Desperation Drives Ageing Woman To Seek Refuge [book review]

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Lyrics Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney

People in Japan were astounded by a strange story of a homeless woman that appeared in the national press in 2008. The 58-year-old woman had managed to slip into the apartment of a meteorology worker and live there in a cupboard, undetected, for a year.

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

She was discovered only when, suspicious about the disappearance of food from his fridge, he installed a video surveillance camera in his apartment.

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.

Faye could have written it as a thriller in which the mysterious events experienced by the apartment owner have a menacing tone. Instead he turns this curious incident into a reflective narrative about loneliness and  the way in which people can just drop unnoticed through chinks in society.

Lonely Office Worker Seeks Friends

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.

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.

An Awakening to Reality

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..

Fast Facts: Nagasaki and Eric Fray

Nagasaki by Eric Faye was published in English in 2014 by Gallic Books, translated from French by Emily Boyce.  It’s been translated into 20 languages.

The real life story upon which his novel is based was widely reported internationally

Eric Faye was born in Limoges, France. He is also a journalist, editor-translator in the Paris offices of the Reuters news agency.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 27, 2019, in French authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I read a lot of Japanese fiction in translation, so I understand why this slipped under my radar. I’ve already ordered it! It should be interesting to see this story from a foreigners perspective. Actually, this type of story is not uncommon in Japan these days. But there seems to be something very touching in the way this particular connection unfolded. Thank you for sharing your nicely written thoughts.

    • Thanks for your comments and for visiting Jd. I’m still feeling my way with Japanese literature – but every book I’ve read (only one exception) has been a delightful experience. Do you have a favourite author/book you would recommend to me?

  2. Looks like one for my Older Women in Fiction series on Bookword. And such a strange tale, even if based in truth. Caroline

  3. This sounds fascinating great one to read and review. 🙂

  4. I read this when it was first published. It’s a fascinating tale. I did find myself left with the feeling that I wanted to know more.

  5. This is the second review of a novella I have read today, and I’m glad to see they’re getting more attention. It’s probably my favorite form of writing.

  6. I like the sound of this. And what a story!

  7. Sounds absolutely fascinating. I love Japanese literature anyway and this sounds very quirky – I may have to invest!

  8. What a dreadful situation to be in. So much for the theory that Asian cultures look after the elderly…

  9. Great information. Lucky me I discovered your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
    I have book marked it for later!

  10. sounds good! I enjoy very much what Gallic Books publish

  11. this sounds really good! Adding to my pile now, thanks Booker! L.

  12. Wow, this seems to be an engaging story, and just reading your thoughts reeled me in. I could feel for the characters, especially that lonely man whose life is about the minor annoyances like cicadas and disappearing food. Thanks for sharing!

    • It is funny in one way because of the picture of this fussy guy who measures the amount of orange juice left in the carton.But then you start to feel very sorry for him

  13. I’m excited to find one in my country bookstore. Thanks!

  14. This sounds fascinating. Why didn’t i hear about this story (the real one) when it happened?

  15. I heard about this story–and was fascinated by it–when it was in the news. I had no idea someone turned it into a novel. Look forward to reading it! This is the third time I’ve learned about a new book from your site and have never been disappointed. Thanks!

    • How sweet of you. Thank you for getting my day off to a good start. Exchanging ideas and picking up new authors to read is one of the aspects of blogging that I love

  16. Wow. Lately my reading tastes seem a bit jaded. Not enjoying my reading, not finishing books. But this one has captured my interest. And thanks to the Resurgent Bookworm for finding the newspaper account. My local library doesn’t have a copy of the book so I’ve been to ibooks and read the sample pages which they give and I can’t wait to read the whole book. It is now sitting on my mini ipad just waiting for me to get some chores done first. Thanks for explaining the book.

    • I got the Kindle version because my library couldn’t offer it either. Hope this rekindles your reading…

      • And now I’ve read it and am so pleased that I have. A delightful writing style and some praise for that must go to the translator, Slowly but surely I began to feel for the meteorologist, trying to explain the unexplainable and having to prove to himself that it wasn’t his imagination And in a different way explaining the unexplainable about his visitor. Though only a novella it would fit well into a book club list as it opens up so many areas of discussion . The only thing I need to follow up is how well the author knows Japan to write about this lifestyle Why not set the story in a her familiar culture. It could have happened anywhere. I looked at my house in a different light after reading this book !!

        • I am thinking of giving it to one of my team members who is in Japan and seeing how much of it resonates with her. I don’t know if the author had ever visited Japan himself but then Stef Penny wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without ever having visited Canada so it’s possible now that the Internet makes access to a wealth of info and images possible

  17. What an incredible story. Do you know what happened to the woman in real life?

    • in the book she goes to prison but I won’t say anything more than that because it could spoil the reading. In real life, I simply can’t find the answer to that question. All the newspaper reports seem to stop at the point of her arrest. But I have work colleagues in Japan who might be able to cast some light on it….

  18. Intrigued to read about the original story now 🙂

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