Columns > Published on December 18th, 2014

Why The F*ck Aren’t You Reading Fuminori Nakamura?

Image via LA Times

Why The F*ck Aren't You Reading? is a feature where the columnist spotlights a writer who has a dedicated following and is well known within the writing community, but hasn't achieved the elephant-in-the-room style success of a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn—But they deserve to, dammit! Hopefully the column will help gain the author featured a few more well-deserved readers.

I’ve said on more than a few occasions that there really isn’t such a genre as noir, particularly in the United States. True enough, we have a few writers such as Megan Abbott, Scott Philips, and Jake Hinkson who can definitely be considered noirists. But overall, most of what’s being written and touted as noir in the states is essentially hardboiled crime fiction with noir inflections. Any time I read a publisher description of a forthcoming crime novel and they describe it as “noir,” I usually zone it out as being nothing more than marketing patter.

But a few months ago, critic Gabino Iglesias mentioned he was getting ready to read Last Winter, We Parted by a Japanese novelist named Fuminori Nakamura. Iglesias compared Nakamura to Japanese hardboiled master, Kenzo Kitakana (by the way, folks, if you can find it, pick up a copy of Kitakana’s The Cage), but much, much darker. The recommendation peeked my interest and I dived into my review stacks. (Here’s the major benefit of being a reviewer, gang, you get tons and tons of books. So many that more often than not, you sometimes forget what’s been sent to you.) Sure enough, Nakamura’s English language publisher, Soho, had sent me a copy of Last Winter, We Parted.

I jumped on my kindle and snatched up Nakamura’s other two translated novels...and burned through both. By the time I was done, I felt as if I had attended a master class in noir.

Like most reviewers, I was in the middle of a few books that I was being paid to review, but being a writer, I said screw it and decided to procrastinate a bit and crack open Last Winter, We Parted, and holy shit, I was glad I did. In two hours I tore through this twisted little revenge novel and was drooling for more. So I jumped on my kindle and snatched up Nakamura’s other two translated novels, The Thief and Evil and The Mask, and burned through both. By the time I was done, I felt as if I had attended a master class in noir.

The Skinny aka Just The Facts and Nothing But The Facts

Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. He is the author of eight novels, however only three are currently available in translation, The Thief, Evil and The Mask, and Last Winter, We Parted. In 2002 Nakamura won the Shinchō Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, the Noma Literary Prize in 2004 for Shade, and the Akutagawa Prize in 2005 for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, Nakamura’s first novel to be translated into English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Most recently he was the recipient of the David L. Goodis Award at this year’s Noircon. Nakamura currently lives in Tokyo with his wife.

The Work aka Why You Should Be Reading This Guy

“… I intend to leave a ‘cancer’ in this world. Under my guidance, you will become a cancer. A personification of evil, you could say.”

The quote is from Nakamura’s second translated novel, Evil and The Mask, and I think it perfectly sums Nakamura’s worldview. The characters Nakamura creates are a cancer. Their value in society is a constant drain and parasitic in nature. These men and women are not your next door neighbors, they’re the type of people you would cross a busy city street to try and avoid. And yes, they are evil. No, not Lex Luthor/comic book style villains, they’re more like guys who break into your house while you’re at work, rip you off for all your stuff, and then kill and mutilate your cat for shits and giggles. They are every day, common evil. The kind of evil we tend to ignore, at least until we finally take notice when it decides to shoot up a high school.

But like most adept noirists, Nakamura’s gift is his ability to humanize these walking cancers, to make them sympathetic in the readers eyes, and as much victims as the people they exploit and destroy. Take Nishimura, the narrator of The Thief. The man is a life-long criminal, and a low level criminal at that, one who preys on us during our most routine and trusted moments. The difference between Nishimura and other such common thieves is he lives by a code where he vows to only steal from Tokyo’s affluent residents. He even becomes a pseudo-adoptive father to the son of a whore he spies shoplifting in a local supermarket. Nishimura isn’t a bad guy, in fact he’s a fairly decent, ethical man, but one who’s been shaped and molded by a sleazy, neglectful environment.

The other way to best sum up Nakamura is Kafkaesque. Yeah, yeah, I know that little phrase gets thrown around a lot by critics, but in the case of Nakamura, the comparison very much applies. In all three of Nakamura’s translated novels, the narrators are thrown into circumstances that are utterly beyond their control. In The Thief, Nishimura is forced into committing a series of nearly impossible crimes by a Tokyo crime boss or he and the young boy and his mother will be killed; in Last Winter, We Parted, a brilliant, semi-autistic photographer, Kiharazaka, is jailed for the murder of a young model; in Evil and The Mask, the narrator, Fumihiro Kuki, is essentially bred to become the Japanese version of Hitler. But what is most Kafkaesque about these characters is their utter acceptance of their circumstances. With all three, they are resigned to their fates; in fact—particularly in the case of the photographer, Kiharazaka—they believe they completely deserve their fates and welcome them with open arms.

Where To Start aka What Book Should I Read First, Smart Guy?

I’ve been kicking this one around for awhile. As with all of the authors I’ve featured in Why The F*ck Aren’t You Reading, there really isn’t a bad place to start with Nakamura, particularly since the number of novels offered in translation are fairly limited. So I’ll just flat out say, read all of them. The Thief, Evil and The Mask, and Last Winter, We Parted. These books are fucking dark and compulsively readable, and I guarantee you will tear through all of them in record time.

But if I was forced to narrow it down to one choice, I think I would select Evil and The Mask. I found the premise of a father attempting to sire and create a creature of pure evil to be utterly fascinating, and the overall complexity of the storylines and the twists and turns Nakamura takes the reader on are stunning.

But, seriously, jump on this guy, because I want to see as many of Nakamura’s novels translated as possible.

About the author

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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