Evil and the Mask

I created you to be a cancer on the world.

Fumihiro Kuki is the youngest son of the powerful Kuki family whose business sprawls and controls most of Japan. His father has revived the eccentric family tradition of breeding a son in old age to become a cancer, one with which to destroy everything that people hold dear. As part of his training, he has planned Fumihiro’s life in such a way that when he turns 14, he will experience hell. And this will be the catalyst which will turn Fumihiro into a harbinger of doom. But Fumihiro is smart and aware and tries to stay one step ahead of his hateful father. And there is Kaori, a young girl who is adopted from an orphanage to keep Fumihiro company. Both starved of love, they only have each other. And so begins Evil and the Mask, a dark, twisted tale by Fuminori Nakamura.

It’s one of those novel where the less you know, the more you will be surprised. Like Nakamura’s previous novel, The Thief, the translation is spot on and smooth, and you can’t help but fall into the story. I was expecting something a little more doomsday-ish like in the Japanese ultra-violent films so popular in the West. But Evil and the Mask is subtler, deeper and is more about the potential effect of evil on the human psyche. The fact that Fumihiro tries to fight against his destiny even going so far as to have plastic surgery, that he sacrifices his own happiness for another’s, that he has found some sort of purpose to his life because of the realisation that it isn’t about himself anymore is something to ponder upon. Like The Thief, Nakamura digs deep into our fears and makes us confront what it means to be human and what it takes to resist evil when it won’t let you go.

Although I’m a huge fan of Nakamura’s style and enjoyed reading Evil and the Mask, my only sticking point is that the novel feels slightly passive when you compare it to The Thief. There is a lot of reflection but not much action – it’s as though Fumihiro is the perpetual outsider, looking into what his life should have been like. It’s a wonderful novel on regret and what-ifs but it may fall a little short if you are looking for something more exciting.

I would like to thank Soho Press for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

President's Hat

Set in 1980s France, Antoine Laurain’s collection of interconnected stories follows the mysterious trajectory of François Mitterand’s iconic hat, left behind in a restaurant, which acts as a catalyst for four individuals who find themselves stuck in their stagnant lives. The President’s Hat seems to be a light book with hidden depth.

Daniel Mercier is an office worker, caught in-between promotions and working under a pompous and self-serving middle boss. With his family away, he decides to dine out alone and enjoy a seafood platter with some white wine just like in his bachelor days and finds himself seated next to the President of France. When he discovers that Mitterand has left his black felt hat behind, on a mad whim, Daniel takes the hat and finds his life quickly transformed for the better. Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Daniel’s tale will resonate with all wage slaves stuck in their daily office routine.

Fanny Marquant dreams of becoming a successful writer but instead is working in a boring job and having an affair with a married man who keeps promising to leave his wife. When she picks up a mysterious hat left behind on the train, she decides to leave her lover and start writing.

Pierre Aslan, once a premier perfumer and ‘nose’ of a big brand company, is sunk in depression, unable to create anything new for 8 years. Dressed like a hobo, he reluctantly takes a walk through the park to his shrink and spies a black felt hat on one of the benches. Translated by Jane Aitken this is probably my favourite tale of the collection.

Bernard Lavallière comes from a good family but is getting tired of the class of friends he and his wife have to hang out with who are snobbish, conservative and intolerant. When Bernard takes home a black felt hat by mistake and purchases a slightly lefty newspaper, he scandalises all around him. Both the stories featuring Fanny and Bernard are translated by Emily Boyce.

Although each story is separate, Laurain cleverly ties them together to produce a coherent book and it’s interesting to see how he does this. The hat acts as a catalyst and boosts the confidence of each character, enough for them to take the first step in changing their lives, something they have been contemplating for a long time. And all the while the hat has been on its journey, it’s owner hasn’t forgotten it and has been searching for it too. Each tale highlights the absurdities of modern life from petty office politics, extra-marital affairs, creativity and career and social position and makes you re-evaluate your priorities.

One of the interesting things about the English translation commissioned by Gallic Press is that each tale is translated by a different person. You may think this would be problematic but it’s seamless and I was surprised to find this out after I finished the book.

