Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: Amrita (1994)

Published in 1994 as Amurita アムリタ, translated 1997 by Russell F. Wasden as Amrita. But that ain’t the half of it. The genesis of the novel was a short story called “Melancholia メランコリア,” published in Kaien in 1990. This is reprinted as the first part of Amrita, and in the original Japanese edition it’s just put there, under the title “Melancholia,” and it’s the first thing in the book, and then you turn the page and Amrita proper starts. In other words, it’s not presented as part of the novel per se, but as a clearly related piece that, of course, no reader is going to skip. In the English translation the title “Melancholia” is eliminated and the story is incorporated into the novel proper as the “Prologue.” Which isn’t quite right. When you start reading Chapter 1 (and that’s another thing: in Japanese the chapters are all given titles, but these are dropped from the translation for some reason) you find her introducing characters and situations that you already know about from the “Prologue,” and you wonder if the author has lost her mind (or the narrator, and of course that's not inappropriate in the latter case). No, she hasn’t: it’s merely that she’s decided not to tinker with the short story that contained the germ of the novel. If you understand the publishing history and the relationship between short story and novel, you’re not confused, but because this information is missing from the translation, you are. (What is it with publishers of translations in English anyway that they’re allergic to this kind of metatextual info being included? Are they so paranoid that they think potential readers are going to be scared off if they see fine print saying “This novel was originally serialized in the magazine Kaien in 1992 and 1993”? Any reader who would be scared off by that isn’t going to be reading the fine print anyway. Dudes.) 

Anyway. The “Prologue” was written as a standalone short story, and then a couple of years later (in 1992 and 1993!) she decided to serialize a long, long novel based on – continuing – that short story. If you know your ‘90s J-lit you may be thinking of Murakami Haruki and his Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first volume of which was serialized in 1992 and 1993 (the second and third volumes were written for book publication, and of course all three volumes are in one set of covers in translation), but which incorporated and continued from a short story written several years before called “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” (translated in The Elephant Vanishes). So, hey, was Banana following Haruki’s lead? But dig: she started serializing Amrita in January 1992, while Murakami didn’t start Wind-Up Bird until October... 

Amrita is a very long book, the longest she’s ever written, as far as I can tell. The English translation comes to 460 pages. Its heft marks it as her attempt at a magnum opus. In English J-lit still seems to have a reputation for brevity, for haiku-like conciseness (how often have you read that in a jacket blurb?), but in fact Japan has historically produced some of the most massive works of literature in the world, and even today, for every slim, handsome volume of lapidary prose that makes it into English there’s a doorstop of labyrinthine storytelling that no translator wants to touch. More to the point, even for serious writers, length is important. Most literary writers start out with novellas – Akutagawa-Prize standard length, is how I like to think of it – but it seems that most novelists with any ambition for literary immortality produce something massive sooner or later. Take Haruki: his first two works, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, were short, but then he unleashed A Wild Sheep Chase. Take Ryū: his first two works, Almost Transparent Blue and Umi no mukō de sensō ga hajimaru 海の向こうで戦争が始まる(untranslated, but it deserves it: War Breaks Out Overseas), were short, but ten he dropped Coin Locker Babies

In other words Yoshimoto Banana, in 1992, probably felt like if she was going to make a career out of this novel-writing thing, if she was going to be taken seriously as a writer and not just a social phenomenon, then it was time she produced something substantial. Thus: Amrita. Her bid for immortality, for serious Serious Writer status. 

It’s a mess. God, it’s a mess. The first time I read it, right after it was translated, it convinced me to give up on Banana for a good ten years, I was so disappointed. This time around my reaction wasn’t nearly so extreme – in fact I enjoyed it a lot more than I had expected to – but I still have to say it’s a mess. What’s changed in the interim is me, clearly: I now have a fascination, which I didn’t have before, with big glorious messes of novels. An ambitious failure is often more interesting to me than a perfectly-realized book of modest proportions. 

