Last Winter,We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
A photographer’s mounting obsession leads to murder —but who’s really to blame?
Fuminori Nakamura (中村 文則) is the recipient of NoirCon’s David L. Goodis Award, the Akutagawa Prize and the Oe Kenzaburo Prize. The Thief, his first novel to appear in English, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Allison Markin Powell is a translator, editor and publishing consultant who maintains the translation database Japanese Literature in English. Her translation of Hiromi Kawakami’s The Briefcase was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian literary prize.
“It’s safe to say you killed them…. Isn’t that right?” asks a journalist in the first lines of Fuminori Nakamura’s complex crime thriller, Last Winter, We Parted. On assignment from his insis- tent editor, the unnamed journalist is interviewing Yudai Kiharazaka, a renowned photographer who sits on death row for the murder of two young women.
Before his conviction, Kiharazaka was best known for Butterflies, a mesmerizing photo of a pale figure engulfed by hundreds of butterflies in flight. An eccentric obsessed with capturing the true nature of things, Kiharazaka goes through a series of phases, fixating first on his own sister, then butterflies, then lifelike, human-sized dolls. His obsession comes to a head when, stuck in an artistic rut, he sets two women on fire in order to catch their flaming bodies on film. He does so hoping to take the perfect photograph, a nightmarish ambition inspired by “Hell Screen,” a classic short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Yet as the journalist prepares to write his biography, Kiharazaka’s guilt becomes less clear, and everyone associated with the killer begins to seem culpable. Research only leads to more questions. If Kiharazaka is guilty, why are there no photos of the women on fire? If he’s innocent, why doesn’t he contest his conviction? The writer’s inquiry is increasingly complicated as he becomes entangled with Akari, Kiharazaka’s mysterious sister, as well as a strange group that’s obsessed with creating imitations of their loved ones, living and dead. The journalist tries to back out when the job’s black shadows threaten to overwhelm him, only to discover that escape is impossible.
Throughout the novel, Nakamura name-checks two major sources of inspiration, Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen” and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The author’s interest in blurring the line between truth and fiction is reflected in all the narrative’s various threads. One theme that crops up repeatedly is the idea that an imitation can be more beautiful than the real thing, that true art can capture the essence of a person through distorted representation. Nakamura’s well-established interest in the battered psychology of criminal misfits also crops up in this novel, his third to appear in English. Fans of classic noir will enjoy translator Allison Markin Powell’s hard-boiled style, as well as Nakamura’s tough-guy narrators, who pair their tortured introspection with a stiff glass of whisky. Female characters are fewer, however; there is Akari, the novel’s hyper-sexual femme fatale, who is juxtaposed with the photographer’s first victim, Akiko Yoshimoto, a strong but kind woman who happens to be blind.
One of the novel’s most striking images is Kiharazaka’s famous photo, which might also serve as a metaphor for the whole reading experience. A minor character tells us early on that a group of butterflies is called a “rabble,” a disorderly crowd of individuals that grows into an unsettling mob. Alone, each character is unremarkable, but when they swarm together they become something massive and conspiratorial. The narrative takes astonishing twists that are sometimes hard to follow, in part because of the novel’s format. The chapters alternate between the journalist’s conventional narrative and a series of “archived materials,” ranging from letters written by Kiharazaka to Twitter posts from the second victim, Yuriko Kobayashi. The novel’s a short, quick read, perhaps too quick to take on such a twisted cast of characters in any depth. The women feel especially two-dimensional, in part because Nakamura sticks so closely to the masculine-driven noir playbook. Still, it’s an interesting read, and especially well suited to readers who like a story that keeps you guessing.
More translated by Allison Markin Powell
Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai
This classic novella portrays an eventful day in the life of a young schoolgirl. The narrator’s playful language and modern insights, groundbreaking in 1939, remain fresh and accessible today.
The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami
One evening, 38-year-old Tsukiko meets an old high school teacher in a bar. Their chance meeting shifts as naturally as the seasons from fleeting acknowledgement into a deeply sentimental love affair.