I would like to thank Gallic Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

The Twin

Only ambitious canoeists get this far. It was hot and they had taken off their shirts, the muscles in their arms and shoulders gleamed in the sunlight. I was standing at the side of the house, unseen, and watched them trying to cut each other off….

The lad glanced up. ‘Look at this farm,’ he said to his friend, a redhead with freckles and sunburnt shoulders, it’s timeless. Its here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930.’

One of Holland’s foremost contemporary writers, The Twin is Gerbrand Bakker’s debut novel translated from the Dutch by David Colmer which won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was April’s choice for my book group, The Riverside Readers.

Helmer van Wonderen is a 57 year old farmer living near Lake IJssel just north of Amsterdam with his bedridden father. It’s almost 30 years since his twin brother Henk was killed in a car crash sending not only their family off kilter but also Helmer’s university life and dreams. For Henk was the apple of his father’s eye, the confident and assured farmer born with green fingers while Helmer struggled to find his place except when he was with Henk.

That might have been the day that Father – simply because I was having fun doing something else – decided for himself that Henk would be the farmer, even though I was the oldest, if just by a couple of minutes. Henk helped Father. I went skating and treated the farmhand as an equal. Maybe it was just one incident in a series of events that made Father conclude I wasn’t suited to succeed him. After Henk died Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice.

They were inseparable as boys and it is only when Henk turns 18 and meets the blond and beautiful Riet that fissures occur in their tight sibling relationship. As Helmer watches his brother move alone into adulthood, his conflicting feelings increase for he has always lived in Henk’s shadow and it is only his father’s farmhand Jaap, who once taught him how to skate, who sees Helmer as an individual.

But Henk’s sudden death, quickly followed by his mother’s, throws Helmer into an inescapable situation with his strict father who now needs him to work on the farm. But now, his father is weak and needs his help and Helmer is slowing, finally, making changes to his stagnant life. With the redecoration of their house (although Henk’s room will always remain untouched) comes an unexpected letter from Riet wanting to visit Helmer only if his father is no longer there. On an impulse, Helmer replies saying his father was dead and so begins an unfolding of events, a culmination of the long buried memories and past wounds that have remained unhealed and unexpected changes that will affect all their lives. For how can they move on from Henk’s death if no one can speak of it?

I found The Twin to be excruciatingly slow at the beginning but it did gradually pick up a little pace as the story unfolded. This doesn’t in any way diminish the quality of Bakker’s prose or the reader’s enjoyment because this is a slow, still book, one that mirrors a way of life that has probably remained unchanged in hundreds of years. But one with very deep waters. Initially, I found Helmer to be a little disturbing. Living alone with only his taciturn father as company would do that to a man. Especially one who had always wanted to escape life as a farmer. There was something dark and brooding and unsaid about Helmer and we see this in the small cruelties in his relationship with his aging father as they weave and dodge through their history looking for acceptance and forgiveness.

Helmer’s friendship with their neighbour Ada and her two children, his interactions with the various people who come to buy from his farm and his relationship with Riet, unformed and unevolved except through the lens of Henk, are also half-formed and incomplete. The characters are as unsettling as the cold waters of Lake IJssel where Henk was swept away. Especially the two women, Ada and Riet. We never see Wien, Ada’s husband, who is always too busy working. Ada’s children are friendly and always come to play at Helmer’s farm and are especially taken by his donkeys. And Ada who always fusses over Helmer and is caught looking through binoculars at Helmer’s curtain-less house. And Riet, once so in love with Henk except she hadn’t realised Henk was a twin. And who keeps pushing her son and herself onto Helmer, still unsure about what exactly it is that she wants.

But there is something simple about Helmer’s life and his thoughts. He doesn’t think too deeply about his life as though going through his daily ritual is the only thing keeping him sane. And when Riet sends her son to Helmer for help, Helmer is reluctantly drawn out of his shell and we begin to see another side to him which he has kept hidden and unexplored. Bakker’s skill lies in saying less rather than more and he does this exquisitely, especially the homosexual subtext which remains ambiguous. Although I didn’t fall in love with The Twin while I was reading it, somehow, Helmer’s story keeps cropping up in my thoughts once in a while and leaves me pondering as to whether he has finally managed to find happiness. It’s a strange one, this novel. But I think one I’d like to read again in the future.

