Thursday, July 14, 2011

Yoshimoto Banana: NP (1990)

This was published in Japanese in 1990 (as, don't forget the dot, N・P), and here in an English translation by Ann Sherif in 1994 (as NP, no dot*).

Evidently this book is unusually popular in Japanese – in an interview somewhere Banana talks about people who are fans of just this book, nothing else. I’m not sure I get that.

I’m not sure I get this book. It’s narrated by Kazami, a young woman whose dead boyfriend Shôji had been translating a book of short stories called N.P. by a Japanese-born US-based writer named Takase. The book had 97 stories in it, but there was manuscript for a 98th that Shôji had obtained. Shôji killed himself while translating it. Takase himself committed suicide.

The narrator invokes the old tradition of “100 stories” ghost-story telling, suggesting that if all the stories connected with NP were gathered they’d add up to 100. And in fact, not only is there a 98th, but there are hints at a 99th. Which leaves the reader wondering: where’s the 100th? Of course you’re holding it in your hands, right? The implication (of giving the real-world book the title of the book-within-the-book, among other things) is that Banana’s NP is the 100th story in Takase’s.

The 98th concerns a writer who meets his adult daughter without realizing they’re related (he was estranged from her mother long ago), falls in love with her, has sex with her, and only then realizes their relationship. And in fact that’s what happened in real life, too: Takase fell unwittingly into an incestuous relationship with his daughter Sui, kept it up after realizing who she was, and ultimately killed himself.

He left behind not only Sui, but her half-siblings Otohiko and Saki. And, wouldn’t you know it, Otohiko also has an incestuous relationship with Sui. A few years after Shoji’s death, in the present of the narration, Kazami enters the orbit of the three Takase kids, becoming in different ways best friends with all of them.

There are the makings here of a nice literary mystery or literary ghost story (by that I don’t mean a mystery or ghost story that happens to be literature, but one that takes literature and literariness as its subtext)(it’s a thing). But Banana downplays those aspects of the story, instead playing up the romance of it. Which, okay, I find quite icky. Maybe that’s why I could never connect with this book.

I don’t think it goes much of anywhere, is the problem. It’s a lot of loosely connected scenes, set-pieces, rather than a plot-driven thing – which is fine for romances, but then why introduce the notes of horror and mystery, which tend to demand resolution, which this book refuses? I dunno. Nor do I find that Banana really does too much with the intriguing questions raised by the idea of translating into Japanese the English-language writings of a Japanese-born, Japanese-speaking author. She nods in that direction, but there's a lot more to be explored there, I feel.

Masao Miyoshi wrote (in Off Center) that he thought he had read everything of Banana’s, but he couldn’t be sure because none of them made the slightest impression. I’ve always thought that was one of the cattier things ever said about an author, but lo and behold, when I sat down to read this a few weeks ago I found all sorts of marginal notes made by myself. And I don’t know when I made them, because I don’t remember having read this book before. And in another ten years, I probably won’t remember having read it now. (Thus, the blog.)

*How would one render the dot in English? It's usually used in Japanese (where it's called the nakaguro) to separate loanwords written in katakana. There are no word breaks in Japanese sentences, but editors figure readers need some indication of word breaks when dealing with foreign words, so, voila, the dot. It's explained very early in the novel that NP, the book-within-a-book title, stands for "North Point." Which in Japanese takes a dot when spelled out; it doesn't necessarily need one when reduced to initials, but, cutely, it's retained here. It makes sense to drop it in translation, but still the translator in me would like to have seen something done with it. N.P. maybe? Or why not get real provacative (which the presence of that dot in the Japanese, between those initials, I think is) and try the Barthesy N/P?

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011)

(I used to be a big Woody Allen fan. I was trying to see all his films, and I think I got about halfway there. Then about ten years ago I just lost interest. It wasn't the Soon-Yi Previn business. And it wasn't any particular film that turned me off; I just got tired of him, I guess. That, and Mrs. Sgt T really doesn't like his films, so we almost never watched them together.

We went to see his new one, Midnight in Paris, last night with a friend. The friend, too, isn't a real Woody Allen fan, but is professionally interested in the whole '20s Paris milieu that the film recreates; the Mrs. and I are good little intellectuals, and are at least passingly familiar with the figures that populate it.

Which is to say that we weren't going to see it because it's a Woody Allen film, but perhaps in spite of it being one. I was, though, quite curious to see what he was up to these days, because I know I've missed a few quite acclaimed films from him.

It was at first comforting to find that nothing has really changed. Same typeface for the credits, same Sidney Bechet-heavy soundtrack, same loving picture-postcard establishing shots of a Great City [now it's Paris, because Allen's in his Americans-don't-appreciate-me-but-Europeans-do phase]. Same trick of having his leading man do his best Woody Allen impression [I think I was the only person in the world who thought that was genius and not schtick when he had Kenneth Branagh do it in Celebrity - but with Owen Wilson it's clearly schtick, and that means it might have been that with Branagh, too].

Some of the less salubrious things have remained unchanged, too, and I surprised myself by being bothered by them. He still insists on showing his purportedly lovably leading man being tormented by a lover who is nothing but a castrating mother-figure who doesn't get him and insists that he grow up. At 75, Allen's still obsessed with this? At 75, he still thinks about women that way? Good God.

And that same autodidact's hostility toward accredited academics. I thought that was hilarious and dead-on when he did it with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, but again: at 75, he still feels the need to caricature as pompous people who have decided to make a career out of studying and teaching things that Allen himself clearly loves and makes far more money out of addressing than they ever will? Like, what does Allen have to fear from any professor anywhere?

But in spite of all that, I enjoyed every frame of the film, and it almost convinces me I need to finish my old project of seeing all of his films. Because)

The scenes of this movie that take the protagonist (splrlrt) back to 1920s Paris are some of the most delightful I've seen on screen in years. We were snorting with laughter watching Adrian Brody do Dali, and Corey Stoll do Hemingway. The evocations of the period were perfect, and the realizations of all these larger-than-life figures were amazing. Sure they were flattering to the audience who knows who these people were (there were a couple I hadn't heard of), but even with your guard up you don't really feel like you're being pandered to, because Allen himself so clearly loves this milieu.

And it's that that fuels the movie, at least in these scenes. The comic timing and writing is marvelous - a reminder of Allen's true gifts, is I guess what I'm supposed to write at this point. But it's really his insider's understanding of the power of nostalgia that this movie captures - and nostalgia isn't really a strong enough word for it. Like R. Crumb, Allen has built an entire worldview out of the sense that the present day world is not his home. Those of us who share that feeling can sense in Allen a guy who gets it. What does 2011 have to offer that can compete with a Sidney Bechet solo, a Fitzgerald sentence, Dali's mustache?

That's why I don't buy the ending of this movie. Gil doesn't wise up and choose the present day world anymore than Marky Mark chooses Estella Warren over Helena B-C in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. Odd comparison, I know, but in both cases you have directors ending their movies by basically lying through their teeth.

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.