63 – ‘Amrita’ by Banana Yoshimoto

I am, as anyone who read my last post closely enough would know, thirty-four years old and will turn thirty-five very soon. Time for reflection, perhaps. Therefore, it was perhaps apt that I (randomly) decided to re-read ‘Amrita’ this week as Banana Yoshimoto’s novel, a departure from the usual novellas or collections of short stories, is especially concerned with reflection and taking stock of your existence. In this tale about a young woman who loses her memory and has to reassess the way she is living her life, Yoshimoto blends elements of Buddhist theology and everyday philosophy to examine what it means to live in the present.

Sakumi, a Japanese woman in her twenties, lives at home with her mother, brother, cousin and her mother’s friend, part of an informal family unit which has come together after several deaths and breakups. One winter day, she falls down a steep flight of stone steps, and, on waking up in the hospital, realises that she has lost a significant part of her memory. This loss of memory, however, is a catalyst for Sakumi to re-examine her life and relationships: she becomes closer to her little brother Yoshi, slightly more ‘gifted’ than your average elementary-school student; she starts to spend more time with Ryuichiro, the ex-boyfriend of her dead sister, Mayu; and she also begins to come to terms with the effect that Mayu’s death has had on her.

The loss of memory enables Sakumi to look at the world around her through a new pair of eyes, and although she does regain her memory slowly, the lack of detail in her memory forces her to reconsider her relationships with people and places. The brush with mortality also brings her to consider life and death, and she comes to realise that all things – friendships, relationships, families – are transient and fleeting. While this sounds negative and depressing, in fact the opposite is true; Sakumi uses this new knowledge of the temporary nature of life to focus on the positives and especially the here and now; she is able to live for the moment and enjoy life for what it is.

The title, ‘Amrita’, refers to concepts present in the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions and is connected to the refreshment of the human soul from drinking a liquid, like the nectar of the Greek gods, which is vital for living. Yoshimoto reinforces this allusion to Buddhism and Hinduism with frequent comparisons of characters to gods such as Shiva and Kannon. The ‘thirst’ for water is mirrored in the events of the novel as Sakumi finds enjoyment in swimming and then finds peace in journeys to the Japanese coast and Saipan, an island in the Pacific Ocean which appears to be a mythical place where the line between our ‘real’ life and the spirit world is blurred. Towards the end of the novel, Sakumi is also urged to quench her thirst by drinking in everyday occurrences – the water of life.

When I first read this book, I wasn’t overly impressed; I felt that there was a lack of a structure to the novel, and it often felt as if it were a random series of events with very little to link them and move the story along. Also (as always with Banana’s works), I felt that the dialogue was trite and that there was an overreliance on metaphor. I’m still not convinced on the latter point, although I am moving more and more towards the opinion that this is the fault of the translator, not the author (several typos and a couple of literal translations which even a low-level Japanese speaker like myself could pick up are swaying me in this direction), but I enjoyed the book as a whole much more this time. The idea of life circling around and people continually going through the cycle of making friends, developing relationships and moving on came through more strongly on this reading, as did the writer’s focus on showing how Sakumi’s loss of memory enables her to stop and look at what she actually is.

Of course, the reason why my opinion of the book this time is so different to when I read it a couple of years ago has a lot more to do with me than with the book. I’m a bit older, (hopefully) a bit wiser and more able to read things into a novel like this one (some of which probably weren’t intended). Just as Sakumi needed an accident to give her the necessary distance to view her life, most of us find it difficult to get the required perspective to see our world as it really is, and being caught up in the daily grind makes it difficult to know if we’re happy or not. Reflecting on the moment and ignoring both the past and the future is hard. Very hard.

And so, this morning, on the train to work, I finished ‘Amrita’ and looked around the busy carriage. The sun was shining brightly through the windows on a beautiful spring morning, the first of many to come. Across from me, a group of students were talking and laughing, generally being young and happy. On my i-Pod (on shuffle mode for a change), songs came and went: Motorace (a sadly defunct Australian indie band), The Stone Roses (the classic indie group from my school and university days), The Yellow Monkey (one of my favourite bands from my time in Japan – my lack of Japanese ability prevents me from finding out whether their lyrics are as clever as their Arctic simian cousins). I got off at Caulfield station and walked slowly through the campus to my office, taking a different route in order to stay in the sunlight for as long as possible. Trying to live for the moment and forget the past and future.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to always live for the moment (life has a nasty habit of getting in the way), but if you do look back, do so with joy, not regret. Life is constantly moving on; you meet people, you grow close, you have good times, and then you go your separate ways. If you are able to step outside the moment and look back on these times without wishing for their return, you will be a lot better for it. As I’ve recently learned (from all the Japanese books I’ve read), life is short enough as it is; wasting it worrying about how short it is just makes it shorter.

