Three things make The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell, particularly Japanese. The first is the overall sense of social isolation that the characters live in. I can’t claim to be an expert in Japanese literature, but what I’ve read of it always features characters who face the world on their own, even when they have families. Even when the plot concerns a couple, the characters seem to be outside of society, operating within a very small cast. I’ve found this in Haruki Murakami’s novels, in Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s work, and in Shusaku Endo’s novels so I was expecting it in Fuminori Nakamura’s crime fiction. (I won’t do anymore name dropping here, but if you have not read the above author’s I can vouch for them. All excellent.) Social Isolation is the big theme in the Japanese literature I have read.
It could be an affect of translation, but I find the dialogue in Japanese fiction has its own sound. It doesn’t sound like American English, nor like British English. It’s less natural, less real, a little like actors on a stage almost, even in intimate scenes. I don’t mean any of this as a complaint against the dialogue in Japanese novels, just that I don’t see naturalism or realism as its goal. Here’s a sample from The Gun picked at random:
“All right, then, I’m going to go to that girl’s place now,” I said, thinking I would leave Keisuke there.
“Huh? Oh, the cute one? What’s her name?”
“Ah, not that one–I meant the girl I slept with the other night, go over to her place. And, her name it Yuko. The one you were talking about. Yuko Yoshikawa. I’m just telling you so you’ll keep your hands off her.”
“What? Why are you going there? I thought you were in love with this one? Hey, what are you doing? Break it off with the other one.”
It reads a little like people who are both talking and explaining what they are saying at the same time, which is how I feel about much of the dialogue in Japanese novels. Try reading it aloud to see what I mean. It has this strange, 90% natural feel to it.
Finally, there is the gun itself. In The Gun a young man finds a suicide victim while walking through a deserted park. Lying next to the dead man is a gun. The young man is spell-bound by the gun, something he has never seen. Instead of reporting the situation to the authorities, he picks up the gun and takes it home. Afterwards he becomes obsessed with the gun, polishing it, taking it apart, counting the bullets in it, day-dreaming about firing it. This could only happen in a place like Japan, where guns are very rare.
It takes a while, but eventually, the young man does fire the gun. Once he has crossed this line, he begins to wonder what it would be like to shoot living creatures, to shoot people.
The Gun has much in common with the first half of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A young man becomes obsessed with committing a crime. This obsession begins to overwhelm his life. Nakamura’s novel is much simpler than Dostoevsky’s, much slimmer, too. But even at its long novella length, there is a lot going on here. It would make for a great book club discussion, if you’ve a crime-fiction loving book club.
My thanks to Belleza at Dolce Bellezza who sent me her ARC copy of The Gun.