At one point in Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Kingdom (translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony) when the main character, Yurika, reflects on when another character tells her she’s not a coward, that sums up the tone of the book (and her life in general):
I may not be a coward anymore. But that’s because being a coward is the same thing as having the will to live.
(Disclaimer: The Kingdom is connected to another book by Nakamura, The Thief. I did not realize this until I read the author’s afterward to this book. Thus, I’m reviewing The Kingdom without reading The Thief, and as a result don’t have a comparison to note between the two books. The older book is available at my local library but in interest of following my own deadlines, I’m going to go ahead with this review, taking The Kingdom on its own merits.)
Yurika is a prostitute, in a sense, in Tokyo. However, instead of following through with the sexual fantasies of the men that she seduces she sets them up for blackmail on behalf of her employer, Yata. She often gives them some sort of drug that puts them to sleep, take pictures of them in a compromising position (with or without her in the shot) and give the pictures and whatever other information she may steal from them back to Yata.
At some point both she and Yata realize that some of the jobs she’s been sent on were not assigned by him but somebody hacking into his e-mail. It turns out that the culprit is Kizaki, a rival of Yata’s and also the current owner of the orphanage in which Yurika grew up. With her life on the line Yurika must try to play both sides as she escapes this lifestyle by fleeing the country. Thrown into the mix is a man claiming to be her childhood friend from the orphanage, Hasegawa supposedly working for Kizaki but also trying to convince Yurika to run away with him. Danger, betrayal and underhanded sexual politics pervade Yurika’s life as she tries to escape.
Don’t expect to spend much mental energy interpreting the book’s deeper meanings. The narrative is written from Yurika’s first person perspective, and throughout the story she’s examining her life. That’s common enough, but she sometimes beats the reader over the head with her questions and conclusions. From time to time she reflects on a relationship she had with a friend who died and then her son, whom under Yurika’s care, also died. It was when she was trying to pay for his medical bills that she started working for Yata, creating the person that she is when we read her story. We are constantly witness to her inner struggle as she tries to survive while at the same time maintaining that she has no will to live anymore.
On the other hand, the book is short and a quick read. As a crime thriller, it goes in, does the job, and leaves. The prose is well-written, even if it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. In one sense, that’s fine, especially when Kizaki espouses philosophy to Yurika (usually with a gun to her head) regarding the ways of God and the mechanisms of society. Sometimes, such simplicity in a narrative is all a book needs to serve its purpose to entice and excite the reader. The Kingdom certainly does that. Set aside an hour or two to read it, and enjoy it for what it is.