Tuesday 15 April 2014

'Nagasaki' by Éric Faye (Review)

As you might know, I'm a big fan of J-Lit, but there must be many more over in France, where the number of works of Japanese literature in translation far outstrip those available in the Anglosphere (I've been very tempted on occasion to dip into this pool of books to see what I'm missing...).  Apparently, though, the fascination with Japan doesn't stop there - it seems that for some, the country also provides inspiration for novels written in the French language too...

Éric Faye's Nagasaki (translated by Emily Boyce, review copy courtesy of Gallic Books) is a short work based on a real-life story, an event which happened in Japan in 2008.  It starts with a man in his fifties, Kobo Shimura, a worker at the bureau of meteorology who lives alone, never having found a lasting relationship.  Recently, though, he has begun to feel a little uneasy in his small house, and with good reason - a check on the level of juice in the bottle in his fridge shows that someone has been visiting while he's at work.

Shimura decides that he needs to investigate matters further, so he installs a camera in his house through which he can monitor his home from work.  Sure enough, he soon sees an intruder in his kitchen, drinking his juice and relaxing in the sun.  However, in pursuing the truth about these unusual intrusions, Shimura finds out that matters are much worse than he could ever imagine...

Nagasaki is a great little book, one which can be read in an hour or so, but which resonates for far longer.  Part of the charm is the voice of the main character, a man who... well, I'll let him tell you himself:
"Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets.  Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what else peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo.  That is where I live.  Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don't amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features."
p.11 (Gallic Books, 2014)
It's a wonderful start to the book, and typical of the first part, in which Faye introduces a man whom time has passed by, a bit of an oddity at work for not wanting to join everyone for drinks at the end of the day.

Shimura struggles through everyday life, forcing his way to work amid the noise of trams and cicadas, and life is gradually wearing him down.  He's becoming a fussy old man, dull and a little deluded, and the writer (and translator!) manages to show this perfectly, gently mocking his disdain of a centenarian on the television who has never drunk alcohol.  It doesn't occur to Shimura that he isn't exactly the life and soul of the party himself.

It's when we get to the discovery of the intruder that all this becomes relevant, as the discovery of the woman in his kitchen forces Shimura to take a good, hard look at his life; it's fair to say he doesn't exactly like what he sees.  In fact, Nagasaki is less about the crime itself than its causes and effects, with the woman's capture leading to a crisis of kinds for the innocent Shimura:
"And that wasn't all.  The woman's presence had somehow opened a tiny window on my consciousness, and through it I was able to see a little more clearly.  I understood that the year she and I had shared, even if she had avoided me and I had known nothing of her, was going to change me, and that already I was no longer the same.  How exactly, I couldn't have said.  But I knew I wouldn't escape unscathed." (pp.56/7)
In fact, the event is to affect him markedly.  Already obsessed with news of the increasing number of old people, and the robots being developed to look after them, Shimura realises that this is his fate - to die alone, in the care of a machine...

It's not all about Shimura, though.  Faye actually switches the point of view about two-thirds of the way through, and we get to hear the woman's side of the story and her reasons for the home invasions.  The writer is attempting to add another angle to the story, showing how easy it is to slip through the cracks without realising and end up with nowhere to go (it's no coincidence that this all happens around the time of the GFC).  However, for me, this final third is a little unnecessary, and I would have preferred the story to stick with Shimamura, leaving the woman's motives in the dark.  As the Japanese know full well, there's a lot to be said for leaving the reader to figure some things out for themselves...

Overall, this a lovely little book though, deftly written with sly humour everywhere in the first half.  I particularly enjoyed the focus on the grey Sanyo fridge, with its rather apt slogan of 'Always with You'...  There were also some nice Japanese touches, such as when Shimura starts to suspect that he might have to look beyond the purely natural to find answers:
"What deity would demand offerings of yogurt, a single pickled plum or some seaweed rice?  Never mind that I was raised a Catholic, I often go to feed our 'kami' at the local shrine, but it never occurred to me for one moment they would come into people's houses and help themselves." (p.31)
If only it had been the household gods stealing his food ;)

Despite my reservations about the final section, Nagasaki is an excellent read, a thought-provoking look at the loneliness of modern life.  It's a book which makes the reader think about their own social ties, wondering if they too might be looking forward to empty twilight years.  And, of course, the book has one other effect on the reader - you won't be forgetting to check your doors and windows in a hurry...