Hot off her win for the Naoki Prize, Nishi brings us a tale of a child unwilling to grow up in a small nowhere town surrounded by a bunch of weirdos. When I got to the bit about how everyone is in everyone else’s business, complete with widely known secret love affairs, I thought that maybe I was reading Gyokou no Nikuko-chan from the perspective of the child of the man the titular Nikuko has an affair with. I was honestly baffled by the very strong resemblance to the last novel I read by Nishi.
To be fair, she’s written five other books between that one and this one, including the previously mentioned Naoki Prize winner Saraba!, but it just happened that I read none of those in-between books, so the similarities between Makuko and Nikuko were perhaps more startling to me than many of her other readers. Although who knows, maybe her last five books also feature children growing up in small-town Japan as their protagonists, and Nishi is in a rut she might want to jump out of already.
Fortunately, those big picture details that make Makuko so similar to Nikuko are surface things for the most part, and a dozen or so pages in, I was engrossed in this story without constantly wondering if it was a new part of that story. There are still a lot of the same themes that came up in Nikuko: grown-ups are bullshit, but it’s okay because everyone is bullshit in a different way; childhood is a weird and difficult place where it’s hard to be who you are and still exist in the world in any capacity; Nishi is again using childhood as a stand-in for life in general. But she’s also reaching further in a different direction, pushing us to survive, to see the beauty in this world and ourselves, the beauty in the fleeting pain of our existence. This book is basically two hundred and fifty pages of sakura blossoms.
So instead of our tween hero Kikuko, we have our tween hero Satoshi. He doesn’t live in a port town, but rather an onsen town trapped in the same time warp. It is a town past its heyday, although it still has plenty of tourists coming to stay for sweet onsen times, or at least enough tourists to support the onsen run by Satoshi’s family. I kept thinking of my own old onsen town Atami, but this one seems even more on the verge of collapse. Satoshi is in grade five, and everyone in his class has always been in his class since kindergarten. He tells us which classmate used to pee his pants, which one cried at the festival when they were six, which girl got her period first; these kids have a shared past in a big way. And then Kozue shows up. Beautiful, unearthly Kozue. Her mother comes to work at the onsen Satoshi’s family runs, and so she and Kozue move into the small building behind the onsen where all the onsen workers live.
Satoshi has tried so hard to be unremarkable, to be regular in all ways, that he hates the fact that Kozue lives at his onsen. Because she is remarkable and makes him remarkable by proximity. Her beauty makes all her weirdness forgiven. And she is plenty weird. She encounters each situation as though she had never seen anything like it before. As Satoshi notes early on, she simply looks at him. There’s no emotion or judgement in her gaze, only curiosity. One day, she finds him at the very old ruins of a castle where he goes to be alone. The ruins are so old, they are basically a crumbling stone wall. And because he doesn’t know what to say to her, doesn’t know how to be anymore in his changing body, he digs up the loose earth of the stone wall and just starts flinging it. And then Kozue does too. And they do this every day, not talking really, just digging up the dirt and stones and tossing them through the air.
And this is where my translator brain must interject. Take heed, all of you would-be literary translators! You will never again read a book without wondering how to render things in your target language! Girl names in Japanese often end in “ko” (which means “child”), making it sound like “Makuko” is the name of a girl in the story or something. But it turns out the title is something more like “maku no ko”, that is, an adjectival verb attached to the “ko”. And the verb of that adjectival is “maku”, which means, among other things, “scatter”, “sprinkle”, “distribute”.
So what? you might be saying. No need to get all language nerd here. Except yes, there is always a need to get all language nerd in my world. From this first scene of Satoshi and Kozue flinging dirt through the air, my brain spent the rest of the book wondering exactly how I would even begin to translate this impossible title. Because so much of the book and the story hinges on this word “maku”. From the moment Satoshi first flings his fistful of castle out on the ground in front of him to the climax of the book, “maku” is there. “Maku” actually shapes this story and its themes in a surprising way. Reading this, I realized I’ve never encountered a book before that is so tightly controlled by a single word. And, perhaps I’m admitting my own failings, my own lack of imagination as a translator, but I couldn’t think of any way to truly preserve this singularness in English. Maybe if I sat and spent some months writing and rewriting, I could come up with something as natural and smooth as this “maku” that forms the backbone of this book, but it would take some real effort to produce something as effortless seeming as the Japanese text.
And it is effortless seeming. Nishi does not disappoint with her little twists and turns into the unexpected. She brings us characters like old Mirai, who simply approaches the children of the town to tell them, “I’m your future”, and seems like just a throwaway weirdo until you realize he is there for a real reason; and events like the terrifying festival where children build elaborate floats only to have the adult men of the town smash them into the side of the mountain while the children watch in tearful horror, which also seems like just a throwaway bit of weirdness until you realize it all comes together in a way you did not see coming. And that uncertainty that you find in all of Nishi’s work, that blurring of the real and the unreal, explodes in Makuko, taking us to the most unreal of real places. Add to this her usual flair for phrasing the mundane in a way that makes it seem fresh and new, and Makuko ends up in a place that is both far from and very close to Nikuko, a place that is a perfect balance of new takes on old themes and entirely new bits of madness.