A couple of months back when I wrote about Yukio Mishima’s The Frolic of the Beasts, I mentioned how there is so much of Japanese literature out there that I have yet to savour.
This time around I decided to settle for a contemporary book and selected Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino.
I had greatly enjoyed Kawakami’s surreal and unsettling novella Record of a Night Too Brief issued in those lovely Pushkin Press Japanese Novellas series. And a fuller length work by her was now beckoning to me.
The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino comprises ten stories, each told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. Essentially, these are short chronicles that chart Nishino’s relationships from a period spanning his student days to when he becomes an older mature man. The liaisons are either legitimate relationships or extramarital affairs.
There is no linear progression in the stories as they back jump back and forth in time.
Indeed, in the first piece called ‘Parfait‘, Nishino makes his presence felt as a ghost. The narrator is a woman called Natsumi. Natsumi has a grown up daughter Minami who is twenty five. But Natsumi harks back to the past when she had an affair with Nishino when Minami was a seven year old child. Sometimes Minami tagged along when they decided to meet. During such times, Nishino would order a strawberry parfait for Minami.
Natsumi, meanwhile, believes she was in love with Nishino but is not sure whether Nishino reciprocated her feelings. He gave the impression that he did though.
‘Hey, Natsumi, when I die, I’ll come to you,’ he once said.
‘When I die, I want to be by your side.’
‘I bet you say that to all the girls,’ I replied flippantly.
With an unusually serious look, Nishino said, ‘I don’t.’
And he does make an entry in the final pages of this story as an apparition.
In the subsequent pieces, some of the tales cleverly overlap. For instance, in ‘Goodnight’ – one of my favourite pieces in the book – we are introduced to Manami, and Nishino is now filtered through her lens.
Nishino and Manami know each other through their workplace where she is the head of the department and he is her subordinate. Manami finds herself falling in love with Nishino despite increased resistance and numerous attempts to quell those feelings.
That May, Yukihiko won me quite easily. Like a butterfly collector who spreads the wings of his specimen on a board, and pins them in place. Gently and carefully handling the now-dead body of an insect he has captured. I suppose you could say that Yukihiko had already entrapped me. Without us ever having shared a caress. Without us even having shared a glance.
When the two are going out, Nishino bumps into an old flame Kanoko, and invites her to have dinner with him and Manami. Nishino is clearly oblivious to how awkward this meal can actually be.
Manami, being the sophisticated woman that she is, tries to make the best of this situation.
Yukihiko remained calm throughout the meal. Everything was extremely proper. We drank an appropriate amount of sake. The conversation was innocuous. The evening wore on, gradually. Kanoko seemed to have decided to treat me lightly. Oh, this woman is Yukihiko’s new girlfriend? How boring! She barely even tried to conceal these thoughts. For my part, I behaved like an adult (like a sensible, mature woman three years their senior), drinking my sake with a radiant smile and when the dessert of pear sorbet arrived, dipping my gleaming silver spoon into it with relish.
In the subsequent story called ‘The Heart Races,’ the narrator is now the other woman Kanoko. We now look at the same dinner from her point of view…
Manami was the type of woman who could drink in moderation, but who also enjoyed dessert. I had dinner with the two of them after they became an item. How had I got myself into such a situation? I was not such an idiot as to have brazenly inserted myself into an old boyfriend’s date with his new girlfriend – that had not been my intention – but somehow it was how things ended up.
Manami was polite from start to finish – her cheerfulness was resolute.
While Nishino is clearly the central figure in the novel, this book is as much about the women in his life. Through the lens of their relationship with him, we get a glimpse of their personalities and are privy to their wants, and emotions.
Nishino, meanwhile, comes across as a puzzling creation, inscrutable in fact. When in a relationship, he seems to be deeply in love, and yet due to various shortcomings is unable to hold on to the women he is involved with. And yet he has a charming enough demeanor that makes him attractive and interesting in the first place.
It is really difficult to figure out just what it is he wants from his relationships. In each of the ten perspectives on display here, he seems to be deeply involved, and yet eventually those relationships fizzle out with no commitment.
I loved Kawakami’s writing style in these interconnected tales of love. I was drawn to the beguiling, lucid and other worldly quality of the prose. The simplicity of the writing was marked by Kawakami’s keen insights and observations.
While the overall feel of these vignettes was playful and lighthearted, there were also darker elements that kept surfacing. One in particular revolved around the death of Nishino’s sister. The two siblings were very close, and his sister’s suicide had a profound impact on Nishino. There was an unsettling and hard hitting set piece around the two of them in the second story titled ‘In the Grass’, which is only heightened when we learn of what is to follow later. Overall, I thought The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino was a remarkable piece of work.
This is the first Kawakami book I have read and on the strength of this alone I am now keen to explore Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop.