53 – ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto

I like bananas. I take one to work with me in a lunchbox every day (the banana’s in the lunchbox, I’m not; that would be weird). They are a wonderful source of potassium (which I’m sure I have a use for, even if if it eludes me at present), they give you a wonderful boost of energy when it’s 3.00, and knocking-off time seems aeons away, and, most importantly, they come in their own, portable, bio-degradable wrapper. Brilliant. It really is a stupid name though.

Which leads me nicely (some might say predictably, but that’s ’cause they’re just mean, and I’m not listening) to Banana Yoshimoto, the exotically-named Japanese author of my latest literary delight, ‘Kitchen’. Obviously, ‘Banana’ is not Ms. Yoshimoto’s birth name (she changed it from ‘Strawberry’), but that is the one she thought would best suit her personality. Which really says all you need to know about her.

Despite her rather cheery pseudonym, Yoshimoto’s debut novel – actually a two-part novella followed by a short story – is really rather short on smiles. In ‘Kitchen’, Mikage Sakurai moves in with a casual acquaintance, Yuichi Tanabe, after the death of her grandmother, and the poor girl struggles through the loss of the last family member she had left. Both Mikage and Yuichi have to learn to get over their repective losses before their lives can start again. In ‘Moonlight Shadow’, Satsuki is mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Hiroshi, when a chance meeting with a strange woman, Urara, gives her the opportunity to find a way past her emotional blockage. Not happy stories.

Both tales address the big questions of life: What’s it all about? What happens when you lose a loved one? How do you keep going? Both Mikage and Satsuki find it difficult to adjust to a changed world and doubt they possess the strength to continue an empty life, but both are helped to move on by the new friends they find; for the first time, the girls confront the truth that relationships can be ephemeral and that life is more a series of friendships than one life-long set of relationships.

I bet you’re still not sure what I actually thought about this book (and you wouldn’t be the only ones), so I’ll put your minds at rest; I liked it. But. Just as I’m in two minds about bananas, at least when it comes to the name, I’m still not completely convinced by Ms. Yoshimoto’s writing. For one thing, as I previously alluded to, the two stories in this book are very similar in theme, and, at times, I really couldn’t feel any difference between the two characters. Mikage could have been Satsuki, and Satsuki could have been Mikage (except for the fact that Mikage did a lot more cooking); just as some people criticise Haruki Murakami for writing the same characters over and over again, Yoshimoto seems to write very one-dimensional people.

However, the biggest problem I have with our little Banana is that her writing seeems to be schizophrenic in the split between description and dialogue. Many’s the time (in this book and in ‘Goodbye Tsugumi’ and ‘Amrita’) I have been lulled into a state of comfortable numb enjoyment by Yoshimoto’s work, only to receive a rude awakening from her wretched, childish dialogue. This may be deliberate (many of the characters are teenagers); it may be an issue with the translator (unfortunately, my Japanese isn’t good enough for me to be able to check this any time soon); it could well just be an aversion on my part to what I consider to be overly-American jargon in the dialogue. Whatever it is, it makes me cringe at times, and that’s a shame because I do like the ideas behind her books.

Please don’t be put off by the last couple of paragraphs; it’s sometimes easier to write about the negatives than the positives, and there is a lot of good reading to be had in this short work. Give Banana a go, and I’m sure you won’t regret it. Just be aware that in amongst the sumptuous yellow flesh, just as in a banana, you may find some squashy blackish bits. Yuck.

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11 thoughts on “53 – ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto

  1. Wow, Tony, you do choose some crackers. I read Kitchen in January and have been a Banana nut(sounds like a nice pudding) ever since. I love her dialogue, I have to say (then again, if I remember right, you had issues with that bit of my writing, so maybe there's a taste thing going on).On the one-dimensional. I kind of take your point. I'm reading Amrita at the moment, adn I would say it follows this pattern – we have lots of issues dealt with in the writing, and there's lots of plot, but the characters respond in a very simplistic way, and often don't progress. That's there in Murakami too, and although it's a coming of age story, it was a deliberate move on my part. It's interesting because it's the same thing Brett Easton Ellis does (er, did, anyway – just finished Less Than Zero – not so sure about Glamarama/Lunar Park), and it has to do with writing teenagers I think. I really like it – the way these authors capture the faux-adult naivete of teenagers through their simplistic world views. It's all surface (now we really are talking Easton Ellis), and as a n observation of teenage life, I think that's actually really astute.

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  2. I think Murakami's teenagers (especially Kafka) are a lot more resillient than Yoshimoto's (and a lot less whiny!). As to dialogue, I actually think that it is an incredibly under-rated, and often neglected, part of writing; as an ESL professional (and a student of many languages over the years), any false word is, as I believe I commented on one of your posts, like a mischord. It's painful. Sometimes with Yoshimoto, it's like a beautiful symphony of descriptive writing being interrupted by a cat jumping on a piano.If that makes sense :)Anyway, if you like Japanese literature, the next post deals with something a lot more impressive and substantial…

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  3. I found some of the dialogue in "Goodbye Tsugumi", especially that of the lead character, the weakest part of the book. I did wonder if that can be attributed to the translation. Or maybe it is part of her unique character. Anyway a small quibble with a book I really like.

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  4. I just think that Yoshimoto doesn't do dialogue very well; either that, or the style of dialogue she intended to use just doesn't suit me. It may also be because the (undoubtedly American) translator has changed Japanese teen slang into an American variety. Any attempt to 'convert' colloquial language is doomed to failure in the long run (I recently read that one modern criticism of Constance Garnett's seminal translations of Dostoyevsky's novels is that she translated some of the gutter Russian into Cockney…).

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  5. Hardly predictable at all and perhaps I'm in a particularly dozy mood today but I read your (great) opening paragraph thinking "were there a lot of bananas in Kitchen?" then reached the segue and felt like a complete idiot.It's been quite a while since I read Kitchen and I have retained hardly anything except the memory that I like it. However, I have Asleep for the challenge and will return to your post once I've read it.

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  6. I wonder if some of the dialogue in Yoshimoto's novels is supposed to be a rendering of Japanese teens trying to sound as they imagine American teens would, thus annoying their parents even more!

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  7. Paperback Reader – I'm keen to try 'Asleep' and 'Lizard' (and also 'N.P.' which I think was actually written in English) – just after all the other books I want to read!Mel – Maybe, there must be some reason! That's why it would be so interesting to read 'N.P.'; you would actually be able to read the writer's words rather than the translator's.

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  8. I agree with you, there's something irritating about the dialogue in Yoshimoto's novels, but they're very enjoyable even so…

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  9. You make such a good point…I wondered what it was that didn't quite "ring true" to me, and perhaps it is that childish tone coming out from time to time. Still, I loved how she dealt with sorrow in Kitchen. That's the only book of hers I've read so far.

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  10. I think that my favourite is 'Goodbye Tsugumi'. 'Kitchen ' was a bit bitty because of the division into three separate stories (even if two of them were linked), and 'Amrita' didn't really seem to go anywhere. Haven't heard much from her recently though…

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