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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys at the Oregon Zoo, July 24

We saw Los Lobos in concert on Sunday (July 24), at the Oregon Zoo amphitheater in Portland. Los Lonely Boys opened. I didn't know any Los Lonely Boys beyond their hits, but even from them I could tell it was a natural pairing. Not only is there the Latino rock thing (they kinda look like Los Lobos Jr.), but more importantly there's a lot of musical compatibility there, too. And in that respect we weren't disappointed: it was a great bill. If anything, we were disappointed in the headliners.

It was our first show at the Zoo, and it proved to be a surprisingly good place to see a show. The amphitheater is right by the elephant house, right next to the lion compound and a tropical bird dome. All that sounds like it should feel pretty hokey, but they've arranged it so that you can't actually see or hear any of the animals from the lawn, so it's pretty easy to forget you're in a zoo. (They flew some zoo birds over the audience before the show, though, which was cool: a red-tailed hawk, an ibis, a bald eagle. Made me wonder if the boys were going to play "Down On The Riverbed" in response)(they didn't.) Basically you feel like you're just on a fir-lined hilltop on the edge of Portland, with the sun setting beautifully just to the right of the stage, on a hot summer day in July. Can't go wrong, really.

Los Lonely Boys opened, and while they did play "Heaven," otherwise they seemed to be pushing their new album pretty hard. Which meant it was mostly songs we'd never heard, but that didn't matter. Within minutes we were fans. "Heaven," it turns out, while a great song, isn't all that representative of their stuff; mostly they were playing classic Texas blues trio stuff, ZZ Top by way of Stevie Ray, with any Latin flavor coming in mostly through the way their vocals sound like a younger Los Lobos, and the way they'd occasionally quote a Santana lick. That's a pretty sweet spot to hit - and the rest of the audience, most of them at least as old as me (meaning they had at least a good ten years on any of the Garza boys) seemed to think so too.

Really tight stuff, and in some ways it gave me a new appreciation for the power trio idea. I've been listening to Cream, Jimi, Rush, the Who all my life, so the concept is, shall we say, familiar to me, but all of those acts did extensive overdubbing in the studio - and live recordings aren't the same as being there. Watching Henry, Jojo, and Ringo go at it, I felt like a light went on: this is why trios work. In this kind of setting, at this volume, two guitars can sound like overkill anyway, and if your one guitarist has the goods, that's all you need.

Henry has the goods. He can blueswank with the best of them, and he looks the part, with his rock-star long hair. All three of them were just a lot of fun to watch on stage: energy, great licks, great look. Best song: a new one, actually, "16 Monkeys," funky stoner lyrics that could have been written in 1969, and ending in a long jam that passed through "Third Stone From The Sun" and ended with a quote from "Gypsy Queen."

Los Lobos. David Hidalgo sat in on drums for one song in the Lonely Boys' set, then on guitar for another couple - Cesar Rosas came out too and they all jammed on "Rip It Up." Classic rockabilly bruiser. Boded well for the main set.

But, hey, it was not to be. It was apparent from the first song that there were problems: David's mike didn't seem to be working, and his guitar was buried in the mix. They fixed the guitar problem after about three songs, but the voice thing turned out not to be a mix thing, but the simple fact that his voice was shot. That beautiful, soulful instrument was just gone - he couldn't sing for shit. It was painful to hear. After the first song Cesar (who seemed to be having some vocal problems too) joked that they'd been partying too much. Maybe that was the problem.

But I kind of doubt it. Bassist Conrad Lozano wasn't there, and when David introduced his replacement (David's son Vincent), he explained that Conrad had had a health scare the night before. He didn't say what, but said it had scared the hell out of them, and that he'd flown home, and Vincent had come up to fill in. We guessed that the health scare was somehow connected to the voice thing - like maybe they'd been up all night worried. Anyway, that's what we'd prefer to think. ...No word on the band's website about Conrad, but they don't seem to have canceled any dates, so I guess he's okay.

But between the bassist being gone and the vocalists being subpar at best, there wasn't much they could really do. They soldiered through a few songs, but about halfway through they seem to have decided to just, as the saying goes, shut up and play their guitars. A tortuous rendition of "Dream In Blue" turned beautiful as David took (finally) a gorgeous extended solo, and Steve Berlin followed it with a flute solo that took the jam someplace else entirely.

Then the Lonely Boys came out for what was no doubt a scheduled guest spot, and provided the highlight of the night. Henry, David, and Cesar trading licks on a long, blues-drenched "Little Wing." Hendrix's music - this is true - sounds better, less interred in the '60s, and just plain more alive with each passing year, and they did a good thing in bringing this out that night, under the stars.

But, Deadhead that I am, my favorite moment was during the inevitable "La Bamba" encore, which they extended by jamming their way into "Good Lovin'" in the middle and then back into "La Bamba." Which was - had to be - a wink in the direction of the fact that, in autumn '87, when Los Lobos were burning up the charts with "La Bamba," the Dead interpolated it into the middle of their classic take on "Good Lovin'" in several East Coast shows. The Dead and the Wolves had a well-known mutual admiration society going by that time, and of course the two songs are a natural fit. I don't know when Los Lobos started returning the favor, but anyway: I appreciated the wit of it. As well as the music, which was authoritative.

But I do want to see Los Lobos sometime when they're on their game.