Two for #WITMonth – Yoshimoto & Oskamp

Two shorter reviews for #WITMonth which are both also part of my 20 Books of Summer.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated by Megan Backus

Yoshimoto is one of those Japanese authors by whom I’ve felt slightly intimidated; I include Mishima in this bracket and much of Haruki Murakami. Yoshimoto’s adoption of the name Banana (from the flower) as a form of androgynous protection of her life from the outside world gives her a slightly aloof air, and if you didn’t know about the Banana Flower, you’d think her choice of nom de plume odd. So, please forgive me for not having read her before, especially as I really loved this book – which was first published in Japan in the mid-1980s, (translated in 1993)

Kitchen is a slim volume comprising two novellas – one longer, one shorter, both broadly tackling the subject of grief and love. In the longer title novella, Mikage has grown up as an orphan, living with her grandmother. When her grandmother dies, she is taken in by Yuichi and his wonderfully unique parent, Eriko. Mikage only knew Yuichi by the things her grandmother said about him, but he knew her grandmother well enough to attend her funeral.

He was the boy who worked part-time at my grandmother’s favourite flower shop. I remembered hearing her say, any number of things like, “What a nice boy they have working there. . . . That Tanabe boy . . . today, again . . .” Grandmother loved cut flowers.

Yuichi recognises that Mikage needs help, and takes her home to lodge with them. There she meets nightclub owner Eriko, who was previously Yuichi’s father, but transitioned. Eriko is delighted to have a surrogate daughter, and Mikage feels at home. They have a great kitchen, the hub of their home, where she’ll explore many dishes as she develops her career as a food journalist as a kitchen obsessive. She stays there for some months before finding her own place, but when something happens to Eriko, it is Yuichi who needs looking after.

In Moonlight Shadow, Satsuki and Hitoshi are a young couple, very much in love.

The whole time I was with him there was that feeling of ephemerality, uncertainty. If that was a premonition of what was to come, what a sorrowful one that was.

A lover should die after a long lifetime. I lost Hitoshi at the age of twenty, and I suffered from it so much that I felt as if my own life had stopped.

She does her best to carry on but wishes she had been able to say goodbye. One day she meets an mysterious older lady, who tells her to come to the bridge on the river at a specific day and time before dawn, and with a touch of magic realism her wish is granted.

I thoroughly enjoyed these two novellas, the first having more depth, the second so sweet, and can understand how together they made such a bestseller. It was also surprising to find that there was little of the air of slight detachment I often associate with Japanese writing, the first-person narration showing more emotion. The two female narrators of the tales are very different characters as are the two young men, but despite showing two different sides of the same story of love and grief effectively, the effervescent Eriko and enigmatic Uhana make the two novellas really come alive. I’m glad to have discovered Banana Yoshimoto, finally!

Source: Own copy. Faber paperback, 150 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp

Translated by Jo Heinrich

Peirene Press has a real winner on its hands with this gorgeous, gentle novel published earlier this year, which is being serialised this week on BBC Radio 4 in the Book at Bedtime slot – click here to listen. The novel begins…

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading to. […]

I was forty-four years old when I reached the middle of the big lake. My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty. I didn’t want to be seen, but nor did I want to see.

The midlife crisis comes upon us all. Our narrator decides to take action and she trains to be a chiropodist. The course finished, she gets a job in a salon across the city, in Marzahn, formerly the largest housing estate in East Berlin. Marzahn is also somewhere where she is unlikely to meet any former literary contacts. She works with the salon’s owner Tiffy, and nail technician Flocke.

Most of her clients are elderly, they can’t manage their feet and toenails easily anymore. Most are regulars too, and relish the chance to lie back and tell their stories while she removes their calluses, trims their overgrown and ingrowing toenails and massages their tired old feet. Each chapter becomes a life story in miniature as the chiropodist listens without judging. There is a crusty, but still lusty old party official, a bright-as-a-button cheery old lady for whom every step is painful after a botched operation, two friends who bond over their dachshunds, and many many more, sometimes accompanied by their carers.

When Tine Blumeier, with her high spirits, became one of my regulars, my secret resolution to have every client leave happier than when they arrived was tested to the full. I have around sixty clients and the contrast is striking. Some take every cough or cold as a personal affront, moaning for years on end and feeling horribly cheated about life. But not this queen of affirmation. She told me how once, when she was out, a little boy asked his mother if ‘that lady in the wheelchair’ was disabled. ‘Only my legs, not in my head!’ Frau Blumeier had called out, and she’d let the boy have a ride on her lap.

That resolution to cheer people up is at the heart of the novel, and in doing so it gives our unnamed narrator happiness too, finding a cure for her own midlife malaise. Her clients come and go, some to their graves naturally, but she carries on caring for the feet of Marzahn’s residents, responding to their stories with good humour and compassion having recovered the empathetic skills she’d mislaid in her isolation as a writer.

Along the way we do learn a little about the art of chiropody and the tools of the trade, but this never intrudes as we are beguiled by the narrator’s ‘bedside manner’ as she goes about her trade.

This is such a lovely, life-affirming novel of auto-fiction – Oskamp retrained as a chiropodist and worked in Marzahn, a district she grew to feel at home in despite its reputation and dark side. These vignettes of everyday life in the Berlin suburb have life lessons for us all, wonderfully translated by Jo Heinrich, who found her new career after a change in direction too.

Read more reviews at: A Life in Books, Lizzy Siddal.

Source: Own copy. Peirene flapped paperback, 141 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

12 thoughts on “Two for #WITMonth – Yoshimoto & Oskamp

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There’s not a lot available in translation it seems. I may go and check out Dolce Belezza to see if anyone has read any others for Jap Lit Month.

  1. JacquiWine says:

    Lovely review of Kitchen, which I’ve been meaning to read to read for a few years. (It was recommended to me a while ago, so your review is a very welcome reminder!) Love, loss and grief are some of my favourite themes in books, and the slight sense of detachment you’ve mentioned definitely chimes with my own experience of Japanese lit. Definitely one for me to pick up. .

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Jacqui. I think Kitchen is less detached than most Japanese Lit I’ve read, being first person narrated. Loved it, and think you would too.

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