Defeated Love: Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen

We live like the lowliest worms.  Always defeated - defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep.  Everyone we love is dying.  Still, to cease living is unacceptable. (82)

It's hard to say whether the pair of novellas that make up Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen are more about love or death.  Perhaps it is most accurate to say that they are about mourning, that tense demilitarized zone between the two.

The characters of both pieces live haltingly in the shadow of a major trauma.  In "Moonlight Shadow" it is a fatal car crash that kills Hiiragi's girlfriend and older brother.  He copes in various ways - coming to school in his girlfriend's clothing, lurking around the stores where she used to buy her tennis gear, seeking out the companionship of his brother's girlfriend, who is the novella's narrator.  Meanwhile, the narrator (Satsuki) is befriended by a strange woman, Urara, on the banks of the river.  The woman seems to echo her feeling of loss, and appears at the most unusual times.  One day she calls, which is odd because they have never exchanged phone numbers.  I just thought, what would her number be, and then dialed, Urara tells her.  So, of course, when Urara tells her to show up at the river early one morning if she wants to see something really unusual, Satsuki takes the invitation quite seriously.

In the title novella, there is again a multilayered trauma.  In the first section, Mikage's grandmother - the last member of her family - has died, and she doesn't feel she can stay in their vast apartment by herself.   When Yuichi, a young man who had befriended her grandmother, shows up at her door and offers her a place to stay, she takes up his offer, in all its strangeness.  She moves in with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, who (it soon emerges) is actually his transvestite father.  What follows is a period of bliss - Mikage falls in love with cooking, and with having a family to cook for, and she soon begins to pursue it as a career.  But, perplexed by the boundaries and ethics of her relationship with Yuichi (who has a girlfriend), she moves out.  The second section begins with the second layer of trauma: Yuichi calls and tells her that some time back, the much-beloved Eriko was killed by a stalker.  He had been delaying calling her, because he felt she would be furious he hadn't told her sooner.  Now he is the one in need of comfort, in the throes of mournful despair.  But still they hover warily at the edge of different relationships - will they move toward each other and risk another loss, or drift comfortably apart?

This is too simple and expression of the central theme of the paired works, which is a knowledge that love is inextricable from death, and that happiness hugs in its heart a core of loss.  "Everyone we love is dying."  The characters must choose, it seems, between a life of numbness - "those little Anodynes," as Emily Dickinson says, "that deaden suffering" - and one of joy and pain.  Love is paid for with the knowledge of the inevitability of loneliness:
These women lived their lives happily.  They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing.  But therefore they could never know real joy.  Which is better?  Who can say? Everyone lives the way she knows best.  What I mean by 'their happiness' is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. (59)
Yoshimoto rings the changes on the idea of loss, which is as much about the individual's relationship to self (that is, to isolation) as to the beloved:

No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die.  Without that, I am not alive. (59)
And the most wrenching aspect of loss, as so many have noted, is the idea that memory is fallible, ephemeral, sandy and shifting, so there is no holding on to the beloved, no way of fixing experience in the mind:

When I finished reading I carefully refolded the letter.  The smell of Eriko's favorite perfume tugged at my heart.  This, too, will disappear after the letter is opened a few more times, I thought.  That was hardest of all. (53)
The more you return to a memory, the more well-worn it becomes, the more it starts showing the fading of age and the fingerprints of your later self.  As Satsuki realizes at the end of "Moonlight Shadow," there is yet another facet of loss - the loss of oneself as one was when one loved.  She lost her first love young, and she is fixed in time in that love.  From this point forward she will never be that person again - she has lost herself as well as him.  And yet she views this (rightly) as an inevitable slippage.  It is almost a gift from her dead beloved that his loss draws a line (the underscoring of closure) under her youthful self, allowing her to view it, even if just for a moment, as if preserved in amber, separate from who she is now.

These were Banana Yoshimoto's earliest works, and they met with a substantial amount of acclaim in Japan when they were published.  The publicity materials declare an onset of Bananamania (say that without sounding like a muppet, I dare you) worldwide. But despite moments of poetic beauty, this remained a fitful and disjointed narrative for me.  Pensive interludes were often disrupted by purple, cliche-ridden passages of imagistic daydreaming, like this one from a scene in which Yuichi and Mikage fall asleep, happy in each others' company, on what may be the world's most comfortable couch:
Yuichi and I are climbing a narrow ladder in the jet-black gloom.  Together we peer into the cauldron of hell.  We stare into the bubbling red sea of fire, and the air hitting our faces is so hot it makes us reel.  Even though we're standing side by side, even though we're closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, even though we're friends forever, we don't join hands.  No matter how forlorn we are, we each insist on standing on our own two feet.  But I wonder, as I look at his uneasy profile blazingly illuminated by the hellish fire, although we have always acted like brother and sister, aren't we really man and woman in the primordial sense, and don't we think of each other that way? (66)
It's hard for me to say how many of my complaints had to do with Yoshimoto's style, how many were the result of a profound ignorance of Japanese prose conventions (which are doubtless very different from those of English language fiction), and how many were sparked by the translation.  Yoshimoto even winks at the awkwardness of cliches traveling across linguistic boundaries:
'Yuichi,' I said, 'the fact that you're relaxed enough with me now to tell me how you're really feeling is a source of comfort to me.  It makes me very happy.  So happy I feel like shouting it from the rooftops.'

'What kind of talk is that?  Sounds like it was translated from English.' Yuichi smiled, the light from the table lamp shining on his face. (76)
Regardless of the source of my misgivings, and despite the fact that I found many things to appreciate about these as mournful love stories, it was a prickly enough reading experience that I am not sure I will be back for more Bananamania.

Kitchen (1988)
Banana Yoshimoto

One Response so far.

  1. By coincidence (I didn't realize what Kitchen was about) I read this book shortly after my grandmother's death, while sitting shiva for her, and it gave me tremendous comfort. Yes, it's not an easy read, but it echoed my grief so accurately well, and with such gentle understanding. For that, I will always be grateful to Banana Yoshimoto for writing it, though I have not read anything else of hers. I too am a little afraid of that gentle sadness.

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