Book review: Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Hardboiled & Hard Luck’

The review originally appeared in September 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

99162475_amazoncom-hardboiled-hard-luck-booksSupernatural is a natural in ‘Hardboiled’

Banana Yoshimoto became a literary sensation in Japan with her first book, “Kitchen,” in 1987. Spare prose, novella-length stories and quirky characters combined to make difficult themes, such as sexual identity and death, easily accessible and emotionally involving.

Since then, her books have been translated around the world, but a typical reaction in the United States has been: “Who? Is that her real name?”

Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto, which she chose because of the beauty of the banana flower. More importantly for American readers, her latest book, “Hardboiled & Hard Luck” (Grove Press; 150 pages; $21; translated by Michael Emmerich) , offers another chance to get to know this talented writer.

The novella “Hardboiled” presents a fascinating use of common tropes in Japanese literature: the power of nature and the presence of ghosts.

An unnamed narrator is hiking in the mountains and seems not to have any cares – or human connections. She believes relationships end not because of feelings, but because “periods in our lives end the way seasons change. That’s all there is to it. Human willpower can’t change that – which means, if you look at it another way, that we might as well enjoy ourselves until the day arrives.”

This attitude, however, doesn’t prevent her from encountering a lover – a woman who could see ghosts – she had left and who died in a mysterious fire a month after she had moved out. Odd things happen to the narrator at a shrine, in a noodle shop and at a hotel, and then she remembers it is the first anniversary of her former lover’s death.

Though “Hardboiled” is a ghost story, it isn’t a horror story. The dead appear as living people or in dreams, and the realms of the living and the dead interact in unexpected ways, with compassion, understanding and resolution.

The narrator of the second novella, “Hard Luck,” is also a young, unnamed woman. She recounts the unreal and heartbreaking period of time in which her family comes to terms with her sister’s vegetative state and impending death.

The narrator, a college student who has put her studies on hold, even calls it “a sacred time set aside for us survivors.” (That sentiment seems so much more appropriate than the media and political circus that surrounded Terri Schiavo, who died earlier this year.)

She finds herself in the midst of an odd flirtation with Sakai, the older brother of her sister’s fiance. The fiance, too grief-stricken to be at his intended’s bedside, has returned to his parents’ home a coward. Sakai takes his brother’s place at the hospital to preserve the family’s honor, it seems. But he later admits his interest in the narrator.

Sakai, a tai chi instructor in his early 40s, is otherworldy and oddly attuned to the narrator. Through their talks, she is finally able to cry. But she knows the budding relationship won’t go anywhere. She even describes him as “weird, and kind of a fraud … cold and unreasonably cheerful, and … no sense of responsibility.”

Yoshimoto’s power as a writer is evident here, with a straightforward description that works to reveal the characters of both Sakai and the narrator.

Throughout the story, strangeness, desire and humor are combined without ever once forgetting the brain-dead sister and the family’s grief. How the narrator sees her situation is also an appropriate description of the story: “And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experience during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief. The instant the unbearable pain and tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister’s soul.”

With these two novellas, Yoshimoto again proves her fame is well deserved. She succeeds in showing the naturalness of the supernatural and in making the peculiar not only realistic, but also touching.

The deft translation by Emmerich (who previously translated Yoshimoto’s “Goodbye, Tsugumi” and “Asleep”) should help Yoshimoto gain a broader audience in the United States.

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