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Hiromi Kawakami. Photo/Shunju Bungei/Supplied

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino: A small book with big impact

Ten lovers of the man at the centre of Hiromi Kawakami’s dazzling Japanese novel puzzle over who he really is.

My local library sticks little logos on the spines of its fiction, so browsers too busy to read can make a quick genre pick. You know the sort: a castle for historical; a cuddly dragon for fantasy; a thumb turned down for Jeffrey Archer. On Hiromi Kawakami’s latest book, I suggest a veiled face for the enigmas it holds and five stars for its literary dazzle.

It’s both novel and 10 semi-separate stories, each told by one of the eponymous salaryman’s amours. The dectet are individually independent but cumulatively linked. The lover of Story 3 meets her counterpart of Story 4, who in turn redefines her. Elsewhere, Nishino organises a dinner that both past and present partners attend. (Yes, you’ll sometimes want to smack his leg.)

Who is the guy, anyway? All 10 first-person voices wonder the same. We learn details: he’s often uncomfortable around people, feels guilt over his doomed sister and seems a capable employee. He’s modest, sensuous, fairly buff, a great listener, genuinely interested in women. Pickup lines include, “Is it true you’ll have sex with anyone?” Seduction locales include a clay sewer pipe.

His partners describe “a sort of melancholy … almost bitter-sweet”; remember “an odd sort of guy”. A bit like her pet cat, muses one. Nearly every judgment is qualified: “quite … kind of … maybe”. He eludes definition, slips out of their lives and ultimately the world. In one unsettling scene, his shade appears in the garden as a lover from decades ago is making pumpkin soup and politely accepts a little nourishment.

We see his first kiss in middle school, several liaisons from college years, one-night stands, adulthood, off-on-off affairs, late middle age, potentially permanent relationships where he proposes marriage. His women are apartment dwellers with tatami and washing machines and the occasional husband and child. Their voices are restrained, wry, sometimes elegiac. “I was in love back then. Whatever love is.”

Relationships edge towards intimacy, then stall or dwindle, often to the narrators’ relief. “I managed to get through this quite well,” one congratulates herself, “without falling in love.” Another finds him useful material for the novels she writes.

The nuances of women’s social relationships are almost forensically evoked. In Allison Markin Powell’s consummate-feeling translation, Kawakami’s voice is discreet, courteous, startlingly revealing. Sentences are laid meticulously in place. Mundane and mysterious mingle. Painstaking analyses and recollections lead finally to more questions. But there’s no question about this small book’s big impact.

THE TEN LOVES OF MR NISHINO, by Hiromi Kawakami (Granta, $27.99)

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.