R&R 115 was posted on Christmas eve 🙂 R&R 116 will be posted on the 31st, along with a year-in-review sort of post. So come back in two days for more! In the meantime, here's R&R 114!
Translated by: Ann Sherif
First published in: 1990
This edition: Washington Square Press, 1995
Pages: 194 (including author's afterword)
Cover design by Rick Pracher; cover photos by Sigrid Estrada
Banana Yoshimoto to me is synonymous to atmosphere, moodiness: beautiful imagery and descriptions. A fantastic novelist, talented and sensitive. No wonder she's so popular in her native Japan.
N.P. is her fourth published book (following Kitchen, – which I read a few weeks after finishing N.P. – Asleep and Goodbye Tsugumi. It is, however, the second book to be translated in English.
Speaking of translation…
When renowned Japanese author Sarao Tasake commits suicide, he leaves behind an unpublished English story: his ninety-eighth story, which is about the author's affair with his daughter, Sui. It is the task of translators to bring this final story to the Japanese public. But the work never manages to be complete, as all three translators who've attempted to translated the story so far have committed suicide.
One of these unfortunate translators was Shoji, who's still sorely missed by his younger lover, Kazami. Kazami still owns the ninety-eighth story and has a hard time letting go of it – it is all she has left of her former love. Holding on is all she can do.
So when Kazami meets three people connected to the author Tasake (and thus indirectly to Shoji), she finds herself instantly drawn to all three of them, wrapped up in their lives. She meets Tasake's son and daughter, Otohiko and Saki. And Otohiko's girlfriend: Sui.
…not exactly your garden-variety subject matter.
While Yoshimoto is still one of the strongest descriptive authors I know, I feel there has been a loss in translation – the language seems simplistic.
[2014 – review amended. I initially definitely blamed the translator on the following, probably because the rest of the translation seriously bothered me, and failed to impress me. I even think it angered me, and lead me to assume. But there is no way of knowing what happened. Perhaps it was an error. Perhaps not. Read on:]
When Yoshimoto talks about what is in reality a "half-sister", the term "step-sister" is used instead. One of the themes of N.P. is incest and the dark feelings, the unhappiness, that comes with these relationships, where love and sex cross the line drawn by shared blood and DNA. There's a big difference between half- and step-sibling: step-siblings are not related to each other by blood. It was actually confusing in the beginning, and it also took away from the impact on the reader. Incest is an intense theme. Yoshimoto was very direct about it (which was her goal, I think) but then again might have beat around the bush by having her (unreliable?) narrator be so in denial about the situation, she chooses to refer to her half-sister as her step-sister and thus making it a deliberate error. That, or something profound did get lost in translation. Either way, it bothered the hell out of me, no matter who's to "blame". I felt, if you're going to write an intense book about incest, at least call it – or translate it to – what it really is. That's what irritated me and that's what I should have pointed out in my initial review.
Back to the subject of translation [and here ends my edit for 2014].
The translation generally is not up to par with Yoshimoto's writing. Ann Sherif, I feel, doesn't do the book justice. I've read a few more of Yoshimoto's works, and really do feel this way. And I can't help but wonder whether my critique of other facets of the book are due to Yoshimoto's creative decisions, or the translation. So what I note below, you must keep in mind that it could all be due to an ill-fitting translation.
N.P.'s premise sounded interesting to me: suicides connected to a story, I was intrigued. But that storyline doesn't really take off: Yoshimoto instead focuses on the feelings those people involved in incestuous relationships would have as well as depression.
My biggest problem with N.P. is the God-awful choppy dialogue. It's a hot mess; characters hop from one subject onto the next and the way they converse is so blunt at times, it seems unnatural. It's too matter-of-fact and cringe-worthy. Any emotion – and a book about suicide and incest, well, there's emotion there – gets lost in this strange directness. It's harder to connect to the characters, but it can be done because N.P.'s characters are developed enough. These characters and their flawed inner beauty save N.P. and are what makes this a good (enough) read: N.P is a simplified novel (or translation…) with complex and thus interesting characters.
Sui is the best example: such a lost character, erratic and impulsive with low self-esteem and no aspirations other than taking it day by day. She seems full of life and energetic, but embraces melancholy and appears to be older than her age. Sui seems to me a very tired person. The Sui in suicide.
Yoshimoto urges us to feel compassion for people like Sui, her brother and her father (and even Saki, who stood by without saying a word), because these people have been tormenting themselves enough already. Guilt is a killer: Sui and those around her struggle with being alive. A heavy theme, but Yoshimoto keeps it light enough without losing the serious nature or the beauty of her writing.
"From the moment we met, I was a butterfly that flew into that space that was his soul, a room where the light had begun to dim."
– p. 28
I didn't enjoy the dialogue, which makes up for a large chunk of the total text, but how I love Yoshimoto's melancholy descriptions as well as her images of sun, summer feeling, orange light (a major theme in this book – figurative darkness versus literal lightness). Her imagery, put into words, always grips me. And while the dialogue is robotic in ways, the narration itself is comfortable: it's Kazami remembering a period in her life and recounting it as if we were there, listening to her.
So N.P. does have a lot of qualities to it, but it is not my favorite book of Yoshimoto's. I can't help but to ask myself, forever, if this feeling would have been different had the translator been someone else. I think partially, yes – but I also do believe Yoshimoto can do (and has done) better.