Before the novel even begins, the reader is notified that it is “based on a story which appeared in several Japanese newspapers…in May 2008.”¹ This, of course, makes the words which lie beneath the cover even more titillating.
Meteorologist Shimura Kobo, a fifty-six year old life-long bachelor living in Nagasaki, Japan, begins to realize small changes in the house he lives in by himself: small portions of food are going missing, the level of juice in the container is going down between the time he leaves for work in the morning till when he returns in the evening. Like the meticulous scientist he is, Shimura records all of his observations down in a notebook. However, his rational mind tries to make sense of these strange occurrences that can’t possibly be happening.
Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all?
Even though Shimura is so precise, even going so far as to measure his juice levels with a particular ruler, he can’t help by shake the thought that his brain is just fooling him. Sprinkled throughout are Shimura’s not completely realized regrets of not having a wife and family. In his first person narration, he posits several times the idea that if he had a wife, he would… There is also the occasional mention of his sister and brother-in-law who have not visited in some time, often writing letters informing him that their unable to come to Nagasaki for a visit.
Because Shimura spends his days analyzing weather patterns and utilizing technological instruments, it is of no surprise that he sets up camera equipment in his house to monitor his home while he is away at work. While watching from his office desk, he swears to see a shadow at first and then, perhaps, the visage of a woman. This uncanny moment when he is surveilling his own home, with only glimpses of a possible intruder, are unnerving.
Faye’s prose rendered in English translation by Emily Boyce is direct and simple. The sparse diction only adds to the heighten sense of insecurity the reader feels while piecing together Shimura’s rationalization and what might actually be happening.
Beyond the surveillance, there is another bit of story being told and that is Shimura’s briefly aforementioned longing for a wife. This is often manifested in sentiments of loneliness with glances of memories of young women from earlier life moments painted with an unconscious longing. Shimura is also shown watching television where news reports detailing the advancement of robotics upset him; the idea that in the near-future that humanoid machines will take over places where humans once dominated is disturbing to him.
For a man who uses technology so profoundly in his career and then ultimately in his own home, the idea of these robots taking over where humans should surely remain is uncomfortable. While watching one such broadcast, he imagines himself in old age, alone, with one these automatons. As he dies, it will “place a hand on [his] shoulder and gently whisper [his] name; it would pass this same hand over [his] eyes and mouth, dial the emergency services, and set the funeral arrangements in motion.” All of this, of course, are the familiar actions done by family, but have instead been replaced in Shimura’s lonely mind by a robot.
Nagasaki won the 2010 Académie Française novel award and like the imagined automaton, the book whispers in the reader’s ear even after the final page is read. As the events become clearer as the story goes on, there is still a mystery that lies within the emotions of the characters. This visceral feeling, perhaps, might be what led to the novel’s distinction in France.
At the beginning, I must admit, there were a few stumbling blocks. The text felt a little bit like it was a translation with a few clunky sentences and French idioms that were, perhaps, presented a little wobbly. However, these were few and once the text took off, the sentences and images were portrayed with language that swam in the haunted and curious corners of Shimura’s thoughts. A particular favorite was when Shimura, who had been having restless sleep since he realized things were not right in his home, finally begins to dream,
The unconscious was bursting through. The past seeped out through hidden fault lines and names came back to me with white-hot intensity. Hizuru, Mariko, or Fumiko, forgotten goddesses reappearing with a mocking laugh to say, ‘We’re still here. You won’t get rid of us that easily.’ By the time I awoke they had returned to their hiding places, leaving behind them, as they always did, a thin sheen of anxiety.
Like Shimura’s dream, anxiety and unconscious desires are what make this book creep into the reader’s mind, depositing its tale of the uncanny and upending the notion of home as being the one comfortable place we, as humans, expect to rely on.
Nagasaki will be released in English by Gallic Books on April 14. It will be available as both a paperback and e-book for UK readers and it will also be available as an e-book for US readers on that day with a January 2015 paperback American release.
- The inspiration sounded extremely familiar, but I beat temptation to look up the origin story until after I finished reading the entire novel. I think you should, too.
- There is a 2011 Publishing Perspectives article about Gallic Books that is entirely informative and worth a read.
- The London-based publisher, Gallic Books, is a new one for me and I am ever so delighted about their publishing scheme. They are fairly new and are already doing a wonderful job of bringing foreign literature to an English reading public. They focus on French literature working with their own in-house translators and a slew of talented freelancers. In 2011, they had a mentoring program for up-and-coming translators, which awarded a contract to a new translation and if they weren’t busy enough, they also run Belgravia Books, an independent book shop in London that not only sells Gallic Books’ titles, but other works-in-translation. Bravo to everyone at Gallic Book and can’t wait for more of their titles! (take a look at their catalogue for their varying selection).