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.