Friday, 6 January 2012

A Reflection of Society

Bloggers are lovely people.  A while back, I left a comment on a post on Banana Yoshimoto's The Lake by Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, in which I had a little whinge about not receiving a review copy of the book after someone from the publisher's had actually contacted me first.  Not only did I get the sympathy I was after (I'm so transparent), but she actually offered to send me her review copy to add to my little library of J-Lit tomes!

Obviously, if the book turned out to be rubbish, I was going to feel very silly indeed.  Luckily though, that's not the case.  The Lake is a very fine little novel, probably one of the best of the five Yoshimoto works I've read, and a very enjoyable way to spend New Year's Day to boot (I ran through the whole thing in a matter of hours!).  Thanks Lisa :)

The Lake (translated by Michael Emmerich) introduces us to Chihiro, a woman approaching thirty, who earns a living painting murals on walls and buildings while she thinks about what she wants to do with her life.  As we enter her world, she has just begun a relationship with a neighbour, Nakajima, a rather intelligent young man with a disturbed, and disturbing, past - one that we (and Chihiro) will learn more about as the story progresses.  Chihiro senses that Nakajima's fear of intimacy and social situations must be related to some kind of childhood trauma, but she is unwilling to push him into a confession, for fear of hurting him.  Then, one day, Nakajima asks Chihiro to accompany him on a journey into the past - a trip to visit some friends living beside a lake...

This journey to the lake is the key to understanding the novel, but Yoshimoto sensibly initially leaves things as vague and murky for the reader as the fog-bound body of water the couple first encounter.  We are gradually fed small pieces of information about Nakajima's past, with the truth not coming out until about forty pages from the end.  Even then, there are things left unsaid, memories left untouched - and the book is the better for it.

Nakajima is ostensibly the character we should be interested in, but Chihiro herself is also an intriguing creation.  While she has not been subjected to the treatment Nakajima was forced to endure, she too, in her own way, has suffered from the way a certain group of people thinks you should live.  Living in an unorthodox family unit, simply because her father's family, appalled by her mother's lifestyle, refused to allow him to marry, Chihiro and her parents were left as a perfect nuclear family without the official social sanction.

For anyone who has lived in Japan, or read anything about its customs, the idea of a homogeneous society will be nothing new, and it is this issue which Yoshimoto constantly returns to in her fiction, the way outsiders have to find a place for themselves in a society which would rather they didn't exist.  In many ways, the group that takes control of Nakajima is a microcosm of Japan itself, a community unwilling to accept difference and determined to make people conform to its own norms.  It is no coincidence that Chihiro and Nakajima are alike in their different approaches to life, or that their goal is to flee to Paris - often the only way for young Japanese to escape the constraints of family and social ties...

As for the lake itself, it's a wonderful piece of imagery and symbolism, almost certainly containing the crux of the whole work - now, if only I knew what that actually was :(  Perhaps a clue can be found in the way Mino, one of the friends living by the lake, insists that although the lake may seem still, it is in fact constantly changing with the seasons and with the activity on it - just like society itself...  Chihiro's attempt then to recreate the lake in her mural could represent an attempt to reshape society to suit her own wishes and to make a place for the two young lovers to live without fear of outside interference.  Then again, I may just have been hitting the literary theory books too hard recently...

Whether any of this makes sense or not, what I've taken from reading The Lake is a sense that this is a very good book, one which lingers in the memory (unlike certain others of Yoshimoto's works) and contains a lot more in its 188 pages than you might think.  I'm not sure that it's the kind of book which wins prizes, but it's certainly worthy of its place on the Man Asian Literary Prize long-list.  Like the body of water which gives the book its name, there's definitely more to The Lake than meets the eye.