Review: Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura

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Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura book cover
Evil and the Mask (2013) is the second of Fuminori Nakamura’s novels to be translated into English, and delves more deeply into the philosophies that underpinned his first, stark novel, The Thief. Fumihiro Kuki is born to be a cancer to the world. By far the youngest of the Kuki children, Fumihiro is raised, alongside his adopted sister, Kaori, in the lap of luxury by his father and a team of servants, at the Kuki’s Gothic mansion where he wants for nothing. At the age of eleven, Fumihiro’s father calls him to his study and explains to him that the Kukis have a long tradition of fathering a child late in life, a child which they raise to be a cancer, left to reek destruction on a world that no longer has a place for their father. Fumihiro is his father’s cancer, and the knowledge weighs heavy on him. As his grows, Fumihiro finds himself developing a tender, sexual relationship with Kaori, but when his father intervenes, intent on enjoying Kaori himself, thirteen-year-old Fumihiro is left in an impossible position. As Kaori is nightly abused, Fumihiro can see only one way out: to murder his father, but it’s not until after the act that Fumihiro realises this was all part of his father’s sinister plan. Shot through with guilt and a growing evil, Fumihiro notices a change in himself, his mannerisms and features twisting to resemble his father’s. Jumping forward to early adulthood, Fumihiro has lost Kaori, and is under-going cosmetic surgery to adopt the face of a now-dead criminal in order to protect himself from his past. After the surgery, he tries desperately to inhabit his new identity, while trying to rebuild his life but is tempted always by the thought of once more contacting Kaori. Burdened by his associations with the Kukis, he is never able to break free and finds himself drawn back into their cancerous dynasty, while also dealing with a group of anarchic terrorists, JL, who wreak havoc arbitrarily. A man outside of society, Fumihiro treads an opaque path between good and evil, never sure on which side he falls.

At the centre of the novel is Fumihiro’s struggle to throw off his lineage and early life, determined to exert his own will on his future. In killing his father, Fumihiro acts out the Freudian impulse of patricide, symbolically freeing himself of his past – an act to which Fumihiro reasons there was no real alternative; an early evocation of the sense that one is trapped in a pre-determined life. As Fumihiro realises, his father was dead long before he killed him. That his father’s features creep into his own appearance after the act is a reminder that our genes betray us, that our family shapes us, and that we carry our pasts with us.

Fumihiro’s approach to killing his father is to lock him in a secret basement and leave him to either starve to death or take a cyanide pill – consequently, Fumihiro is left with terrible anxiety about the fate of his father, having created an all too literal example of the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. Despite absolving himself from the responsibility of delivering a lethal blow first-hand, the act never leaves Fumihiro and what it means to take a life, and then to go on living, is explored. The plastic surgery, which Fumihiro hopes will distance himself from his past, creates a new face - a new identity under which to hide - but can’t change Fumihiro’s inner self. Though the struggle to throw off his past proves an impossible task, the struggle allows Nakamura to consider the point to which a life’s path is pre-determined, and how much free will, if any, one retains.

By creating a situation where Fumihiro’s evil actions are committed for good causes (predominantly the protection of Kaori), Nakamura plays with moral ambiguity, never allowing the reader to pigeon-hole Fumihiro, or glean any moral certainty from the text. That the majority of the evil acts outside of Fumihiro’s are committed not for financial gain, but simply for the achievement of greater human suffering, makes them harder to face.

The JL group (a small terrorist group) inject random acts into the narrative, their philosophy – not dissimilar to that of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight – one of random chaos, the disrupting of the routine of life, perhaps to highlight the absurdity of reality and destroy the loosely-maintained social order, perhaps simply for sake of the act itself.

Fumihiro is a lifeless shell, alive but barely living. He wants to disappear, to become anonymous, and one is forced to consider the point at which a person vanishes - ceases to exist - even while still living. He fails to connect with the world, instead existing in it, dispassionately interacting when necessary. His only connection to life is Kaori and she was lost to him, along with his innocence, many years before. Wracked with a fear that he has unwittingly fulfilled his father’s role for him, Fumihiro refuses to embrace the world and Kaori, for fear he will cause them nothing but ill.

Shifting from the Gothic to Noir, Evil and the Mask is atmospheric throughout. However, as with The Thief, the dialogue, at times, reads appallingly to the Western ear; clichés and exposition abound. There are huge chunks of dialogue where the characters slip into philosophical speeches, whether about morality, society, love, death, or war, all feel forced and clumsily inserted into the text. Even the prose is clumsy at times, Evil and the Mask lacking the leanness and sharpness of The Thief, but not benefitting from the fuller prose. It’s fair to say then, that the synthesis of Ideas and Plot is far from satisfactory here.

There are some plot points where the characters seem to act to drive the plot forward rather than within their nature. This is a comment on determinism, but it is also difficult for the reader to accept. One particularly obnoxious example of this is when Fumihiro picks up a woman in a bar by offering her money for sex. Having, as she says, never done anything like this before, the woman accepts glibly and then goes on to demand rape-simulation in the bedroom, which arouses her. Were it not for the fact that there is an underlying shovanism throughout, this might have been written off, but women get a raw deal in Evil and the Mask, submissive and objectified as they are. When Fumihiro begins, inexplicably, to divulge closely held secrets to this newly-converted prostitute, one gets the feeling that this is only allowed as she is insignificant. Background noise. A woman. Even Fumihiro’s persistent refrain “I wonder why I [said / did / told her] that...” which is a nod to determinism, that life is beyond our control, becomes hollow and irritating. He might not know why he acts, but neither does the reader.

There is little hope in Evil and the Mask, the world an unremittingly desolate place to live. Capitalism rules, wars are fought to profit the rich, and love is often conditional, and always painful. Soaked in the inevitability of pain, corruption, and fear, Nakamura’s vision of humanity is bleak and, discounting a slightly limp ending, without redemption. The plastic surgeon who rebuilds Fumihiro’s face tells him in one scene of a mother who dumped her unwanted baby, screaming, in a toilet (analogous to Fumihiro’s own parental neglect), leaving it to die. This creates the perfect metaphor for Nakamura’s world: we are thrust into life, fearful, struggling to survive from our first breath. A life-long struggle, which only has one outcome.

Nakamura is an interesting read. His bleakness can draw you in, but some of the philosophy feels a little like a rehashing of popular European philosophies. Engaging, but a little jumbled.


Useful Links
Reviews of Evil and the Mask on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Evil and the Mask on Amazon (US)

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3 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

The Mask of Evil

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

Bertolt Brecht

Petra said...

I wonder how much was lost in translation here. It might sound much better in Japanese, especially the dialogues.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Quite possible. The dialogue I've read in Japanese literature (always in translation) has all tended towards the same things as Nakamura, but who can really know unless you're reading in the original?