Father was an only child. Henk – named after my Van Wonderen grandfather – is dead. I’m not married. After me, we’ll die out.


Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a collection of interconnected short stories that are about modern Japan but heavily dosed with the twisted and macabre. I have only read one of her previous books, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor which was a rather lovely and warm depiction of family in a slowly fracturing world, but I was aware that her other books were of a much darker and disturbing quality and was reluctant to read them. But I was drawn by the wonderful reception of her new book and the beautiful cover.

Subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, the collection starts with a grieving mother who waits at a bakery to buy a strawberry short cake for her son’s birthday every year even though she lost him six years ago. As she waits for the shop assistant, she is drawn to what looks like the distraught pâtisserie chef speaking on the phone in the kitchen beyond. Not much happens but Ogawa sets the tone of her collection, one that combines an unsettling chill together with a sense of incompleteness. You wonder where she is taking you.

Although not as disturbing as I expected, I did find a number of stories got under my skin and left me feeling uneasy, especially Old Mrs. J (strange), Sewing for the Heart (grotesque) and Tomatoes and the Full Moon (spooky). My favourites were Welcome to the Museum of Torture and the two stories that followed closely which were more poignant and with a hint of fairytale and involves a Museum of Torture, a Bengal Tiger and a man with an interesting past which includes a dose of hoarding (the modern scourge). An intriguing combination.

Initially, I was a little disappointed at the brevity of the stories: the characterisation seemed brash and stifled, the emotions were dealt with in an offhand way. I was unsure about this collection and how it was going to proceed. But slowly, Ogawa begins to tie little sections together, mentioning a character here or an event from a previous story there until it comes full circle. She does this so seamlessly that it takes you a while to realise where you had encountered this snippet of information without taking you away from the story you are currently reading. And when the connections start making sense, you find yourself immersing into this dark, macabre ordinariness in which she so excels. Pretty impressive stuff.

I do recommend that you follow the order of the stories set in the contents as they follow a very loose but definite order and will ultimately make more sense towards the end. You’ll finish with a sense of wonder and a need to re-read the collection.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for kindly sending me a copy of Revenge to review.

Salvation of a Saint

Many of you know how much I enjoyed and admired Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X which I read last year. In the interim, a drama series based on his short stories, Higashino Keigo Mysteries, aired in Japan and I watched with glee as he deconstructed the various mystery tropes that make up the successful crime writer’s arsenal.

And so I couldn’t wait to read Salvation of a Saint which once again featured the maverick and eccentric Detective Galileo aka phyics Professor Manabu Yukawa of the fictional Teito University in Tokyo who is invaluable in assisting the police investigations of his college friend, Detective Kusanagi. I was also delighted to see the appearance of Kusanagi’s deputy, Detective Kaoru Utsumi, who is one of the main characters in the tv series Galileo which aired in Japan in 2007 and which was my first introduction to Higashino’s mysteries.

Unlike in The Devotion of Suspect X, Professor Yukawa only makes an appearance from Chapter 9. The action is focused more on the police investigation into the murder of Yoshitaka Mashiba, a wealthy businessman with a beautiful wife, Ayane, who is a successful patchwork artist and teacher and a much younger lover, Hiromi Wakayama, who also happens to be his wife’s apprentice. But on that fateful weekend, Ayane was in Sapporo visiting her aging parents and Mashiba was supposedly alone. Told in flashbacks, the back story of the characters are slowly revealed in tandem with the progression of the investigation. When Utsumi suspects that her superior, Kusanagi, is being emotionally swayed by the captivatingly tragic Ayane, she calls upon Yukawa for his assistance. For the detectives are baffled at the inexplicable manner of Mashiba’s death and are unable to find any clues.

Unlike a conventional crime thriller, we are given a small number of suspects right from the beginning who are then slowly narrowed down as the police uncover clues. Higashino seems more interested in fleshing out the motives of each character through their interaction with the victim and unraveling the final trick with which the murder, if it can be proved, was carried out. Like with The Devotion of Suspect X, the mechanism of this trick is deceptively clever, if not slightly simpler as is the story itself which is a straightforward crime passionel.

