; Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World; Kafka on the Shore; Men without Women: Stories; Norwegian Wood; South of the Border, West of the Sun; Sputnik Sweetheart; Trilogy of the Rat (series); Wind/Pinball: Two Novels;The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle