Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Japanese Title: 食堂かたつむり (Shokudō Katatsumuri)
Author: Ogawa Ito (小川 糸)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (United Kingdom); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
The ad copy on the back cover of The Restaurant of Love Regained proclaims the book to be “for all fans of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.” I think the comparison between the two books is apt. Both novels are short and fluffy stories of young women who attempt to ameliorate the pain caused by a recent loss through cooking. Both are meant to have a calming and healing effect on the reader. And finally, depending on the reader, the prose of both novels is either refreshingly light and bubbly or infuriatingly infantile. Before you read the rest of this review, you might first want to ascertain how Ogawa’s writing style affects you:
My dream of having my own place was now within reach. Things were still hard work, though. I still trod in [my pet pig]’s droppings at least once a day. I still had chestnuts falling on my head. And I still kept tripping over pebbles along the mountain paths and almost falling flat on my face. But the number of moments that filled my heart with joy far outnumbered those I’d felt while living in the city. Even the tiniest little thing had the power to make me feel happy. Like turning over a beetle struggling on its back and watching it walk away. Like feeling the warmth of a freshly laid egg against my cheek. Like seeing a droplet of water balance on a leaf’s surface, more beautiful than any diamond. Or like finding a Kinugasa mushroom at the entrance to the bamboo forest, carefully plucking it and taking it home to place in my miso soup, with its wonderful flavor and its underside as beautiful and intricate as hand-knitted lace. All of these things filled me with wonder and gratitude and made me want to kiss God on the cheek.
If you like this type of writing, the whole book is written like this. If you don’t like this type of writing, this whole book is written like this. Since the novel has apparently achieved “international bestseller status” and was even turned into a feature film, I suppose that enough people have found Ogawa’s prose charming. It struck me as both forced and superficial at times, and the overwrought analogies and smug statements of self-satisfaction that Ogawa tends to place at the end of her paragraphs occasionally made me cringe in second-hand embarrassment. It took me about thirty pages to get used to Ogawa’s writing; but, once I did, I started to enjoy the book for what it was: food porn. Ogawa’s narrator loves cooking, and she loves eating, and she talks about both incessantly. If nothing else, this novel will fill you with a powerful lust for food.
The Restaurant of Love Regained begins when its first person narrator, Rinko, returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend to find it empty. Everything – from her furniture to the food in the refrigerator to the money she had kept stashed away under her mattress – is gone. Since Rinko has neither a cell phone nor a debit card, she uses the last bit of money on her person to take a bus back to her rural hometown. Rinko had originally left this village as a teenager in order to get away from her mother, who works as a bar hostess. After moving to Tokyo and living with her grandmother for a few years, during which time she learned how to cook, Rinko started working at a Middle Eastern restaurant. She was planning on opening her own restaurant when she had saved enough money – or at least she was before her boyfriend absconded with all of her worldly possessions. The shock to Rinko is so great that she ends up losing her voice. Rinko thus can only communicate through writing, but this doesn’t stop her from convincing her mother to loan her enough money to open an “eatery” in the small mountain village where she now lives. Rinko names her eatery “The Snail” and decides to serve only one party of customers a day, a management strategy that will presumably allow her to put her entire heart and soul into each and every meal.
What follows this initial setup is an episodic series of stories about Rinko’s customers and the dishes she prepares for them. Through her cooking, Rinko brings couples and families together while healing sick pets and sick relationships. All of these stories have happy endings, and Ogawa seems to delight in detailing the ingredients and preparation of the food that makes these happy endings possible. Behind the fluffy chick lit and food porn, though, is the story of the complicated relationship between Rinko and her mother, which, in the end, gives the novel the kind of satisfying narrative closure that cannot be provided by erotic descriptions of crème fraiche alone. This mother-daughter relationship is also the only hint of character complexity in The Restaurant of Love Regained, which is otherwise entirely one-dimensional. If you happen to like that one dimension, though, you will love the novel. Ogawa’s formulaic prose and story patterns are enjoyable and relaxing, and her novel is a testament to culinary creativity.
… At least until the last forty-five pages. The first thirty pages of the novel’s closing sequence are grisly and horrific. In these pages, Rinko butchers her pet pig Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception. This process is described in hideously disturbing language. Nothing in the rest of the book will have prepared you for these scenes. Reading them is viscerally upsetting – it’s like biting into a sweet tropical fruit only to find that a many-legged creature has died there while its sickly white larva feast on the flesh of their mother.