This is a quiet book where the violence has already happened and the characters are dealing with the aftermath, all the while fending off prying questions by the police. There are no conflicts that are about to erupt. Everything is kept in check by the suspects. But this, contrarily ratchets up the tension because you aren’t exactly sure how the characters are going respond. Will they continue to put up a brave face or will they crack?

The mystery and the characters were satisfying but I am still unsure about the narrative structure and whether the flashbacks provided a cohesive plot. In some ways, I would have preferred if Higashino had embedded the characters’ pasts into the general narrative instead of giving us chunks in between which would have provided a more seamless reading experience.

The other thing of which I would have liked a little more explanation was the rift in Yukawa and Kusanagi’s relationship which I am suspecting happened in the previous book but which I seem to have forgotten.

Although I preferred The Devotion of Suspect X because of its sheer, shocking ingenuity, Salvation of a Saint is a solid crime novel providing you with a glimpse of affluent Tokyo and flawless houses that hide seething emotions just below the surface. Keigo Higashino’s work is hugely popular in Japan with a second series of Galileo and a film set to be released this year so I’m excited to see his novels featuring Prof. Yukawa appearing in English. I can’t wait to read more!

I would like to thank the lovely people at Little Brown who kindly sent me copy of Salvation of a Saint to review.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

23 January, 2013


Lord, why are you silent?
Why are you always silent…..?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is probably his most famous novel. Like The Samurai and The Volcano, it is a study of Christianity in early modern Japan and the terrible path it carved through the lives of its believers and those who tried to stamp it out.

It is almost 60 years after Francis Xavier’s successful mission to Southern Japan. But the Tokugawa Shogunate, fearing the growing popularity of Christianity amongst the country’s poor and the possible fomentation of anti-government sentiment, has closed Japan’s doors against outsiders, leading the country into self-imposed isolation and declaring a ban on Christianity. It is in this harsh period of forced apostasy and danger that the Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues and his companions set out from Portugal to discover the fate of their teacher, Christovão Ferreira, who has disappeared in Japan after rumours of his apostasy sent shock waves across the Christian world. Via Macao, they board a ship to a village near Nagasaki and there, their ideas and views on their vocation and the land they had dreamt of comes under increasing attack as they realise that the path they have chosen is harsher than anything they ever expected.

My reading of Silence as a non-Christian will probably differ from those who do believe, and yet, I feel that Endo successfully manages to get to the root of what he is trying to portray and shows the reader the real, honest and true anguish of someone who is trying to understand what it means to have faith and to live their life in a true and meaningful way.

I don’t think I have ever come across another novelist who has managed to do this in such a searing portrayal of a man struggling against fear and doubt and still trying to do justice to his vocation. Rodrigues is constantly treading water, at the edge of desperation, as he sees his flock captured, forced to step on fumie and apostatise, tortured and killed. He is perpetually caught between wanting to end the suffering of the Japanese Christians and staying true to his vocation, that he must continue his mission to spread and uphold his faith in Japan. It is a struggle from the beginning as most Christian converts are from the lower orders of the social hierarchy; many are peasants who are struggling with poverty and whose lives are hellish.

for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings.

You are there with Rodrigues as he jumps from one painful situation to the next, always shadowed by his Judas, the wretched, weak apostate Kichijiro, until he is finally captured himself. And there he comes face to face with the man he has come to Japan to find, his teacher Ferreira. And this is where his real struggle begins.

SPOILER ALERT (click and highlight to see text)

I was expecting Rodrigues to die at the end of the novel. But what Endo has done is something I hadn’t expected. Something much worse. And also something which really drives home and makes you think about what it must mean to have true faith. Does the fact that you have stepped on a fumie mean that you are an unbeliever? Can you really choose between stopping someone’s torture and keeping your own hands clean? And most importantly, Rodrigues finally believes that God had spoken to him and shown him the way, that by apostatising, he has become a true Christian and is saving his brethren from death. I may have gotten this all wrong but I found the ending to be truly painful but the fact that Rodrigues did not take his own life must mean that although he has no choice but to comply with his captors, he has found some kind of peace within himself and found meaning in his Christianity. But I’m not really sure.


