Fuminori Nakamura has won many of the major literary prizes in Japan and is quickly making the same kind of impact in the English-speaking world. His third novel to be translated into English, “Last Winter, We Parted,” is out now. It’s a tense, layered story centered around a young writer commissioned by his editor to write about photographer Yudai Kiharazaka, in prison for murdering two women.
Translated by Allison Markin Powell.
Soho Press, Fiction.
For readers familiar with Nakamura’s work, “Last Winter, We Parted” shows a writer maturing and flexing his talent. His stripped-down prose and direct style drop the reader straight into his nightmare. In contrast with Nakamura’s previous two translated books, the Oe Kenzaburo Prize-winning “The Thief” and “Evil and the Mask,” “Last Winter, We Parted” is full of stylistic flourishes and structural experimentation. There are textual games throughout the book, as it switches from archived letters to internal monologue to reported speech to notes from a diary and chains of tweets. It’s a book that keeps its secrets until the last page, playing games with the reader. Structurally it’s a Mobius strip. It must have taken a lot of planning and head-scratching.
“Before writing something as complex as ‘Last Winter, We Parted’ I have an assumed outline, but it changes as I’m writing,” Nakamura tells The Japan Times. “For example, while I was writing the scene with the doll it grew much bigger and much more important.”
Despite Nakamura being born in Aichi Prefecture, his books are set in Tokyo.
“Tokyo is well suited to writing about loneliness,” he says. “As a city grows, solitude increases in proportion. In Tokyo, loneliness is everywhere.”
Is that why your characters rarely have a backstory?
“Sometimes a backstory is necessary but sometimes it isn’t. My characters are often people who are adrift in the world.”
Yet groups of various kinds frequently turn up in his work. In “The Thief” there are gangs, in “Evil and the Mask” there is a cult and a terrorist group, and “Last Winter, We Parted” has a bizarre group called K2. Nakamura explains what it is that attracts him to such groups, and why he keeps coming back to them:
“I’m interested in people who separate themselves from the world, but I’m also interested in what happens when those kind of deviant people come together,” he says.
Nakamura isn’t a straightforward crime writer. While his stories take place within the Tokyo underworld and his protagonists tend to be criminals, his books are a far cry from the procedural dramas and whodunits that make up a large part of the genre. His writing owes more to Albert Camus than to Ian Rankin. His list of influences includes Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Kenzaburo Oe and Osamu Dazai.
“I think of myself as writing pure literature,” he says. “I’m interested in the secret depths of humanity. I focus much more on describing the psychological state. I think that by writing from the side of human darkness, I might be able to write about those secret depths.”
There’s an echo of Ryu Murakami in the depths and darknesses his books explore, but where Murakami’s characters revel in their baseness, Nakamura tackles their existential ennui.
Not that he is distancing himself from the genre.
“There’s a side of me that is a crime writer,” he says. “I don’t mind being read like that. There are many different ways to read my books; I find that deeply interesting.”
“Last Winter, We Parted” contains a number of scenes and dialogues that muse on creativity and explore Nakamura’s own views on literature and art. One character says that another “tried to create art that he shouldn’t have,” that he “ventured into territory where he didn’t belong.” Does Nakamura think there is art that shouldn’t be created?
“No, but art does have a terrible side,” he says. “I try to capture that. I want to write that.”
Three times in the book, Nakamura mentions that Truman Capote had a breakdown after writing “In Cold Blood,” and Kiharazaka warns the writer that by listening to his story, “It would be as if I were putting myself inside of you.” It’s natural to wonder whether Nakamura considers that a real concern when writing books that deal with such dark subjects.
“I want to make some kind of an impression on readers. I mean, if you read an unforgettable novel, it…” He pauses, lets his thought hang. “I think that the inner surface of the writer becomes distorted. It’s the fate of a writer.”
Though Nakamura is a prolific author in Japanese, averaging a book a year, “Last Winter, We Parted” is only his third book to be translated into English. Out of nearly two dozen novels and short story collections, I ask, which would he most like to see translated next?
“My new book, ‘Kyodan X’ (‘Cult X’), will be published in Japanese this December,” he says. “It’s the story of terrorism by a religious cult. The big question at the center of it is, ‘Did God or man create this world?’ Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, physics, cosmology and biology are all interwoven. I’d like to see that translated next.’