Instantly reminiscent of the work of Osamu Dazai and Patricia Highsmith, Fuminori Nakamura’s latest novel is a dark and twisting house of mirrors that philosophically explores the violence of aesthetics and the horrors of identity.A young writer arrives at a prison to interview a convict. The writer has been commissioned to write a full account of the case, from the bizarre and grisly details of the crime to the nature of the man behind it. The suspect, a world-renowned photographer named Kiharazaka, has a deeply unsettling portfolio—lurking beneath the surface of each photograph is an acutely obsessive fascination with his subject.
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Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. He has won numerous prizes for his writing, including the Ōe Prize, Japan’s largest literary award; the David L. Goodis Award; and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. The Thief, his first novel to be translated into English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His other novels include Evil and the Mask and The Gun.
From the Hardcover edition.
“It's safe to say you killed them . . . Isn’t that right?”
The man’s expression does not change when I say this to him. He is wearing a black sweat suit, his body leaning lazily in his chair. If the transparent acrylic glass
weren’t between us, would I be afraid? His cheeks are hollow, his eyes slightly sunken.
“I’ve had my doubts all along but . . . why did you . . . after the murder, Akiko’s . . .”
— Don’t jump to conclusions, he says.
He remains expressionless. He seems neither sad nor angry. He just seems tired. The man had been born tired.
— I think I’ll ask the questions, for a change.
I can hear his voice quite clearly even through the acrylic glass.
— Are you . . . prepared?
The air suddenly grows chilly.
— I’m asking if you’re prepared.
The man is looking straight at me. He hasn’t shifted his gaze once, not for some time now.
— You want to know what’s inside my mind. Isn’t that right? . . .Why I committed a crime like that. You want to know about the deepest reaches of my heart. But up till now, nobody has come to see me in person . . . Do you know what that means?
He moves only his mouth—otherwise not a single muscle in his face shifts.
— That I would talk to you. And probably eagerly. Loneliness can turn a person into a great talker. You seem like you can manage to sit with me as long as you’re on the other
side of this acrylic glass. But here’s what it feels like to me. Like we’re sitting face to face in a small enclosed room, having a chat. Try to imagine it. Having a conversation with a person who committed a bizarre crime, and at such close range, listening to everything that’s inside his mind . . . It would be as if I were putting myself inside of you.
“. . . Inside me?”
—That’s right. Whatever’s inside me, it would end up inside you. Whatever’s inside you would probably be activated by the process . . . As if I—a man who’s going to be executed—as if I could go on living inside of you. Are you okay with that?
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. “But I’ve decided to write a book about you.”
The room grows chilly again. The place must be cleaned daily; although the floor is worn, there isn’t a speck of dust on it.
— Why? . . . Because you’re also a member of K2?
The guard in uniform behind him is staring at me. The walls of the room are starting to get to me. It’s as though, little by little, the room is closing in around the
man. I draw in my breath. I am conscious of the acrylic glass in front of me. It’s all right, I murmur inside my head. This is surely an opening in the conversation. But the gap is small. We aren’t even alone. And there is a time limit.
“. . .I’m just interested in K2.”
—Interested . . . That could be dangerous.
The guard in uniform stands up and informs us of the time. I let out my breath. The man is aware of my relief. He is watching me. He sees the state I am in.
— Okay . . . You can come back again, he says in parting.
The door behind him opens.
— But I’m still not sure whether I’m going to tell you anything. I’m not too good at analyzing myself. So.
As the man is led away, he continues.
— Together, I guess you and I can think about things . . . I mean, like why I did what I did.
AS I LEAVE the prison, dusk is falling.
I take in a breath. But there is no freshness to be had in the exhaust-choked air. When I realize that I am fumbling around in my pocket, I still my hand. In the distance I can see the lights of a convenience store. The man’s voice still echoes in my ears.
I cross a wide road that is wet from rain and go inside the convenience store. I stare at the cigarette display for a moment, grab a pack, and set it along with a lighter on the counter by the register. When I touch the gloss of the plastic-wrapped package, my fingers feel a trace of warmth.
The thin cashier takes the scanner and starts reading the barcodes with distracted movements. For some reason, I feel oppressed by the cashier’s gestures. I go outside and light a cigarette. Even though I quit smoking.
My throat feels parched. This thirst is not likely to be quenched by water.
I scan my surroundings futilely and start walking. My notebook and recorder are in my bag. They feel terribly heavy all of a sudden. I hadn’t been able to bring the recorder into the visiting rom.
A hard rain begins to fall. The ground is already wet so this must have just been a temporary lull. People run to get out of the rain. They glance at me, standing there
getting wet, as they pass by. Like they see something bizarre that they don’t want to have anything to do with. I hold my hand over my head and start to trot. The fact is, it really doesn’t matter to me whether I get wet.
