Book Review: Last Winter, We Parted
Last Winter, We Parted commences with a narrator conversing with a prisoner on death row. The condemned man is Yudai Kiharazaka, a thirty-seven-year-old photographer who has been convicted of murdering two women. The narrator specifies that he has also been charged with writing about this case. However, even his first meeting with the convict is not a probing interview. Rather, it is Kiharazaka who looks quite mesmerizing and appears tempting enough to penetrate into the writers’ heads (Nakamura 25). The situation seems to create ample room to do so as the writer hints at his connection with Kiharazaka. He admits of being an associate of a shadowy organization known as “K2” and asserts that it is the interest in this membership that has motivated him to write about Kiharazaka.
Kiharazaka was a gifted creative photographer. However, he was also clearly dented by his childhood abuse experience. His sister, Akari, was the only person he was close to, and though distant now (she had not gone to see him since his arrest), she was still the only person who remained supportive during this moment. His sister seems to have some problems of her own too as evident when Kiharazaka ominously told the writer that “two men are dead because of her” (Nakamura 31).
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There is also a mysterious “K2” group, with the man behind this organization explaining that “All I am doing is actualizing people’s desires. Once they are actualized, certain obsessions also become apparent”. Actualization does not turn out to be of any good to these people. The writer got himself into the more murky waters than he expected, and so is Nakamura who also gets dirty by the mystery he creates. For instance, he does so by not giving the person behind “K2” a name. The writer also has clearly got some issues as suggested by his claimed association with “K2”. Additionally, he is seen to be keeping his girlfriend a distance and remains a person of a shadowy character. “So I need to ask this important question: who are you?” inquires Kiharazaka who is seen wandering about the writer’s person in one of his letters as well (Nakamura 28).
The driving idea of this original, disturbing, and sharp novel is that there is an unexplainable gap between artifice and life, especially in the view of creativity. As the killer wondered “why when a victim is right in front of us, are we only able of grasping, of recognizing that one minute is part of what we see?” (Nakamura 46). This makes this novel intriguing, dark and bold, fresh and edgy.
IMITATION AND REALITY
The novel depicts tensions between the sphere of the inner and outer expectations, it handles, among other issues, the challenges of creating art, real art, in a society in which it is not easy to feel anything. It is not a coincidence that the novel talks in one of its subplots about a shadowy “K2” group made up of men who have charged full-sized dolls of their dead loved ones – lovers, sisters, and fetish objects as a means of denying or delaying the inevitability of loss.
At the middle of this is novel, the author, who has been pressured into working on the novel that he has no drive to write, has the responsibility to uncover what has transpired, to parse the line between imitation and reality, even though the one who reads, realizes he is fooled from every side. For Nakamura, the issue is not in guilt or innocence; we are all complicit and corrupted, just by existing in society. Intercut with his description are the archival documents such as transcripts, letters, description of images or films, diaries, that intensify, rather than explain the mystery (Harman 76). These are inclusive of contents written by the convicted murderer and others (including a twitter feed from the account of one of the victims), a mechanism that permits their voices to creep into the narrative.
It is not a shock that nothing becomes as straightforward as it seemed before, apart from the murky circumstances, from “K2” and murders to Kiharazaka’s relationships that turn out to be what they really are. Some scenes and characters do complicate what seems to be a clear scenario: Kaharazaka’s sister, another writer interested in penning this case, and many other characters have both a powerful hold over others and a manipulative streak. Kiharazaka does not appear as an innocent victim as he presents himself as well. Conversely, much of his intricacy rests in how compulsively simple and flexible person he is. As one character explains, “There is nothing much inside of him. He fell in love with his sister due the movie he watched about incest” (Nakamura 51).
Nakamura turns and twists his story pretty well, but is unable to unknot it pretty so elegantly. Yes, it is agreeable the story is initially very gripping, but in the end he spells it out quite precisely, which washes away its intended impact. He also exaggerates a little when presenting his episodes. Besides that, he sometimes presents the beginning of the chapter midway or unfolds it in a vague way, leaving the good parts, spicing and rounding the story at the very end (Zilia 27). Nevertheless, there is admittedly a pleasing elegance in being taken back on track at the end of the chapter though.
The only difference between the writer’s and Kiharazaka’s connection to “K2” takes the reader nearer to the basis of Nakamura’s novel, which is reality and meditation on the concepts of imitation. The silicon dolls provide the topic with a sufficient number of extremely creepy imagery to provoke goosebumps on the reader’s skin (Harman 22). However, Nakamura is only trying to test the reality of “art as revelation”. In a letter from prison, Kiharazaka ponders over the more inspiring qualities of the art of the door maker.
At the same time, Nakamura’s language manages to overlap the divide that separates Tokyo’s scary underground from some elevated plane of existence. “I was creating another imitation of things that were imitations themselves. At that point, I felt as though I had ventured into territory where what was original no longer mattered. Do you get it now? The sensation of being in that place was very soothing” (Nakamura 49). It is unlucky for the reader that such profundities emanate from a man who is living in a lonely confinement at the doorstep of death and is almost insane. However, the writer’s growing uncertainty about Kiharazaka’s guilt unlocks the door for the reader to observe some truth behind the insight: art is a place where reality and imitation merge, somewhere as isolated and limited as prison cells or as wide as empty space. More intriguing is the probability that our own rational and our own desires have been entangled in a place so dark. Nakamura delivers the thrill of this point and makes good the assertion that art can even “steal you from yourself”.
