Hiromi Kawakami: ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険 (UK: The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino; US: The Ten Loves of Nishino)
Love can be difficult. Person A loves Person B but the love is not entirely (or even at all) reciprocated. Even when they do love one another, problems can occur. Things change, life happens. However, when it does not work out, there is a lingering memory of a past love, a memory that can last for a lifetime. This is what this book is about.
In the first story, Natsumi, a married woman, is having an affair with Nishino, twelve years her senior. She has a daughter called Minami who is seven at the start of the book. Sometimes, she takes Minami on her dates with Nishino as he is very fond of her. He buys her little presents and always buys her a parfait, usually a strawberry parfait.
But, gradually, Nishino disappears from her life. Minami grows up and asks her mother if Nishino was her lover. But both women still remember Nishino. Natsumi even remembers him saying that, when he died, he would come and see her.
One day, Minami looks out of the window and she sees him. Rather, she does not see him but she sees his ghost. He has kept his promise.
The next story is about Shiori Yamagata, a fourteen year old girl who lives with her father. Her mother has gone off with another man. Our immediate suspicion is that the man is Nishino but this is not the case.
Shiori receives a letter from a classmate, Toru Tanabe, asking her out on a date. She is somewhat surprised but consents and they go to cinema. While there she sees a classmate. It is Nishino. Later she will be in her favourite place and sees Nishino with a woman. He removes her bra and starts sucking her breast. When they see Shiori, she goes away and Nishino kisses her. While we were holding hands, it felt as though I no longer knew where his hand stopped and mine began. She continues her relationship with Toru but does not forget Nishino.
We follow Nishino’s love life till his death which, of course, we have learned about early on. If you see above, you will note that the British and US titles are slightly different (ho-hum). The British call him Mr Nishino, while the Americans call him just Nishino. Perhaps the British are more polite? Nishino is indeed his surname and it is only in the third story that we learn his first name – Yukihiko. However, for the most of the book he is referred to as Nishino, particularly by his various girlfriends.
So what do we learn about Nishino? Firstly, he has a lot of girlfriends. As the title tells us he has ten female friends (I say female friends as, with one of them, it appears there is no actual physical sexual relationship). However, the implication is that there are many more. He never marries but does propose to several of the girlfriends. It is not clear to us, to them and, perhaps, even to him, whether the proposal is serious. In one case the proposal is made to a married woman. In any case, he is turned down by the women, primarily because they do not consider his proposal serious but also because they see him more as a boyfriend and not as a husband. Frankly, what I thought was, I’d like to have sex with him, says one, but that is all she thought.
He sums up his view on marriage:
“You know, that I’ll end up with a straight and narrow life.”
“And you would hate that?”
“It’s not that I would hate it—it’s that I’m scared of it.”
In many cases, he has more than one girlfriend at a time, though this does not seem to work:
“I do not break up with them right away,” Nishino replied, after a moment had passed.
“Which means you two-time?”
“I would if I could, but usually the girl doesn’t stand for it.”
“So then what happens?”
“I end up getting dumped. By both of them.”
This is not strictly accurate, as we know full well he does have two girlfriends at a time and, on some occasions, one or both do, reluctantly, tolerate it. In one case, the woman, who is not really his girlfriend, though they do have sex, has five boyfriends on the go. In one case, he has sex with the flatmate of his then current girlfriend. It does not work out well.
Most of the women are unsure of their feelings for him. I felt a fervent desire to fall in love with Nishino. I wanted to love Nishino in a way that would make him love me, says one, while another says But the entire time I was in love with Nishino, I always felt a bit unsettled. Others have similar feelings.
For him it is different:
“Nishino, do you really believe that all girls are exactly the same?” I asked.
“I could be wrong,” Nishino said leisurely. “All the girls I’ve ever known, at least, they’ve all been the same, down to the last.”
Despite this, he tells many of them that she is the only one and he wants to marry her. (Even with all the girls I’ve slept with, you’re the best, he tells one and, presumably others.) However, he always moves on. Why can’t I love someone properly? he asks.
He clearly has something that attracts women, apart from his good looks. A man who could satisfy a woman’s desires that even she was unaware of, who could draw them out from deep within her heart—that was Nishino and I was surprised that men like Nishino existed in this world, the type of man who could slip so smoothly into a woman’s sensibility.
When it’s over and he has disappeared from their life, they do not forget him. Even though we had broken up, things were good says one but, in most cases, they do not see him again. However, as mentioned at the beginning of this review, even when the relationship was brief, he has made his mark on them. They do not forget him.
There is a possible psychological reason for his behaviour, which is gradually explained and only fully revealed at the end. However, it is not clear that is the sole reason for his motivation. After all, he is not the only man who has enjoyed having many girlfriends.
This is a very clever book. Nishino may find that all of his girlfriends are the same but we certainly do not. Each one is different, meeting him in different circumstances, reacting to him differently, though all remember him, in some cases many years afterwards. Nishino may seem straightforward, a standard Lothario, but he is not. He is certainly enigmatic. Neither we or the women are entirely sure what he really wants apart, obviously, from sex. What a dull life mine has been, really, in the end, he states but it really has not.
First published in 2003 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by Granta/Europa in 2019