January 6, 2012 by markstani
This is my ninth longlist review from this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize, and probably my last before next week’s shortlist announcement. I’d be majorly surprised to see this make it. That said, Sue at Whispering Gums is much less cynical, while Matt and Lisa are also more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Banana Yoshimoto is big in Japan. Her mostly modern fables of love and loss – of which The Lake (pub. Melville House) is her twelfth – have acquired a cult following, and sold upwards of six million copies.
Those familiar with Yoshimoto’s previous work will presumably be unsurprised by her latest offering. ‘The Lake’ is a slim, fragile story revolving around the relationship between two young Japanese students, Chihiro and Nakajima.
Chihiro has recently lost her mother: the first line of the novel reads: ‘The first time Nakajima stayed over, I dreamed of my dead mom.’ Nakajima’s affliction is more mysterious, and the novel is ostensibly concerned with Chihiro’s attempts to figure him out.
Nakajima, an implausibly bright genetics student, has clearly been through something terrible in the past. In a vague attempt to exorcise those memories, Nakajima takes Chihiro to visit a couple of old friends who live in a run-down shack by a remote lake. Mino is buoyant and friendly; his sister Chii seems to be some sort of shaman, lulling semi-comatose and transmitting her accurate impressions of the future through the voice of Mino. So far, so mysterious. And wouldn’t you just know it, a thick mist descends right on cue to enhance the sense of something otherwordly:
The lake had started looking blurry, and I realized a mist had gathered. All of a sudden, the world before me was shrouded in it. The lake, seen through the mist, was submerged in a pale, milky white, as if a gauzy curtain hung between it and me.
Obviously, abstractness and ambiguity are Yoshimoto’s trademarks, and the story continues to unfurl in its relatively plot-less way. This is not necessarily a bad thing: on the contrary, one of the best books of 2011, Iosi Havilio’s Open Door, remained unfathomable until the very end, and was all the better for it.
The major problem with ‘The Lake’ is that it positively drowns in introspection and self-doubt. Page after page after page, we find Chihiro seeking to identify her own shortfalls without ever having the will to confront them: frail and damaged as he clearly is, she seems to regard Nakajima as some kind of convenient emotional crux.
There is a narrative here, as fragile as Nakajima himself, and it could have been a compelling one. There’s enough hints about Nakajima’s history to make his eventual revelation not entirely surprising. It’s by far the most riveting section of the book, exploring a very pertinent issue in Japanese society today, but it is shoe-horned in almost as an after-thought, like drinking a big cup of coffee-froth before finding the single gulp of espresso below.
When the truth is eventually exposed, what ought to be a mist-clearing moment for the reader is in fact diluted by the sheer relief that the story has finally actually got somewhere. And then, just like that, it is all over. Chihiro and Nakajima, we must presume, live awkwardly ever after.
Cynicism aside, Yoshimoto’s book is not without its merits. There are questions for modern Japanese society here, mostly concerning its concept of freedom, from which Japanese youth – Yoshimoto’s main, mass market – will glean much more.
Ultimately, though, ‘The Lake’ is more intriguing for what it says about its author than itself. I would certainly pick up her next book if I came across it, say, in an airport bookstore. Somehow that seems the best place for it: accessible, relatively engaging, and probably best read when you’re floating high above the clouds.