Moshi Moshi

moshi-moshi

Title: Moshi Moshi
Japanese Title: もしもし下北沢 (Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa)
Author: Yoshimoto Banana (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 209

A year after her father dies in a suicide pact, twenty-something Mitsuharu Yoshie moves to the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, where she works part-time at a small bistro. Everything is going reasonably well for her until her mother suddenly decides to move in with her. Yoshie had been looking forward to leaving the nest and striking out on her own, but her mother claims that her father’s ghost has begun to haunt their old apartment, so what can she do?

Moshi Moshi is like a glossy lifestyle magazine in the form of a novel. Yoshie and her mother float through their days in Shimokitazawa, eating delicious food, buying nice things, and gradually getting to know their neighbors. Yoshie is serious about her work in the Les Liens bistro, and her mother is serious about pulling herself out of the mire of her former role as a housewife, but they have no money worries and are quite comfortable together.

The only shadow on their bright days is the death of Yoshie’s father Imoto, who played keyboard in a rock band. The official story is that he committed suicide with a much younger woman, but neither Yoshie nor her mother has any idea why an otherwise grounded and stable man would have consented to such an extreme act of desperation. One day, Yoshie randomly runs into a frequent diner at her bistro. The man’s name is Shintani, and he happens to own a club where Imoto’s band often played. Shintani takes this opportunity to tell Yoshie that there was something very strange about the woman her father ran off with. He also tells Yoshie that he’s falling in love with her.

Shintani is a typical Yoshimoto male love interest who could have walked straight out of the pages of a shōjo manga magazine. He is gentle, kind, and attractive in a nonthreatening way:

Shintani-kun still ate beautifully, and the pot-au-feu disappeared into his mouth with dreamy alacrity. As he ate, he looked out the window peacefully. He always wore nice shoes. (96)

Once they start seeing each other, Yoshie and Shintani bond in the same way that Yoshie and her mother do, namely, by visiting cool restaurants and bars and eating tasty and unusual dishes. It is their shared consumption of trendy food and chic clothes and music that brings them together, and Shimokitazawa is the perfect backdrop for this featherlight drama of consumerism. Yoshie’s mother is also healed by her immersion in hipster paradise:

When I saw her reading manga with her belly out, shedding tears while murmuring, “I understand, of course you want to go back and live in the cave,” I was filled up with the thought that this woman hadn’t done anything wrong, and didn’t deserve any of this.

Yes, Shimokitazawa was a little like a mountain cave in the outlands, where people who found it difficult to keep up with the vagaries of the world could live quietly, as they wanted. Even people who’d been left behind, like me and Mom. (88)

This laid-back atmosphere is occasionally juxtaposed against Yoshie and her mother’s former home in Meguro, a pricey neighborhood just south of Shibuya. Meguro is too upscale for the two women to be true to themselves, but they’re finally able to relax and find a comfortable community in Shimokitazawa, which welcomes sweet and slightly quirky people into its patchwork of quaint stores and cafés. The last sentence in the author’s Afterword aptly sums up the message of the book: “I only pray for the survival of all the many fine shops that still quietly continue to exist” (206).

Moshi Moshi has something vaguely resembling a plot, but the story isn’t really the point of the novel. Rather, the reader is bathed in the warm flow of Yoshimoto’s words while experiencing of the charm of the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. The novel is comforting, like drinking hot chocolate on a cold day. Just don’t expect any bold or complicated flavors, and you won’t be disappointed.

The Book of Tokyo

The Book of Tokyo

Title: The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
Editors: Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, and Masashi Matsuie
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 180

In his introduction to this collection of ten short stories, editor Michael Emmerich writes:

In a sense, you might say that the stories of this anthology unfold within a landscape more imagined than real – that they create a Tokyo of their own by drawing on a rather abstract sense of the moods of certain sections of the city, or on a vision of Tokyo and the smaller areas it comprises that is more conceptual than physical. (x)

This is a perfect description of The Book of Tokyo, which offers the reader less of a detailed illustration of an urban landscape than it does a vivid sense of the energy and potential generated by a city inhabited by 13.5 million people, every one of whom has a story.

