Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto is my new favorite author. Her novels are short and straight foward. They're sweet and you may be tempted to read them as a spun-sugar confection, but they're far from it. Her words are well-chosen and her prose, often dealing with grief, mourning, and healing, could easily be described as simple, but it's not. It's just smooth and uncomplicated, even though the emotions she deals with and her characters are not. She doesn't waste words, which makes the words she chooses have all the more impact.

Sometimes, when dealing with translated works, you wonder what's the author and what's the translator? Yoshimoto's work has a very consistent voice even with different translators, so I'm inclined to believe it's her. Still, her work is almost sparse to the point where I wish I read Japanese, so I could fully appreciate her word choices.

Plus, on the completely shallow end of things, her books are physically small enough to fit into my going-out purse for metro reading. Yet they're literary enough to engross me on the trip into town and anyone can judge me on them.

Kitchen (translated by Megan Bakus) is probably her best-known work. I don't know why it took me so long to read this-- I remember being captivated by it and always wanting to get it, yet always choosing something else every time I went down to Canterbury books in high school.

Well, I finally read it this spring. On one hand, I can't believe I waited so long to discover this author. On the other hand, I'm glad I did because I think I'm at a point in my life where I can more fully understand the emotions involved.

This slim book (a mere 150 pages) contains two novellas (which I think might be my new favorite literary form). In the first, Kitchen, Mikage's grandmother (who raised her) passes away and the only place she can find comfort is in the kitchen. She can't sleep except on front of the floor by the refrigerator, the hum acting as a heartbeat almost. She finds refuge with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko. Together the three form a new sort of family that helps her heal--with the help of their kitchen. The second half of the novella takes place after Eriko passes away. This time it's Mikage's turn to help Yuichi heal, of course, with the help of food.

Despite all the death and tragedy, this is more a story of hope than of loss. It is not angst-ridden and not emotionally manipulative. In Kitchen, the characters are searching for comfort and they find it in each other and in food. Love, love, love.

The second novella, considerably shorter, is titled Moonlight Shadow. Satsuki is mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Hitoshi. It's been about a year since he was killed in an traffic accident. They had been dating since they were kids and used to frequently spend time with Hitoshi's brother, Hiirage and his girlfriend Yumiko. Hisoshi was driving Yumiko home the night of the accident and they were both killed.

One morning, while running, Satsuki meets Urara in the park. A strange girl, she tells Satsuki to come back to the bridge on a certain day, at a certain time, to see something special. Urara is that weird blend of realistic mysticism. She's slightly magical (she just intuited Satsuki's phone number) and yet is still realistic... It's hard to explain, but it works in the context of the story. I think it works because Yoshimoto doesn't make a big deal of it. She doesn't make a big deal about a lot in her books, which is what makes them so straight forward.

My favorite character in this story is Hiiragi. Still in high school and dealing with the loss of both his girlfriend and his brother, has taken to wearing Yumiko's sailor-suit dress school uniform every where. When he and Satsuki meet for lunch she says,

I'm stubborn, and I'll probably be dragged even deeper into this darkness, but I have no choice. I must keep living this way. But, as soon as possible, I wanted this boy to be always smiling, like he was now, like he always used to, and without the sailor outfit.

In Goodbye Tsugumi (translated by Michael Emmerich), Maria lives with her mother in the guest house behind the inn run by her Aunt Masako in a small, seaside, tourist town. Her cousin, Tsugumi, is an unpleasant and chronically ill girl Maria's age. Tsugumi is always walking that line between life and death and is Maria's best friend.

Maria's mother has long been her father's mistress. His divorce finally comes through and Maria and her mom move to Tokyo to be with him. Her aunt and uncle decide to sell the inn in order to start a European-style pension in the mountains. Maria returns to the place she grew up for one last summer. There, she and Tsugumi befriend Kyoichi, whose parents are building a large hotel that threatens the business of many of the small inns in town. Complications ensue, but the main story is about whether or not you can come home again and Maria's complicated relationship with her outrageous and just horribly mean cousin.

Tsugumi is an interesting and intriguing character. She can turn from sweet and nice-- the darling of the town-- to a manipulative bee-otch on a dime. Yoshimoto paints her well, and you never fully understand her, but do you ever fully understand anyone in your life? Maria, the narrator, understands Tsugumi more than anyone, but she still doesn't always make sense.

And, of course, there's Yoshimoto's prose, which I love...

I pulled the phone into my room and set it close to my pillow before I went to bed. What if it rings....? In the depth of the night, my sleep was shallow. And all during that ambiguous sleep, within the coming and going fragments of dreams, I continued to fell the existence of that phone. All night it was there, a sensation as cold and unpleasant as a rust mass of iron.

I can't wait to read more of Yoshimoto's books, and she has several others that are all on my list.

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