Banana Yoshimoto's Asleep (translated by Michael Emmerich) is a collection of three novellas which run very much along the lines of her other works. Each story has a female protagonist caught in an awkward stage of their lives, unable to move forward and not always wanting to. Just as in Kitchen and Amrita, there is the need to get over the loss of someone close, and this usually entails an experience which can be best described as slightly left of centre.
In the first story, Night and Night's Travellers, Shibami, still recovering from the death of her brother, finds a draft of a letter she once sent to his American girlfriend, Sarah. Far from being a coincidence, this event sets off a chain of occurrences leading to a chance meeting which may help provide some closure for Shibami and Mari, her brother's girlfriend. The second, Long Songs, sees Fumi dreaming of a woman she once knew; naturally, this is another extra-sensory event, and her boyfriend takes her to see a man who will be able to connect her with her long-lost acquaintance. The final tale, Asleep, centres on Terako, a young woman idling her way through life, who has started to need more and more sleep. Apart from napping, she spends her time catching up with her boyfriend, a married man with a wife (not a girlfriend) in a coma. As Terako begins to find it more difficult to stay awake, she starts to wonder whether her condition is linked to that of her boyfriend's wife...
On finishing this short collection, my first thought was that two out of three isn't perfect, but it will do. The first and last stories were calming to read, perfect examples of the light, slow-moving entertainment Yoshimoto is known for. Despite the usual interchangeability of the lead characters and the obvious repetition of favourite themes (low-level supernatural abilities, dealing with the loss of a loved one, undertones of secret lesbian attraction), the writing was almost flawless, and reading them was like moving effortlessly through a sea of clouds (not that I've ever done this, but I think that's how it would feel).
However, as good as the outside of the sandwich was, the filling was a stinker. Long Songs, the shortest of the stories, managed to just about undo all of the good work of the other two novellas. It was silly, uninteresting and left me wondering what on earth compelled her to include it with the other tales (apart from the connection of theme and the need to bring the page count up to something people would actually consider paying good money for). Once again, I have to point out that I am not a big fan of Yoshimoto's dialogue, and it is no coincidence that the middle story, despite being half the length of the others, probably contains more direct speech than its neighbours. Let's move on...
Having devoured something by the queen of J-Lit, it was time to even things up by sitting back and relaxing with the king, and anyone who does not yet know who I'm referring to should just hang their head in shame and go and peruse some other blog instead. Murakami's short novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, with Philip Gabriel on translation duties, is a wistful, nostalgic tale of lost love and missed opportunities, which teases the reader with thoughts of what we would do if they came around again.
The book centres on Hajime, an only child in a thoroughly normal suburban family, and we follow him through his school days and on to adult life. Perhaps this would have been routinely dull too had it not been for his childhood relationship with Shimamoto, a pretty only child with a deformed leg from an early bout of polio. Despite becoming close friends (and beginning to fall for each other), the two lose touch, and Hajime grows up alone - with and without the girls by his side - until one day when, through a heavy crowd of Tokyo pedestrians, he spots a beautiful woman walking down the street, dragging her leg slightly. Could it be...
South of the Border... is a slow-burning love story, beautifully written and a pleasure to read. The temptation and longing Hajime feels drip from the page, and Murakami skillfully spins events out, frustrating both his hero and the reader. With its seemingly innocent but oh-so-wrong meetings at the bar, street-level views of Tokyo life (day and night), a slight sub-text of extraordinary events happening to ordinary people... this is classic Murakami. It's also one of my least favourite of his books.
There, I've said it. Good as it is, I have serious issues with this book, and they prevent me from enjoying it as much as you would expect. You see, I find it really hard to empathise with characters who are unfaithful and hurt their partners, and Hajime, despite Murakami's best efforts to make him likeable, is... well, he's a bit of a prick in my book.
This actually extends to many facets of his character: with his expensive clothes, his successful business and his casual attitude towards his family, he is actually a very un-Murakami-like creation - the anti-Toru, if you will. Were I a real literary analyst, I'm sure I would be able to rise above my petty prejudices and enjoy the writing in spite of my reservations, but I receive neither money nor grades for these reviews, so I'm going to go ahead and wish Hajime a life of misery and a lingering STD.
It is a very good book though...
So, in closing... what's that? The Yin and Yang thing? Glad you reminded me. Something that struck me over the fevered two days I spent devouring these morsels of modern Japanese literature was the way in which Yoshimoto and Murakami complemented each other. Their styles are fairly different, but their books can cover fairly similar themes from diametrically opposite angles, namely from the point of view of their gender. Murakami's heroes have typical masculine traits: they're taciturn, hard drinking and fairly adventurous. Yoshimoto's identikit female lead prototypes are consumerist chatterboxes (the Japanese preference for women to sound as if they have swallowed helium may lead me a step closer to uncovering the mystery of my Yoshimotian dialogue blues), women who seem to have no desire for, or concept of, work as a vocation (unlike Murakami's leads who, while not conforming to the salaryman ideal, do usually work hard to support themselves). Simplistic (and possibly a little stereotypical), yes. Wrong? I'd welcome your thoughts.
Whatever the similarities though, I'll leave you with one major, crucial difference. Days after reading South of the Border..., scenes still flash through my mind, and these memories of the story evoke colours, smells and emotions. I can see Hajime's cafe, I can sense Shimamoto at my shoulder, I can see the trees shoot past in a blur on the road to Hakone.
To write the review on Asleep, I had to have the book next to me the whole time. Now, I remember next to nothing about it. So which do you think is the better book?