“Do you really think that a person could murder someone, purely for the sake of art?”
This is the question Fuminori Nakamura asks in his most recent novel, Last Winter, We Parted. A crime fiction writer who “doesn’t mind” being described as such, Nakamura’s oeuvre frequently explores the gap between inner desires (often disturbed) and outward appearances (often distorted). His third book to be translated into English continues this trend in both subject and form. The translation by Allison Markin Powell retains the unfettered directness of Nakamura’s original Japanese, never losing the force of language delivered in the present tense. The precision of Nakamura’s prose is further complimented by Powell’s capacity to trace her way through the many twist-turns that suddenly appear in the plot without warning.
In the spirit of writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Kenzaburo Ōe, from whom Nakamura claims to draw inspiration, Last Winter, We Parted is the story of an aspiring writer who, on assignment from his shadowy editor, must interview a convict on death row. The prisoner’s name is Yudai Kiharazaka: a photographer described by friends as having “no desires,” he is convicted of burning two female models to death. For those close to the artist, however, questions linger over the details of the case and Kiharazaka’s hidden nature. Most vexing among the questions is, if it was a crazed obsession with his art that made him burn his models, then why did he not take pictures of his crime? In an attempt to discover what drove the photographer to such ends, the young writer soon finds himself tangled in a web of dangerous relationships that threaten to consume him entirely. While Kiharazaka’s estranged sister Akari moves in like a black widow, seducing the writer toward some malicious, undisclosed end of her own making, a second figure appears from the background wanting to write his own book about the artist. At the same time, members of a fetish-doll group known simply as K2 arrive at the young writer’s doorstep, leading to an encounter with the group’s creator that feels like stepping out of the Tōkyō nighttime into an even darker world.
As it turns out, both Kiharazaka and the writer belong to K2, although the latter’s membership is more ambiguous. Even as the young writer interviews other members, he is quick to qualify his own link to the group. Perhaps out of embarrassment about the association, the narrator only states, “I just hung out a lot at the doll creator’s house.”
The differences between Kiharazaka’s and the writer’s connections to K2 bring us nearer the core of Nakamura’s novel, which is a meditation on notions of imitation and reality. Hollowed-out silicon dolls provide the issue with enough fantastically creepy imagery to make one’s skin crawl. But Nakamura is only out to test the truth of “art as revelation,” or, as his narrator sums up Jean-Paul Sartre’s views on literature, “how it serves to reveal man to the world.” In a letter from prison, Kiharazaka muses on the more transcendent qualities of the doll-maker’s art. All the while, Nakamura’s language manages to straddle the line that separates Tōkyō’s seedier underground from some higher plane of existence:
I wonder if you’ve noticed? A particularly creepy tendency about the way he makes the dolls? He doesn’t attempt to accurately reconstruct the subject of the doll. He subtly emphasizes one trait that suits the client who has hired him, and then he goes on with the restoration. What the doll creator seeks is not integrity, but rather imperfection. The soul dwells in the distorted part, in the instability that maintains such imperfection. But it's a soul that suits the client.
Being a photographer, I was deeply interested in the work he was doing. In both aspects of it—that first there was an object, and that there was an art to creating an “imitation” in a particular sense. I took dozens of photographs of his creations . . . I was creating another imitation of things that were imitations themselves. At that point, I felt as though I had ventured into territory where what was original no longer mattered. Do you get it now? The sensation of being in that place was very soothing.
It is unfortunate for us that such profundities come from a man who is almost certainly insane and living in solitary confinement at death’s doorstep. But the young writer’s growing doubts about Kiharazaka’s guilt open the door for the reader to see some truth behind the insight: art is that place where imitation and reality overlap, somewhere as wide open as empty space, or as confined as a prison cell (or the area between the covers of a book, for that matter). More worrisome is the possibility that our own desires (which tell us we are alive) and our own rationality (the very thing that helps us to make sense of it all) have been ensnared in a place so dark. On this point, Nakamura delivers the thrill, and makes good on the claim that art can even “rob you of yourself.”
Whether or not Nakamura harbors any complexes about his originality as an author, his characters repeatedly reference their own literary ancestries. For instance, characters within the novel often compare the plight of Nakamura’s protagonist to that of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The writer’s editor warns that after Capote “completed his nonfiction novel, he couldn’t write another decent piece of work.” Still, the editor urges the narrator on to finish his research on Kiharazaka. Readers may also sense a tinge of Kōbō Abe’s The Ruined Map in Nakamura’s ability to conjure settings both realistic and surrealistic in so minimal an amount of prose.
But the comparison made within the novel to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen” stands out most. A retelling of a thirteenth-century Japanese tale, Akutagawa’s story introduced modern readers to the arrogant Imperial court painter Yoshihide: an artist so obsessed with his own genius that he paints his daughter’s image as she burns alive, and is driven mad in the process.
In “Hell Screen,” Akutagawa simultaneously developed one of the finest examples of eyewitness narrative in the whole of world literature. Events are vividly recounted in gruesome detail, and prose delivered with the confidence of reportage as much as the racing heart of fearsome horror. The young writer of Nakamura’s latest novel, in contrast, often appears skittish, paranoid, and frequently uncertain of what he has or hasn’t seen. Ironically, it is the evident self-assuredness of Akutagawa’s narrator—who over and over again rejects popular rumor in favor of his own direct experience of events, while still relying on secondhand accounts to paint a fuller picture of the artist—that raises even more questions about the faithfulness of memory and the ethics of representation. Like the painter feverishly mixing pigments on his palette, both Akutagawa and his narrator are in search of an answer to the question: at what point does legend end and reality begin?
The dollmaker suggests that Akutagawa’s story possesses a “cultural lineage,” and that Kiharazaka only acted in imitation of its protagonist, the Imperial court painter Yoshihide, “but it led him to a strange question.” Here, Nakamura joins the ranks of writers who explore just how far literature can go in capturing a reality that lies outside of language or any other means of representation. As if rejecting the possibility of narrative success altogether, Last Winter, We Parted experiments with storytelling devices that are passed through a filter. Nakamura gathers a collection of archival materials including letters, transcribed video recordings, and Twitter posts, with brief spurts of first-person narration delivered from the writer’s perspective. Somewhat paradoxically, the use of fictional primary sources makes us feel much closer to the book’s events. In this, Nakamura reveals not just the complexities of artistic representation, but our wish that it were not so—our desire to remake events as if they had occurred right before our eyes.
While the use of such devices speaks to the author’s cleverness as an architect of plot development, the diverse materials may be too loosely connected to form a coherent narrative upon first reading. Indeed, readers may find themselves flipping pages back almost as frequently as they push forward in the text, if only to be sure of which characters are really communicating, and with whom. For some, this may be a stumbling block in the otherwise fast-paced reading experience the novel offers. Others may find their excitement in piecing together the clues behind the mystery of Yudai Kiharazaka leaves them wary that, if they were to close their eyes, even for a moment, they might miss the reality behind the illusion.