Banana Yoshimoto: Moshi Moshi (2016) – Moshi-moshi Shimokitazawa (2010)

Book Cover Moshi Moshi

A few years ago, I used to read every book by Banana Yoshimoto. With the exception of Goodbye Tsugumi, I liked or loved them all. Why did I stop reading her you may wonder? Because her best books are very similar. She returns to the same topics and themes again and again and while these are themes I’m drawn to, I still felt I needed to wait a little before returning to her.

Moshi Moshi tells the story of twenty-year old Yotchan whose father, a musician, has committed suicide together with another woman than his wife. Yotchan and her mother are devastated and trapped in their grief. Yotchan had just graduated from a culinary school and wanted to open her own restaurant. Grief and the realization she might not be ready makes her rethink her plan. Watching Ichikawa Jun’s film ‘Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa, she decides that changing the neighbourhood and moving from Tokyo’s posh Meguro district to the colourful Shimokitazawa neighbourhood might help her.

During the day, Yotchan works in the bistro of a friend, in the evenings she explores Shimokitazawa. One day, her mother stands in front of her door and tells her she will move in. Yotchan isn’t happy about this but she agrees anyway. Yotchan is afraid that her mother might interfere with her life but she shouldn’t have worried. Her mother too, wants to change, shed her old self, find new meaning.

Both women begin to enjoy life again, but the dark mystery surrounding her father’s death still weighs heavy on both. Without telling her mother, Yotchan investigates and finds out that he woman with whom he committed suicide was a very dark person. Charismatic in a destructive way.

It takes Yotchan and her mother the whole book to come to terms with the suicide of their beloved father and husband, but when they do, they have found a way to integrate him into their life and, at the same time, leave their old life behind.

I loved this novel. It’s beautiful and melancholic, a celebration of the transitoriness of life and of what the Japanese call “exquisite sadness”. Shimokitazawa is described as a very lively place. Full of bistros, cafés, restaurants that attract artistic, bohemian people. Since Yotchan is a chef, she’s particularly attracted by the culinary side of this neighbourhood. It was fascinating to read about her trips to restaurants and cafés which included the descriptions of the places and the food. There’s such a wealth of food in this book, none of which I’ve ever tasted. All I know of Japanese cuisine is Miso soup, Sushi and Ramen. Not one of these is ever mentioned. I loved that because it introduced me to what the Japanese really eat.

Yotchan, who is the first person narrator of this novel, is a lovely character. She’s enthusiastic and keenly aware of the people and places around her. Her appreciation of beauty and the fleetingness of things infuses the story with a bitter-sweet mood.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t go into any details, but there a few very beautiful descriptions of locales, places and trees which by the end of the book will not exist anymore.

Banana Yoshimoto has a knack for capturing fleeting beauty, for using unusual, eccentric characters and situations. She’s also known for writing about death and the influence of the dead on the living. This book contains all of that and more. Because it is longer than most of her other books, the reader has time to get fully immersed in this world. I was sad when I finished the book. It reminded me of a time when I was twenty and, like Yotchan, knew that many of the people and places I loved would possibly not stay in my life forever. It’s peculiar to look back and remember this odd clarity. Maybe this happens to most people at that age. Like Yotchan, I enjoyed the company of some people and at the same time I knew, I would move on.

It takes a lot of skill to write about the sad aspects of life but to do so in a way that is uplifting, that doesn’t shy away from describing futility but in doing so guarantees that what is gone is not forgotten but won’t trap you in the past.

Since I liked this so much, I was glad to discover that I had another one of her novels, Amrita, on my piles.

I read the German translation of Moshi Moshi that’s why I didn’t add any quotes. I wonder if the English edition contains as many footnotes as the German translation. I was thankful for those footnotes as they explained the food that was mentioned and some expressions I wasn’t familiar with.

Until now, Kitchen was my favourite Yoshimoto novel, but I liked this one just as much.

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This review is my second contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X – Yôgisha X no kenshin (2005)

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Every year I want to participate in Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge but most of the time I miss it. This year I thought I won’t make plans but if I happen to read Japanese literature, I will join spontaneously. Towards the end of December I felt the urge to read Japanese literature. I enjoyed my first book so much, that I’ve already read two other Japanese books. One is nonfiction, one is literary fiction, and this one, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, is a crime novel. I’d bought the German translation of this book a year ago, but only remembered it when I came across the review of another of Higashino’s novels, Malice, on Guy’s blog. I’m so glad, I finally read it. What a fantastic novel. Unusual and surprising and with such a special atmosphere. I was almost sad when it was finished.

