Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana's Asleep (1989)

Translated by Michael Emmerich in 2000 as Asleep.

Three stories linked by the motif of sleep. The stories were first published in late 1988 and early 1989 in Kaien, where she had published the Kitchen stories, then the book came out in mid-’89. So, it was part of her first rush of popularity, those miracle years of 1988-1992 or so. The fact that in English it came out after Lizard is just one of those vagaries of the lit-in-translation game.

Incidentally, the only Japanese edition I have at hand (and there have been, evidently, a few) has the stories in a different order. Emmerich’s translation gives us “Night and Night’s Travelers” (in J. Yoru to yoru no tabibito 夜と夜の旅人) first, followed by “Love Songs” (Aru taiken ある体験, “An experience”), and then “Asleep” (Shirakawa yofune 白河夜船 – see below for explanation). In the paperback I have (Kadokawa), the order is “Asleep,” “Night and Night’s Travelers,” and “Love Songs.” I don’t know if this was Emmerich’s decision, his editor’s, or what; maybe the hardback had a different order. Worth checking out… In any case, I think I like Emmerich’s order well enough.

The title of the book in Japanese is Shirakawa yofune – same as the third story in the English; the translation makes it “Asleep” both times. That’s what you might call a barely sufficient choice. It’s an idiom that does mean, basically, “fast asleep,” with an emphasis on “dead to the world” – oblivious. But it’s where this idiom comes from that makes it so interesting.

A literal translation would be something like “white river night boat.” Which doesn’t make any sense. The key is that the “white river” in question is actually a district of Kyoto – Shirakawa. It does have a waterway involved, and that waterway is called White River, Shirakawa, but from at least as far back as the beginning of the Edo period the river seems to have been so much less prominent in the public imagination than the district was that the following joke was possible.

A guy is boasting about a recent trip to Kyoto. Only, he didn’t actually go. Somebody asks him what he thought of Shirakawa, and the ignorant bragger-dude, afraid he’ll be caught out, makes up a clever lie on the spot. “I was on the night boat, so I slept right through it.” Rimshot. See, the joke is that Shirakawa isn’t a river that you float down on a boat, night or day, but a part of town that you walk to, or take a sedan-chair. If you know that, you know the guy is lying and has never been to Kyoto. The joke is about braggarts, wannabe sophisticates, the prideful brought low. If the modern idiom is usually used to mean, as the dictionaries say, just “fast asleep,” then there’s at the very least a nuance, there to be gleaned if you want to, of obliviousness not just to the waking world but to the world one imagines, wrongly, to be beyond one’s eyelids – obliviousness to one’s own obliviousness, really.

(Incidentally, I imagine there’s a locus classicus for this joke but I don’t know what it is. Dictionaries that I’ve consulted show the idiom in circulation by the early-mid 17th century, but don’t give a source for the joke behind the idiom. Right about now I’m expecting – hoping, even – that No-sword-san will chime in with the info.)

Anyway, it’s no wonder Grove and/or Emmerich decided not to open that can of antiquarian worms to whoop English readers’ asses. And so “Asleep” is okay. But given the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the slumbers in this book, I think the original title is very apt – all its nuances are applicable – and so I hate to see it vanish like a dream in the morning (if you will).

So, the stories: more than N/P, this book is the true successor to Kitchen, I think. Three more stories of love and loss, with hints of magical realism and moments of everyday epiphany.

“Night and Night’s Travelers” is about a woman whose older brother died after having ended a relationship with an American girl, a one-time foreign exchange student, who he’d followed back to Boston; the real emotional journey is that of Mari, the narrator’s cousin, who had been in love with the narrator’s brother (after the American girl). Bereft, she’s now taken to sleepwalking in the snow.

“Love Songs” is about a woman who’s drinking herself to sleep every night. She’s in a good relationship now, but she just got out of a bad relationship with a guy who was stringing along two women, the narrator and her rival Haru. The narrator and Haru were at each other’s throats at the time, but strangely never really blamed the guy; now the narrator’s sleep is haunted, and through a medium she realizes it’s Haru. They meet and make peace – they admit that there was actually a homoerotic tension between them that they had never acknowledged.

The title story is about a woman who is the mistress of a married man whose wife is in a coma. He’s kind of stuck because he doesn’t want to leave his wife – he wants to be the kind of noble guy who will stick with her – but at the same time he’s in love with the narrator. His solution is to keep the narrator removed from the world – she quits her job and lives on money he gives her, all alone in her own apartment. It’s a peachy arrangement, she thinks at first, but gradually she starts sleeping more and more until finally she can hardly wake up. Only the intervention of the wife’s ghost saves her from totally slipping away.

Dig: the issues are those of complicated relationships, and how young women respond to them. Sleep takes on different meanings at different points in each story – an escape, a mystical conduit to the world of the dead, but also a reaction to depression, a symbol of emotional numbness. In the third story it’s working as an evocation of the narrator’s total envelopment in the will of her lover – she’s allowed her identity, her being, to become a mere extension of his, and it’s destroying her.

Thus, there’s something here. The writing is standard Banana – not terribly distinguished, but very accessible – and as stories they’re almost on the same level as those in Kitchen. Well evoked. Well epiphanized. Not bad at all.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Sorry, man, I got nothing. I think if there were an easily identifiable locus classicus, more people would be writing blog posts about it. "Person pretends to sophisticated knowledge they do not actually have, gets caught out by ridiculous lie based on misunderstanding of specialized language" was a whole genre of humor back then.