Akutagawa Prize #133: Tsuchi no naka no kodomo, by Nakamura Fuminori

Nakamura Fuminori 中村文則. Tsuchi no naka no kodomo 土の中の子供. 2005.

The title story was the winner of the 133rd Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2005. The volume also includes a shorter, earlier story called “Kumo no koe 蜘蛛の声.”

The title story is what I would call a social-issue story, the social issue being what is called in Japanese adaruto chirudoren, or adult children of abuse. The main character was abandoned by his real parents, and raised by abusive relatives who ultimately dropped him from a building and then buried him alive, thinking he was dead. He escaped the grave and was then raised in an orphanage. The story tells us this in flashbacks, while showing us him as an adult dealing with the scars of this childhood.

In structure, it’s a good example of what I’m finally coming to understand (after years of denying the Keenes of the field’s words to this effect) as a typically, perhaps stereotypically, Japanese narrative style. How I would characterize it is as the junbungaku house style: jumping back and forth between inconclusive, suggestive, atmospheric, fragmentary, not-quite-linear present scenes and inconclusive, suggestive, atmospheric, fragmentary, not-quite-linear memory scenes, to create a narrative sequence that is quite intricate while not really letting anything much happen.

We begin with a scene where the narrator picks a fight with some motorcycle punks on purpose, just to get the shit kicked out of himself. We don’t know exactly why, but as we later learn more about his past we come to suppose it’s because he became so accustomed to abuse as a child that he doesn’t quite know how to exist without it.

He’s a taxi driver now, in his early 20s, living with an ex- bar hostess who was raised by an alcoholic mother and who was abandoned, pregnant, by her lover before miscarrying. She’s got issues of her own, in other words, and they don’t love each other, but rather just sort of coexist.

At one point, she gets drunk and falls down some stairs; she’s uninsured, and the narrator vows to raise the money to pay her hospital bills. Then he’s robbed at knifepoint in his taxi; he’s almost killed, but in the climactic moment of the story he stabs the would-be killer and gets away, only to run his taxi off a small cliff. Now he’s hospitalized.

The story ends after he gets out of the hospital, in a scene where he meets his sorta mentor, the head of the orphanage. The head of the orphanage says the narrator’s true father wants to meet him; the narrator says, no thanks, and walks away. End of story.

Again, narratively it’s quintessentially junbungaku. A good example of the form. Stylistically, his writing is just okay. Which leaves us with the subject matter, which is what I presume got the story the prize. It’s hard to feel much about this, since tales of abuse have been so prominent in American culture for a couple of decades now, but I think they’re just hitting Japan. Meh.

The second story is similar, vaguely. A young salaryman who’s just earned a promotion wakes up and has a breakdown. He ditches his apartment, his job, his ID cards, and goes to live under a bridge. At the end of the story a spider speaking to him almost convinces him that he never had a job, an apartment, or anything, that he’s in fact always lived under this bridge, ever since he was a kid and attacked a drunk homeless guy and then hid from him. There’s also something about a woman leading him angrily into the woods as a child (echoes of the abusive childhood in Tsuchi, I think), and a cop who thinks the narrator (of course it’s in the first person) is the person who’s been attacking women in this area. In the end, the narrator’s identity is totally fragmented, as he’s not sure if he is the criminal, if he’s who the spider says he is, if he’s maybe a soldier gone AWOL from a war zone, or what.

This one may be a little better than the prize-winner actually. A-Prize stories tend to be novellas – almost never are they either truly short stories, or full-length novels (although they’re often published alone between two covers, so you pay full price for a hundred and twenty pages of text, with wide margins and large print). And maybe this writer is better in more concentrated doses. Anyway, the spider story has a little more impact; maybe also because it doesn’t feel so much like a formula – take social issue of the day, apply junbungaku formula, and you get an A-Prize story. (To be fair, in his brief afterword, Nakamura hints that he may have had an abusive childhood himself, so I shouldn’t be cynical about what he’s written. But that’s another issue: it’s hard to judge this kind of story objectively when you learn it’s drawn from the author’s life.)