In Furukawa Hideo’s “Model T Frankenstein,” a monster that may or may not be a shapeshifting goat escapes one of the Izu Islands on a ferry and makes his way to Tokyo to assume a new identity as a ‘Japanese.’ He has to kill a few people along the way, but he eventually makes a home for himself in Shinjuku. In “Picnic,” Ekuni Kaori sketches a relationship between a disaffected couple whose hobby is to have designer picnics in a park by their house, an activity that makes them marginally less alienated from one another. Kakuta Mitsuyo’s “A House for Two” is an ode to the trendy comforts of urban living. The pleasure the narrator derives from walking through the city has its roots in her relationship with her mother, whom she whom once bonded with over luxurious foreign clothes and who now commands a greater share of her affections than any man ever could.

The cosmopolitanism of Tokyo is on full display in Horie Toshiyuki’s “The Owl’s Estate,” in which the male narrator, a sushi chef and secondhand book dealer, finds himself in a strange rundown building in West Ikebukuro inhabited by foreign girls of dubious employ. In the end, though, there’s nothing particularly French or Australian or American about the way these girls enjoy drinking and laughing and being silly with each other. The single father protagonist of Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s “Dad, I Love You” must navigate his way through a maze of foreign brand names, cuisines, and business owners over the course of his day before coming home to his daughter, who encourages him to keep going with the joy she finds in things that transcend culture, such as how large the full moon looks in a clear night sky. The young woman who narrates Kanehara Hitomi’s “Mambo” doesn’t even care where she’s going when she gets into a taxi with a stranger; she’s just looking for adventure in the city.

Yoshimoto Banana’s “Mummy” encapsulates the theme of the entire collection, which is that every random encounter between strangers is accompanied by a galaxy of possibilities. A female undergrad agrees to be walked home by a male graduate student studying Egyptology. He cautions her that there’s a killer loose in the neighborhood, and it would be unsafe for her to go out alone. She suspects that he might be the murderer, but her physical attraction to him is so strong that she resigns herself to her fate. Although the grad student isn’t a criminal, he does turn out to be a complete weirdo, and the narrator has to forcibly restrain herself from judging him and the course his life takes after they go their separate ways. When surrounded by so many potential paths, she asks herself, how do you know that your own is “necessarily the correct and happiest one” (52)?

My favorite story in the collection is Kawakami Hiromi’s “The Hut on the Roof.” The main setting is an izakaya pub, where the divorced narrator, an English teacher, eats and drinks and hangs out with older men from her neighborhood. After becoming close to them through the process of exchanging casual but repeated interactions, she eventually learns the story behind the peculiar living arrangement of a local fishmonger who has befriended her. The story doesn’t have a plot, exactly, but it conveys an almost palpable sense of living your own individual life surrounded by people whom proximity has drawn into a loose yet friendly community.

Don’t let the cover fool you – despite the flying cranes and Shintō gate and temple and Chinese lanterns, the The Book of Tokyo is refreshingly contemporary. None of the stories translated for the collection was published before 2000, and reading them feels like walking through the twenty-first century just as much as it feels like walking around Tokyo. As Emmerich notes, it’s difficult to pin down the “Tokyo-ness” of these stories, but the reader who encounters them can’t help but be drawn into the living and breathing atmosphere of a huge and dynamic city.

The editing and story selection of The Book of Tokyo is excellent. I was so impressed that I ended up ordering several other titles in Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series, which include The Book of Gaza, The Book of Rio, and The Book of Liverpool.

Review copy provided by the wonderful people at Comma Press.

