Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lost in Translation: "N.P." by Banana Yoshimoto

Before going to Japan, I polled my Facebook friends to see if they had any recommendations of Japanese literature. I said it might be nice to read books by both men and women, and a few people suggested that Banana Yoshimoto was a talented female author, so I picked up her novel N.P. (My bookstore didn't have a copy of her best-known work, the novel Kitchen.)

The book jacket made N.P. sound like an appealing literary-themed mystery, maybe like a Japanese version of The Shadow of the Wind. And a blurb also called it "essential reading for anyone who has ever felt lost while trying to find their lives through coffee and credit cards"--so I thought it might be good to read a Japanese take on the "Gen-X twentysomething" novel. But all this hype only made for a big letdown when I read N.P. this weekend. Though it's short (mercifully short?) and a very quick read, it's one of the most tedious pieces of literature I have ever encountered.

N.P. is narrated by 22-year-old Kazami Kano. When she was still in high school, Kazami had an affair with an older man named Shoji, who worked as a translator. Then Shoji killed himself while he was in the middle of translating a short story by an author named Sarao Takase. Strangely, everyone who has tried to translate this story--as well as Takase himself--has also committed suicide. Four years after Shoji's death, Kazami befriends Takase's children, and gets drawn into the mystery that surrounds his writing and his family.

So this sounds like the recipe for a good gothic-pulpy novel, with some philosophizing about literature and translation thrown in...and yet it is terribly disappointing. The writing is flat, the dialogue is stilted, and the characters don't behave like recognizable human beings. At one point, Kazami meets the mysterious Sui, who confesses that her boyfriend is also her half-brother--and that she slept with her father (Sarao Takase) before his death. Kazami's response to Sui's rather outrageous news? "Now it all makes sense to me. So do you feel attracted only to men you're related to?" She displays no shock or bewilderment or even any interesting thoughts about encountering a girl whose incest puts Oedipus to shame... she just takes it in stride.

I mean, if you're writing a novel about incest and suicide and a potentially cursed piece of writing, the thing to do is to layer on the Gothic atmosphere and make it a real page-turner. And preferably have a thoughtful, engaging narrator, too. That's what The Shadow of the Wind did (and it treated its revelation of incest like the appalling secret that it is). Maybe Yoshimoto thinks that relating these bizarre events in a flat, affectless tone will make them more believable by avoiding sensationalism. Unfortunately, for me, the tone only makes the events less believable, since they never became real or vivid before my eyes.

I don't know how many of my complaints are related to the difficulties of translating from Japanese to English. (N.P. is the first Japanese novel I have ever read, so I don't have much of a basis for comparison.) Maybe some of the flatness of the writing results from the fact that the Japanese language does not have an exclamation point, and that it seems to employ a smaller vocabulary than English does. Still, I also think that the translation of N.P. I read was really lousy, due to an error of word choice that was so wrong-headed I can't believe it made it into print. The translation uses the word "stepbrother" when it should be "half-brother," which makes a hash out of the whole incest plotline until you realize what's going on, and suggests that there may be other errors that I didn't catch.


Kenneth Griggs said...

Was searching for Japanese woodblock pics and came across your blog.

If you get a chance, read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. His Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is also a must. Also Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country is also a great book. Anyway, sorry, I spent a year there and I suppose words from some weird internet surfer don't mean much... Have fun on your journey.


Marissa said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I actually bought "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" last month and plan on cracking it open any day now. I'm not ready to give up on Japanese literature yet!

Coco said...

Hey! I know that this post was way back in 2009 but I just posted a review of NP myself, and while googling the book I came across this post. I was going to say, as the previous commenter did, please read Haruki Murakami! He is the best! But now, five years later (!), I'm wondering - have you read him? And what did you think, if so?
Ryu Murakami is also good!

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hello Coco, thanks for commenting! I did read "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" in the summer of 2009 and the main thing I remember about it is that when I read the scene where the guy gets flayed alive, I nearly fainted, it was so nauseatingly visceral. (To make matters worse, this happened when I was standing in the aisle of a crowded subway train.) That left me admiring Murakami's talent but also a little wary of reading other books by him, for fear that they would have equally graphic scenes... you know?