Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura

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Translated by Allison Markin Powell – The question of how art inspires and corrupts is something that drives the work of Japanese crime superstar Fuminori Nakamura, and the art is of the unconventional kind. In his first novel to be translated into English, The Thief, the eponymous pickpocket’s art is stealth. In Nakamura’s follow up, the protagonist’s art is the ability to inflict pain and misery. Last Winter We Parted, Nakamura’s latest novel to be translated into English, examines two more conventional artists – a photographer, and the journalist writing his biography – but this doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t filled with the evil that flowed through his previous two novels.

Famous photographer Yudai Kiharazaka has claimed responsibility for the deaths of two women, who burnt as he was photographing them. However his interviewer feels that something is not right – if Kiharazaka wanted to photograph the women dying, why are there no photographs? Did the famous photographer somehow fail? It becomes clear to the writer that the he is hiding something from his past, even as he confesses to the crimes and begs for the justice he deserves.

Kiharazaka has a photographer’s eye for the truth behind a subject, and from their first meeting he begins to dig into his interviewer’s past. Why would he interview a remorseless killer, a man who, as he himself confessed, stood by and watched two women burn to death? Both the interviewer and the photographer have some things in common – a weakness for Kiharazaka’s overly dramatic sister Akari, an ability to get so engrossed in their work that they forget everything else, and a dark, secret desire in their pasts.

The novel’s complex plot deals with obsession, projection, stalking and twisted fantasies. The narrative flows back and forth, following people from Kiharazaka’s tragic past living with his sister in an orphanage, to evidence put before the court, to diaries, letters, even Twitter, all of which weave a compelling picture of a photographer in a slump, a man driven by desperation and a feeling of inertia to watch on helplessly as his models burn.

As the unnamed writer delves into Hikarazaka’s past, he discovers that the first death was originally ruled an accident, until a repeat occurrence forced police to look back at the first death. As he digs deeper and deeper into the investigation, he finds himself getting involved with Kiharazaka’s sister, despite both of them warning him to stay away. His investigations also lead him to a ‘doll creator’ – a man who creates replicas of loved ones who have since departed, replicas that, by all accounts, surpass the originals in beauty.

This idea of the search for perfection in art is what drives the novel – there are repeated references to the short story Hell Screen by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, in which an artist is commissioned to paint an image of hell, and cannot complete it until he sees his beloved daughter burn to death. Last Winter We Parted also references the classic Japanese tale of a creator of wind-up dolls who makes one in the image of his dying wife. The doll-maker becomes obsessed, and the doll begins to surpass the wife in beauty. In her final moment, the jealous wife coughs blood all over the doll, creating a shade of red that the doll maker can never match, thus dooming him to never be able to become interested in any other woman.

While these nods towards Japanese literature and folklore add to the depth of the novel, Allison Markin Powell’s translation is such that no further explanation is required. One issue, however, is the plot, which seems unnecessarily complex and shifting. What is, in essence, a simple story of obsession becomes occasionally overwhelmed by shifts in style, voice and perspective. These all add to the feeling that it’s a maddening merry-go-round, a twisted story of just how far some will go for their art, or for love.

Last Winter We Parted is out for Kindle on 21 October and as a hardback in November.

Soho Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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