Revenge

Revenge

Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Japanese Title: 寡黙な死骸 みだらな弔い
(Kamoku na shigai, midara no tomurai)
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 162

Ogawa Yōko is a writer of the fantastic who spins softly glittering tales of quiet desperation. In Japan, she’s known for her magical realism, which is so subtle as to be almost Todorovian in the uncertainty it generates. Nevertheless, her first novel to appear in English translation, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is about kind-hearted people behaving nobly in the face of senescence and overcoming emotional adversity by opening their hearts to one another. It’s a good book even despite its clinging miasma of Hallmark-style sentimentality, but the way the novel was marketed made it feel as if its publisher were trying to pass Ogawa off as the next Yoshimoto Banana, which she most decidedly is not. Messages of hope and moral fortitude are few and far between in Ogawa’s work, and her next novel to appear in translation, Hotel Iris, is about ephebophilia and sadomasochism in a decaying seaside town. The novel is quite short and, given its subject matter, an odd choice for translation, but perhaps its publishers saw a faint connection to Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, which explores similar themes (albeit in an infinitely more upbeat and chipper manner).

I am therefore interested in the way in which Ogawa’s newest work to appear in translation, Revenge, is pitched to potential readers. Short blurbs from Junot Díaz and Hilary Mantel appear on the back cover, but the writer who bears the honor of having his praise appear right in the middle of the front cover is Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the author of several novels, comic books, and Kindle singles, and he’s known as a writer of grisly and violent mystery fiction. Hill’s debut work, 20th Century Ghosts, is a collection of stories that contain more subtle disquiet than they do splattered blood. My favorite is “Voluntary Committal,” in which a seriously disturbed man builds an elaborate crawl-through maze of cardboard boxes in his basement, which eventually becomes a portal to another dimension. 20th Century Ghosts has won all sorts of awards, from the Bram Stoker Award to the British Fantasy Award, but Hill is still considered a horror writer; and, by association, Ogawa is positioned as a horror writer as well. As if Hill’s name alone were not enough to convey the message, the cover of the North American edition of Revenge is designed to resemble dead skin stitched with rotting thread.

Despite the implications of its cover, Revenge is less about hideous creepy crawlies lurking at the foot of cellar stairs than it is about the small disturbances in daily routine that hint at the madness waiting patiently on the edges of human civilization. For example, the first story in collection, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” opens with a scene of a peaceful town on a Sunday afternoon:

Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, enthralled. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.

You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.

What you might notice, however, is the author’s focus on children and families. The detail out of place in this scene is a solitary mother who enters a quiet bakery to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. The catch is that her son is dead and has been for many years. He died when he was six years old, and his mother responded to the tragedy by piecing together a scrapbook of newspaper articles about other children who died in similarly upsetting circumstances, which she describes in loving detail for the benefit of the reader. The physical deterioration of the cakes she continues to buy for her son’s birthday serves as an analogy for her own decaying sanity, something that used to be as fresh and wholesome as a young boy but now resembles nothing so much as rotting flesh:

Long after I had realized my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, straining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.

“Mold can be quite beautiful,” I told my husband. The spots multiplied, covering the shortcake in delicate splotches of color.

“Get rid of it,” my husband said.

I could tell he was angry. But I did not know why he would speak so harshly about our son’s birthday cake. So I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.

The above passage is the dramatic high point of the story, which is otherwise sedated and subdued. The horror Ogawa offers her reader is not the terrified panic of a boy clawing vainly for air as he suffocates in the dark or the emotional turmoil of a distraught mother sobbing wildly in her grief, but rather the unsettling certainty that people who are irreparably damaged walk among us within a world that is constantly growing as filthy and old as we will one day become.

The eleven stories in Revenge are very loosely connected, with each almost fitting into the next like a section of a puzzle box that has been warped by humidity. The major theme connecting the stories is ultimate futility of the attempt to outlast the relentless march of time through creative endeavors or the preservation of a material legacy, and the collection is filled with unremarkable deaths, lonely rooms stuffed with junk, and putrefying fruit and vegetables. It’s dark stuff, to be sure, but Ogawa’s language and narrative skill, rendered beautifully in Stephen Synder’s translation, allow the reader to experience the horror of the stories in Revenge as so mundane as to be almost comforting.