The story is told by a 28 year old woman named Sakumi who, let’s get this all down: has a celebrity younger sister who kills herself; lives with her twice-married, once-widowed, once-divorced mother, her grade-school-aged half-brother, her mother’s best friend Junko, and a college-aged cousin named Mikiko; falls down some stairs and has to have brain surgery; loses then gradually (then suddenly) regains her memory; discovers her half-brother sees dead people and can predict UFOs; gets into a relationship with her dead sister’s ex-boyfriend, a novelist named Ryūichirō; visits Saipan where she, along with her boyfriend and a strange Japanese couple she meets there (an albino man and his ex-prostitute wife), feel the presence of all the Japanese soldiers who died there in the war; meets and almost falls in love with a woman whose powers echo her brother’s; meets and is traumatized by, but ultimately becomes picnic-friends with, the ex-boyfriend of said clairvoyant woman, a hypnotist... 

As I said, it’s a mess. It’s pretty clear that she’s making the story up as she goes along, and for long stretches she doesn’t seem to have any idea where she wants to take it. Then when she does get an idea and runs with it, it ends up having precious little to do with anything that came before. Like the Saipan episode: halfway through the novel it just appears, out of the blue, takes up a good hundred pages, builds to a nice climax, and then ends, leaving the author trying to figure out what to do next... 

The fact that there are so many characters and relationships is, I think, something else that marks this as her attempt at a magnum opus. It’s as if she’s trying to recapitulate elements of all her work so far. There’s a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, but cute minor character who echoes Tsugumi; there’s the haunted writer figure, echoing N/P; there are passages reflecting on the place of kitchens in women’s lives that clearly reach back to Kitchen; there’s the dead sibling and the sibling’s lover motif, right out of Asleep; I could go on. It’s a trick that Endō Shūsaku, for example, employed in his grand-summation novel, Deep River: reintroducing all your favorite characters and their problems in one masterful narrative.

So the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink idea isn’t itself evidence of incompetence – it’s an honorable literary technique – but in this case Banana doesn’t seem to know what to do with all these people once she introduces them. The cousin Mikiko, for example: she’s always there, but in the end she doesn’t do much of anything. I imagine Banana had intended for her to have her own arc, but never got around to thinking it up... 

Part of what we’re seeing here is, I think, one of the potential pitfalls of serialized fiction. In a commentary contained in Honjitsu no, Yoshimoto Banana 本日の、吉本ばなな – banana yoshimoto at work, 2001 (a “mook,” i.e. magazine-book, i.e. magazine-format coffee-table book), she mentions how tough it was for her to think up each installment, and how much pressure she put on herself to end each installment with a bang. Amrita’s problems make a lot of sense if you imagine a harried writer, with lots of other projects demanding her time, realizing early on that she’s committed to telling a big story, but has no big story to tell. She has some idea of where she wants to end up, but she doesn’t have the whole thing plotted, much less written, ahead of time, and so she has to improvise month after month. 

Some writers can do this brilliantly, and keep the whole thing building naturally toward a climax that feels organically related to where the whole thing started. Others can make the serial format work for them, exploiting the imperative toward self-contained episodes to create a pleasant sense of disjointedness in the work – that’s how I think of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He may be improvising, but since that’s the unique flava of a Murakami work anyway, it doesn’t matter. In some ways I like him best when he’s just spinning his wheels. 

Banana isn’t quite in that league, it appears, or at least she wasn’t back in 1992 and 1993, and she doesn’t seem to have attempted anything like this since. What she came up with feels episodic in a bad way: epiphanies are repeated, the narrator seems to discover the meaning of life and her place in the world a good half-dozen times, and never seems to realize she already knew it. The tension peaks in the middle, at the end of the Saipan sequence, but about fifty pages from the end she decides to introduce two more new characters and make them the catalyst for the plot’s resolution. Structurally, narratively, it’s a mess. 

But, strangely, that didn’t bother me this time. It’s all an interesting mess: there’s lots of business, more than in the usual Banana novel. You know, one damn thing after another. Sometimes it’s puzzling, but sometimes it clicks, and this time around I had fun watching Banana wrestling with this unwieldy plot she was spinning. She gives it the old college try, she really does, and that made the book a lot more interesting to me than some of her more polished works. Ambition I find attractive, and this book has it. 

