The Boy in the Earth

Image of The Boy in the Earth
Release Date: 
April 24, 2017
Soho Crime
Reviewed by: 

Opening with a brutal scene of gang violence against the protagonist, The Boy in the Earth is a dark, nihilistic portrait of contemporary Japan and its damaged youth.

The unnamed protagonist is a 27-year-old Tokyo taxi driver, who was abandoned by his parents when very young for reasons he doesn't know, sent to live with relatives who abused him physically and emotionally, and then taken in by an orphanage.

Despite the trauma of his childhood, he is managing to survive in his adult life, although he is plagued by self-hatred and deliberately courts situations that put the life he considers worthless in great danger—antagonizing the gang from the opening scene, walking in front of cars, teetering on the edge of balconies just for the thrill of it.

But he is managing to sustain a relationship with the equally damaged Sayuko, an alcoholic, who grew up with a violent father and a weak mother, and was recently in an abusive relationship that resulted in the birth of a stillborn baby.

These two traumatized people have few hopes for the future, but exist together in a joint inertia that has a certain kind of peace. They exchange their own stories of childhood abuse while in the background TV and radio news intone everyday stories of parents drowning children, teachers, and students attacking each other, and jaded murderers killing for no particular reason.

The protagonist is obsessed with Kafka's unfinished novel The Castle, in which the main character is desperate to gain access to a castle, the bureaucratic heart of the city, where he knows he will find all the information that will make his life meaningful, but is constantly thwarted in his attempts to get there. Like the Kafka character, our protagonist feels that he is close to finding some kind of meaning for his existence, but for him this feeling is most pronounced when he is being abused by others, such as the gang in the book's opening scene:

". . . I was a mere worm as I let them beat me mercilessly. I was in a state of excitement. I knew that was not an appropriate way to feel in this situation. I don't mean that I experienced a masochistic pleasure from the pain of being kicked. Their attack was relentless; I felt only intense pain. Neither was there any intoxication from feeling worthless. How can I put it?—I was definitely waiting for something yet to come. I felt certain that the thing I was waiting for—whatever it was—was there."

When the protagonist hears from the orphanage that the father who abandoned him wants to meet, memories of childhood traumas come rushing to haunt him. He has a flashback to being buried alive as a child by aggressors who are only referred to as "they."

The description of his escape from this earthen grave, and his journey to safety through an unending dark forest, fending off wild dogs, is spine-chilling. But this episode illustrates the human urge to survive that exists even in this most hopeless and abused character. As he prepares to beat back the wild dogs, he shouts out a message directed at all his tormentors:

"I am alive! Against all of your expectations! I have no intention of obeying you. With my own hands, I will defeat whatever obstacles you throw at me."

This survival instinct is emphasized again when the narrative moves back to the present and the protagonist is attacked by a couple of taxi robbers in an incident that he did not deliberately provoke himself. As he fights back, he tells himself: ". . . I was the one who would conquer. I would not surrender—not to any of the foolish people in this world, not to any of the violence or atrocities . . ."

This slim book, not much longer than a novella, could be considered a hard read, with its themes of violence, parental abuse, and abandonment, and the unfairness of a world in which some people seem to have everything and others nothing.

For a novel that won Japan's leading literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, one also has the sense that the translation does not always do justice to the original Japanese: there are various clunky sentences that occasionally jolt the reader out of immersion in the story.

But the book's zeitgeisty portrayal of nihilistic Japanese youth, and its fearless exploration of the depths human beings can sink to in their cruelty toward each other are compelling. And the story is not completely without hope: The protagonist's determination to survive is uplifting, as is the hint that he may find real love with Sayuko.