COMPARISON TO OTHER ARTISTIC PIECES
Whether or not Nakamura harbors difficulties about his originality as an author, his characters repeatedly mention their own literary ancestries. For example, characters within this novel often refer the troubles of Nakamura’s protagonists to the ones in Truman Capote’s works (in cold blood). Nakamura’s editor warns him, yet, that Capote was unable to write a decent piece of work after he completed his fictional novel (Zilia 71). However, the editor still encourages the narrator on to complete his research on Kiharazaka. A keen reader may also sense a feeling of Kobo Abe’s work (The Ruined Map) in Nakamura’s ability to invoke settings in both surrealistic and realistic with the minimal amount of prose.
Despite this, the comparison that stands shoulders above the rest within the novel was that made to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s ‘” Hell Screen”. As a retelling of a thirteenth-century Japanese fairytale, Akutagawa’s story introduces the reader to Yoshihide, the conceited imperial court painter (Zilia 45). Yoshihide is so obsessed with his ability that he paints the image of his daughter as she is consumed alive in an inferno and is driven mad in the process.
Akutagawa simultaneously creates one of the greatest examples of an eyewitnessed story in the whole literary world in “Hell Screen”. Events are brilliantly recounted in gruesome detail, with the texts being delivered with the assurance of reportage as much as the beating heart of a fearsome horror. The young writer of the caliber of Nakamura’s latest novel in distinction often appears paranoid, skittish, and periodically uncertain of what he has or has not seen. This is ironically evident in the self-confidence of Akutagawa’s narrator, who in most instances rejects several popular rumors in favor of his own face-to-face experience of events, while in rare instances still relies on second narrations to paint a clear picture of the artist (Harman 62). This raises more questions about the narrator’s ethics of presentation and faithfulness of memory. Just like the painter excitedly mixes colors on his palette, both the narrator and Akutagawa are in search of an answer to the question of at what position a legend ends and reality commences.
The doll maker proposes that Akutagawa’s story contains a “cultural lineage” and that Kiharazaka only performed whatever he did in the imitation of Yoshihide – also the protagonist. Here, Nakamura enters the ranks of prolific writers who investigate the distance literature can travel in capturing reality that sits in the outside of a language or any other way of presentation (Harman 17). As though rejecting the probability of the narrative success altogether, this novel experiments with the storytelling tools that are filtered.
Nakamura’s collection of archival materials such as video recordings, letters, and twitter posts evokes a first person account from the perspective of the writer. To a paradoxical extent, the application of fictional primary sources makes the reader feel the events of the book more vividly (Zilia 23). In this case, Nakamura does not only reveal the complexity of the artistic representation but the readers’ desire to remake certain occurrences as if they had happened before their own eyes.
Though the applications of these devices represent the author’s smartness as a creator of plot development, the varied materials may still be so excessively loosely connected that a reader may fail to identify a coherent plot upon first reading. Of course, they may find themselves going through pages almost as easily as they move forward in the text if they are sure they understand the characters that are really communicating messages the author intended to embed (Harman 102). For others this may present a barrier in the otherwise quick-paced reading experience that the novel offers. Some, on the contrary, may find pleasure in joining together the hints behind the obscurity of Yudai Kiharazaka as he leaves them aware that if they were to shut their eyes, even for a second, they might fail to spot the actuality behind the delusion.
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IDEA OF PERFECTION
The idea of the pursuit of perfection in art is what pushes the novel. There are several references to the story of Akutagawa, in which an artist is made to paint a picture of hell and is unable to stop painting until he watches his own beloved daughter consumed by an inferno to death. The novel additionally references a classic Japanese tale of crafter of wind-up dolls who creates a doll in the image of his fading wife. The doll-crafter becomes obsessed and the doll starts to outshine his wife in beauty (Zilia 31). In her last moment, the envious wife coughs blood over the doll, making a shadow of red that the crafter can never match, thus condemning himself to an endless doom of not being able to have an interest in any other woman.
Last Winter, We Parted is pleasurably twisty, while the author does give an intriguing cast of characters. The connection with Akutagawa story and the vague mystery of “K2” were also cleverly chosen and applied. However, he parks a great story in a tiny space and leaves one to imagine that were it a Nordic noir novel, it would be three or four times the length. While this fast shadowy presentation toils well for this novel, Nakamura is unable to maintain it up in the essentially detailed clarifications he eventually has to give. Several of the characters can also at times be felt underdeveloped, justifiably and intentionally. It is certainly done on purpose as the writer likes to play with ambiguity, especially about his personal identity (Zilia 27). However, since many other aspects of the novel are also underdeveloped, the narrative can feel a little bit skeletal. Most importantly, a simple story of passion becomes sporadically overwhelmed by shifts and turns invoice, as well as style and perspective (Harman 48). All these add to the sentiment that it is a crazy merry-go-round, warped story of how far some people will move for love or for their art.
For Nakamura, innocence or guilt is not the issue; the real problem is that the people are complicit and corrupted just by being in society. The codes that bind individuals in it also manifest the rules that are beyond people, rules that keep us apart from each other and from ourselves. Last Winter, We Parted is a brilliant little thriller, and a good fast readable novel. Disappointments largely come because one is left with the feeling that the author could have done more with the coherence of the many characters, intricate story, and clever ideas.