It has thematic ambition, too, but in a way that I found to be a weakness of the book, not a strength. She may well have been, in the Saipan sequence, trying to come to terms with Japan’s WWII experience, but if so the result is just maddening: she has endless reserves of pity for the Japanese who died there, but no awareness whatsoever that there might have been other people on Saipan at one point who might not have wished the Japanese to be there... 

Luckily (!) she seems mostly uninterested in political and historical questions; mainly she’s after the Meaning of the Universe. At this point it’s going to be helpful to explain the title: amrita is Sanskrit. As one of the characters in the novel explains it (p. 445), it was “a divine nectar, something the gods indulged in by guzzling the stuff down. They say that when you let the liquid gush through you, you’ve actually achieved life...” This is the narrator’s boyfriend the novelist speaking, because he’s decided to call his new novel – which is based on the life of the narrator herself – Amrita. (No, it’s not suggested that this novel-within-the-novel is in fact the novel we hold in our hands. She’s not that cute.) 

In other words, this nectar of the gods, this elixir of life, this liquid euphoria and divine communion wine, is the subject of the book. And on this level I really do think Amrita works as Banana’s magnum opus, the fullest statement of her biggest theme. 

Part of what marks her as a shōjo writer – John Treat enunciated this in a famous article – is the intensity of the emotions she depicts. They’re intense, and yet that intensity seems to come from something other than hard-earned experience. They feel like the romantic imaginings of poetic youth – it’s an intensity that can only come from the imagination. And so at her worst Banana’s works can feel awfully glib about their emotional content – I think that’s what so turned me off of her in my late 20s, when I came to feel that my experience wasn’t bearing out the descriptions on life that her youthful imagination had led her to make, if that makes any sense. That is, I’ve always thought that Banana works best for readers in their teens or early twenties, readers who still share her combination of shallow experience and deep feeling. 

Some of her translated work bears the marks of a maturing sensibility: Lizard doesn’t gush. Hardboiled doesn’t gush. The Lake doesn’t gush. In these works she’s still trying to speak from a place of unfiltered, unprocessed emotion, of cherished innocence, but there’s a calmness and a hint of restraint there that separate the works from her early shōjo writing. 

Amrita does a different thing. Here she’s not yet ready to surrender the idea of girlish emotional intensity (and I’m sorry if I sound sexist putting it in these terms: I’m actually using terms that are already part of the discourse on Banana; I’d be open to seeing them interrogated, but I do find persuasive the argument that this is how she sees her work). Even though her narrator is 28. And why does she make her 28? She could have made her younger. But she makes her 28 – no longer a girl – and then she turns around and makes her lose her memory. Actually this happens between the prologue story and the novel proper – so for almost the entire novel, until she recovers her proper memories in a rush at the end, she has an excellent excuse for reacting to the world like a schoolgirl. She was born yesterday, so to speak. She’s seeing the world with fresh eyes, feeling it with a newness and intensity more common to 18 than 28 (lemmetellya). The age thing isn’t commented on explicitly in the story, but I think there’s some strategy at work here. 

But it goes farther. The epiphanies that are so much a part of Banana’s prose style and narrative technique are everywhere here (the serialization thing), and she claims much more on their behalf. From the very beginning there was a strain of mysticism in Banana’s writing, but in her earlier works it’s easy to write off as merely a kind of magical-realist decoration, a function of her romance-fantasy underpinnings. In Amrita, as the title suggests, it takes on metaphysical dimensions. It’s a novel about spiritual awakening, about religious experience. Not organized or codified religion, God no; rather, it’s about religious ecstasy, about euphoric apprehension of God, or God-in-nature, or the Universe. That’s the kind of epiphany Sakumi gets. 

I’m not sure if Banana realized that was where she was going with this (although if she chose the title ahead of time, she must have at least had an inkling). To what I think is her credit, she never breaks character, so to speak, never comes out and preaches a religious philosophy. But it’s there. The book is taking this irresponsibly exuberant emotion that has been a hallmark of her fiction all along and elevating it past an aesthetic into an ethic. 

