Nagasaki by Eric Faye
In 2008 people in Japan were astounded when newspapers revealed the story of a homeless woman who had managed to slip into the apartment of a meteorology worker and live there undetected for a year. She was discovered only when, suspicious about the disappearance of food from his fridge, he installed an video surveillance camera.
We searched the house … checking everywhere someone could possibly hide,” Itakura [police spokesperson] said. “When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side.”
This real life story forms the basis of Nagasaki, a novella by the French journalist Eric Faye which won the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman in 2010. He could have written it as a thriller in which the mysterious events experienced by the apartment owner have a menacing tone. Instead Faye turns this curious incident into a much more interesting reflection about loneliness and the way in which people can just drop unnoticed through the chinks in society.
The narrative is told from the point of view of Kobo Shimura, a fifty-six-year old man who finds life has simply passed him by. He lives alone, has never achieved any lasting relationship and has little in common with his colleagues at the bureau of meteorology. They go out to lunch and for post-work drinking sessions but this sense of comradeship eludes Shimura and instead he spends his lunch break searching for ‘friends’ on Facebook and his evenings talking back to the television news presenters. Even his home is on the fringes of the community:
Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets. Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo. This is where I live. Who am I? Without wishing to overstate matters, I don’t amount to much. As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features.
Each day is much like the previous day, turning him into a man who becomes increasingly fussy and tormented by the noise of cicadas that seem everywhere in the city. What disturbs this equilibrium is his growing sense that food items are going missing, and that someone (or perhaps something) is getting into his flat and stealing the ingredients of his fish supper and his orange juice. Shimura is naturally shocked when the culprit is found but is even more disturbed by the realisation of how closely he and his intruder had lived for a year. She had touched all his books and
Initially resentful of the woman, he begins to sympathise with her and to understand how circumstances had forced her to take refuge in his home. Even so, he cannot bear the thought of remaining in this apartment which will forever now be tainted by her presence. His experience opens his consciousness to his city’s history, seeing a parallel in the way it had tried, but failed, to protect itself from intruding foreign traders hundreds of years earlier. The woman’s intrusion also causes him to question his life and to see it more clearly. Watching news reports about the trend in creating robots to look after the country’s ageing population he sees that his fate is to die alone with only a robot to care for him.
Having pulled us so effectively into Shimura’s world, Faye leaves us dangling while he introduces the perspective of the other party in this human drama, the intruder herself. In the second part of the story we get to hear of the sequence of events, including the effects of Japan’s deep economic recession at the time, that led her to find shelter in his home. Faye shows not only how someone’s life can cycle downwards until they have no place to go.
As interesting as it was to understand why she ended up in the apartment and the painstaking efforts she made to keep her presence secret, it was Shimura’s story that held my interest more and was written more compellingly. This was overall however an excellent story which makes you think about your own future in old age and how many other people there are as isolated as Shimura or as desperate as his unwanted houseguest. A chilling thought..
Nagasaki was published in English in 2014 by Gallic Books, translated from French by Emily Boyce.