Three of Fuminori Nakamura’s novels have arrived on American bookshelves recently. These translations of the 37-year-old author’s work have been met with dozens of awards, and he has been welcomed with an explosion of new fans. Nakamura is the cover story in Mystery Scene magazine’s most recent issue. There is good reason. He is giving readers a different but dark look at an increasingly popular, already dark sub genre — noir. It is also fair, I think, to say his work will be part of the continuous discussion of what is genre and what is literary fiction, if, in fact, there is a distinction to be made.
The Thief * —Words and sentences are razor slices, forceful. Quick and short. Tough as well as elegant as they are, the minimized narrative and terse dialogue deliver surprisingly full-bodied, fully textured inner and outer worlds. As a reader I was involuntarily swept along. Later, backing off a bit and looking at it as a writer, I wanted to understand the brush strokes of his work. I wanted to know how he packed so much feeling into this brief, unsentimentally written book.
The story is not complex. My take is that it is a story about a man who chooses to live in a world he carefully carves out for himself and one he has, perhaps until now, controlled. We might find his life sad, tawdry, but it is not without meaning for him. It has value here and there. His pickpocket profession brings a measure of fulfillment. He has talent, enjoys challenges, and appreciates in a modest way his professional accomplishments. He is not propelled by ambition or greed. One could easily conclude that his profession is his art and his life.
One mistake. He allows others to enter his sphere — and we can argue fate and free will if we choose. Or we can say that this is Noir. One mistake. The main character’s fatal flaw is that he became human, or humane if only for a moment. And his world, so carefully kept in balance, rolls over him. One mistake, one slip. That’s all you get.
Evil And The Mask — Perhaps because Mr. Nakamura’s The Thief was so good and so successful, I expected this one to stay close to home. But in this novel, that single narrative voice and the compact world it created has been invaded. The world is no longer seen through a peephole. We now have colors, emotion, vivid descriptions, multiple dimensional characters with backstories. The entire central story is told against a larger backdrop, in this case as both medical and moral metaphor. Nakamura constantly asks the main character and the reader to contemplate and weigh moral consequences. It is not that The Thief was too simple. In my view, it is a masterpiece of minimalism. Its ability to communicate with such sparseness of language is close to incomparable. But this is something else, altogether. Nakamura’s vision remains unblinkingly dark. We still have one narrator who, unlike the pickpocket, shares his pain with reader. He is a boy groomed by a self-consciously evil father to be a cancer on society The individual story mirrors none too subtly the corruption of society, putting along side each other the notion of personal murder for gain alongside the profitable war business in which his family is also engaged. We go to war for oil, to sell weapons, to rebuild what has been destroyed by bombs and mortars and to provide the essential services to support armies — all in a vicious, violent, profitable circle. War (evil=cancer) is good for the economy. Nakamura, in this one, continues to create a dark world with the requisite sex and violence. In Evil and The Mask, Nakamura shows how the dystopian world others write about, can come into being, if it’s not here already.
Last Winter We Parted — This novel continues the author’s willingness to change the form of the narrative. While he has returned to a more frugal use of words, he expanded the number of point of views. Here we have the story told by the person arrested for a vicious crime and a reporter who is supposed to interview him to get the real story. While Nakamura’ constructs uncomplicated, short sentences at a rapid pace, this not the way of the story itself. There are no straight lines as the plot folds back upon itself and the person we presume is the protagonist might not have been as honest with us (and himself) as we presumed. So too the villain.
Identity is a theme that is woven through all three books. And Nakamura plays with it. In The Thief the main character seems absent any identity aside from his craft. In Evil And The Mask, plastic surgery — a new identity — plays a significant role. And here in Last Winter We Parted, there is sleight of hand and stand-ins real and manufactured to confuse or amuse us. As in all three of these Nakamura’s novels, there are murders with which to contend, but again there is a larger fabric against which the drama is set.
As readers we are not merely voyeurs. Nakamura asks questions. If you reveal yourself to another, have you lost part of who you are? When we care passionately (hate or love) about another does that mean we are less ourselves? If someone recreates you in another fashion — photographs, dolls perhaps, or just in his or her own perception – have you been diminished or changed? There is a code noir seems to follow. After all is written, the only message is: “Life is crap and then you die.” Nakamura certainly follows this tradition. He also creates a fine mystery that unfolds in a context larger than the plot.
* Comments regarding The Thief were posted earlier on this blog. Comments on Evil And The Mask and Last Winter We Parted are new.