Review: Hardboiled and Hard Luck – Banana Yoshimoto

I always feel a lack when I read translations.  The words, so lovingly put in place, feel out of place.  Sentences strung across the page, at times, fall short.  They have communicated a message, transferred their intent, but lost some beauty along the way.  It is as if once the writing is outside it’s natural language, it is all business, focused on the task.  Hardboiled and Hard Luck, two novellas by Japanese writer, Banana Yoshimoto, are two works of fiction that slide into the group of translations which may not do the writer justice.

Both of the novellas revolve around loss and death.  Each one has a young woman as the narrator who is reminiscing and saying goodbye to a loved one who has died.  In “Hardboiled,” the narrator remembers a former love, Chizuru, with whom she had a falling out, and whom later died.  It takes place in the span of one night, in which the narrator is visited by a forlorn ghost in an old, countryside hotel.  Through this encounter, the narrator learns of the ghost’s story from the hotel manager.  It’s a sad tale of love and suicide.  The ghost of Chizuru also visits the narrator and protects her.

In “Hard Luck,” a family is grieving the passing of their daughter, Kuni.  Kuni has minimum brain function and is being kept alive through machines.  Eventually, her brain shuts down and the family makes the decision to disconnect the machines.  The family, and more specifically the narrator, fears their own connection with Kuni will be severed when she goes off life support.  They spend hours visiting her in the hospital, because it feels as if part of her is still there.  Kuni is a young woman who had everything before her, she was cheerful, in love, and to be married soon.  Unable to work through the grief in a public manner, her fiancée retreats to his parent’s home while she’s dying.  This action brings the narrator into contact with the fiancée’s brother, Sakai, who visits the hospital in his brother’s absence.  A love, of sorts, begins.  Sakai is an outsider; he teaches Tai-Chi, has a long hair, and is quiet in an inward way.  The combination of death and love is too much though, and the characters resolve to explore the feelings in the future, after the pain of Kuni’s death has diminished.  The narrator will move to Italy for her studies, and Sakai vows to stay true to this feeling.

In exploring loss, the novellas also play with time.  How do we remember people?  What makes us forget moments?  Time bends and intertwines with memories as the narrators slip in and out of the present.  The novellas go well together, because they act as before and after images of grief.  In “Hardboiled,” the narrator has moved on and forgotten about Chizuru, even though Chizuru was so important to her.  “Hard Luck” though occurs while the pain is at its sharpest.  The narrator is locked in her grief.  Toward the end of the novella, after Kuni has died, the narrator is able to glimpse into the future.  She can see that grief will not always dominate her life.  There will be a point when her family can share in laughter again.  There will be a time when she can fall into love.  She will never be as tough as the narrator in “Hardboiled,” but she will move on.  We all will.

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