180 pages, Fiction from Pocket Books
“I dropped a bowl and broke it, which upset me so much that I burst into tears. Then I decided to sit down and read a comic, which made laugh hysterically. I was a total mess.”
Aren’t we all?
The words were taken from the yuppie-angst narrative of Chikako, the lead character in “Blood and Water,” one of the six short stories which made up the collection entitled Lizard, written by a Japanese author named Banana Yoshimoto.
Born Yoshimoto Maiko on 24 July 1964, the writer who now has a pop-sounding fruity pectin-filled name hails from Tokyo and has numerous novels and essays published in her native country. Some of her books have been translated into English: Kitchen, Asleep, Goodbye Tsugumi, N.P., Lizard, Amrita, Hardboiled and Hard Luck, and The Lake.
Among these books, Lizard is the one with the most number of stories. Rather than a full-length novel, it contains six stand-alone shorts. I was able to get a copy of the book many years ago from a pen-pal who lived in Metro Manila. She found me a mass-market paperback. The only Yoshimoto novel then available in Iloilo City (I looked everywhere for two whole summers, believe it or not) was a hardcover Lizard, which cost about PhP400 and was badly damaged to begin with.
Lizard, translated as Tokage in Nihonggo, takes its title from one of the stories. The other five stories are Newlywed, Helix, Dreaming of Kimchee, Blood and Water, and A Strange Tale from Down by the River.
As a whole, the setting is in a busy city, presumably Tokyo, and the characters are mostly young urbanites who have commonplace jobs. As against common typecasting wherein Japanese stories involve samurai committing kamikaze, there was no such thing in Lizard. In fact, the stories could have taken place in any big city, except for the fact that Yoshimoto’s pen infuse the stories with a spirituality and a mental rebellion that only the exotic Japanese could concoct.
Newlywed is about a young newly-married man’s journey in a train. Aboard the commuter system and already past his stop towards home, he meets a mysterious woman who raises questions about his relationship with his wife. It was only then that he had come to accept the he would never fully understand the woman he married.
Lizard, the title story, is about the relationship of a young child psychologist and an aerobics-instructress-turned-acupuncture-whiz. The latter is Lizard, a woman whose life was once blighted by blindness and carried around enough emotional baggage that could only be slowly unloaded when she healed people through her magic touch. She and the psychologist share a very strong bond: Loneliness amidst working with people every day.
Helix is another short relationship story, about how love and hate and contempt could merge into one when a man and a woman know each other so well that words are used to disguise and not express feelings. Narrated the male writer character: “I had the unusual sensation of having grasped her entire personality in that single expression.” They both had to take another step forward.
Dreaming of Kimchee (Kimchee is a Korean delicacy, pickles smothered with cabbage and garlic) presents a rather unusual perspective of extramarital affairs. This time, the mistress narrates the story, from how she felt exempt from the fact that married man do not leave their wives for their mistresses to why she was not feeling any guilt at her position. In the end, the guy left his wife for her.
A Strange Tale from Down by the River is a study in contrasts. The woman in the story (later known as Akemi) started out as wildly erotic bisexual. She confesses: “It was when I came down with a liver infection that I had to quit going to the sex parties.” Later, she meets a rich young man with no ambition but falls for him – at the funeral of the guy’s own father. When she lives with him at a riverside apartment preparing for their wedding, ghosts of her past begin to catch up. In the end, what mattered was true contentment that only hope could give.
Blood and Water is my personal favorite among all the six stories. It is a love story on the surface. This is the only story where the names of both main characters are disclosed; the other stories do not mention the name of some of its characters. In this particular story, Chikako leaves the Esoteric Buddhism (a religious sect) settlement where she had been raised by her parents and starts a faster, modern life in Tokyo. There she meets Akira, a strange young man who could make amulets that had healing powers, and eventually falls in love with him. “When he was at home, Akira was just an ordinary guy, a little wimpy, in fact.” No other love story had a wimp for a hero–and by the heroine’s admittance, at that. The tale throbs with sadness and foreboding, a realization that even the most powerful emotions could not bind people together forever.
Although the characters are not acquainted and no common plot binds them to each other, they all share an honesty that only Yoshimoto could offer with her pen. Through the author’s first-person narratives, each of the characters address a significant crossroad in his or her life in a brutally straight way. They all address our very own quirks, our secret thoughts, our humanity’s darkest side – and they show how we could go through this and come out relatively unscathed but marked for life. The characters speak to the reader in a neat and straight manner, aware of the madness that had at one point or another touched their lives. The book is about accepting the past, savoring the present and having hope in the future.
Yoshimoto uses male-female relationships as a take-off point for all of her stories, since these associations often have the most dimensions and flaws. However, there is no significant love and hate in the story. No one expresses love by French-kissing on the streets nor drinking poison just to be together with their beloved. No one even gets angry enough to throw things around or hurt others. The people here are not novel – they are people we meet everyday but never really have the chance to get to know better. People who fear and hope for the same things we do, albeit always in a different way.
Read Yoshimoto for her honesty and courage. Honesty to express her true humanity and not her “image-oriented” façade, and courage to accept that she does so.
And so, Chikako further contemplates: “I am my own home, and this is where I belong, and the things keep going forward, endlessly, just as the blue of the sky dawn soon turns into a bright sunrise, each with its own beauty. That kind of thing.”