While my previous post saw Granta Books bringing a writer into English for the first time, today’s featured author has already had several works published in the Anglosphere, with this latest novel actually the third released by Granta/Portobello in the UK. Hiromi Kawakami is probably best-known for the offbeat May-to-December romance Strange Weather in Tokyo (AKA The Briefcase), and today’s choice is another that fans of the earlier book will enjoy. Again, we have a slightly enigmatic central male figure, but this time there’s a twist. You see, while the book is ostensibly about a man, it’s the women in his life who get to talk, and what they have to say makes for very interesting reading indeed.
The content and structure of The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino (translated by Allison Markin Powell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is made clear by the title. It’s a novel in ten parts, with ten different women looking back at their relationship with a certain Yukihiko Nishino, each providing a slightly different perspective on the main character. The ten sections work well in their own right, and could be read as short stories, yet as the reader works their way through them, the overlapping details gradually build a more nuanced picture of Nishino, one that is tinged with sadness.
While the book contains stories from throughout his life, The Ten Loves… is far from a simple recount of events. The first chapter has a middle-aged woman reminiscing about an affair she had with Nishino, confiding in her teenaged daughter (who was the only witness to the couple’s meetings). These memories turn out to be significant, as Natsume’s former lover is to appear in her life one more time, albeit in a slightly less corporeal form than she recalls:
‘What is that?’ Minami asked.
‘Don’t you know?’ I replied in a low voice.
‘Is it Mr Nishino?
‘It must be.’
‘Is he dead?’
Minami and I looked at each other calmly. The wind chimes jingled. In the grass, Nishino stirred.
p.11 (Granta Books, 2019)
This scene in the family’s garden is Nishino’s farewell, but it’s just the start of our acquaintance with a rather intriguing man.
What follows is a journey through Nishino’s life, as seen by the women he becomes involved with. There’s young love, in the form of a kiss with his middle-school classmate, Shiori, and a decade or so later, we see the development of a lengthy relationship with his work supervisor, Manami, which gradually fizzles out. Between (and during…) his longer relationships, Nishino has numerous flings, affairs and one-night stands, particularly in his university days, and as Kawakami takes us back and forth in time, we hear more about his life and loves, and his failure to ever really settle down.
Cleverly, there are overlaps between the stories, and once a few of the women have told their tale, we start to see connections, with characters mentioned in one piece later becoming the narrators of their own. This helps to flesh the story out and make the central character, despite his lack of voice, a more well-rounded invidual. One particularly pivotal scene is actually replayed from a different perspective, when Nishino’s decision to have dinner with both Manami and one of his ex-girlfriends blows up in his face. Later, his ex, Kanoko, gives her take on the meal, offering further insights into how stupid an idea it was – not just for us, but also for Nishino’s benefit.
While our friend can be clueless about how his actions affect others, he’s nevertheless a man women are attracted to. He never struggles to attract partners, and is constantly in a relationship (sometimes several at the same time), some casual and fleeting, others more serious. His good looks and attention to the women he’s with give him the air of a perfect boyfriend, yet somehow he never quite manages to convince his partners that he’s the one for them:
People who are too good to be true arouse a certain hatred. Nishino had often talked about ‘the girl’ he was ‘seeing now’. Where they had gone on a date. What they had eaten. How they had hit on him (like moths to a flame, the girls always hit on Nishino – without him even realizing that he was being hit on). What kind of sex they had. What they had accused him of. And finally, how the relationship had gone wrong. (pp.141/2)
In the end, he always seems to be cut adrift, often through no fault of his own, and in these retrospective musings, many of his partners sense that this is a man destined to end up alone.
One of the more interesting aspects of reading The Ten Loves… involves playing detective and attempting to sift through the clues to work out what Nishino’s problem is. It’s tempting to suggest that he has intimacy and commitment issues, but even if he can be stand-offish at times, it’s usually the women who break up with him. If we’re looking for key relationships, then his time with Kanoko, who appears in at least three of the stories, might provide some clues, with Nishino’s heart seemingly less accessible after their break-up. There’s also the story of his sister, whose problems come to weigh young Yukihiko down. There’s certainly a sense that her shadow looms darkly over all of his subsequent relationships.
The Ten Loves… makes for an intriguing and compelling work, enjoyable to read, and Markin Powell, in her third Kawakami translation, rarely sets a foot wrong. However, it’s ever so slightly disturbing, too, with the ten women (and the readers) wondering what happened, and where Nishino’s life went wrong. But was it really that bad? Despite getting ten sides of the same story, the overwhelming feeling on finishing the book is that there are still many gaps in our knowledge, and we’ll never really know what Nishino’s life was really like:
Was he able to live out his life, and to love someone?
Did he ever find a place for himself in this relentless world? (p.195)
Even if none of the women whose stories we are told managed to provide Nishino with a resting place, you suspect that they would all hope he did find some happiness before his ghostly end…