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.

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.