Sunday 26 January 2014

'Hardboiled \ Hard Luck' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

January in Japan rolls on, and today we meet up again with an old friend - or perhaps I should say acquaintance...  You see, while I've read a fair bit of Banana Yoshimoto's work now, we haven't always seen eye to eye - I wonder if the latest encounter will be any different?

hardboiled \ hard luck (translated by Michael Emmerich) is a book containing two thematically-linked novellas.  While my copy runs to 150 pages, that's a rather generous amount of paper (with large, spacious print) for two stories which you can rip through in an hour or so.  This isn't a book which is going to hold you up for too long, whether that's for better or worse :)

hardboiled, the longer of the two pieces, begins with a woman walking through some mountain woods in search of the small town where she has reserved a room for the night.  She walks past a spooky looking ring of black stones, and when she reaches her destination, she is shocked to find that one of the stones has somehow ended up accompanying her.  Finally, she arrives at the hotel, but that's just the start of her adventures - this is going to be a very long night...

The second story, hard luck, revolves around a family tragedy, with the narrator's sister lying in a hospital bed with a cerebral haemorrhage which is to end her life.  The one bright point in this dark time is when the narrator meets Sakai, the brother of her sister's (useless) fiancé, a man who is prepared to believe that death isn't necessarily the end.

Let's get it out of the way immediately - sometimes Yoshimoto's writing is simply infuriating.  Some of you might recall the Murakami bingo graphic that made its way around a while back (with squares for cats, wells, jazz etc); well, playing Yoshimoto bingo would be a lot easier.  Lesbian experiences?  Dreams?  Uncanny feelings?  Fog or mist?  Ghosts?  Death of a loved one?  I think I had a full house after ten minutes of reading...  Three pages in:
"Suddenly, just as I came to a bend in the road that led back into a slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlight, I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation.  I had the illusion that space itself had bent gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.
  I've never had any supernatural powers.  But at a certain point I learned to sense things, even if only faintly, that my eyes can't see.
  I'm a woman.  Once, just once, I went out with another woman..."
'hardboiled', p.5 (Faber and Faber, 2005)

As you can imagine in two stories about death (in hardboiled, the narrator is dreaming about her dead ex-girlfriend), there is plenty of opportunity for this kind of reflection, but sometimes it's just off the scale, out of nowhere:
"Then something occurred to me: the evil person or thing or whatever it is that's responsible must have been buried alive in a cave near that shrine I saw earlier!  I can't say how I knew this, but I did.  Things were falling into place."
'hardboiled', p.33
Well, if you say so, Banana - I'm happy to trust your intuition...

So why do I bother?  If I know that Yoshimoto's work is bound to be full of ridiculous coincidences, trite dialogue and awful clichés, what's the point?  And that is the enigma that is Banana Yoshimoto: when she's bad, she's horrid - but she isn't always bad.  Despite myself, I found myself becoming absorbed in the story she unravels, a calming, numbing tale that works around familiar themes.

Beneath the bland surface of the stories lie hints of desperation and suffering as her protagonists are forced to face the trauma they've been suppressing for so long.  While the supernatural features can be laughed at, everyone in the book takes them so seriously that you almost start to doubt your doubts.  It's hard to laugh too much when the characters are literally haunted by the past.

Yoshimoto is returning to her favourite theme here, the examination of the absolute nadir of your life, and the realisation that this will all soon pass, and things will get better.  In both stories, the narrator is stuck in a rut, and has been for some time, but by facing up to her fears, she is able to take the first step towards the future.  And it's in these moments that Yoshimoto's writing begins to make sense:
"And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experienced during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief.  The instant the unbearable pain and the tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister's soul."
'hardluck', p.123
Trite or insightful?  This time, the decision is not quite so clear...

Once again then, a quick tussle with Ms. Banana ends up in a split-decision, and I'm not sure which way the verdict actually falls.  I doubt it's a book I'll reread in a hurry, but it does have a lot to recommend it, especially if you haven't read too much of Yoshimoto's work.  I think I'll take a break from her books for now though; I've read virtually all of her books in English anyway.

Although, I've heard that N.P. is supposed to be a good one... ;)