A Review of Banana Yoshimoto’s Asleep

A Small Resurrection: A Review of Banana Yoshimoto’s Asleep

 The combination of very realistic, interesting, and believable characters, with a hint of supernatural epiphany which turns the ordinary into something magic and extraordinary, is very powerful. With delicate strokes of the pen, Yoshimoto has created a book which leaves the reader reflective, aware at once of their own mortality and of the core of each moment – a kind of shining diamond of meaning which only comes out of the poetry of the work – the result of the play or that sacred space between narrator, and reader.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Asleep
by Banana Yoshimoto
Faber and Faber, rrp$21.00
November 2001
ISBN: 0571205372

Asleep is simultaneously sparse, and deep. The novel covers a terrain which is only hinted at by its language, and one imagines its rich delicacy, coupled with painful, almost Freudian emotion, is even more dramatic in the original Japanese. The book consists of three novellas, “Night and Night’s Travelers”, “Love Songs”, and “Asleep”, all linked by the diary/confession stylistics, and themes of loss, death, night, and recovery/transformation. In all cases, the characters, including the first person narrators are young, introspective, and at a turning point, with sleep marking a kind of recovery period between death and resurrection.

“Night and Night’s Travelers” is the first novella, and is narrated by Shibami, whose pain lies somewhere between the longing she feels for her older brother Yoshihiro, who has died in a car accident, and maternal feelings towards her beautiful cousin Mari, who was Yoshihiro’s lover. In response to Yoshihiro’s death, Mari becomes a somnabulist, walking numbly through the snow barefooted, and living a kind of living death in sleep. As narrator, Shibami is well drawn, presenting her own story while weaving a tale that creates a picture of her charmed and beguiling brother through bits of memory – letters, and a matter of fact flashback style that renders the narrator utterly believable. The gems are so delicately dropped, that it isn’t hard to miss them: “You felt like everything had come to a halt, like you were stuck in some sort of snowdrift where what had piled up wasn’t snow but time.”

Snow falls continually, and acts to muffle sound, and turn the domestic and commonplace into something immortal – a kind of universal image of humanity, uniting the dead and the living, in a way that calls to mind Joyce’s story “The Dead”. Mari walks ghostlike in the snow, rapping at the window with her small white hand, while Shibami recreates Yoshihiro’s relationship with his wife, his return to Japan, his relationship with his cousin, and his death. Shibami never talks about herself, and yet this is a story about Shibami, her impressions, her perceptions, and her transcendence: “It’s like we’ve been living in a space different from the rest of our lives, like we’ve been moving at a different speed. We’ve been sealed off-it’s been very quiet.” The snow keeps falling, and the white of the snow contrasts with the deep blue that Mari invokes to colour this period in their lives. One imagines this kind of pregnant subtlety is very like the effect which a Japanese reader might get with the original.

“Love Songs” carries on with a similar narration: “Late at night the trees in my garden seemed to shine”, and once again, a very ordinary life takes on elements of the fantastic. The protagonist, Fumi, has a drinking problem, and has been hearing a faint, beautiful song, just before falling asleep, which reminds her of a woman, Haru, who once fought with her over a man they both loved. At her boyfriend Mizuo’s suggestion, Fumi finds out that Haru has died, and goes to a kind of midget hypnotist/medium, who puts Fumi in touch with Haru. Although the plot sounds a little silly, and perhaps implausible, the delicacy of Yoshimoto’s writing blurs the boundaries between Fumi’s drunken hallucinations, the psychological hypnosis of Tanaka the midget, dreams, and a kind of magic realism, which allows the reader to believe that there is some element of truth in that meeting between the living and the dead, in that place between sleeping and waking, between drunk and sober.

The third tale “Asleep,” gives us a chronically tired woman, Terako, who is living her sleepy life somewhere between a friend’s suicide, and a strange love relationship with a married man whose wife is in a coma. The first person narrative moves between the beauty and truth of poetry, and a very commonplace, youthful diary voice: “No, I just wouldn’t be able to explain. The harder I would try to make him understand the more my words would turn to dust, the more they’d get caught up in their own momentum, a wind that would blow them out of existence”. Although the writing is not stream of consciousness, one feels as deeply submerged, as awkward, as raw, and as stuck, as the narrator. Terako’s movement from slumber to reawakening through work, and her odd relationship with Mr Iwanaga, as she struggles to connect with his feelings for his wife, and to find a place for herself is strangely moving, and although the story is perhaps, as Terako says, “nothing but the story of a few small waves that shook me when I lost my friend and wore myself out doing all the little things one does every day, even if all this was nothing but the story of a small resurrection”, it is also the story of human strength, of beauty, and of transcendence.

The reviews for Asleep have been mixed, and I imagine that some readers would find these stories slow in their virtually plotless introspection. The movement in this work is subtle indeed. The action is all character driven; all about change – metamorphosis, and on a surface level, it is possible to say that nothing happens in these stories at all. Yoshihiro has already died by the time “Night and Night’s Travellers” begins. Haru has also already died, as has Shiori. Their deaths are at the heart of the stories, as is the struggle to awake from the living death they have created in those who have been left behind. The struggle for the living to emerge from that trance – to redefine, recreate life, is the tension in the tales. This is a much more delicate undertaking than letting plot, and dialogue drive a story, and if you aren’t careful, as a reader, you can miss it, especially since this is a translation. That said, and despite criticisms levelled against him, I feel that Emmerich has done a superb job on the translation. It would be tempting to overdo the words – to try and convey the meaning through layering images, rather than allowing the bareness; the sparcity of Yoshimoto’s style to come through. While these are very ordinary people – young adults you would hardly notice if they lived next door to you, their transformation and struggle to accept the pain of loss becomes that of everyman: “there are lots and lots of people like you”.

All the protagonists of these stories are women whose sleepiness is triggered by the death of a loved one. They share a narrative voice, and characterisation, and taken together, the stories become a whole novel, the stories blurring and combining to form a continuous narrative combining the sad, sleepy pupa struggling to shake off a cocoon of grief, and the shimmering beauty of the ghosts whose powerful and ongoing beauty and presence, effects a transformation – the spirit of Yoshihiro in his son, the gentle sweep of Haru’s long hair, and the concerned ghost of Shiori on the swings, urging the living to get on with life. The combination of very realistic, interesting, and believable characters, with a hint of supernatural epiphany which turns the ordinary into something magic and extraordinary, is very powerful. With delicate strokes of the pen, Yoshimoto has created a book which leaves the reader reflective, aware at once of their own mortality and of the core of each moment – a kind of shining diamond of meaning which only comes out of the poetry of the work – the result of the play or that sacred space between narrator, and reader.

For more information about Asleep, or to purchase a copy, visit Asleep

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