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The premise is original. For once it’s not a “whodunnit” nor a “whydunnit” but rather a “will they get away with it”. We know from the beginning who is the murderess and why she committed the crime. Yasuko, who works in a bento shop, has killed her violent ex-husband. The only witness is her twelve year old daughter. Or so she thinks. Soon she finds out that there’s another witness – her neighbour Ishigami. She knows Ishigami by sight. Every morning, before work, he buys a bento in the shop where she works. The owners think it’s funny. They are sure he’s got a crush on her. Yasuko never even thought about it. She’s happy she’s left her ex-husband behind and doesn’t work in a bar anymore. Her life with her daughter, her work at the bento shop, fulfill her. She’s not interested in men. Ishigami has heard the fight through the thin walls and interpreted correctly that Yasuko killed her husband in self-defence. Because her daughter is in part responsible for the killing, she doesn’t want to go to the police and Ishigami tells her that he will take care of it. He will provide her with the perfect alibi.

When the dead man’s found near a river, the police soon question Yasuko and her daughter. For some reason they suspect her. But almost every element of the alibi holds up. The police also find out about Ishigami and his infatuation, and so the two are scrutinized even more closely. The detective who is in charge of the murder investigation is friends with a famous physician Dr. Yukawa. When he tells him of the investigation, they find out, that Yukawa and Ishigami used to be friends. Intrigued, Yukawa contacts Ishigami. At first he wants to renew their friendship but then he starts to suspect something and starts his own investigation.

The story is multilayered and told from different perspectives. It’s also psychologically complex. This complexity is part of the mystery. Yasuko meets Kudo, someone from her days at the bar, and begins a relationship with him. As soon as this happens, everything shifts. There’s the fear Ishigami may betray her out of jealousy. The police suspect her again because they think maybe her new lover helped her get rid of her ex-husband. And Ishigami is afraid that she might tell Kudo something.

The whole time, the reader wonders how Ishigami did it. How could he provide them with such an alibi? The end was very different from what I expected. It had two twists I didn’t see coming. While the book works as a crime novel, it’s just as good on many other levels. The characters are unusual and well-rounded. The relationships are complex and interesting. Ishigami, who’s the first narrator, is by far the most intriguing protagonist. Not only because he helps Yasuko, but because of everything else we find out about him. Not an everyday character by any means. It feels like they are all trapped in a web, and every tiny movement, affects them all. Even the police. The possible outcome, the course of the investigation is much more important for the detective than it usually is in a crime novel, because his best friend begins to investigate as well.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a very clever novel. It’s as subtle as it is complex, told in a cool tone and infused with a gentle, melancholic mood. I absolutely loved it.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

The review is my first contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep – Shirakawa Yofune (1992)

Asleep

It’s been a while since I’ve last read a book by Banana Yoshimoto, who has always been one of my favourite writers, although I can’t say I loved all of her books. There was always the one or the other that didn’t work as well as a whole, but I always loved her themes and certain elements in every story.

Asleep is a collection of two long short stories (65 and 75 pages ) and one shorter story (30 pages). The stories circle around similar themes. Loneliness, longing, sadness, dreams, sleep, loss, and grief. A character, always a young woman, looks back with longing on a time in her life in which she was with someone she felt very close to or had an intense relationship with. At the time when she tells the story she’s in an uncertain situation. Maybe unemployed, dating a married man, grieving. What the characters in the three stories share as well is that they are visited by the ghosts of beloved dead in their dreams. Sleeping is important in the stories, dreaming can be more intense that staying awake.

Asleep is one of Yoshimoto’s books that I didn’t love as a whole. I loved the dreamy mood, the sorrow and loss, the loneliness and exquisite sadness she described but I found the stories a bit repetitive. Looking back, the three stories blend into each other. The one I liked the most was The Night and Night’s Travellers. The other two could have done with some editing. She moves back and forth in time and occasionally it’s confusing.

Asleep, the title story was interesting as well because I knew someone just like the narrator. A young woman who fell asleep constantly. Or slept for days and days. When you spoke to her, you had the feeling she was never really there. She too, like the main character in Asleep, had experienced something very painful and couldn’t come to terms with it. It was like her consciousness was trying to retreat all the time, shied away from fully confronting her situation. That’s exactly what happens to the young woman in Asleep.

In a way, one could say that these are ghost stories. Not that they are scary but they are eerie and the dead people talk to the living. The dream states are just as real as being awake. Reading this collection, I noticed that while atmosphere is a key element of European ghost stories, in most Japanese ghost stories I’ve read so far, mood is more essential.

While Asleep isn’t my favourite of Banana Yoshimoto’s books, I liked a lot of it and really enjoyed getting re-aquainted with her sadness-infused, eerie stories, in which dreams and dead people play such a prominent role and the characters occupy an in-between world.

This is book four of my 20 under 200 project.

