Book review: The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders.The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda (tr. Alison Watts).
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Parties are great. Parties celebrating the auspicious birthdays of elders are also great. What’s not great is when the party is spoiled by cyanide, resulting in the deaths of most people at the party, in vomit-tinged terror.

That’s one way to break up a celebration.

But it’s the primary focus of this novel – the crime, its aftereffects, and how such an event was received by a variety of community members. The Aosawa Murders might be rooted in an event in an unnamed seaside city in 1973, but it stretches three decades beyond that, to examine how the recollection of an event changes its meaning.

Rika Onda’s crime novel was published in Japan in 2005, but wasn’t made available in English until 2020. Alison Watts’ translation is slick and conveys a reserved, observant tone which sits well with the story within, given that so much of the text is concerned with watching and recording. There’s a sense of grasping at the truth, a sense of wanting to understand, or to make a lasting mark which cannot be denied, and it seems suitable that the translation stays out of the way of the story. There’s certainly none of the overworked construction which can dog some translations: this is smooth. I’d even suggest that it’s placid except it seems less than appropriate upon completion of the work.

It so happens that the crime in question has even been solved, at least as far as the police are concerned. A convenient hanging, and a number of irrefutable pieces of evidence. So what’s the point in pursuing the tale, decades later?

The novel owes something to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where aspects of a story are revealed through the narrative of different characters, just as it owes something to Capote’s In Cold Blood for that fictionalised history’s version of crime and its aftermath. Both influences are especially apparent in one of the major characters, a writer (and survivor of the event who possesses the ability to mimic others) who has written a book about the crime.

It’s not just writers who offer their take, though: there’s detectives, brothers, blind survivors. There’s sections of direct recollection, and sections of interview. There’s the feeling that the book is a collection of recollection – a dossier which exists for some purpose other than the ferreting-out of truth. It’s the case that the driver of the tale is the pursuit of the truth, but the discovery of the truth seems to be secondary to the examination of the distortions which make themselves known during the quest.

The novel folds answers over answers in a sort of nesting-doll arrangement. We never hear the questioning voice, only the responses, as if almost all the writing has been transcribed from interviews. Each individual’s responses offer a little wrinkle on all which have gone before. It’s more of a puzzle than the open-and-shut crime you’d expect from a European or American crime novel. Onda’s novel feels at times like the origami which typifies a particular character: cuts and folds here and there transform what was into what will be.

But was the guilty party truly brought to book for their crimes?  I could tell you, but my observations might change the outcome.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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