Some 15 years ago, I attended a crime writer’s conference during which a participant observed that, when writing crime fiction, authors should be mindful of how they depict violence and the murder lest they unleash something on the world that they can’t recall. I thought often of that admonition while reading “Cult X,” Fuminori Nakamura’s latest novel.
Nakamura’s first novel in translation, 2012’s “The Thief,” a brooding, affecting meditation on the forces bearing down on the life and crimes of a master pickpocket, received wide acclaim in Japan and the U.S. and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times mystery/thriller book prize. Three subsequent novels continue to straddle the intersection of crime and literary fiction, racking up numerous awards in the U.S. and Japan, including the prestigious Oe Prize, named for and selected by Nobel laureate for literature Kenzaburo Oe, a writer Nakamura admires.
“Cult X” opens with Toru Narazaki's search for a young woman named Ryoko Tachibana with whom he is infatuated. A tip sends Narazaki to a Tokyo mansion housing a quasi-religious group led by Shotaro Matsuo. Before Narazaki is able to meet Matsuo and question him about Tachibana's whereabouts, Matsuo’s wife and other followers insist he be introduced to their leader’s rambling religious philosophy through viewing a series of lectures. Blending the tenets of Buddhism, Gnosticism and Christianity, these consume a good portion of the early chapters of the novel.
Upon meeting Matsuo, a refreshingly honest and humble man who professes to be neither healer nor saint, Narazaki learns that the elderly man had been scammed by an acolyte, Sawatari, who stole his property and philosophy when he broke away to establish Cult X. Ryoko was one of several followers of Matsuo who went with him. Although Narazaki feels a sense of calm with Matsuo’s group, he allows himself to be lured away from the mansion by a woman, one of Sawatari’s followers sent to find and kidnap him. Narazaki, however, sees the event not just a way to reunite with Ryoko but as the beginning of a new life: “This moment was different from what he experienced every day. He felt like he was truly living.”
As the setting shifts from Matsuo’s group, the reader learns that Sawatari’s Cult X is a perversion of Matsuo’s teachings. It demolishes the psyches of its members through prolonged isolation interspersed with sanctioned encounters with sex workers or female believers whose sole purpose seems to be to satisfy male cult members’ every desire. Mondays, when the cult closes its so-called operations in a Tokyo high-rise, are the times when what can only be called debaucheries occur, related in graphic detail in the book (and evoked in handpainted Japanese endpapers in the handsomely packaged hardcover edition).
Why people are drawn to such groups, which debase them as human beings to the point of mindless obedience, is one of the mysteries Nakamura seems interested in exploring. Narazaki initially accepts his brainwashing at the hands of the cult without resistance, as does Ryoko. Both believe to be operating out of love but in reality suffer from a deep-seated belief in their own insignificance, instilled in them since childhood. “The life I lived,” Narazaki says early in the novel: “That life has no value at all.”
While some Cult X members are trying to fill the empty spaces in their lives, others, like Yusuke Takahara, have a terrorist action planned. He started out with good intentions, working at a nonprofit organization in Africa. His kidnapping and brainwashing by an African rebel group, YG, is told through a lengthy diary entry, read by Ryoko late in the novel. Takahara’s brainwashing by YG — a part of their mind control techniques require followers to rape young girls at gunpoint — is a contributing factor in his radicalization. So too, Takahara claims, are the corporations and governments that destabilize neighboring countries for political leverage and to keep the price of munitions high. Takahara writes in his diary: “The media had no desire to reveal that a large Japanese company was working behind the scenes of all the unrest and civil war, or that the government was involved.”
While Takahara’s faction prepares to strike Tokyo, the plot is thickened by the points of view of other conflicted characters operating within Matsuo’s group, Sawatari’s cult and in Japan’s Public Security Bureau. As the novel’s earlier philosophizing and invective against government complicity give way to more plot-driven action and twists, one final digression reveals how Sawatari, a physician pledged to “do no harm,” became the rotten center of a festering wound on a Japanese society that is as complicit as some might argue ours is in sowing the seeds of societal discontent.
In this regard, Nakamura’s impassioned writing is part of a continuum that stretches from Dostoevsky to Camus to Oe. Yet as passionate or well-researched as Nakamura’s writing on philosophical and religious principles may be, it is difficult to connect with “Cult X”’s indistinctively drawn characters when the novel’s graphically detailed depictions of sexual violence against women stand out so vividly. By “Cult X’”s conclusion, whatever retribution, redemption or compassion is meted out to the novel’s principal characters is overshadowed by the harrowing journey readers must take to get there.
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and novels, most notably the Charlotte Justice mystery series.