Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: Kitchen (1988)

I've read this book any number of times, in both the original and English translation; I've even taught it a couple of times, and that's what brought me back to it this time. In my mid-20s I went through a bit of a Yoshimoto phase, but got burned out on her. But every time I come back to Kitchen, I'm surprised by how well it holds up for me, and so this summer I'm giving her another chance.

So: Kitchen (Jp. Kitchin キッチン), by Yoshimoto Banana 吉本ばなな (now よしもとばなな). Contrary to how it may appear in English, this book contains three short stories, all written in 1987.

Yoshimoto's first published short story comes last in the book: "Moonlight Shadow" (Mûnraito shadô ムーンライト・シャドウ). It's the typical o-make story, and in true o-make fashion it almost overshadows (no pun intended) the feature: it's an admitted (the story makes it explicit) retelling of the Tanabata legend, wherein the young narrator meets the spirit of her dead lover with a river running between them. With its longing for the dead, its playful invocation of alternative sexualities, and its tone of (almost) self-consciously earnest young love, it's a concentrated dose of what "Kitchen" the novella offers at somewhat greater length. It's quite nice."

Kitchen" itself is a novella, but only in an after-the-fact sort of way, and I really wish the English translation had made this clear. So here's the deal: "Moonlight Shadow" won her a college literary prize at Nihon Daigaku in 1987; it was her first work of fiction (I believe). Later that year she wrote "Kitchen" (what is now the first half of the novella) and it won the Kaien 海燕 New Writers' Prize, and was published in the magazine of that name. In January 1988 the book Kitchen was published, including "Moonlight Shadow" and "Kitchen" and adding "Full Moon - Kitchen 2" (Mangetsu - Kicchin 2 満月ーキッチン2), which was simultaneously published in the February issue of Kaien. If you look at the table of contents of the Japanese version of the book, you'll see that "Kitchen," "Full Moon - Kitchen 2," and "Moonlight Shadow" are all listed as if they're separate stories - because they are. In the English TOC, what you see listed is just "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow."

I go into this detail because I've always liked the structure of Kitchen the novella, and I think in that regard it's worth asking if it is indeed a novella at all, or just two short stories. A short story and its sequel, is how they were originally published, see.

And in a way, of course, they read like that. "Kitchen" proper is almost more of a zuihitsu than a narrative - it's very essayistic, with the narrator constantly interrupting the flow of the story to muse on her feelings and the nature of Love, Loss, and Life. Meanwhile, "Full Moon" is very much a story, one damn thing after another, as they say, working toward a climactic scene with an emotional payoff.

In sum, they're very different animals. They work on different logics. And either one would probably be quite effective on its own - "Kitchen" as a semi-abstract musing upon its themes, and "Full Moon" as a great little piece of rom-com lit. But, they can never really be experienced on their own now, because they're yoked together in the same book - and especially in English, where they're presented as one novella, and "Full Moon" isn't even mentioned separately on the TOC.

Which is actually fine by me, because I've always felt that as two halves of one novella they work splendidly - the shift in mode creates a wonderful contrast between them, a yin-yang, stillness-motion, loss-love kind of dialectic, intensifying the romantic payoff of the whole thing. I just wish the English edition had made it clear what was going on, so readers could think about this...

I've always liked Kitchen. It was one of the first Japanese books I ever read in translation, and one of the first that I tried reading in the original, too. In fact, in my early 20s, which is when it appeared in translation, I went through quite a Yoshimoto Banana phase, feeling in this book at least a kindred spirit. It's that brash, unquenchable volubility of the literary soul in its early 20s, when it's feeling that it's starting to really get Life, hard knocks and soft landings and all, and when it's still young enough to think that the insights you have in your early 20s can't help but be valid for everybody at all times, places, and stages of life...

It wasn't long, of course, before I burned out on Yoshimoto. It was Amrita that did it. But, as I say, I've had occasion to return to Kitchen several times since then, and it always does it for me. It did it again this time. We'll see if her others do.

