Book review: 『ゼロの焦点』by Seicho Matsumoto

ゼロの焦点 (ぜろのしょうてん)
Title: ゼロの焦点 (ぜろのしょうてん)
First published: 1958
Page Count: 481
Translation: Point Zero, by Louise Heal Kawai
Teiko’s husband, Kenichi Uhara, mysteriously disappears on his way home from Nakazawa. It was an arranged marriage, and Teiko hardly knows Kenichi, his past, his job. With the help of Kenichi’s colleague, she will try to solve the mystery of his disappearance and learn more about her husband at the same time.

ゼロの焦点 is one of Seicho Matsumoto earliest and most famous novels with 点と線, 眼の壁 or 砂の器, and it is easy to see how these works have contributed to popularising detective fiction.

I found ゼロの焦点 extremely easy to read, the book is a real page-turner that is mostly based on dialogues and reads very quickly. I would say that it is a good book for language learners, and I regret not reading Matsumoto sooner.

The mystery of Kenichi’s past and disappearance is central to the novel, and even though other dramatic events occur, everything is linked to Kenichi’s secrets. I found that the character of Teiko was really well portrayed and very interesting. As Kenichi’s wife, people refer to her as if she would be the person who knows him best, but their marriage was an arranged one, and they have hardly spent time together, so Teiko knows very little about him, which puts her in an awkward position.

The social/historical background is also very interesting and made me want to learn more or read more about the period described. Before reading Matsumoto, I thought that his novels would give a detailed portrait of the society of the time, or at least some aspects of it, because I’ve read that his books dissect Japanese society of similar statements. In ゼロの焦点 though, the social background is central to the plot, but not central to the book, meaning that it is not particularly talked about or described at length. The case and the mystery, rather than the description of society, are central to the book, but the integration of social elements in the plot does make the story more interesting.

The only thing that bothered me while reading ゼロの焦点 is that some passages in the second half become weirdly repetitive. Overall, there are a lot of repetitions in this novel, similarly to 点と線, but it does not impact too much the enjoyment of the plot. What I am talking about here is a specific long passage in the second half where we follow Teiko’s deductions about the mystery. The same statements are repeated again and again, it takes forever for Teiko to arrive at obvious conclusions, and one fact in particular is repeated several times using diverse variations of “it can make no doubt that…” and “it is almost certain that…”. It was so frustrating to read, it almost made me put the book down!

Apart from that though, ゼロの焦点 is an amazing novel that I recommend. It does not have the ingenuity and the many puzzles of 点と線, but the characters and their motives have more depth here.

A fun fact is that I started this novel just as the English translation came out: Point Zero, by Louise Heal Kawai. If you haven’t read the summary on the back cover of the English translation, I heartily recommend to not read it because it spoils a big part of the mystery by revealing elements of Kenichi’s past. I understand that the publisher wanted to make the book feel more appealing by revealing what it is all about, but it is first and foremost a mystery novel, and a good part of the mystery in the first half is to follow Teiko in her quest to discover her husband’s past. The summary tells us: “Soon Teiko discovers…”, but this discovery only happens p202 in the Japanese novel (out 470)…