Besides an older man named Kuma, who helps Rinko set up her restaurant, Hermes is Rinko’s only friend. Rinko variously describes the pig as her sister, her child, her foster mother, and her grandmother. Rinko has fed Hermes, slept beside Hermes, and taken care of Hermes when the pig was sick. Rinko celebrated her birthday with Hermes, and Rinko rang in the new year with only Hermes to share her joy. Rinko cried to Hermes when she was sad and tried out new recipes on Hermes when she was excited. Throughout the novel, Hermes has proven capable of a wide range of human emotions; and, in many ways, the pig is a more sympathetic character than Rinko herself.
It is therefore not a little upsetting when Rinko acquiesces to her mother’s request that she kill Hermes.
The end of the novel is composed of a series of scenes depicting Rinko preparing Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception dinner. The author uses cruelly precise language to explain everything from the fear in Hermes’s eyes when the pig realizes she will be killed, to the way the pig struggles against being lead to the slaughterhouse, to the pig’s panic and anger when she is strung upside-down from the ceiling, to the pig’s anguished cries when Rinko slits her throat, to the pig’s futile struggles as she slowly bleeds to death. This goes on for pages. What follows is a loving description of the instruments Rinko uses to skin, gut, and carve Harmes, as well as how these instruments cut and slice into the pig’s body. There is a lot of ripping and tearing and blood, which is all the more disturbing when coupled with Rinko’s tender prostrations of how precious Hermes is to her, and how Hermes is just like a child/sister/mother.
This book takes the preparation of food very seriously. However, whereas these food preparation scenes used to be innocent and appetizing…
The rice was cooked a little too soft for my liking, but that didn’t stop me from munching down several mouthfuls and imagining their energy rising from the bottom of my stomach; the energy had come from Kuma’s mother as I’m sure she prepared them with her heart, her soul and kind thoughts for us. So I wasn’t just eating rice. I was taking in her love.
…now they are cruel and disgusting:
Next, I said a final farewell to Hermes’s face and placed it in the middle of the work bench. I took a knife and cut off both ears, planning to use them in a salad. Then I cracked the head in two. As my knife went through her head, it let out a sound like a groan. I was surprised to see that her brain was a lot smaller than I’d expected, and with a different, pearl-like colour to it too.
Pretty gross, right? And this paragraph isn’t even the worst. That particular honor goes to the paragraph in which Rinko muses that Hermes was like a grandmother to her as she pulls out the pig’s intestines.
I think the point of these scenes is supposed to be that we should reflect on where our food comes from and respect the organisms that give their lives so that we may be nourished. In other words, I think the novel’s conclusion is supposed to be a joyous celebration of food and food cultures (oddly paired with a sense of sadness directed towards relationships that cannot last, such as Rinko’s relationship with her mother, who is dying of cancer). Unfortunately, the incestuous and cannibalistic overtones of the language used to describe this bloody and barbaric celebration cancel out any intended joy and thanksgiving. I am not a vegetarian, and I think pork bacon is delicious, but the slaughter and consumption of Hermes was too much even for me, especially since the one hundred and fifty pages proceeding it had lulled me into complacency with uncomplicated stories of delicious food and people being happy.
Such an ending could be interpreted in two ways. The first is that it is simply the incompetent icing on a cake of incompetent writing. The second is that Ogawa is a brilliant writer of subversive horror fiction who has been even more subtle in her project to shock and horrify her audience than director Miike Takashi was in a film like Audition. If we follow this second interpretation, Rinko’s one-dimensional personality takes on sinister overtones. In her mind, there is no distinction between food and family, and she finds just as much pleasure in the bloody butchering of flesh as she does in sipping imported hot chocolate. Such an interpretation, combined with the novel’s vaguely gothic setting, provides a chilling premonition of the grisly future of Rinko’s isolated restaurant in the mountains. Furthermore, what really happened to the lover who abandoned Rinko at the beginning of the novel?
Unfortunately, this second interpretation is somewhat improbable. What we have, then, is a novel about food that gets a little messy at the end. If you love food and can stomach an extended scene detailing the slaughter and butchering of a beloved pet for the sake of thematic closure, you can probably handle The Restaurant of Love Regained. You might even be glad you read it. If you’re looking for serious Literature-with-a-capital-L, an engaging plot, an interesting and multi-faceted cast of characters, and real human drama – or if you’re put out by the prospect of reading thirty pages of intense carnage – you should probably avoid this novel. Personally, I wish I could unread it.