Yasushi Inoue – Three Short Stories

Yasushi Inoue

A review of a collection of Yasushi Inoue’s short stories on the blog 1streading inspired me to look for a book by this author. Luckily I found one just in time, before the end of Tony’s January in Japan. They had a large number of novellas, novels, and short story collections at the book shop. Clearly there’s more available in German than in English. Since I wanted to find out whether he’s an author I want to read more of, I got a collection with short stories first. The book is called Liebe (Love) in German and contains three stories. Translated these would be the titles : Death, Love and Waves – The Stone Garden – The Honeymoon. I’m annoyed that they didn’t bother including the Japanese titles even though I don’t speak or read it. Because of this omission I’m not sure whether you can find translations of these or not.

The first story tells the story of a man who has come to a hotel because he wants to kill himself. It took him some time to find the ideal spot. He wanted a place that was visually appealing and practical; one that would allow him to jump off a cliff and be dead right away. We don’t know why he wants to die at first, we only know that things don’t go according to plan because a young woman arrives with the same idea in mind. I was really wondering whether they would both jump, or if only one of them would do it or whether they would even decide to stay alive. This is such a typically Japanese story. I don’t think that Westerners write like this about suicide. What strikes a Western reader even more than the choice of topic is the reasoning behind the choice. In Western literature people who commit sucide are in great distress, but these two, sound very sober. It’s a question of honor and the logical thing to do. Our narrator looks at his own death from a great distance.

The second story was the one I liked best. A newly married man visits a stone garden with his young bride. The description of the nature and the garden is exquisite. The stone garden is a zen garden that proves to have a stunning effect. Every time the man visits the garden, his life changes completely. This time is no exception.

The last story was the saddest because it captured two absolutely unfulfilled lives. The only thing this married couple had in common was that they both avoided joy and were extremely avaricious. The only sign of their love for each other is that they agree so much in their avarice and that the man follows his wife’s example even after her death.

Yasushi Inoue, it seems, isn’t as widely read outside of Japan although he’s one of the greatest Japanese writers. I wonder why. Maybe the stories are too quietly odd? I thought these stories were a great introduction to Inoue’s work and I know I’ll read more of him. The mix between delicate descriptions of nature and character analysis that seems to have been executed with a scalpel is fascinating. I also loved that it felt strange and familiar at the same time.

If you have read Inoue I’d love to hear which books you’d recommend.

Some Plans: Spanish Literature – Japanese Literature and Mary Hocking

Japanese Literature Challenge

I’m not good at sticking to plans and projects these days. Especially not when I add reading lists to my intro posts. That jinxes it every time. Therefore, I’m not going to make the same mistake again and just let you know that I will take part in three events. Maybe these announcements will inspire the one or the other to join as well.

First up is Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Reading Month. I’d never heard of the author, nor was I familiar withHeavenali’s blog before I saw an announcement on Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings. Browsing told me that Mary Hocking is right up my street and I decided, if I can get one of her many novels (many are out of print), I’ll join. So this is the only plan I’m sharing. I’ll be reading Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter.

The Very Dead of Winter

Here’s the blurb

This is a portrait of a family forced to confront the grievances of their shared past. In the very dead of winter they assemble at a remote country cottage enveloped in snow. Mary Hocking has also written “Good Daughters, Indifferent Heroes”, “Welcome Strangers” and “An Irrelevant Women”.

Should you want to join, there are quite a lot of used copies available. She’s written a lot of books, many of which have been published by Virago and are still in print. You can find a list on Heavenali’s blog.

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July is Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). Two years ago, when they hosted the first Spanish Literature Month I had some wonderful plans and failed miserably. This year it should be different. I’ve been collecting books for the event, the general direction might be crime, but I’ll decide what I’ll read spontaneously.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Month 8 has started on the first of June and runs until the end of January 2015. On Bellezza’s blog you’ll find reading suggestions and links to the review site. This year I will read whatever I like, without taking into consideration whether or not the book has been translated into English. Hopefully I’ll be in the mood for something that has been widely transalated.

Will you participate in any of these events?

Fumiko Enchi: Masks – Onnamen inaudita (1958)

Masks

Mieko Togano, a highly cultivated, seemingly serene, but frustrated and bitter woman in her fifties, manipulates for her own bizarre purposes the relationship between her widowed daughter-in-law and that woman’s two suitors.

I just finished Fumiko Enchi’s Masks. Enchi was one of the most important Japanese women writers of the so-called Shōwa period (reign of Emperor Hirohito). The role of Japanese women was an important aspect of her work. Most of her figures are still old-fashioned, very obedient, even subservient figures. Nevertheless they try to fight their oppressors, sometimes, like in Masks, using rather unusual methods.

Masks is a mysterious novel. Looking at Masks superficially you could call it the tale of a vengeance. It’s a dark, mean, unfathomable story. The German edition I’ve read even calls it a crime story. A very unconventional crime story. Although nobody commits a murder, I was reminded of the work of Boileau-Narcejac, notably The Fiends – Diaboliques.

