Monday, June 7, 2010

Kitchen invites quiet contemplation

“Over and over we begin again,” says Mikage, contemplating another day in a life filled with loss, punctuated with the joy that only those who truly understand tragedy can ever feel. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, has left me thinking about this idea all day.

The one thing you figure you must be an expert on by the age of forty-seven is yourself – your tastes, your tolerances, your boundaries. But sometimes you have to rethink even that. When one of my favorite book blogs, dolcebelleza, announced the 4th Annual Japanese Literature Reading Challenge, I thought, “This is not for me.” I focused on Medieval/Renaissance history as an undergraduate, and my current research area includes Latin America. So I’m all about “international,” but outside of the Indian subcontinent, I haven’t focused much of Asian culture and literature.

The thing is, the challenge was only ONE book. One book? I thought, why not? So I found a Listopia entry for Japanese literature and saw Kitchen. I love to cook, but more than that, I love being in the kitchen, especially with other people. At 152 pages, the commitment wasn’t large. And there was a translation at the university library. Ka-ching. I had my Japanese title.

I opened the book on Saturday morning as I was stranded at my daughters’ dance recital dress rehearsal. By Sunday night, the book had been read. And I realized I needed to rethink what I like to read.

Yoshimoto’s first (and best) novella in the book tells the story of a young woman, bereft of family, who is taken in by strangers – strangers who were linked to her only by their fondness for her grandmother. The arrangement is a happy one for Mikage, but it brings stress to the day-to-day life of Yuichi, the young stranger who invited her to stay. Mikage and Yuichi are satellites in the orbit of Yuichi’s larger-than-life mother, Eriko. The exploration of the relationships between the three is the focus of the Kitchen Parts 1 &2.

The book also includes a short story, Moonlight Shadow. This story was far less satisfying than the first. It also told a story of loss, of a romantic kind. While both books include an element of mysticism, the second story’s resolution was far less realistic—and satisfying – than the first. Frankly, I’m not sure why the author didn’t leave Kitchen to stand on its own. In fact, my four-star rating is really based on the second story – on its own, I would have given Kitchen five stars.

Megan Backus’ translation of Kitchen is soft and restrained. Loneliness is a pervasive theme of the work, and I found myself feeling very quiet while reading. I even imagined the narrator speaking to me in a small, contemplative voice. Each sentence was meaningful. The book forces you to read deliberately – and re-read as well. There is a wonderful mix of personal narrative and global thought in Yoshimoto’s storytelling that I enjoyed immensely.

After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Summer Book and then Kitchen in succession, I have to admit that my tastes in literature seem to be evolving. Am I getting more contemplative in my old age? It’s possible. (Lee and Abbey, you can stop laughing now!) At least I’m getting what I hoped for out of the reading challenges I joined. I am pushing my boundaries, finding new areas of interest, and making time for myself to think and be, rather than do. I’m also increasing my TBR pile, because I’m anxious to read more by Yoshimoto.


  1. Well, I must say this post of yours absolutely thrills me! First, I'm so delighted that you took the plunge into Japanese literature. But, better than that is that you liked it! (And, at 49 myself, we're not too old to revise our opinions of what we like, are we? :)

    One of my favorite lines in your post is this, "Megan Backus’ translation of Kitchen is soft and restrained. Loneliness is a pervasive theme of the work, and I found myself feeling very quiet while reading." Boy, does that sum up my experience when I read this two or three years ago. I was left with a pervasive feeling of sadness, but also astonishment that I writer so young could evoke such emotion.

    Hopefully, you'll care to venture into a few more? May I suggest Murakami's After Dark? It's also short, but very interesting. Also, I have Banana's novel Asleep sitting on my coffee table, but I haven't read it yet. I'll let you know when I do, as you might like it as well.

    Pleased to be your friend, Bellezza

  2. Most everyone prefers her Kitchen but I like Goodbye Tsugumi best of the 5 of her books I have read-you might try as your second work Kenzaburo Oe's When He Himself Shall Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness-a wonderful collection of 4 novellas by a Nobel Prize winning author-

  3. Thanks for the suggestion, Mel! I have seen wonderful reviews of Goodbye Tusgumi, but am not familiar with Oe's work at all. And so the TBR pile continues to grow...

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Belleza, thanks for the lovely comment! It made my day. Yes, I am definitely planning on including a few more books in the challenge – Kitchen was really a revelation. I will definitely take the Murakami suggestion!

    Many thanks for the introduction to Japanese literature.

  5. I think Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood', although a fair bit longer, is a good way to get into Japanese literature, especially as it's not as surreal as some of his other works. As for Yoshimoto, my favourite so far was 'Amrita', but that is a lot more involved than 'Kitchen' or 'Tsugumi'.

  6. One of the best things about my book blog is that it's convinced me to go beyond my usual borders (whether geographical, genre or otherwise). Very cool. :)


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