Endo’s portrayal of Rodrigues is that of a real blood, sweat and tears man. A man who is struggling with what he believes and what he thinks is the right thing to do. It’s a vital, anguished portrayal but one which really touched me. There are hardly any clean, beautiful characters in this novel. It’s raw and gritty and wretched. And yet it stays with you. The Samurai showed how Christianity lifted some of the burden from the lives of the poor peasants in feudal Japan but Silence shows how much the Japanese and their Portuguese priests had to give up in order to protect their faith.

There is a word in Japanese, shugyo (修行), which loosely translates as an apprenticeship or training with roots in Buddhism. It’s often used to denote a period of training that one must undergo in order to become stronger, to achieve success or some sort of enlightenment. Rodrigues’ ordeal is akin to this. He doesn’t shy away from it, knowing that he must get through it in order for there to be some meaning in his life, for there to be a link with his faith.

I finished reading Silence almost two weeks ago but Rodrigues’ struggle  still lingers in my mind as I try to understand whether he managed to come to terms with his choices. I am in awe of what Endo has accomplished here (together with William Johnston’s superb translation) and will definitely be seeking more of his novels to read as I hope some of you will too.

Do check out Bellezza and Tony‘s posts and Tanabata‘s discussion of Silence and Teresa has posted on a new translation of Kiku’s Prayer.

*Do also check out Teresa’s post on re-reading Silence.

I read this as part of Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 6, Tony‘s January in Japan and Ana and IrisLong Awaited Reads Month.

JLC6 #1 January in Japan LAR Button Final

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? … Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant.

Set in 1930s Frankfurt on the eve of World War II, nineteen year old Sanna is desperately trying to understand her dramatically changing world. Caught between adulthood, love and ever-growing threat of National Socialism, Irmgard Keun paints a portrait of daily life in Germany in After Midnight as the spectre of Nazi control and war draws near.

What is clever about Keun’s novel is that it is set before Hitler wields total control. This is the period when people are just beginning to realise the severity of their social situation, still toying with the notion on informing on their neighbours, saluting the Nazis and openly voicing dissent. As they begin to realise that their actions may have severe consequences, Sanna and her friends slowly begin to feel the tight stranglehold of the autocratic state.

The thing that tempers this growing fear is Sanna’s naïve and yet piercing observations of the people and situations in which she finds herself. For example,

I’ve often noticed how pleased and proud men are at having to knock in a certain way at the doors of perfectly harmless pubs, in order to get in. I expect there are some men who take to politics just for the sake of the secret signals you have to give.

Still nineteen, her thoughts are occupied by Franz, her lover whom she left behind in her home town with his cold, heartless mother. Sanna is staying with her cousin Algin, a famous novelist who is now blacklisted, and his beautiful wife Liska, who is in love with a jaded journalist named Heini. Their circle of friends is bohemian and mixed, an increasingly dangerous cocktail as stringent racial laws are passed. It is a damning time, and yet Sanna sees the absurd and comic side of life, especially the doomed love affair between her friend Gerti and mixed-race Dieter Aaron whose Jewish father is all for the National Socialists.

And then the pair of them sit in a bar looking at each other, the air around them positively quivering with love-sickness. Everyone in the bar must notice; no good can come of it. They just live for the moment, and cause the air to quiver, and don’t stop to wonder what next…

Sometimes I keep them company, so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous.

But as things grow more tense, Sanna finds herself in a quandary when Franz turns up a hunted man and must make a decision about her future.

After Midnight is a stark yet comic portrayal of a Germany being devoured by the Nazi ideology. But Keun manages to keep the tone light, the novel itself retaining a dream-like quality in a fin-de-siècle style. With hindsight, the reader can see the ever-growing traps laid out for the people, but the people of Frankfurt are bumbling from one trap to another, denouncing their neighbours and friends in an increasingly vicious cycle, unaware of their own doom. It’s a sad testament to the nature of humanity but the absurdity of it all drives home the very human-ness that is being suppressed.

Take the story of little Berta, chosen to present flowers to the Führer on his visit to Frankfurt. Her parents her decked her out in finery, ordered a bouquet of lilac from Nice and her father has composed a poem especially for the occasion for her to recite. But the parade is mistimed and Berta misses her chance, reciting her poem in the pub afterwards, and promptly falls down dead from an allergic reaction to the flowers or a fever. Amidst the chaos and tragedy is the seed of absurdity and you can’t help but see Keun’s genius.

