Quietly understated? Maybe, or maybe just not much going on.
The LakePublisher: Melville House
Length: 188 pages
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Publication date: 3011-05
Banana Yoshimoto is a highly regarded novelist in her native Japan, where such books as Kitchen, Asleep and Goodbye, Tsugumi have sold in huge numbers. She enjoys a solid international reputation as well, and is currently one of Japan's best-selling authors.
This is something of a mystery to me. The Lake is the first Yoshimoto novel that I have read, and to call it "understated" would be a compliment. "Underwhelming" is more accurate.
The book is translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich, who has previously translated the other novels mentioned above. I don't know a lick of Japanese, so I will assume that Emmerich's translation is competent. Certainly it reads smoothly enough, with few if any hiccups at the sentence level. The problems lie deeper.
Chihiro is a young woman born out of wedlock, her mother a bar owner, her father a respected bsuinessman. At the start of the story, Chihiro's mother has died, and we hear her reflect upon her parents, her childhood, and the odd circumstances of her birth. None of this is terribly riveting, though it's smoothly written and the information is easy enough to absorb: "I've lived an utterly ordinary life", we are told early on. "Well, maybe not — I guess in a town out in the middle of nowhere, where just about anything provides fodder for gossip, being an illegitimate child was enough to make me extraordinary. But there's nothing extraordinary about me as a person". Just so.
Into this not-terribly-interesting setup comes Nakajima, Chihiro's quietly intriguing neighbor, whom she spies on through her window after she moves to the city. Nakajima is an intense graduate student who grows as preoccupied with Chihiro as she is with him, and soon they are spending all their time together, sipping tea and not going out much. Theirs is a rather minimalist relationship. This is a rather minimalist book.
Chihiro collects some money upon her mother's death, so she doesn't need a proper job. This allows her to pursue her vocation: mural painting. She gets a job painting a mural at a children's school and decides to fill the mural with monkeys. Perhaps there is meaning here, I don't know. To me, it's just a mural full of monkeys, but the narrator spends a great deal of time talking about the project, how it stops and starts, how the children watch her working, how a local industrialist tries to co-opt the project by demanding that a huge company logo be inserted into the middle of it. Again, none of this is terribly interesting, but it occupies significant space in the book.
After quite a bit of this, Chihiro and Nakajima take an excursion to the titular lake far from the city, where a pair of Nakajima's childhood friends live. Nakajima is consistently unwilling to talk about his childhood, and the reader hopes that this excursion will shed some light on things. It doesn't. However, it does introduce the two oddest characters in the book, Mino and Chii. Mino "was an adult, perhaps thirty-five or so, and yet he was extremely small, like a child. His face seemed kind of shrunken, giving him the look of a bulldog. His eyes were sparkling, though, and there was something noble about the way he carried himself."
Mino takes them upstairs to visit Chii, who is bedridden and mute, but who can speak through Mino. For a story that has been painstakingly and maybe even painfully true to life thus far, this sideways jump into something like magical realism is disorienting. No matter: the moment passes soon enough and doesn't recur.
So then, life just sort of plods on. For such a short book — under 200 pages — the pace is glacial, probably because very little of significance happens. Not until Chihiro visits the lake a second time, without Nakajima, does she experience a revelation that upends her entire understanding of her friend-cum-lover. This surprise is so carefully staged, and so hidden until the final pages of the book, that it's bewildering that the publisher gives away the game in the jacket copy. The unfortunate effect of this is that rather than gasping in shock when the revelation hits, the reader is inclined to sigh and mutter, "finally," which is just about the worst possible reaction under the circumstances.
But I question whether the revelation would have been effective even without the spoiler. Yoshimoto spends the book's final 25 pages raking over the effects of Chihiro’s discovery, striving to explain Nakajima's oddness as well as that of his childhood friends, but it's too little, too late to mean much to the reader. It's also terribly convenient: want to know why this person is the way he is? Here, it all happened because of this…