NPR listed Snyder’s translation of Revenge as one of the best books released in 2013, and it’s in good company. Despite Picador’s gruesome cover, Ogawa’s stories have much more in common with her listmate Karen Russell’s debut collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves than any of the recent work by Joe Hill or Peter Straub – or any of the recent work of Murakami Haruki, to whom many reviewers feel compelled to compare Ogawa for some inexplicable reason. Ogawa has her own style of haunting and meticulously crafted fiction, and I can only hope that more of her short stories find their way into English translation, the sooner the better.

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970” section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. […] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

The Restaurant of Love Regained

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
Pages: 193

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.

The Lake

Title: The Lake
Japanese Title: みずうみ (Mizuumi)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Melville House
Pages:188

I have been waiting for this book to come out for months. When it finally did, I read it in one sitting. As with many of Yoshimoto’s novels, it was occasionally frustrating, but I liked it. I guess one could say that The Lake is typical Yoshimoto. Allow me to explain.

The novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Chihiro, comes from a non-traditional family, works in a non-traditional profession, never worries about material things like money or the future even though she’s almost thirty, and seems to float through life, although she has hidden depths:

It’s like when you decide to build a house: some people want to go and find the land first, then hire an architect to help them draw up plans, and then choose the materials for the walls and everything on their own. I’m not like that. I prefer to wander around until I stumble across something, then I do the best I can with it, scrutinizing this thing I’ve discovered, getting to know it for what it is.

The heroine meets her love interest in an offbeat and untraditional way – in this case, he lives across the street from her, and they wave to each other from their respective windows until he talks to her on the street and casually starts showing up in her apartment. This love interest, Nakajima, is a grad student (first warning sign) and a stereotypical herbivore male:

I got the sense that he wasn’t really into sex, and he was shockingly thin, and although there were days when he would consume an astonishing amount, ordinarily he ate almost nothing, so overall he didn’t seem very energetic.

Nakajima is a little weird. Besides not having any friends and never wanting to sleep with our protagonist, he also exhibits behavioral quirks, such as his insistence on keeping detailed tallies of the money he owes Chihiro for using water and electricity when he stays over at her place. But Chihiro is still in love with him:

Whenever Nakajima said my name, every single time, it sparkled like a treasure. I had no idea why. Wow – did you see how that flashed? Say it again for me, please!

Chihiro gradually comes to realize that there is something seriously wrong with Nakajima; but, since she’s become attached to him, she decides to take it slow. As she ever so articulately explains to a friend:

“Anyway, he’s not like other people at all, it’s like, I don’t know how to describe it, like he’s living in the clouds, maybe. Like when people talk about someone having transcended it all – he’s like that, I guess. So part of me thinks it’s just in his makeup, and he would have been this way even if nothing had happened. For the time being I’ll just keep watching, I won’t rush it.”

Finally, Nakajima asks Chihiro to go with him to visit two old acquaintances who live in a cottage by a lake. Chihiro has been worried that Nakajima will leave her, either physically (by suddenly disappearing from her apartment) or psychically (by entering a long-term catatonic trance). She’s also bothered by his plans to leave Japan and study in Paris, which don’t seem to include her at all. She thinks about her anxieties as she walks around the lake with a trembling and profusely sweating Nakajima, but she still supports him, because:

He was an adult, perhaps thirty-five or so, and yet he was extremely small, like a child. His face seemed kind of shrunken, giving him the look of a bulldog. His eyes were sparkling, though, and there was something noble in the way he carried himself.

Do you feel like you’re reading a shōjo manga yet?

The narrative is driven forward by a twinned pair of mysteries: who are the people who live on the lake, and what is Nakajima’s damage? Both mysteries are solved when Chihiro returns to the lake on her own around thirty pages before the book ends; and, to give the author credit, they are resolved quite nicely and sufficiently satisfied my morbid, look-at-the-car-wreck curiosity. Still, I wasn’t too terribly invested in figuring out what was going on (the blurb on the book jacket sort of spoils it with its overt mention of religious cults), and I didn’t really care about the relationship between Chihiro and Nakajima, which was more hurt/comfort than actual romance.

