The English translation of “Kitchen”, a novel written in 1988 by Banana Yoshimoto accompanies a novella titled “Moonlight Shadow” and what seems like a break in the flow of the narrative turns out to be a perfect addition when one finishes the text. A notable name in Japan Modern Literature, Yoshimoto brings together influences of the western fiction and her identity as a native to narrate a tale that will connect with any and every person, facing the woes and hues of life.
Revolving around loss, both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow depict the paradoxes of life. The story of Mikage Sakurai, Eriko, and Yuichi entangles with the story of Satsuki, Hitoshi, and Hiiragi, two narratives that collectively navigate the world through love, loss, despair, willingness to live and the very lack of it. On the surface, the stories seem as unrealistic as any of the novels by Haruki Murakami (another important Japanese writer) but throughout the reading experience, one does not feel the divide between the real and the unreal. It’s presented as both a myth and a fact, left with the reader to decide which aspect they would want to go with.
“But if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is”.
When Yuichi asks Mikage “Pick a room, then I’ll know what kind of person you are”, the latter chooses Kitchen. Playing around the idea of appetite and consumption, Yoshimoto uses food as a motif to talk about the need for love. In despair, a person loses their appetite, while in love, they enjoy the food to their heart’s content. Mikage, who had just lost her grandparents, following the uncertain death of her parents, finds solace in Kitchen. She considers cooking as an art and uses it to bond with people. Her connection with Eriko begins with her demand to make food for her and Yuichi. Food becomes distraction and eventually a saviour when Mikage travels to Yuichi with a lunchbox to tell him that they must live, if not for the world that doesn’t seem to pay attention to their despair, but for themselves.
But it’s not just the food that connects Mikage with her new housemates.
Death, which she believes is always around us is first revealed as news but as the story progresses, it becomes an inevitable part of life, something both Mikage and Yuichi have to live with. This immediately brings Norwegian wood in mind where Murakami concludes that death exists, not as the opposite but as the part of life. By presenting death as a fact of life, Yoshimoto succeeds in creating a conversation around loss. It’s always difficult to lose someone we love but the loss isn’t under our control. When Yuichi tells Mikage about Eriko’s death, he confesses that his failure to utter the word helped him avoid the reality of the event but ultimately, he had to say it.
The beauty of Yoshimoto’s narrative does not merely lie in the manner of narration but also her open-ended approach towards her tale. What seems like a didactic novel is just a medium to allow the reader to stop and reflect on the reality they are living. Once you finish reading the novel, you remember the times you overcame and the ones you might have to overcome.
“Despair does not necessarily result in annihilation that one can go on as usual in spite of it. I had become hardened. Was that what it means to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn’t like it, but it made it easier to go on.”
Eriko’s character and her charm deserve a piece of its own. Her portrayal has been brilliantly dealt with and its beauty comes to fore only when one reads the text, keeping in mind Mikage, Yuichi, and Eriko’s perception of her.
Moonlight Shadow, a novella, was added to “Kitchen” in the English Translation. More coherent, when compared to Kitchen, the novella gives a glimpse into the progress Yoshimoto will be eventually making as a writer. If Mikage’s despair transfused and penetrated to the very core of our life, Satsuki’s loss is limited to her and Hiiragi’s life. We are mere spectators, silent observers as we see the story unfold in front of our eyes. Blurring the fixities between reality and the other world, we follow Satsuki’s pursuit as she tries to overcome her depression, something that had entered her life after her boyfriend left due to an unprecedented accident, which also took away Hiiragi’s girlfriend.
Questioning the order and definitions that the world bestows on its inhabitants, Yoshimoto tries to explore her own perception and interrogates the validity of these unwritten and written rules. As we see Satsuki persevere to live with her pain and in turn, overcome it, we witness her in a transitory phase. Like Hiiragi who rely on the sailor uniform, she relies on the jogging to “kill time” till she achieves her goal, the goal of living again, like normal people.
One question remains, what is normal?
If we are constantly under pain and living with woe, whose definition of happiness can we rely on? No one’s. The source of happiness lies within one’s self. Once you realize your worth, bearing pain and facing struggles becomes a bit easier.
Yoshimoto’s magic lies in her sensibility of things. Her novel and the accompanying novella are driven by motifs, symbolism, and props but the object to which these devices are connected are not merely used as tools. Instead, the writer centers her story around things which are often forgotten, as one remembers the past. As we grow, our life becomes a series of memories and our actions, a result of what went in the past but in a bid to remember people, we often forget objects that remain static.
While their presence is always the same, etched as a concrete fact, their value and meaning changes.
By bringing things to life, Yoshimoto creates a synthesic effect, helping us sense, smell, listen and visualize the pain and happiness of her characters. This becomes more evident in “Kitchen” when Mikage says,
“In the uncertain ebb and flow of time and emotions, much of one’s history is etched in the senses. And things of no particular importance, or irreplaceable things, can suddenly resurface in a café on winter night”.
Even though the writer depicts life in Japan, the outsider might feel a distance. To a non-Japanese (non-native) reader, the character’s reflection and Yoshimoto’s simplistic style will draw more attention but the colloquial references that give depth to the novel and the ones that made the writer popular in her country might go missed, until and unless a proper research is not conducted around the life in Japan and the specific spatial context which Yoshimoto might be referring to, while writing her novels; something that can be observed for writers like Anita Desai too.
To someone who has lived and breathed the life in Old Delhi and survived the contradictions between the seemingly divide of Old and New Delhi, Desai’s novel will be both nostalgic as well as eye-opening but to an outsider with a bleak sense of history about India, the novel will be a mere reference point of understanding life amidst violent history of partition.
Yoshimoto’s novel and novella end on a poignant note, leaving a very important message for their readers:
Over and over, we begin again.
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