Although I can’t describe After Midnight as a thrilling read, it’s one filled with succinct observations and humour which, on careful thought, may be a little too mature for a nineteen year old. Not much happens and yet Keun’s beautiful prose and excellent translation by Anthea Bell made me reluctant to put the book down. A small book with a big punch indeed.

And don’t you just love the beautifully simple cover by Melville House?

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline.

Maintaining the fragile contact between my finger and the wallet, I sandwiched it in the folded newspaper. Then I transferred the paper to my right hand and put it in the inside pocket of my own coat. Little by little I breathed out, conscious of my temperature rising even more. I checked my surroundings, only my eyes moving. My fingers still held the tension of touching a forbidden object, the numbness of entering someone’s personal space. A trickle of sweat ran down my back.

Winner of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize in 2010, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief is a sublime reflection on the nature of crime rather than a thrilling mystery. Nevertheless, it kept me turning the pages as I sought the conclusion to the protagonist’s dilemma.

The Thief (Suri or Pickpocket in Japanese) is the tale of a Nishimura, a loner whose sole purpose of existance is the thrill of stealing from another person without them noticing. Nishimura has perfected pickpocketing to an artform and this talent, together with his friendship with Ishikawa ulitmately leads him into a vortex of crime from which he cannot escape.

Nishimura himself isn’t a violent man. And yet his association with Ishikawa, a genius thief, brings him into contact with a sinister backroom figure who enjoys manipulating events behind the scenes and who orchestrated their last job which resulted in them going on the run. With no family ties or close friendships, Nishimura is able to escape but unable to stay away from Tokyo for long. Upon his return he is sought after by his ex-colleagues and also strikes up a tenuous friendship with a lonely and neglected boy which ultimately leads him to his present dilemma. Do one more job, or else.

There’s a sense of stillness in Nakamura’s novel. Like something happening in slow motion where sound ceases and you can only watch as a collision occurs, slowly, inevitably. The protagonist, Nishimura, is a social outcast. Someone who, from a young age, felt he was outside normal, noisy society. Although he is solitary, he isn’t necessarily lonely. He doesn’t have a grudge against society or want revenge. He’s happy doing what he’s good at doing, stealing. And he could have gone on this way if he hadn’t interacted with anyone else. First, his friend Ishikawa. Then the little boy. In a sense, it’s chilling to see that you can never escape from your interactions with people. As long as someone remembers you, they’ll find you. Nothing too exciting happens in this novel, but you will close the book feeling like you’ve tapped into Nishimura’s existential rabbit hole. It’s as though he is Alice, falling, falling, falling and unable to stop. It’s sparsely written, just like its narrator, and it’s rather beautiful.

One of the things I felt when reading The Thief was a sense of paranoia everytime I stepped outside because you learn a whole lot about pickpocketing. Basically, if you’ve been targeted by a pro, you have NO chance!

I would like to thank Corsair for kindly sending me this book to review.

I read this as part of Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and R.I.P. VII.

One of my favourite reading challenges has commenced again. Although I am drawn to Japanese literature anyway, Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge always makes me focus on why I read Japanese literature and the connections it has with my other choices over the year. I’m also nosy about what others are reading which often leads to some exciting new discoveries.

So, this year, I am planning to read the following:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – Er, I’ve had this since it was published and have only dipped into the first chapter. What is wrong with me?

Silence by Shusaku Endo – I’ve read so much about this book and have finally got a copy of my own (well, I got my friend to buy it for me for my birthday last year, heh.) Endo is one of my favourite Japanese writers (both The Samurai and The Volcano are beautifully written) and I can’t wait to read this.

I also have a growing stack of fiction in Japanese. Apparently I have no problems buying and hoarding books in other languages even though I don’t read them. I may want to try one of them although most of them haven’t been translated into English. However, it’s good to know and keep an eye out for interesting authors that may get translated one day, right? I try to keep abreast with the literary world in Japan but like in the UK, there are SO many books being published every year. So what I normally do is look at the prize lists such as the Naoki and Akutagawa Awards and check out recommendations in the Japanese magazines I do read.

And then maybe I might also choose something from my perennial list of Mishima, Kawabata and Banana. What do you think? Should I branch out more? And more importantly, what are YOU going to read?