What was interesting to me were the descriptions of small-town politics. The majority of the story is set in Tokyo, but Chihiro comes from a small town where her father wasn’t allowed to marry her mother, who worked as the mama-san of a small bar. Chihiro’s assessment of her father’s family, the patrons of her mother’s bar, and the atmosphere of the town in general are acerbic and insightful. Also, Chihiro works as a muralist, and one of her friends commissions her to create a mural on one of the walls of a run-down community center in a small neighborhood in Tokyo in an effort to save the structure from being demolished. The interplay between Chihiro, the community center, the local government, and a potential sponsor of the project is dramatic in a quiet sort of way, and Chihiro’s explanations of her creative process as she interacts with the people who watch her work are also interesting.

If you like Banana Yoshimoto for her quirky characters, fragmented yet loving families, and universes almost like our own but one step closer to the supernatural, then you’ll like The Lake. If you dislike Banana Yoshimoto for the lack of adult judgment in her characters and her rambling, juvenile prose (which is tight like a handful of squirming hamsters), then you probably won’t like The Lake. For the record, I like the book, and I also think Michael Emmerich did an excellent job of translating it.

Hotel Iris

Title: Hotel Iris
Japanese Title: ホテルアイリス
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 164

Hotel Iris is the third work by Ogawa Yōko to appear in print in America, following The Housekeeper and the Professor and The Diving Pool. Having read several of her works now, I think I am starting to get a feel for her style of writing, which is beautifully conveyed by translator Stephen Snyder. Ogawa takes the everyday and imbues it with a sense of strangeness. Nothing overtly fantastic happens in her stories, but everything is always a little unsettling. Something is always a little bit off. There is always a sinister current running underneath the mundane. In Ogawa’s novels, the petty cruelty of human beings is on full display, but it is up to the reader to uncover the mystery of a deeper cruelty. The questions that aren’t answered are more upsetting than the questions that are.

In Hotel Iris, a seventeen-year-old young woman named Mari has been forced to drop out of high school by her mother, who needs her to work at the family’s seaside hotel. Since Mari’s father has died, Mari’s mother has taken on a kleptomaniac housekeeper, who not-so-secretly steals from Mari. When, one night, a prostitute flees from one of the rooms in the hotel, Mari finds herself attracted to the older man from whom the woman flees. This older man, who lives by himself on an offshore island, is a translator of Russian. He falls in love with Mari, who craves the sexual masochism he displays when the two are alone. The specter of the man’s dead wife, whom he is rumored to have killed, haunts their relationship, which is further strained when the translator’s tongueless, college-age nephew stays over for a few days.

These relationships develop over the course of this short novel, which is narrated by Mari, who hints at her desires, frustrations, and rich inner world through anecdotes and observations instead of through direct statements. The novel unflinching depicts all manner of sexual acts, but its eroticism and sensory imagery are focused not on the meeting of bodies but rather on the depictions of small, everyday things, like a stain on a scarf, the music of an amateur, or the dripping of pizza grease. The narrative tension created by the almost constant yet varied reiteration of certain themes, like the fear of something hidden being uncovered or the uncertainty of how far violence can go, prevents the reader from ever settling into complacency concerning Mari’s life and her relationships.

In the end, I think, this is a novel about growing up, and all the psychological baggage that goes along with the process. Ogawa warps many psychological tropes (like the Oedipus complex) through her protagonist, however, and Mari’s loss of innocence is neither celebratory nor unproblematic. In many ways, Hotel Iris is something of an antidote to feel-good chick lit novels like Yoshimoto Banana’s Goodbye Tsugumi. It’s dark and it’s disturbing. Its themes and imagery are understated; and, although it has quite a great deal of forward momentum, it is never driven by its plot, much of which is left vague. In my opinion, this is a perfectly constructed and beautifully written novel. Please buy this. Please read it. Please tell all your friends about it. Ogawa has numerous novels translated into various European languages, and we really need more of her work translated into English.