Penance by Kanae Minato (for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11 and Women in Translation Month)

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I didn’t come to Tokyo for the upscale shopping or all the great places to have fun at. What I wanted was to melt into the crowds of people who didn’t know about my past, and vanish.

More precisely, because I’d witnessed a murder, and the person who committed it had not been caught, what I wanted more than anything was to disappear from his
radar forever.

Each chapter of this novel is told from another character’s point of view, all circling around one central theme: the murder of Emily, whose father was an executive with Adachi Manufacturing.

The company had come to their obscure little town because the quality of air was exceptionally clean and pure, a point which is repeatedly brought up, yet in stark contrast to the story each girl has to tell.

As children, they were playing volleyball in the schoolyard after hours when a man appears, dressed in workman’s clothes, telling them he needs to fix the ventilation fans in the school. He chooses Emily to help him, and when she is gone for a long time her friends enter the school to find her dead on the floor of the men’s washroom.

Each tells of the effect this horrific event had in her life: Sae always trembled in fear; Akiko refused to go to school; Yuka became a delinquent, shoplifting at night…

We wonder, as we read, if the murderer will be found before the limit for prosecution has run out. As the translator points out before the novel even begins, “Until 2010, Japan had a fifteen-year statue of limitations on the crime of murder.” And as Emily’s mother admonished the girls who played with her daughter:

“I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can’t do that, then atone for what you’ve done, in a way I’ll accept.   If you don’t do either one, I’m telling you here and now – I will have revenge on each and every one of you.” p. 102

What a thing for an adult to say to children! These girls have been traumatized for the rest of their lives, reliving every moment of this horrendous situation, each wondering what they could have done differently. They are unable to trust, even themselves, let alone the adults around them. Everything in their young lives is called into question.

They arrive at their own ways to “make up” for witnessing this murder, or at least not being able to stop it. One girl says, “A coward’s penance is completed only by stepping up and confessing.”

Another says, “Penance? Never reach for anything beyond your station.”

There is one thing, however, that is not a form of penance: killing a different man in place of the murderer. As each of the girls comes to find out.

The only form of penance which has any positive effect whatsoever, is forgiveness. And, maybe, the person who needs to be forgiven the most is ourselves.

 

I read this book for my own Japanese Literature Challenge 11, and also for Women in Translation Month hosted by Biblibio.

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5 thoughts on “Penance by Kanae Minato (for the Japanese Literature Challenge 11 and Women in Translation Month)”

  1. Penance sounds like very intense Japanese crime fiction! I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, but this book brings to mind the work of Kirino, and sounds chilling and compelling.

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    1. Japanese writers are so good with the crime genre! I think of Funinori Nakamura, Keigo Higashino, Ryu Murakami, and Natsuo Kirino and now Kanae Minato…what they write is terrifying and often grizzly. Is that a bad thing to be reading? 😳

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      1. I don’t know, Bellezza. While I abhor violence, it’s often depicted in literature, and so it often does serve a purpose. The Japanese authors you mention are quite talented.

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