Japanese Novel review: “Nimrod” (ニムロッド) by Takahiro Ueda (上田 岳弘)

By | October 16, 2019

My reasons for purchasing Takahiro Ueda’s novel “Nimrod” are pretty typical: I liked the cover, liked the title, plus I liked the vague but significant-sounding marketing description on the obi (paper band used for marketing). Also, the book was relatively short, and (last but not least) the book was a winner of the Akutagawa prize, a prestigious literary award.

The first few pages of this book gave me feeling I had never quite experienced when reading a fiction book––the sensation that I was reading about my own day-to-day IT job. Nimrod begins with talk about servers, iPhones, Twitter, web sites, Slack, and (wait for it…) Bitcoin. A key part of the story is a Matome Naver article that actually exists, and the book lists the entire lengthy URL in the middle of a page.

This was nice in a way since I learned some terms to describe my own IT experiences, but at the same time it felt like I was mixing work and play, making it a little harder to read as a relaxing endeavor as opposed to a tedious chore. For better or worse, this emphasis on technology seems biggest at the beginning of the book, although Bitcoin is a core part of the story that comes up at various points.

The story revolves the lives of the main character (the one dealing with servers and Bitcoin) and two of his friends, both of which have some form of trauma and/or mental issue(s) in their lives. The book progresses by switching between their various stories, selecting various combinations of the three. There is another important thread (or two) that doesn’t directly involve these characters’ lives, but I’ll omit details on those to avoid any spoilers.

What I enjoyed most about this story was the various philosophical ideas addressed by the story: the value of currency, human rights, novel-writing as a meaningful act, and the evolution of humanity (to name a few). Sometimes these reflected in character’s actions, but more often they seemed to be reflected in lines of dialogue in the form of character’s internal monologues or discourse between characters. 

The Japanese level of this book was fairly high, not just in terms of words used in the IT industry (ex: 仮想通貨 [kasou tsuuka] = virtual currency) but especially in terms of uncommon kanji that I hadn’t seen before. But thinking back, while these kanji weren’t that frequent, it was still surprising that a handful of unusual kanji didn’t have any furigana. One that really stood out was 鼎談 (teidan), which means a three-person talk. Another––which doesn’t even shown up in my JP/EN dictionary in kanji form––was 凭れる (motareru), which means “to lean on”. There are also some long, wandering paragraphs, not to mention the philosophically-charged material, which makes Nimrod overall a fairly challenging read. The only consolation is that the book is relatively short (100-150 pages), so if you decide to push through you’re more likely to make it to the end.

So how much did I actually like this book? Well, to be honest I think this is one of the few books in Japanese that I felt was borderline beyond my level of comprehension. While I feel that I generally understood the individual scenes pretty well, putting things together (especially taking into account the philosophical themes of the book) was a challenge for me. One of the highlighted reviews of this book called it “witty” (軽妙), and wit generally requires a good grasp of language and culture to comprehend (ever see a Japanese comedian and think their jokes were not very funny?) I don’t mean to say the book is supposed to make you roll over laughing, but there are definitely what appear to be satirical elements.

My biggest letdown was that pacing was too slow, and how the dramatic turning points somehow felt flat and not as dramatic as they should be. At the end I said to myself, “That’s it?” Now to be fair, had I had a better big-picture understanding of everything I probably would have appreciated the story a little more, and I’m considering re-reading this book again someday.

Depending on whether you “get” this story, Nimrod may seem like a random hodgepodge of interesting ideas with clumsy direction, or a thought-provoking discourse on human nature. After writing a draft of this review I checked Amazon Japan’s ratings, and wasn’t surprised to see they were very polarized, with the number of 4-star ratings nearly the same as the 1-star ratings, and almost no 2- or 3-star ratings. For what’s worth, I feel that I would have enjoyed the novel more had it been longer, which is ironic since the short length was one of the reasons I bought the book in the first place.

Some readers may be interested to know that parts of this book reminded me of Haruki Murakami, including how some relationships were portrayed and how certain real-world things (like the Matome Naver site mentioned above) were leveraged in a creative way. I think Takahiro Ueda’s writing style here is also similar, but it’s hard for me to put my finger on why except to say it feels similarly modern. (Unsurprisingly, a check of Ueda’s Japanese Wikipedia page showed a Murakami book mentioned as having a major effect on Ueda’s life.)

Takahiro Ueda has a few other books, but while Nimrod seems the most popular, at least one of the others appears to have better overall reviews (私の恋人). I’ll definitely consider reading another of his books, and maybe this time around I’ll be able to put together the pieces better.

If you want to get a taste of Nimrod, you can check out the sample for the E-book available on Booklive here. You can find the paper book on Amazon Japan here.

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