Books From Asia with Love Loss, Heartbreak, and Coming of Age Read-a-Latte Reading Themes

Translucent Lethargy and Veins of Silence in Banana Yoshimoto’s “Asleep”

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Myra here.

I rarely review adult novels here in GatheringBooks. Picture books are usually my chosen genre while Iphigene is the default reviewer of adult literature, particularly Japanese ones given her love for Murakami. This time, however, I could not resist sharing a few of my thoughts about Banana Yoshimoto’s Asleep. This is my first Yoshimoto novel.

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I appreciated the very thoughtful manner in which this book was written, the sensitive portrayal of the characters, and the little glimpses to the heart of human nature and its occasionally sordid darknesses. There are three novellas in this book. Rather than provide a summary which I am always loathe to do (you can always check the blurbs for that), allow me to quote beautifully written words that spoke to me from the three short stories included here. I also thought it fit our theme beautifully as loss, heartbreak, and coming of age are subtly interwoven in all of the stories.

Night and Night’s Travelers

A forgotten and discarded letter brings back a host of buried remembrances.

Sarah belonged to a time so long ago that I never thought of her anymore, and I hadn’t the slightest idea where she was or what she was doing – she was no longer part of my life. And then in the course of a perfectly ordinary day, as I was going about perfectly ordinary tasks, this letter appeared. It had been lying wadded into a hard little ball in the depths of my desk, in the dark recesses of a drawer I opened. Perhaps all this began when I plucked that wad out of the shadows, wondering what on earth it could be, and uncrinkled it with my fingers. As if some ancient spell had been broken, and was slowly dissolving, drifting out into the open air… (p. 9)

Photo taken by my husband and post processed by me. Location: Las Vegas.
Photo taken by my husband and post processed by me. Location: Las Vegas.

I am sure each one of us occasionally discovers such treasures when we least expect it. I liked how each of the character’s heartbreak is shared through night dreams and heavy silences that protect another’s fragile heart rather than a true deliberate act of concealment. There is death, heartache, pain, and gradual coming of age realizations about life, love, and what the future holds as could be seen in this quote:

The night glittered brilliantly then. The night seemed to be infinitely long. And I could see something stretching way off into the distance behind Yoshihiro, whose eyes sparkled with the same mischievous light as always. I caught sight of a vast landscape.

Something like a panorama.

I kind of wonder if that wasn’t The Future, as my childish heart saw it. Back then my brother was something that definitely wouldn’t die, he was both and night and something that traveled through night – something like that. (pp. 38-39)

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Photo taken from Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

Love Songs

Yoshimoto puts an entirely new dimension to the phrase ‘bizarre love triangle’ in this story. This is mixed with the soothing powers of alcoholic intoxication that can be thoroughly brutal and sharp by day, the humming that sidles its way through one’s consciousness in that surreal state of waking and sleeping. There are love songs dimly heard from a dead woman with whom the lady protagonist once shared the heart and bed of a man who was not even that attractive to begin with. The songs are described in this manner:

The reverberations of a voice as pure as an angel’s, the light tenderness, the melody-all this made my heart begin to flutter, to dance achingly. Like waves, distant and close, full of nostalgia, rolling on…

Haru, is there something you want to say? 

My heart felt like it was spinning, like something that goes on spinning even when it’s hidden from view – I tried to lock the spinning on that sound. But there was no sign of Haru, nothing at all but the beautiful stream of sound stabbing through my chest. Perhaps on the other side of this beautiful melody I’d find Haru’s smile. Or maybe-maybe she was screaming in a voice filled with hatred that my happiness and her death were two sides of a single sheet of paper. I didn’t care, either way I wanted terribly to hear. (pp. 85-86)

There is that headlong spiral towards self-erosion, gradual destruction, and ultimately the flight from one’s being.

Painting by Salvador Dali
Painting by Salvador Dali

Asleep

A lady named Terako gets into a relationship with a married man, Mr. Iwanaga, whose wife is in a coma. Slowly, she finds herself unable to keep awake as well – her body sinking ever deeper into a state of total unconsciousness, drifting further and further away from reality. This is exacerbated by the death of Terako’s female friend Shiori with whom she talks about her relationship with Mr. Iwanaga. In one of their conversations, Shiori captured the essence of Mr. Iwanaga’s silences:

“You see, people like him think everything that’s not formally declared is basically nil.”

“Nil?”

“That’s why he’s so nervous. As soon as he starts thinking of the two of you as a unit, his situation becomes extremely dangerous, you see? So for the time being you’re nil, you’re being held in reserve, the pause button is pressed down, you’re stacked in the stockroom, you’re life’s special bonus.”

“I… I think I know what you mean, but … what’s this ‘nil’? What kind of a place does he put me in, you know? Inside him?”

“Somewhere completely dark,” Shiori said. (p. 137)

The Surreal House, Salvador Dali, Sleep, c. 1937
The Surreal House, Salvador Dali, Sleep, c. 1937

One of the things I like about Yoshimoto’s stories is how women’s relationships and all its intimacies and barenaked truths are captured in full. Shiori’s work is also very strange as she is paid to literally ‘sleep’ with people who have trouble sleeping – her ‘patrons’ are comforted with the thought of having someone awake and nearby if they are plagued by nightmares:

Because when you’re sleeping next to all these exhausted people, it’s like you start matching your breath to theirs, slowly, those deep breaths… maybe you’re breathing in the darkness they have inside them. Sometimes I’m thinking to myself You mustn’t go to sleep even as I’m dozing off, having some terrible dream. All these surreal things. Dreams where I’m on a boat that’s going under, dreams where I’ve lost some coins I was collecting, dreams where the dark comes in through the window and blocks up my throat – my heart is pounding, I’m so scared, and then I wake up. It’s really frightening. The person beside me is still asleep, and I look at them and think, Yes, of course, what I’ve just seen is how this person feels inside, so lonely it hurts, such desolation. Yeah, it really scares me.” (p. 125)

In each of the stories, sleep is perceived as a form of escape, an unraveling, a literal undoing – sapping one’s strength instead of giving back life. It is a surreal cloud-like transformation of one’s very being as one swims deeper into the waters of the womb where there are strange muted sounds seemingly from far away, another lifetime, a different universe. It brings the reader to a landscape of fragile dreams, lost loves, and unfulfilled promises.

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Read-a-Latte Challenge: 149 of 150

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “Translucent Lethargy and Veins of Silence in Banana Yoshimoto’s “Asleep”

  1. Pingback: [Book Quote Tuesday] Tenderness of Touching – Gathering Books

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