The dark side of humans

Award-winning Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura has won global fame for his brooding crime novels

With his hooded eyes, hair in disarray and intense, contemplative demeanour, it is easy to see Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura's work in him.

He spins dark, brooding tales of crime, deftly using acts such as murder and theft as unsettling ruminations on the human psyche and its predilection for darkness.

"I'm interested in the dark side of the human mind. That's because I'm dark. I have a gloomy persona- lity," he tells The Sunday Times through a translator, while in town for the recent Singapore Writers Festival.

"So my stories come from deep inside me. I think everyone has skeletons in his closet. Me too, of course."

His characters are, in many ways, trapped: by their circumstances, by society and its expectations, by their misdeeds.

It is a feeling Nakamura, 38, is all too familiar with.

"When I was a high school kid, I had so much pressure in my life that I felt like I was almost going to commit a crime," he says.

"I felt a deep isolation. I felt I was different from others. I was afraid of people. I felt so much loneliness. I felt trapped in society."

Then, he read Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human and found echoes of himself in the story of a reclusive young man who feels "disqualified from being human".

"I was surprised when I finished it," says Nakamura, excitedly switching to English. "Wow, it was - wow! The main character was me. He was me!"

Through his translator, he adds: "I started off inspired by novels such as this. I thought, by reading such a novel that contains the loneliness and despair of human beings, oh, okay. I can still live on. I'm not alone."

Nakamura, who was born in Aichi prefecture, wrote his debut novel The Gun in 2002 while working listlessly as a part-timer in a convenience store.

The book won Japan's Shincho Prize for New Writers that year.

He has since put out three short story collections and 13 novels, including The Child In The Ground, which took the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2005, and The Thief, which bagged the 2010 Kenzaburo Oe Prize and catapulted Nakamura to global stardom.

The winner of the Kenzaburo Oe Prize - named after the Japanese writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994 - receives no cash award, but will have his work translated.

The Thief, about a small-time pickpocket dancing on the puppet strings of a crime boss, was translated into English. It was selected as one of the Wall Street Journal's 10 best novels in 2012.

"I always want to write about not just the act of crime, but also the driving forces, how they make people feel," explains Nakamura.

"For example, through The Thief, I wanted to describe not just the act of pickpocketing. It's also about what drives you and how you respond, your body heat during the act, the nervousness or the tension."

Another two of his books were later translated into English: Last Winter, We Parted, where a writer interviews a convict on death row for murder, and Evil And The Mask, a tale of vengeance centred on a boy raised to be "a cancer on the world".

Next month, his first novel, The Gun, will finally be released in English. In it, a troubled young man stumbles on a dead body and, beside it, a gun. He decides to keep it and finds himself growing obsessed with the weapon - and the four bullets in its chamber.

"He has always had a darkness inside himself, but with this, it can suddenly emerge and appear on the surface," Nakamura, who is married with no children, says.

"This is like life: Your inner feelings and hidden darkness are undiscoverable, but something can make them come to the surface."

To him, humans live on the tipping point: treading gingerly on the edge of right and wrong.

"My aim when I write is to describe humans - and one perspective is that of evil. If you want to describe people from this perspective, you have to include crime," he says. "There are people who live completely normal lives, but suddenly just go off course. I want to point this out. They can be normal people, but something just happened inside them."

His books have resonated with people who write in to tell him that they, too, feel alone and unmoored. Nakamura himself finds such communication with his readers inspiring.

Some readers cannot shake off the feeling that society has turned its back on them because of their differences and inadequacies.

"Readers told me, 'I thought it was difficult for me to live in society, but after reading your novels, I feel better. There are other people who feel like me too'," he says. "It seems like my novels have rescued them, but by their response, I was rescued instead."

•The English translation of his debut novel, The Gun, will be out next month.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline The dark side of humans. Subscribe