Billed as an “adult romance” in Japan, where it was a runaway bestseller when it came out in 2016, Keiichiro Hirano’s “At the End of the Matinee” can’t really be described as a romance novel in the typical sense for English readers.

At the End of the Matinee, by Keiichiro Hirano
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
316 pages

Sure, the star-crossed protagonists play out the yearnings of a thwarted love, with the triumphs and obstacles of any dramatic affair. Yet what sets this book apart is how Hirano painstakingly renders the backdrop of their story, providing readers with a detailed view of politics, culture and economics at the start of the 21st century.

It’s Hirano’s third book to be translated into English, one that confirms him as a writer concerned with the psychology of the human condition.

Reading “At the End of the Matinee” feels like being transported back to a time and place that illuminates the present. The struggles faced by the lovers — Satoshi Makino, a multilingual journalist, and Yoko Komine, a renowned classical guitarist — become an allegorical investigation into humanity’s search for completeness against a constant stream of setbacks and pain.

“It’s really a novel about every kind of pain we can experience,” says Juliet Winters Carpenter, the novel’s English translator. “On the national level you have the Nagasaki (atomic bombing), the 30 Years’ War in Europe and a terrorist attack in Iraq; on a personal level, you have children growing up away from their parents, suicide, marriages crumbling, PTSD. Yet, amid all that pain comes beauty and music and goodness. It’s an amazing novel when you think of everything Hirano captures.”

Carpenter was given the book while recuperating in a Kyoto hospital after knee surgery, and its immersive realism captivated her from the beginning. Hirano uses a prologue to establish the story as “real,” recorded by an anonymous observer and friend to the two protagonists.

“I wished, while guarding the outer details of my friends’ lives, to write freely about their inner emotional lives by presenting them as fictional characters,” the nameless narrator says.

Surprisingly, despite this rather contrived start, the reality of the book is believable on numerous occasions, as so many details of the late 2000s and early 2010s ring true. Hirano weaves in historical figures, art, movies, music and poetry alongside his fictionalized imaginings, and provides comprehensive explanations on everything from Bach’s fugues to the 2008 financial crisis. He takes readers through the fall of Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s transitional government, to the harrowing escape of one Iraqi refugee to France after being refused asylum in Sweden. Yoko and Makino’s lives apart from each other are exhaustively explored, as each face personal tribulations along their rocky paths to finally be together.

Carpenter says translating Hirano’s work was a challenge. “You can’t tackle a book like this all at once. It required research across so many genres,” she says. “I learned more than I ever thought I would about such a wide range of topics. Hirano quotes from a vast array of sources, which all had to be checked, of course. His knowledge on music alone is astounding. You want to get everything right, all those details, and I frequently listened to the music as I translated.”

Author Keiichiro Hirano | © MIKIYA TAKIMOTO
Author Keiichiro Hirano | © MIKIYA TAKIMOTO

Another reason the novel doesn’t read like a typical romance is its depth. “The text does sometimes become heavy with all the details,” Carpenter says, “but there’s also an incredible lightness to the work. Hirano is so interested in our actions and reactions as humans: Pain happens. Coincidence happens. Betrayal happens. What do we do with this pain of life? He’s really a philosopher, writing fiction.”

Another philosophical idea underlying the novel is the quixotic nature of memory and the past. In the first few chapters of the book, Makino muses over the line “Ascertain all in the evening” found in Beethoven’s diary.

“Listening to a musical theme develop, you come to see that it contained a certain potentiality all along. Once you follow it to the end, the theme never sounds the same again,” Makino says. “Music doesn’t just progress forward in a straight line, but works backward into the past as well.”

In the same vein, the novel is also a study in how our own perceptions of the past frequently change and therefore alter our futures, and this romance, seemingly about two individuals, becomes a love letter to humanity on the glorious possibilities that are still to come, in the evenings of our lives, despite our many sufferings.

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