Thursday 29 January 2015

'N.P.' by Banana Yoshimoto (Review)

As we head towards the end of the third January in Japan, I've been looking back at all the posts I've written for the event over the years.  There's been a mixture of modern books, old masters and some real classics (and when I say classics...), but only two writers have featured in all three editions.  One is the father of modern J-Lit, Natsume Soseki - the other... shares a name with a yellow fruit high in potassium.

Now, how did that happen?

Banana Yoshimoto's N.P. (translated by Ann Sherif) is the story of Kazami Kano, an English-language research assistant at a Tokyo university.  The start of the book sees her looking back to a relationship she had with an older man while she was at high school, a translator working on a collection of ninety-seven short stories.  The book never appeared in Japanese as the translator committed suicide soon after, just as the writer (a Japanese man living in the US) had done years before.

Years later, Kazami is reminded of this passage of her life when she reencounters Saki and Otohiko Takase, the writer's children, whom she met briefly at a partly long ago.  Falling into the orbit of the Takases, she discovers that there is more to learn about the untranslated book 'N.P.'.  Not only are there some extra stories, relating some rather personal family affairs, there's also the fact that everyone who has attempted to translate the story into Japanese has killed themselves.  The major discovery, though, is that Kazami is connected to the Takases by a woman she has yet to meet, a former girlfriend of the translator with a very close tie to Saki and Otohiko...

Over the years, my relationship with Yoshimoto's work has very much been one swinging between enjoyment and loathing (on the same page), so you might find it surprising that I've gone back for more this time.  However, N.P. is the one book continually cited whenever people put Yoshimoto forward as a favourite writer, and with its being the only one of her major works in English I hadn't read (as far as I'm aware...), I thought it was time to give it a go - and I'm glad I did.

From the very start, N.P. is a novel which is recognisably Banana(s).  As I mentioned last year, while everyone knows about Murakami Bingo, J-Lit aficionados would agree that Banana Bingo is the main game in town, and in this regard, N.P. certainly doesn't disappoint.  Lesbian tendencies?  Page 42.  Mysterious illness?  Page 17.  Eerie ability to dream the future?  Page 6.  Suicide?  Page 1, Line 4.  That's a full card, and I'd like the stuffed teddy as my prize, please ;)

Despite the almost parodical adherence to these themes (which the writer emphasises herself in the afterword), N.P. is actually a very good book, possibly the best of the ones I've been able to try.  Kazami is another of Yoshimoto's stock characters, the woman ever-so-slightly outside mainstream society.  She comes from an unconventional family, deserted by the father, with her sister living overseas and her mother a freelance translator.  This gives her a different perspective on the world, and the novel has a calming feel of a step outside the rat race, a slice of summer with perpetual sunshine and blue skies.

Otohiko and Saki, strangers in their home country, see Kazami as a kindred spirit, latching onto her in an attempt to find a foothold in Tokyo.  Kazami is quickly pulled into their lives, even though she senses the darkness beneath their charming exteriors:
"But I could do little to lessen the fatigue that had been building up in him before we even met, the weariness over the complications of his life.  I was incapable of truly understanding the darkness that made up a large part of his personality, the blackness that I found so attractive."
p.28 (Faber and Faber, 2001)
However, it isn't until the arrival of the final major character that matters really get interesting.  You see, the real focal point of the story is Sui Minowa, an intense, willowy beauty, half-sister to the Takases, inspiration for one of the secret stories - and Otohiko's lover...

It's this darkness that lifts N.P. above much of Yoshimoto's other work.  While there's still a lot of light nonsense, with the writer balancing on the tightrope between the profound and the trite at times, there's a mood hanging over the story, an acknowledgement that tragedy is in the air, and that it's unavoidable.  The incestuous strands to the story, both metaphorical (Kazami's growing attraction to all in her tight-knit group) and literal (the Takases really believe in keeping things in the family), mean that it's difficult for the reader to relax too much.

Yoshimoto balances this nicely, though, with her descriptions of the hot Tokyo summer, allowing us to soak in the sun in peace with the characters.  The story, what little there is of it, often takes a back seat as Kazami and her friends look to snatch a moment of calm:
"The three of us stood there.  Cars proceeded slowly around the plaza, and a line of buses stood at the stop.  So many things filled the space of that very ordinary, clear afternoon.  The many complications, the things that had evolved over time, the varying distances between Japan and the rest of the world.  People walked right by us, and their voices interrupted our conversations, without any of them realizing all that was going on between us.  It felt strange." (p.140)
Sadly, even in a Banana Yoshimoto novel, time can't stand still forever.  The summer has to end eventually, and when it does, the friends who met in the sun are likely to go their separate ways.  Will they make it through in one piece, or will the curse of 'N.P.' strike again...

There's a lot to like about N.P., and while Amrita (which nobody else seems to have read - or liked) was my favourite Yoshimoto book before, I have a feeling that this one might take its place.  This is a book where the writer explores all her usual themes and gets it right, creating a novel more memorable for its feel than its plot.  A good way to round off my Yoshimoto reading, then, and a book which almost leaves me wanting to go back to her other work.

Maybe next year ;)