January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security.  When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’).  It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.