Jungian concepts can facilitate deeper insights into literature, especially in works which abound in archetypal imagery. Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel, Killing Commendatore, is a complex but authentic representation of a life crisis in a young man, told as a magical realistic individuation saga. The immediate psychological challenge to the young man, a painter whom we shall call the hero (he is never named in the novel), is the unexpected divorce by his wife after 6 years of a tranquil but childless marriage. This sudden, inexplicable and wrenching loss causes him to quit his adequate but uncreative job and up and leave his home in Tokyo for an extended road trip to the north of Japan. The road trip morphs into a kind of dream sequence, a modern-day heroic night-sea journey, with macabre encounters of ghostlike, demonic characters that stir up paranoid and murderous impulses. This first iteration of the night-sea journey is vague, confused and overwhelming, and does not lead to understanding or insight, but rather suggests our hero has fallen into a state of morbid depression. He takes refuge from this nightmare in an offer to stay at the abandoned home in the mountains of an aged but famous artist of the previous generation, who has moved out to a nursing home for the demented. In this mountainside temenos begins a series of interlocking subplots, all of which are now clearly presented in mythological symbolic form.
The young painter sets up a studio in the house, and begins to paint creatively, in new ways he had never done before. He befriends a somewhat older, wealthy, highly refined man, his neighbor, who is a projection of an idealized self-representation, (complete with his own anima problem). He also explores the house, which yields nothing personal of the older painter, until he goes up into the attic, where he finds a single, carefully wrapped painting unknown to the world. The painting depicts a variation on the famous opening scene from Mozart’s Don Giovani, when the enraged Commendatore, father of Donna Anna, Don Giovani’s conquest, confronts Don Giovani and is slain by him. Shortly after pondering the meaning of this odd but powerful painting, the hero hears a bell in the middle of the night, whose source cannot be found. He ultimately has the back yard of the house dug up to discover a magical and numinous ancient circular pit buried in the ground. The pit is just deep enough to prevent a person from jumping out, and the walls are perfectly sheer stone blocks which cannot be climbed. Caught in this trap is a magical figure, none other than a miniature version of the Commendatore in the painting. The hero rescues him and brings him into the house, where he describes himself as an Idea embodied. This Idea of the Commendatore becomes the genius loci of the increasingly uncanny studio temenos, appearing randomly to speak to the young artist in cryptic oracles.
There are many further developments, but the most important all revolve around the hero’s relationships with women, beginning with his younger sister who died when he was a teenager. In an elegant weaving of old memories intermixed with plot episodes involving several females of various ages, Murakami lays out the anima problem of the hero and the neighbor, both in his life historical developmental reality, his current love life, as well as in his conscious and unconscious (dream) erotic/sadistic fantasies. None of this however seems to relate directly to the hero’s newly creative painting and his increasingly fascinated obsession with understanding the secret mystery behind the old painting he discovered.
Following the urgings of the Idea of Commendatore, one of whose attributes is to recognize the importance of “the right time,” which this now is, the hero tracks down the old artist in the nursing home. He attempts to learn from the dying, mute artist the significance of his painting. It was done during WWII while he was in Vienna, in love with a woman whose Nazi father ultimately killed her. While learning this, the Idea of Commendatore suddenly announces that the time is right now, and demands that the hero must kill him immediately, and literally, just as in the painting. The shocked hero is deeply averse to such a tangible, palpable murder, but eventually does indeed slay the Idea of Commendatore, thus enacting in “reality” the imagery depicted in the painting. The immediate result of this violent bloody “human” sacrifice of an Idea, is the opening of a new tunnel into the earth (right there in the nursing home!), which the hero is bidden to enter by a previously encountered but ill understood trickster/Hermes figure, “Longface,” who had identified himself as a Metaphor (rather than an Idea). There follows a second, now truly mythological night-sea journey, fully articulated in all its richness of archetypal imagery, which leads our hero across a kind of River Styx, meeting various shades of the underworld, and journeying through ever more dangerous and difficult obstacles, until at the nadir he is about to be devoured by a snake monster. At the climax of this mortal crisis, however, the hero is suddenly transported/transformed from the “belly of monster,” but only to find himself now trapped inside the very same the pit in his own back yard, just as the Idea of Commendatore had been trapped earlier in the story. There, he must “incubate” in this alchemical vas and overcome his fears of suffocating or starving, or even worse, immortal abandonment. Then, when he has, he is rescued by his doppelganger neighbor, who had previously “modeled” for him how to allow the experience of the pit to deepen his consciousness rather than overwhelm it. The hero is fundamentally transformed by enduring all these trials of Herakles. He is able to reconnect with his estranged wife. He embarks on a new phase of his life with a renewed relationship to his anima and a more conscious awareness of the personal colors with which he had painted his sister’s death in his psyche.
The symbolism in this novel is powerful, it is a contemporary mythological epic. What makes it 21 st century is the consciousness of both the archetypal symbolism and the real historical, developmental trauma which damaged his relationship to his anima in adolescence. This overview may give you a hint of the elegance and depth of the writing, but if you are intrigued, I urge you to read the novel and grapple with its density, both literary and psychological. There are many other characters and subplots, none of them irrelevant or incidental, and deciphering the whole opus will amply reward the adept.
John Boronow, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist from Baltimore. He has rekindled a long set aside fascination with Jung in his retirement, and is thoroughly enjoying reading Jung’s works in his third year of the Jungian Studies Reading Seminar.