28 August 2013

Evil and the Mask (Nakamura Fuminori)

Evil and the Mask by Nakamura Fuminori, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates (Soho Press, 2013)

How does one unleash maximum evil? The novel by the young Japanese writer Nakamura Fuminori, 36, provides many avenues to explore the filthy black nature of murder, impersonation, wars, more wars, terrorism, copycat terrorism. It features an antihero (Fumihiro Kuki) who was chosen by his father to succeed him as a "cancer" in the world, as the embodiment of pure evil. The family business is in fact the very instrument of evil as it built upon destructive, anarchic aims through the trade of war materiel and ammunition. Here's the long-term plan of Fumihiro's elder brother, also destined to be another malignant tumor in society.

Most of the companies of which I'm the major shareholder deal with war in one form or another, from brokering arms deals overseas to rebuilding after the wars are over.... I'm putting all of my efforts into abolishing the article in the constitution that says that Japan can't export weapons. If we can repeal that we'll be able to sell locally produced weapons to other countries, then whenever a war breaks out we can reap vast profits. The arms business is a gold mine, because weapons are consumables. The longer the war drags on—in other words, the more people are killed—the more money we make. Japan's superior technology will take the world by storm. Imagine we develop a fighter plane. We can include the maintenance in the contract, the whole works. It's a gravy train with no end. Obviously it's not the money I'm interested in. What I'm looking at, as an end in itself, is hundreds of thousands of people dying in those economic currents.

War as the modern industrial complex of evil—an efficient machine ran by capitalists, workers, and soldiers of atrocities, fed by the sustainable energy of constant warmongering. War as the ubiquitous laboratory for inhumanity. 
This is a topical novel, inevitably invoking the two world wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War on Terror, the many wars we seem to never tire of making. It is a novel of its time, particularly relevant given the recent pronouncement of Japanese officials bent on amending the country's pacifist constitution (embodied in Article 9 of Japanese constitution).

Fumihiro, shaken by his father's plans for him, set into motion a sequence of events that give readers a peek into the twisted minds of warlords and terrorists. Billed as a Japanese noir detective story, this novel avoids the excesses of the genre by being restrained in its presentation of violence. Sometimes it's too restrained, too understated, as to become more and more creepy with its creeping resolution of the plot. All the celebrated murders and wars in the novel are not described as they happen but only indirectly, either told in conversation by the characters or reported on television and newspapers. The reader may be privy to the planning of a murder or terrorist act but he does not witness its full execution. All we get are accounts of the crimes.

"There's this group doing strange things recently, isn't there? Like simultaneous explosions in different places. The ones calling themselves JL? They’re on the news all the time. The media are condemning them, calling them 'The Invisible Terrorists,' but that's just spurring them on. It looks like there have already been copycats as well."

"And now they’ve made a threat. 'We're going to assassinate all the politicians, starting with the baldest. If you want to stop us, the Prime Minister has to hold a press conference and do a perfect impression of the singer Hiromi Go.' Wouldn’t that be hysterical?"


"Really? That's crazy."

The Prime Minister channeling Hiromi Go? How bad can that be? See Goldfinger 99 for reference.

The deadpan tone of the novel sometimes breaks into contained hilarity, unintended or not. Here's one upstart terrorist describing the ambitious plans of the terror group.

"We're attacking all accepted values. Authority, class differences, shared perceptions. We don't care what happens to the social structure—revolutions are for suckers. Our target is people's collective consciousness. It's like throwing a cream pie in their face."

By now it was raining quite heavily.

"Come see me again, and I'll give you some specific examples. You're not the type to tell the cops. You're not a loser. You hate people, don't you? And you don't give a damn about society. I can see it in your face. I've got a gift for spotting kindred spirits. But I'll tell you one thing. If we move right away from ethics and morality and common sense, a completely different world will emerge. Sort of as a bonus. Okay, see you."

A completely different world will emerge. He's not kidding at all, that terrorist.

