Review of A Man, by Keiichiro Hirano,
Translated by Eli K.P. William
by Hardy Griffin
Keiichiro Hirano’s first novel translated into English, by Eli K.P. William, is a deep exploration of identity in present-day Japan.
The Prologue begins “The protagonist of this story is someone that I have been fondly calling ‘Kido-san.’” This is the novelist speaking directly to us, describing how he came to meet the character, Kido, in a bar. And it turns out Kido is quite a character – the novelist listens as Kido and the bartender talk, until “at some juncture, I couldn’t help but laugh and found myself joining the conversation.” Hirano says Kido “wasn’t what you would call strikingly handsome, but his face had a certain air of sophistication that went well with a dim bar.” Later, when the two have moved away from the bartender and are speaking alone, Kido apologizes. “I frowned, unsure why he was apologizing, when he told me that his real name was Akira Kido, thereby admitting that the name he had just told me [and the bartender] was a false one.”
There’s something simultaneously disarming and unsettling about a novel that begins with such a conversation between the novelist and the protagonist. This is compounded when Kido does not make an appearance throughout the first two chapters, which are instead focused on Rié, a woman who runs her family’s stationary store in Town S, as she falls in love with and marries Daisuké Taniguchi, who works for the local lumber company.
This is Rié’s second marriage, as she divorced her first husband after their second child died of a brain tumor. Some of the best writing in the novel describes Rié’s struggle with the loss of this child, Ryo – as the proximity of the names suggests, she often identifies with her dead child and in a contradictory way, the richness of her character arises from the hollowing out this loss has caused.
Daisuké is in every way a kind, warm man during their courtship and then in their marriage. His one quirk is that he has fallen out with his family and he asks Rié never to contact them. This is simple enough until he is crushed to death under a fallen tree, at which point Rié reaches out to Daisuké’s brother. But when the brother comes to see her and sees a picture of Rié and Daisuké together, he says that’s not Daisuké Taniguchi. Rié then hires the lawyer Kido to try and track down who her husband really was.
Kido becomes almost obsessed with the man posing as Daisuké Taniguchi who, it turns out, has taken on multiple different identities before settling into this one and finding a brief happiness with Rié in Town S. It turns out that Kido himself has a central identity conflict, for even as he was born in Japan and identifies as Japanese, his parents are of Korean heritage and so he is Zainichi. This difference threatens his marriage and leads to a flirtatious friendship with the younger Misuzu, who takes up the anti-nationalist cause of the zainichi.
I was surprised at the depth of this novel, hidden behind such a simple title. It explores what a name and identity mean and whether this can all be changed with a new name and new identity. But more than this, the novel takes a very specific, intricate story to in fact examine that fundamental question of fiction – can a lie carry more truth than the truth itself? Does the weight and strength of Rié’s experience make her Daisuké Taniguchi more real than a man who happened to be born with that name? A Man is absolutely worth reading to find out.