“The Boy in the Earth” was Fuminori Nakamura’s fifth book and it won him the Akutagawa Prize in 2005. It’s a short sharp shock of a novella and Allison Markin Powell’s powerful recent translation finally brings its creeping dread alive for English readers.
The unnamed 20-something Tokyo taxi driver at the heart of the story is a classic Nakamura protagonist. The victim of shocking physical abuse as a child, his lasting trauma causes him to seek out life-threatening situations and fantasize about suicide. The story opens with him flicking a lit cigarette at a biker gang, for which he unsurprisingly receives a beating.
He assuages some of his demons in a dysfunctional relationship with Sayuko, an alcoholic who has become emotionally numb after her baby was stillborn. Her emptiness balances his immersion in horror, providing the dimmest of lights at the end of this blackest of tunnels.
Although many orders of magnitude darker, Nakamura may be the spiritual heir to Kenzaburo Oe. This is existential literature at its compelling and nauseating best.
Nakamura doesn’t just look fearlessly into the void at the heart of human existence — he crawls inside and starts digging.
Whereas Oe’s characters lose themselves in drink, seclusion, spirituality and music, Nakamura’s fall through the cracks of Tokyo’s backstreets. His work isn’t merely noir as titillation; it’s the hideous truth below the surface, and he is one of the most vital writers at work today in Japan.