“I was surprised that men like Nishino existed in this world, the type of man who could slip so smoothly into a woman’s sensibility.”
EUROPA EDITIONS, Fiction.
Thus speaks the married Sayuri in “The Ten Loves of Nishino,” a new collection of stories by Hiromi Kawakami, one of Japan’s most popular writers and a rising star in the West after “The Nakano Thrift Shop” and “Strange Weather in Tokyo,” both published in English in 2017.
The titular gentleman is a playboy on a roll, both charming and tender and utterly feckless — the kind of guy who says “it’s not what you think” when busted in the act of cheating, or leaves a woman shackled playfully in his apartment to meet with another lover.
More interestingly, however, Nishino can steal into women’s hearts as smoothly as a cat into a kitchen. He speaks to their inner needs, drawing them out with his trusted line, “Somehow you are different from all the other girls.” In fact, his elusive perfection, a major element of the enjoyment of the stories, was a driving force behind Nishino’s creation.
“There have been other novels about playboys, such as ‘The Tale of Genji’ or ‘The Tales of Ise,'” says Kawakami. “When I read this kind of classic Japanese novel, I always wondered why women were interested in such womanizers. I wanted to explore this feeling and this old question. For women, a playboy’s attitude can seem unreasonable and difficult to understand.”
As the West is still roiled by the #MeToo movement — and as publishers hire sensitivity readers to make sure that novelists don’t offend — along comes Kawakami’s ode to this shifty ladies’ man. It is a sweet and refreshing book, told through the voices of 10 different women who, at various times, loved Nishino. Neither toxic nor sly, the man is busy in love. But Kawakami reminds us that it takes two to tango, that every player has something that makes him attractive to women. In her gentle drawing and calm, earnest prose, Nishino appeals to his loves because, at last, here is a man who gets them.
“Calling on the phone at the desired time. Calling at the desired frequency,” Kawakami writes in one of the stories. “Using the desired words of praise. Offering the desired kindness. Scolding in the desired way. Things so insignificant that no man could pull them off. But Nishino did all of these things with ease.”
One of the pleasures of the stories is to follow Nishino from high school all the way to old age, as Kawakami adds nuance to her male character.
“When I wrote the first story in the collection, I wanted to write about Nishino from the woman’s perspective,” explains Kawakami. “Then I wrote the others in the sequence in which they’re now published.”
Through his various incarnations, Nishino becomes a catalyst for each woman to explore her own feelings and sexuality. As clueless about love and commitment as Nishino, most women dump him when the affair runs its course. The young Kanoko misses him after their breakup as Nishino starts dating Manami, his older boss at a Tokyo company. The middle-aged Eriko chooses her cat over Nishino, while the married Natsumi becomes his great love, yet rejects a marriage proposal.
Kawakami captures beautifully the sadness of fleeting affairs, the loneliness of the playboy who cannot keep a lasting attachment. She knows how young women experience intimacy, writing humorously of male erections and the way sex can reflect an evolving relationship. But how does it feel to see her stories, first published in Japan 16 years ago, now appear for the first time in English?
“I couldn’t write the same stories again, because I’ve changed so much as a person,” explains Kawakami. “When a book is finished, the story leaves the writer and becomes each reader’s individual property. In the end, there are as many different stories as there are readers. The Nishino stories are no longer just mine. Even though I wrote them, I am now just another reader. And as a reader, I like the female characters the way a parent may like her children.”
But nothing is sadder than an aging Casanova, and as lovers pile on and Nishino grows old, a past tragedy involving his sister seems behind his inability to commit. Will he finally settle down and find his place in a restless world?
Unlike much current literature in the West, there are no power dynamics in these stories. Instead, Kawakami writes about gender relations with a vulnerable generosity that doesn’t accuse or complain. She makes you think about love and commitment, about the people you love or have loved — and how others have loved them in different ways.
If dating Nishino is “hard work worth doing,” as a lover puts it, reading his tale is a breezy summer delight.
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