Other notes:

I love the covers that this has been issued under in English. The first copy I bought was the British edition, from Faber and Faber, and it was a prize piece of Orientalism, with the sexy back-neck shot of the geisha... The American edition from Grove/Atlantic is better, although it still sees fit to put a cute chick on the front. I always wonder how many people think that's Banana on the cover (it's not, right?). I think the meaning of the cute chick is a little different - the UK edition was emphasizing the exotic and the erotic. The US edition is going for a girl-next-door idea - if the girl next door is Japanese. And let's not forget that this was appearing in an age when Asian-American lit, particularly by women, was really becoming established. Was Grove hoping to position this right alongside Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Cynthia Kadohata? Did it work?

Translation. This was translated by Megan Backus, and what the hell, I'll talk a little about it. On the plus side, I think she does a good job of catching Banana's voice. On the minus side, there are some accuracy issues. On p. 6, for example, she writes, "I couldn't take my eyes off him. I think I heard a spirit call my name." In the original this is "目が離せなかった。ふいに名を呼ばれたせいもあると思う." No spirit: she's saying "I couldn't take my eyes off him - I think partly because he called my name all of a sudden." Which, indeed, he has - in the original (in the translation the direct address is just rendered as "you").

Here's the error: if written 精, the word could be "spirit," but as is, written せい, and especially in this grammatical context, it's undoubtedly "reason, cause, fault." It's a pity, because I like the image of an imaginary spirit calling her name, even if it is an artifact of the translation: it kind of fits the emotionally supercharged nature of the narration. But it's an error. It's not the only one.


Matt said...

"It wasn't long, of course, before I burned out on Yoshimoto. It was Amrita that did it."

Man, tell me about it.

I like Kitchen too, but I don't love it so much that I would have foreseen the worldwide craze for it. I provisionally buy the AT/MHK/CK association for the US, but what about everywhere else? Any thoughts on this?

Tanuki said...

Dunno. The wife thinks Yoshimoto caught on internationally as a sort of female version of Murakami Haruki, but she's not terribly fond of either and is inclined to be unfair to both. Still, I think there might be something to that.

I wonder if the positioning of Yoshimoto as someone who can rub shoulders with the likes of AT/MHK/CK might have had resonance in other English-speaking markets as well. Those writers are American, but this was also the era of the rise of post-colonial lit in the UK, Kazuo Ishiguro and the like, and I wonder if that helped create a receptive market for someone like Banana?

In the end I guess I'm mystified. But I'm always mystified by the literary marketplace, what sells and what doesn't.

snakenuts said...

Thanks for posting this article on Kitchen. I myself am 28 and trying to read it in Japanese for the first time. It is the first book I will try and read in whole in Japanese. I havent even read the English version. I only picked it because I liked a piece written by her that was in a "How to read real Japanese" book. It was whimsical, so I looked for her work, and Kitchen was the most cited and famous (even my gf knew it but hadnt read it either). Anyway, thanks again for the insight into how it is supposed to be set up as a piece of writing/publication.

leoboiko said...

Venuti seems to think it caught on because the time was right to deconstruct the previous canon that was then known as “Japanese literature” in the anglosphere (built as it was by Keene, Morris and other academics). See chap. 4 of Scandals of Translation.

Tanuki said...

I have to admit I haven't read Scandals of Translation. Would you care to elaborate on what he says?

In the meantime, I have to say that while this point sounds like a good reason why Banana might have caught on among overseas Japanophiles like myself (who was, I admit, ready for Keene's vision of Japan to crumble)(already, at my young and tender age), I'm not sure I can see it having much relevance to Banana's prodigious sales figures in the West. My sense was always that she was being widely read by people who didn't know Keene from a hole in the ground, and may not have even been too interested in Japan per se, much less in shifting external perceptions of it. But I should check out Venuti's argument.