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A Man by Keiichirō Hirano – book review

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“It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.”

Keiichirō Hirano has spun an intriguing psychological tale. A Man presents its readers with an in-depth and carefully paced mystery revolving around identity theft.
Hirano novel’s opening is rather metafictional as it is narrated by an unmanned novelist who after bumping into a man called Akira Kido becomes fascinated by Kido’s own obsession with another man (the narrator goes on to compare the story he’s about to tell to a painting by René Magritte entitled ‘Not to Be Reproduced’):

“With all the unique characters that make an appearance, some of you might wonder why on earth I didn’t pick one of the bit players to be the protagonist. While Kido-san will in fact obsessed with the life of a man, it is in Kido-san, viewed from behind as he chases this man, that I sensed something to be seen.”

Kido is a divorce attorney who has become detached from his wife. She, in turn, shows little interest in him or his job and is rather unsympathetic when it comes to his Zainichi background (that is ethnically Korean residents of Japan). Kido’s practical and reserved nature frustrate his wife (who often mistakes impassiveness for callousness) While Kido disapproves of his wife’s strict parenting style, she mistakes his reserved disposition as a sign of callousness. When a growingly disillusioned Kido is contacted by Rié Takemoto, a former client of his, he finds himself drawn into the life of another man. After Rié’s second husband dies in a work-related accident, she discovers that his name and past are that of another man. Throughout the course of his investigation Kido questions X’s motives. What could make someone want to conceal their true name or background? And what constitutes an identity?
As Kido comes in contact with the various individuals and families connected to X, and as his relationship with his own wife becomes further strained, he grows fond of this unknown X and starts to see the appeal of ‘starting’ over.
Although Kido’s investigation is the running thread that connects together these seemingly disparate characters and events, it sometimes seems more of a background. The narrative provides a panoramic view of the characters Kido comes into contact during the course of his investigation. While many of Kido’s thoughts are dedicated to X and issues of identity, he’s an erudite and his mind will often wonder down philosophical paths. He makes many literary allusions (he compares his stance towards other Zainichi as being similar to the way in which Levin—from Anna Karenina—views ‘peasants’). Kido’s precarious relationship to his ethnicity is one of the novel’s main motifs:

“Since he had grown up almost entirely as a “Japanese person” even before he naturalized, he was profoundly uneasy with the idea that he was either a direct victim or perpetuator of the troubles the best Korean enclaves.”

Kido passes most of his time in contemplation. He muses on the myth of Narcissus, the nature vs. nurture debate, questions his marriage, and those of other people, considers the notion of an identity and broods over his own loneliness:

“Yes, loneliness. He did not shy from this word to express the dark emotion that had been seething in his chest of late. It was a bottomless, middle-aged kind of loneliness that he never could have even conceived when he was younger, a loneliness that saturated him with bone-chilling sentimentality the moment he let down his guard.”

Hirano’s Japan is vividly rendered. From its recent history to its social norms, Hirano’s novel provides plenty of insights into contemporary Japan. There are extensive discussions on Japan’s penal and legal system (given Kido’s line of work there is a lot on divorce and custody laws).
As much as I liked novel (identity concealment makes for a fascinating subject) I was deeply disappointed by the abrupt way it ended. After spending so much time with Kido, I felt cheated by those final chapters. Kido is seemingly discarded, and readers are left wondering what exactly he will do after he makes an important discovery.
Still, I would probably recommend this one, especially to those who are interested in learning about contemporary Japan or for those who prefer more thought-provoking and philosophical mysteries.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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