Review: Nagasaki by Éric Faye

nagasaki, Éric Faye, book review

Éric Faye's novella begins with Shimura Kobo, a fifty-six year old meteorologist, Catholic, living all by himself in the Shimabara district of Nagasaki, growing suspicious that somebody is sneaking into his home when he's gone to his office. His habit for tidiness gives him hints about which things have moved or been touched behind him. But his doubts become stronger, as he plunges a strip of measured blank paper into a carton of fruit juice and "waited a few seconds, just long enough for my probe to soak up the liquid, and then I slowly pulled it out. I hardly dared look. Eight centimetres, I read". He can't point his doubts to any specific being or non-being, but continues to eye everyone: "...I often go to feed our kami at the local shrine, but it never occurred to me for one moment they would come into people's houses and help themselves". But finally he acts to quell his discomfort and installs a video-recorder in his kitchen, and not much later, discovers that an old-lady is in his kitchen making tea for herself while he is in office watching her on his computer screen. He calls the police and informs them of a possible burglar ("I was careful not to add 'to make themselves a cup of tea'").

The 'burglar' was living in his home for around a year and was a homeless fifty-eight year woman. For Shimura, a man of the private kind, this is too much to fathom. All the while he spent his time in his home during last one year, he was not alone but was in company of a stowaway, just like "Nagasaki had for a long time remained a kind of closet right at the far end of the vast apartment that was Japan, with its four adjoining main rooms - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu; and for all of those two hundred and fifty years, the empire had, as it were, pretended not to notice that a stowaway - that is to say, Europe - had moved into this wardrobe". But the woman had carefully chosen her place in his home, for she had spent her childhood in the same home. Her parents had died when she was sixteen, and since then had lived a life of which there was not much to talk about. When became unemployed and homeless, she wondered, "At night, lying down, the same thought kept coming back to me: this whole thing is a prank. One big joke. Sooner or later, I'll get an explanation. I'll be offered excuses and I will know the truth. We will all achieve enlightenment. It's destined to happen, only we don't know when", but then despaired existentially, "...the time didn't come. Every night, I lay down full of confidence. It was all a bit of fun and everything would be back to normal in the morning...It simply wasn't possible that everything could be so utterly senseless, the stars, the wind, humankind. If there's one ting I became sure of in the course of those weeks, it was this: there is no meaning. That is to say, it didn't exist before we did. The idea of meaning was invented by humans as a balm to their anxieties, and their quest to find it is obsessive, all-consuming".

Shimura, realizing that he doesn't anymore feel at home, puts it up on sale, and the lady and man have now both lost their homes. Their possessiveness created many of a kind from just one of a kind. She writes to him that like turtles and salmons, she had come back to her own place to die and that she was only a "pilgrim of time".

Nagasaki evokes a sense of loss towards the distended time which has flown past us, and in an attempt to hold on to it or gather it in our palms, we break it further into distorted grains of pained memories. Faye sews together melancholia with the absurdities of life, leaving a lingering taste of our fear of being rootless. The outsider is not so much so when he reveals himself.

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