"Last Winter, We Parted," the third novel by Japan's Fuminori Nakamura to appear in English, is crime fiction that pushes past the bounds of genre, occupying its own nightmare realm.
The book begins with its narrator, an unnamed writer, interviewing a convicted killer in a prison visiting room; like Hannibal Lecter, the murderer is emotionless, nearly inhuman, speaking from behind a sheet of "transparent acrylic glass."
His crime, which involved burning two women alive so he could photograph their dying, is inspired by Ry¿nosuke Akutagawa's 1918 story "Hell Screen," a classic of Japanese literature, "the tale of a crazed painter, who watches as his own daughter literally burns to death, and then he paints the scene." More than once, Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" comes up: "After he completed his nonfiction novel," an editor explains to the writer, "he couldn't write another decent piece of work."
The point — indeed, the driving concept of this sharp and disturbing novel — is that there is an irresolvable gap between life and artifice, especially in regard to creativity. "Why, when a 'subject' is right in front of us," the killer wonders, "are we only capable of recognizing, of grasping, that one small part we see?"
And yet, lest this make "Last Winter, We Parted" sound derivative, it is dark and edgy, original and bold.
Nakamura is highly regarded in Japanese literary circles; he has won the ¿e Prize and the Akutagawa Prize. He's also published 10 novels and three story collections since 2003, a pace that suggests the pressures of the marketplace.
Such tensions — between the zone of the interior and external expectation — converge in "Last Winter, We Parted," which deals with, among other subjects, the challenges of making art, real art, in a culture in which it is difficult to feel anything. It's no coincidence that one of the novel's subplots involves a shadowy group known as K2, made up of men who have commissioned life-size dolls of their departed loved ones — sisters, lovers, fetish objects — as a way of delaying, or denying, the inevitability of loss.
At the center of this is the writer, who has been pressed into working on a book he does not want to write. His role is to uncover what has happened, to parse the line between reality and imitation, although the more we read, the more we realize he is being played from every side.
Intercut with his account are archival documents — letters, transcripts, diaries, descriptions of films or images — that deepen, rather than clarify, the mystery. These include texts written by the murderer and others (including the Twitter feed of one of his victims), a device that allows their voices to infiltrate the narrative.
"For most people," the killer writes, "things are only ever permissible inside their own mind. The palatable dark places. Shady areas beyond censure. If people can accept those kinds of things, don't you think they'd want to read about whatever that might be for you?"
Nakamura is playing here, of course, commenting on the book he is writing by having his character comment on the book within that book, the book his narrator is unable to finish, confounded as he is by the story he is trying (not) to tell. This is the part of the pleasure of the novel, that it offers not one but a series of overlapping sensibilities, telling us not only what took place but also why. Nakamura's purpose is less investigative than psychological, an exploration of those "palatable dark places" that exist in everyone. No one is above suspicion, but at the same time, no one is fully culpable — or perhaps it is more accurate to say we all are.
What Nakamura's characters seek is authenticity, even as it eludes their grasp. "His desires were all imitations of someone else," someone observes of the murderer. "That is to say, there was nothing inside him." His actions, then — first his obsession with photography, with getting at the essence of the world by stopping, somehow, its relentless motion, and later the two deaths, which provoke a different sort of stillness — can be read as increasingly desperate attempts to connect.
The same might be said about any of the others: the writer, who becomes increasingly enmeshed in his subject's life, to the point of neglecting his responsibilities; the killer's sister, who is menacing and desolate; the editor, who has motives of his own. Nothing is as it appears.
"Within the monster I had become," Nakamura writes, "the part of me that retained a trace of humanity may have dimmed any memory as a means of protecting myself. Then again, I may just be maintaining a certain outward appearance. But, you know, that's a lie." In the end, this turns the story inward, like an ouroboros devouring its tail.
"I decided to create the 'novel,'" the editor insists. "… It would be a strange mix of archived materials and fiction chapters." That he is (again) referencing the work we're reading is the point. By making it seem as if this were a true story, or based on a true story, Nakamura further effaces the line between reality and invention, suggesting that, on the inside anyway, they are one and the same.
In that sense, "Last Winter, We Parted" most recalls Seich¿ Matsumoto — especially "Pro Bono," his 1961 thriller about a woman trying to help her brother, charged with murder although he may not be to blame. For Nakamura, like Matsumoto, guilt or innocence is not the issue; we are corrupted, complicit, just by living in society. The ties that bind, in other words, are rules beyond our making, rules that distance us not only from each other but also from ourselves.
"What is inside each person," the writer tells us, "the true desire the people aren't even aware of … It's terrible but that was when I figured it all out."
Last Winter, We Parted
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell
Soho Press: 224 pp., $25