Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Boy in the Earth’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Boy in the Earth

Fiction – paperback; Soho Press; 160 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.

The Boy in the Earth is the latest novel by Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura to be translated into English. I had read two of his earlier works — The Gun (translated in 2016) and The Thief (translated in 2012) — to be interested enough to pre-order this one, which arrived in the post a couple of weeks ago.

First published in 2005, this book is Nakamura’s fifth novel. Winner of the Akutagawa Prize — one of Japan’s most important literary awards and presented twice a year since 1935 —  I don’t think it stacks up against the previous two I have read, but it’s a quick, haunting read nonetheless. If you’re feeling a bit low I would caution against reading it though — The Boy in the Earth plumbs some seriously dark territory and has a strong nihilistic streak running through it.

It’s narrated in the first person by a young Tokyo taxi driver, who has obsessive fantasies about dying. In each of these fantasies he envisions himself returning to the earth, being subsumed by the ground and becoming at one with the dirt around him.

It’s only mid-way through the book that the reader comes to understand the reasons for this strange obsession.

A quiet, understated novel

There’s not much of a plot.The Boy in the Earth is basically a character study, although I’d argue it’s not even much of one of those. We glean few insights into the unnamed character’s personality other than the fact he’s plagued by suicidal thoughts, cares little for his “girlfriend” (a woman who sleeps with him in exchange for sharing his apartment rent free) and has no family or friends. He’s a loner and an outsider.

The prose style is very pointed: it’s pretty much adjective free and every word is chosen to move the storyline forward. It feels pedestrian, but as the narrative plods ahead, there’s a frisson of suspense when the taxi driver discovers the father who abandoned him as a child wants to re-establish contact. Should he take the plunge and meet him? Or turn his back and walk away?

As you may have gathered The Boy in the Earth isn’t a cheery read — and I haven’t even told you about the grotesque abuse at the heart of it. It focuses very much on themes that seem to dominate the few Japanese novels that I’ve read — alienation, love, loss and loneliness — and adds a new twist: what happens to children who suffer horrendous abuse and grow up to become adults? Will they ever find a way to live their own lives? Or is death an easier option?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Gun’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura

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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura


Fiction – hardcover; Corsair; 211 pages; 2012. Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates.

I first heard about Fuminori Nakamura’s prize-winning novella, The Thief, when Sakura reviewed it on Chasing Bawa, so when I saw it on the shelves of my local library I borrowed it. I gulped it down in about two days — and have been feeling slightly paranoid about having my wallet stolen ever since.

A pickpocket who targets the rich

This very quick read is about a pickpocket — the thief of the title — who narrates the story in the first person. Nishimura is a loner and claims to have no friends or family. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system (crowded trains and platforms provide him with particularly rich pickings).

He is so good at pickpocketing he often finds wallets about his person that he has lifted with no recollection of having stolen them.  But he is not interested in credit cards or personal items found in the wallets he steals; he simply wants the cash to fund his lifestyle.

The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body.

A thief with a good heart

But Nishimura isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective.

Against his better judgement, Nishimura then goes on to develop a complicated sexual relationship with the woman, who is a prostitute, but it is the boy to whom he becomes most attached. He teaches him how to pickpocket — not to exploit him but to instill some vital survival skills.

And yet it is Nishimura’s survival which is most at risk here. That’s because when he meets up with his former partner in crime, Ishikawa, he becomes embroiled in an armed robbery that is more dangerous (and complicated) than he’d been lead to believe. His special skill as a pickpocket is then put to the test in a series of increasingly dangerous operations in which failure is not an option…

A dark page-turner

The Thief, which won Japan’s 2010 Ōe Prize, is a gripping read, which races along at Formula One pace. It’s edgy, filled with paranoia and brims with a dark mix of danger and excitement.  Yet the author’s prose is exceptionally skeletal. There’s barely an adjective in the book. And despite the page-turning quality, there’s a feeling of stillness — and empty, aching silence — in the narrative.

What I especially liked is the way in which it turns the crime genre on its head. This isn’t about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s life which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. (From past experience, this appears to be a common thread in Japanese crime fiction — see, for example, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X and Natsuo Kirino’s Real World.)

Don’t expect to come away from the book feeling uplifted, because this is the kind of read that takes you to dark, terrifying places, albeit in the safety of your own imagination. But if you are looking for something fresh and a little offbeat, it will provide perfect fare.