Take another look at me, I want to say, but to whom I don’t know. I’m running like this, to get out of the rain. Just like you all.
At the edge of my vision, I can see that the lights are on in a small bar. In the evening dusk, the lights seem tentative as they flicker off and then dimly back on again.
Just as a shelter from the rain, I try to tell myself. I draw closer to the lights of the bar. I open the glass door, which has no trace of fingerprints yet, sit down at the counter, and order a whiskey on the rocks. Bartenders are wary of customers who arrive just as the bar is opening.
“. . .What?”
“Uh, the rain.”
I am at a loss for words. He serves me the whiskey, and I bring the glass to my lips. I put the liquid on my tongue, and the moment I feel the expanse of sweet warmth, I gulp it down. It is as if my throat has no patience, and needs to hasten it down all at once. The man on the other side of the bar is watching me. He must be used to seeing the moment when someone who abstains decides to give up.
“ Are you . . . prepared?” The other man’s voice floats through my mind. Prepared? I attempt a smile. I bring the whiskey to my lips again. As if I’m a ravenous insect.
The warmth of the alcohol spreads to my brow and into my chest.
I don’t need to be prepared. I have nothing left to protect.
Prison is not as bad as you’d think. But it’s been quite a long time . . . I hope you’ll forgive me for writing another letter like this. I can’t help but get introspective in letters. I
don’t want to upset you all over again.
But I wonder why that is—why do people feel the need to reveal things? I don’t know. Stuff about me has probably been wrongly reported out in the world. That doesn’t matter. Because I don’t even understand it myself—I mean, why I did such a thing. And why I’m going to be executed.
I hope you can forgive your brother. Well, to be more precise, I hope you can cope with it. But here, there’s no chance of me coping with it all. I know I just wrote that prison isn’t so bad, but there are exceptions. Like the nights. When I can’t sleep, I get very frightened by this place. In solitary confinement in prison (those of us who commit incendiary crimes are thrown into solitary) the concrete walls and the iron doors that shut me off from the outside world seem only to heighten that feeling of terror. Every sound echoes coldly against the concrete and iron. It’s the heaviness and the indifference of such hardness that scares me, more than being locked up in here. I wonder if you can understand.
Images of my own actions drift before my eyes. The heat of the moment, the sensation in the air—I experience everything as if I were reliving it. Down to the last trivial motions—even rubbing my eyes and swallowing my saliva. But in these visions, there are butterflies flying around me. I’m sure they’re not real. But it’s as though the butterflies are trying to disrupt the images I remember in my madness . . . It’s almost as if they have come to save me.
Do you remember the first time I ever held a camera?
As far as everyone else is concerned, perhaps that was a fateful encounter—me and a camera. But a camera meant everything to me. Literally, everything. That’s because I interacted with the world through the lens of a camera.
My first camera was like a toy, a black Polaroid. The first photographic subject in my life was you, my older sister. “Take a picture in case I disappear.” You were only twelve years old, and that’s what you said to me. I could sense the danger then too. If Father were to kill
us, I wanted to leave evidence that we had been alive in this world, otherwise . . . No, that’s a lie. That’s not it. It didn’t matter to me whether I lived or died. What I used to think was, “Even if he kills you, this way I can still see your face every day.” You were always so concerned about what would happen if he killed you. What would happen to your little brother if you died. That’s why you said, “I want you to take a picture of everything about me. Put all of me into this photo.” Back then, sis, were you really just thinking of me when you said that? That wasn’t all, was it? Of course it’s true that you worried about me, but you—still a child yourself—you couldn’t help but find it strange, the phenomenon of having your image appear
on the page as a “photo,” and maybe you were thinking that your self could be transferred into the picture? By doing so, you could find a safe place to go. Like inside the little locked closet in your room, or in the openings of the refrigerator or cupboard that no one paid any attention to, or outside, in the niches between the concrete blocks in our park, behind the flower beds . . . Maybe, if you could have, you would have left me and gone off somewhere.
Now I’ve grown up and won all kinds of awards for my photographs, but it’s because of what happened back then. Because I was so serious about trying to get all of you into the photo when I was clicking the shutter. Over and over again, I wanted to rob you of yourself . . . Even if what was left was nothing more than an empty shell. I was trying to capture the entirety of you in a photograph.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized what I really wanted was neither you nor a photo of you.
Sorry for bringing up bad memories. Thanks for getting me a lawyer. I’d just figured I’d have a court-appointed lawyer, so I am grateful. I don’t like him much—even the watch he wears is hideous—but I guess he’s better than nothing.
. . . Why is that? What’s better than nothing? . . . No matter what I do, I’m going to be executed.
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