The noir detective aspect of Evil and the Mask is apparent from various devices: brooding, angsty protagonist, bleak atmosphere, femme fatale figure, and, well, a detective. The novel opens with an extract from the diary of a detective who accidentally got involved in the case. This, however, turns out to be not so much about detection and problem-solving as about the timeless superhero story of good versus evil. Is evil encoded in genes, embedded in tissues like a cancer? Where is the place of personal/private transactions of evil within the larger context of public/wholesale wars?
Evil and the Mask turns out to be a novel of ideas, with the evildoing characters speaking in the dialectical manner of Plato. By the end of the book, philosophical exchanges with cold-blooded murderers, corrupt businessmen, and budding terrorists lead to some plausible ideas about how evil spreads like a happy virus. No talking cats or leeches falling from the sky in this book. The novel turns out be well-grounded in reality. That probably makes it more uncanny.
In his preface to The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares—via Alain Robbe-Grillet's Paris Review interview—Borges said that all great novels of the twentieth century are detective novels. His examples: The Turn of the Screw, William Faulkner's Sanctuary, The Castle. Unlike the traditional detective novel, the specific detective novel he had in mind are those that are not concerned about the solution to the crime but to the investigation itself. [Here I'm reminded of the modern species of the novel called the 'novel of inquiry' (nobela ng pagsisiyasat) by the Filipino novelist Edgar Calabia Samar, who expounded on this in an essay in Halos Isang Buhay (Almost a Life).] Robbe-Grillet continues his reading of Borges:

Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

The process is all that matters. The process is the novel itself. Roberto Bolaño faithfully borrows this method in The Savage Detectives. But he makes certain concessions in 2666. After the interminable length of the latter novel, Bolaño is forced to explain some of the mystery but still manages to keep a good deal undisclosed.

Given the definition of Borges, I would say that Evil and the Mask can be considered a traditional detective novel. The truth is discovered in the end; all clues are accounted for. Still, the novelist Nakamura defies some expectations of the detective novel through an unusual approach to the determination of crime. The crime is already determined from the start. What the rest of the novel does is unfold the investigation process of the criminals' investigation into their own selves, how they determine the extent of their guilt and punishment. To some extent, it is an investigation not of the crimes which are transparently presented but of the criminal intents. If that makes sense. In addition, the detection in the novel is not really undertaken by the detective ("someone [who] comes along and puts the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed") in the book. The detection is made by the criminals themselves. In the end, the detective scratches his head, just as puzzled as he was when he entered the picture halfway through the story. He may have a theory about the crime but he is as clueless as ever.

This is only Nakamura's second novel to appear in English translation. He is a prolific writer and appears to be a critical favorite, having won prestigious prizes in Japan like the Akutagawa Prize and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize, the latter for a novel which appeared as The Thief.

In Evil and the Mask, it’s not only terrorists and detectives who appear to be almost invisible. The book's translators, Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, seem to be peripheral too as they have produced a version that is almost invisible, save for some cultural references, in the target language. It captures what must have been Nakamura’s clean and spare diction and his appeal to universal and timeless themes. However, the translators themselves literally disappear in the book. Their names can't be found in the dust jacket, book flaps, or title pages. Their names only appear on the copyright page, in tiny lettering.

I received a review copy from the publisher.


  1. Perhaps one of the scariest things about this novel is how real it seems, rather than fictionalized. I have yet to read it, but I was quite captured by The Thief, and to me, the idea that we cannot escape our fate. Personally, I don't believe in fate, but I suspect Nakamura does. I wonder how one is able to write on evil so effectively, and the ability we have to make war. It's all so terrifying, the idea that we will self combust if given the chance...that evil so often appears to overcome good. I'll have to read this to discuss it properly with you, and it is waiting for me on my shelf...

  2. You make me curious about The Thief, Bellezza. "Fate" is also a major preoccupation in this book. I think the ending of this novel somehow clarifies his position.

  3. I missed this post in August somehow, Rise, but I'm intrigued by your review of it. Would you recommend this or a more "classic" Japanese author for me next knowing what you do of my, ahem, savage (detective) tastes?

  4. I wouldn't recommend it, Richard. It's second-tier. Using the 'savage index', I'll go for the likes of Kobo Abe.