By Susan Tomaselli
Hardboiled/Hard Luck is Banana Yoshimoto’s seventh book to be translated into English and comprises two short novellas dealing with dead lovers and sisters, dreams and hauntings by ghosts.
While trekking in the mountains, the narrator of Hardboiled, a woman in her thirties, stumbles upon an isolated shrine made from small black stones, and starts reminiscing about her ex-lover Chizuru, who believed she could see ghosts. That evening, she experiences a long strange night in a country hotel on the first anniversary of Chizuru’s death, and present-day events are intercut with her memories of Chizuru, as well as events of past guests of the hotel: “Things that don’t matter at all to one person can hurt another so deeply it seems as bad as dying.”
Hard Luck is also narrated by a young woman, whose sister has been made comatose by a cerebral haemorrhage. As the family waits for Kuni to be declared brain-dead, the narrator finds herself drawn to Sakai, the brother of her sister’s absent fiance.
Both novellas are set in autumn and both are told in typical Yoshimoto fashion, that is, a spare, subtle, detached, measured and sometimes oblique prose, a mixture of the mundane – “the rituals of our daily lives permeate our very bodies” – and supernatural, that tips a nod to Haruki Murakami. Unlike Murakami, the portentious events in Yoshimoto are less significant, a brooding menace never quite coming to fruition, the unsaid, or unwritten which makes the tales all the more melancholic: “One never knows what the future might may hold. In our hearts, we were all peacefully saying goodbye, to my sister’s life. Or rather, we were moving in that direction, because we had no choice. That was the unbending path which we were headed, as quietly as the deepening of autumn and the onset of winter.”
Both narrators are in a state of arrested development, in states of incomplete transition. In Hardboiled, an orphaned drifter whose ex-lover is “still there inside me – a life put on hold, a memory I didn’t know how to handle”, in Hard Luck postponed plans to go to Italy, waiting in “that oddly empty block of time that’s left before her death.”
The supernatural context of the countryside in Hardboiled contrasts starkly with the sterile environment of the hospital, but reads less lucid and more repetitive than Hard Luck. Chizuru tells the narrator that she must “live a hard-boiled life,” but there is little hard-boiled about Yoshimoto’s prose: “And it’s true, I thought, interesting things do happen, even in the midst of the blackest nights. And when you take a spill, you can always rise up from it with something good in your hand.”
Though interlinked, fans may have their favourite. For me, it’s Hardboiled, the longer of the two pieces, a more lyrical, more exotic and ultimately more satisfying read, worthy of the best of Yoshimoto’s writing.
Hardboiled/Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by Michael Emmerich
Faber & Faber