Now you may, like me, decide that this religious ecstasy it itself a mark of youth – and indeed it’s not something that’s there in the two later works that have been translated (now I really want to explore her untranslated stuff). But at the very least this shows ambition – there’s that word again. She’s really trying something with this book. 

Which is why I recommend it. It’s flawed, boy is it flawed, and in places it can be downright annoying. But there’s something there.

EDITED on May 8, 2012 to add:
One thing that I didn't address in my initial review of this book was the quality of the translation.  I'm still a little shy about commenting on translations, especially negatively, since I do some myself, but this has to be said.  Wasden's translation is one of the worst I've read of a Japanese novel.  I'm checking it pretty closely against the original this time through, and it's clear that in many, many instances he just plain doesn't understand the original.  Not all, by any means, but certainly some of the disjointedness you get when you read Amrita in English comes from this simple fact:  the translator got it wrong.

Let's just take a passage at random - the last one I reread, at the end of Chapter 7.  Wasden gives us:
..."You know, there are quite a few people in the world who've said that once you've recognized your own limitations you've raised yourself to a higher level of being, since you're closer to the real you.  Let's see, Yūmi [sic] Matsutoya said it, Ayrton Senna said it, John C. Lilly said it..."
"I've heard about Yūmin, she's a singer.  But who are the rest of the people you're talking about?" my brother inquired.
"That's something you'll have to learn later," I said, knowing full well that a popular singer, a Brazilian grand prix winner, and an American neurologist had nothing to do with one another.  I figured they'd give more persuasion to my argument, so I tried to fool my brother by dropping their names.

Because I've always thought the best catch in the world is one that passes right underneath you.

The original of this is:







The first thing you'll notice is that Wasden explicitates.  He fills in information - sometimes background info, sometimes the connections between thoughts - that he thinks Banana should have given us.  In this case, he's afraid we, the readers, aren't going to be able to identify Yūmin, Senna, and John C. Lilly, so he gives that info to us.  This is a problem, but still, it's within the range of potentially acceptable stylistic choices - he's an extreme case, but arguably not completely beyond the pale when you compare him to other translators working.

The real problem here is what comes after the explicitation:  a misunderstanding.  The best way to show this is to retranslate it, so here's my version:

"To learn your own limits is to discover new territory, a new level of truth.  Yūmin, Senna, and John C. Lily all say so."

"Who are they?  Well, I know who Yūmin is, but..."

"You'll learn that, too."

I dodged the question, knowing such a motley bunch of sources wasn't very persuasive.

But that's okay.

Because in absolutely everything, the freshest catch is the one you dive for and grab yourself.
The narrator isn't dropping names in order to impress her brother.  She's just mentioning people who've all said the same thing.  And then when her brother pursues it, she realizes that these names wouldn't impress him - so she refuses to tell him, instead challenging him to figure it out for himself.  In the process, Banana the writer is telling her readers to do the same.  Something that, incidentally, the translator refuses to allow the English language reader to do.  

The last line is what sinks it.  In the published translation, it's hard to figure out what it has to do with anything.  But in the original it's clear that it's a reference to the act of tracking down these references yourself:  learning for yourself, rather than having someone tell you.  

This kind of misunderstanding is everywhere in the published translation. 


Matt said...

This is a great piece. You almost made me want to reread Amrita. Almost.

Excellent point about the doorstop thing, as well. Yeah, Japan invented some tiny poetry formats that are easy to anthologize; but then you also have massive, serialized (!) things like the Genji and the Heike, which appear relatively early in the history of Japanese fiction and exert an immense gravitational pull on the whole system for a thousand years thereafter.

Tanuki said...

Thanks for the comment - if it almost made you want to reread Amrita, then I've done twice as good as job as I intended...

I was probably too hard on translators with the doorstop comment. I recently realized, for example, that somebody has taken a crack at translating Kyōgoku Natsuhiko. I never thought that would happen.

Matt said...

I bet the translators would love to tackle these books, given proportional pay (I know I would!). It's surely the publishers who balk at trying to persuade US (let's be honest here) readers to commit to a gigantic tome following a family through six generations rather than a delicate 100-page story about two people sorta kinda in love but not really. Maybe e-publishing and so on will help with this.