Time to step back into the sun…

10 thoughts on “63 – ‘Amrita’ by Banana Yoshimoto

  1. That's beautifully written. I have also noticed that the way I react to certain books changes as I get older. Thirty seem to be some sort of tide-mark. Lots of books start to make sense after thirty! The opposite can happen as well. Wuthering Heights was a favourite when I was growing up. I re-read it last year and I found Heathcliff irritating beyond belief.I will keep a lookout for this book in charity shops (it isn't available from the library and I'm on a self–imposed buying ban)

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  2. Over the past couple of years, I've returned to reading; not that I ever stopped, but in the sense of both the quantity and quality of books read. Funnily enough, I think Facebook started it off as I felt a bit embarrassed by how much other people were reading in the groups I joined. With a young child and a part-time master's course on top of a full time job, I needed an impetus to become more disciplined in my reading. Of course, my blog seems to have taken that to extremes…I'm glad you like this review; it's definitely one of my favourites, probably because, as you said, your attitude towards certain books changes as you get older.Now I just need to work out how to make my blog prettier 😉

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  3. Tony, this is the one of Banana's I have on the go at the moment. I utterly love her work. Interesting you should bring the dialogue up again – was it you with whom I was discussing this before? I think she does dialogue better than pretty much anyone. Also intersting about overusing metaphor. I wrote a long paragraph recently (q2 here: http://pitchparlour.blogspot.com/2007/08/writer-interview-dan-holloway.html) on why I love Japanese writing, because writers like Murakami and Yoshimoto use metaphor instead of adjective. What I absolutely agree with you about is the way Japanese writing captures the notion of living in the present, the fleetingness of life. In fact, I think you've put your finger on the reason I try to ape the style at the moment!

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  4. I think we discussed this before. Regarding metaphor, I think this book actually overuses simile more than metaphor; every few pages something is described as being 'like' something else, usually randomly and, in my opinion, unnecessarily. However, as mentioned in the review, I think that the translator is at fault for a lot of what I have commented on. I picked up on several examples of lazy, over-literal translating in 'Amrita'; I only wish I could read Japanese well enough to be able to compare properly!

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  5. Someone recommended this book to me recently, and it's great to read your well written review. It sounds quite intriguing and I may well read it. Thanks for posting this!

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  6. No problem! This is different to the other two of hers I've read ('Kitchen' and 'Goodbye Tsugumi'), but it's still a very good read. Apparently, according to the Book Depository anyway, she also has a new book coming out in English soon ('The Lake'); which is strange as I'd never even heard of it in Japanese!

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  7. What a lovely review. I agree about how the way your read books changes as you get older and wiser (like you, I am eternally hopeful!) I have only read Kitchen by Yoshimoto but your review has inspired me to put Amrita on my wish list.

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  8. It's a great book (and, as mentioned, much better the second time around!). I'm planning to read a couple more Yoshimoto books……when I get the chance (as always!).

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  9. "I felt that the dialogue was trite and that there was an overreliance on metaphor. I'm still not convinced on the latter point, although I am moving more and more towards the opinion that this is the fault of the translator, not the author (several typos and a couple of literal translations which even a low-level Japanese speaker like myself could pick up are swaying me in this direction"In "Goodbye Tsugumi" some of the dialogue can only be called silly-I am glad your knowledge of Japanese leads you to believing this-I wonder if reviews in the Japanese literary publications ever talk about this issue or if works by multiple translators also have the same problems?Thank your for this very interesting review and I will read this book as soon as I come upon it.

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  10. Thanks Mel. The dialogue problem is a recurring issue in all my experiences with Ms. Yoshimoto's work; the only way to really work out whether the translator or the author is as fault is to study Japanese for a few years and decide for myself!No, I don't think that will happen either…

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