Fiction – hardcover; Soho; 198 pages; 2016. Translate from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
My first introduction to Japanese crime writer Fuminori Nakamura was in 2012 when I read his prize-winning novella The Thief, an extraordinary story about a pickpocket who targets the rich and helps the poor.
The Gun, to be published by Soho next week, is another prize-winning book by the same author. It was Nakamura’s debut novel, originally published in hardcover in Japan in 2003 and now published in English for the first time.
Obsessed with a gun
The simple story is about a college student, Nishikawa, who finds a handgun at a crime scene, inexplicably steals it and then becomes obsessed with the weapon. He takes it home, buys special material to wrap it up in, polishes it with a kind of creepy reverence and thinks about it constantly. It becomes more important to him than his sex life:
I returned to my apartment and opened the satchel. The gun was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. The girl I had just slept with was no comparison for the gun. In this moment, the gun was everything to me, and would be everything to me from now on as well. As I pondered whether or not it was loaded, I gazed at its piercing metallic sheen.
Over the course of the next few months he becomes more and more obsessed by his new illegal possession and decides he needs to use it for its true purpose — to kill a human being.
A chilling storyline
The most impressive thing about the book is the chilling nature of it. It’s written in fairly pedestrian prose, with scarcely an adjective in it, but it builds up a slow momentum as you begin to wonder whether Nishikawa, who was in an orphanage until the age of six, will ever get caught.
It’s written in the first person, so you only ever get to see things from his point of view, but it soon becomes clear that for all his supposed normality he’s out of touch with his emotions — he never loses his temper (even when he has good reason to), treats his girlfriends abysmally, doesn’t care too much about his parents and even less about the biological father who lies dying in a hospital bed — and only begins to worry when a policeman knocks on his door. Even so, he never seems to understand the consequences of his actions.
But Nishikawa isn’t without heart — he cares about the little boy who lives next door whom he suspects of being physically abused and takes steps to report the situation to the authorities — and is well liked by his peers.
Not your usual crime novel
As with The Thief — and much other Japanese crime fiction I’ve read — this book is not about solving a crime but gives you a glimpse inside the head of a young man who could, potentially, carry out a horrendous criminal act. It asks many questions — what makes good people do bad things? how do you go from committing one small crime to one big one? does the criminal ever feel justified in his actions? how do internal and external events impinge on what happens? — and provides some answers, albeit limited ones.
It shows how an alienated youth, seemingly well-adjusted and well liked, can become caught up in events greater than himself, events that will changes his life in ways he may never have imagined possible before. And it has a lot to say about guns, including their beauty, their craftsmanship, their fascinating appeal — and the violent purpose for which they are designed.
The Gun was originally published in a Japanese literary magazine and was awarded the Shinchō Prize for new writers in 2002.