Mieko is a widow and a famous poet. She lives together with her equally widowed daughter-in-law, the beautiful, young Yasuko. Ibuki, one of Yasuko’s suitors, suspects the relationship to be sexual. The two women are very close. Yasuko pretends, she wants to break free but doesn’t make any attempts to change her situation.

Yasuko continues her late husbands studies of possession and necromancy. The two women, together with Ibuki and Mikame, form a literary and spiritualistic circle. Ibuki, a professor of literature, and Mikame, a doctor who dedicates his free time to anthropological research, are both specialized in the belief in ghosts and possessions.

Both men are attracted to Yasuko and feel as if they were under a spell. The mysterious thing however is that it’s not Yasuko who cast the spell but her mother-in-law Mieko.

Later in the book we learn a lot about Mieko’s tragic life and how badly she had been treated by her late husband. Her role as dependent wife who was at the mercy of a cruel man, turned her into a vindictive woman. The only man she really loved was her son Aiko, Yasuko’s late husband but he died on mount Fuji.

The story of her vengeance is pretty uncanny and the end is more than a little surprising. Both men are used like puppets and one of them pays a considerable prize for getting too close.

The novel bears great similarity with a black and white painting on which just a few, small details are highlighted in colour. The story and the people are black and white, with some shades of grey, while the descriptions of nature stand out in a most descriptive and colorful way.

What I loved about this book was the combination of many different aspects. It combines dark erotic elements, beautiful small descriptions of nature, a fascinating story and a complex symbolism. Many aspects of traditional Japanese culture like the No-Masks, the Tale of Prince Genji, the firefly festival and many more, build an interesting backdrop.

Masks is a haunting book, full of mystery, darkness, beauty and with an ending worthy of a psychological thriller. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Boileau-Narcejac, as well as to the fans of Yoko Ogawa.

Hiromi Kawakami: The Briefcase – Sensei no kaban (2004)

Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourite writers. Three of her books have been translated into German two of which are available in English as well. I loved both books I’ve read so far (Manazuru and Mr Nakano and the Women) and was looking forward to this third one which has been published last year in English.

I often hear people say they don’t know any Japanese literature or don’t know where to begin. I usually recommend Banana Yoshimoto as a first author but now I think Kawakami’s The Briefcase may be even a better starting point.

The Briefcase is a love story between a retired college professor and his former student Tsukiko. When you read “love story”, you may have some expectations but you will have to throw them overboard as nothing will quite match this story which is as far from a Western love story or romance as can be.

The professor or sensei and his former student  meet accidentally one evening in a bar. Tsukiko is 38 years old, a loner who doesn’t believe she will ever find true love. She isn’t too sad about this though, she is unconventional and likes to live on her own.

The professor is somewhat startled to meet a woman in such a bar and drinking a lot of sake at that but soon they are both delighted to find out that they like the same food and drinks and that they enjoy hanging out together. The relationship is very formal at first, nothing hints at a possible love story at all. Tsukiko is quite quirky and in the beginning the professor tells her constantly that she isn’t acting very ladylike, only she couldn’t care less. It becomes soon obvious that he isn’t less quirky. They never  make appointments, they just meet at the same bars week after week until one day pick when they a fight over something really silly. It’s only when they do not see each other any more for a long time that Tsukiko realizes she has fallen in love.

The way they slowly and carefully approach each other, and get to know each other is so lovely. They really take their time and only decide to be real lovers when they have spent a long time together and have seen each other at their worst. But they are also both very shy and not very experienced and have been on their own for a long time. Why the professor has been alone will only be revealed in the end.

The way this relationship is described is very Japanese. It’s filled with respect and an almost ritualized slow approach of another human being. None of them would ask the other any direct questions, the way they get to know each other is far more subtle. Through shared moments and mutual attention and observation.

There are many wonderful and typically Japanese elements which could have turned the book into a cliché if a lesser writer had attempted to write about them. Food is extremely important and we read about an incredible amount of different meals. Vegetables, mushrooms, fish we’ve never heard of are mentioned.

Japanese poetry, Haikus, the cherry blossom festival, calligraphy and many other things are very important as well and reading the book is a bit like a trip to Japan. Or at least like I would imagine it.

What I liked is how the book reads as if it had been painted with one of those very precise and fine calligraphy brushes. Kawakami can evoke an atmosphere and emotions in a few lines, and artfully captures how they are changing constantly. The story takes up almost a year and the change of seasons is captured as well as the change of emotions.

The end was a real killer, beautiful but quite sad. I highly recommend this wonderful and lovely book. It is a great introduction to Japanese literature, its sensibilities and esthetics.

I’ve read the book as a contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and Bellezza’s Japanese Reading Challenge.

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Japanese Literature Challenge