Hardboiled and Hard Luck
A review by Claudia Pugh-Thomas
Banana Yoshimoto made her name with her first novel, Kitchen,
published more than twenty years ago. Her subsequent novels have tended to be
slim studies of domestic tragedy, narrated in a prose style that is spare, verging
on the poetic; paragraphs are often little more than a sentence. She conjures
images that are evocative and direct, while tending to avoid specific details
of time and place. Like Haruki Murakami, to whom she is often compared, she allows
supernatural forces to influence the lives of her characters.
In these two short novellas, characters who are absent through death or illness
are central to the plot and identified by name, while others, the bereaved,
remain anonymous and peri- pheral, recording events as they unfold, filtering
the action. The effect is to accentuate the degrees of separation between characters,
which also extends to the reader. The resulting sense of detachment is compounded
by the necessity, for those who are not fluent in Japanese, of reading a translated
version of her work, here provided by Michael Emmerich, the translator of, among
others, Yoshimoto's fine novel Goodbye
In Hardboiled, the female narrator walks a mountain road, "surrounded
by the sounds and sensations of a quiet evening". She is alone, without
a map or fixed destination, adrift in a generic landscape. It is the anniversary
of the death of a former lover, a woman with whom she shared the gift of second
sight. The last time she saw Chizuru was in a mountain landscape where the two
When the narrator comes across a shrine in the mountains, she senses a great
evil concentrated in a circle of black stones. Later, as she is eating an evening
meal of noodles, one of the stones rolls out of her bag. Still later, at the
hotel where she passes a disturbed night, she learns that shortly after she
left the noodle shop it burned to the ground. The night is resonant with echoes
of the past, alive with "sneaky creatures" tugging at the subconscious.
The fire in the noodle shop recalls the one in which Chizuru died. A ghost --
one half of a couple whose suicide pact failed -- appears in the hotel room.
Both narrator and ghost are, in their own way, haunted. For the ghost, the cause
of her torment is her decision to take a bigger share of the fatal pills, thereby
ensuring the survival of her lover. The cause of the narrator's unease is her
failure to acknowledge the impact Chizuru's death had on her. In the light of
day, things may not be as spooky as they seemed, but the darkness of the piece
Hard Luck is a slightly more uplifting affair, looking more to the future
than the past. Another nameless woman visits her sister in hospital. Kuni is
in a coma, and her fiance cannot cope with the aftermath of her cerebral haemorrhage.
In his place, his mysterious brother Sakai, a teacher of Tai-Chi, strikes up
a friendship with the narrator. Although the situation is desperate, its very
awfulness concentrates the brief, unsought moments of pleasure for those watching
Kuni's decline. Some sort of relief can usually be found even in the most tragic
circumstances, Banana Yoshimoto suggests, in these two novellas which are as
unsettling in their subject matter as they are unassuming in their composition.
Claudia Pugh-Thomas writes for the Gulf News.