Sun, Feb 23, 2003 - Page 19 News List

`Goodbye Tsugumi': A teenager's remembrance of things past

Japanese youth culture gets a philosophical treatment when Banana Yoshimoto muses nostalgically on young romance, shopping and death

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Goodbye Tsugumi
By Banana Yoshimoto
186 pages
Faber

A word often used when writing about the strange fictions of Banana Yoshimoto is "kitsch." With its implication of pseudo-art, of something masquerading as literature but which is in reality relatively mindless and tawdry, it's not a flattering description. In this case, is it fair? And if not, what is these books' true character?

One point to bear in mind with this author is that her books occupy a territory somewhere between the literary and the popular. She is published in England by a very fastidious publisher, but her books are frequently concerned with what is often seen as "popular" subjects -- ghosts, young love, the dreams of adolescence. Yet there is a distancing from her subject matter -- in other words, she holds teenage infatuation at arm's length and muses on it, albeit in wistful fashion. Banana Yoshimoto is Marcel Proust meets Hello Kitty.

An example that illustrates this occurs early in this novel. The narrator claims to sense the presence of the sea in central Tokyo. "I feel like hurling away the bags I'm carrying from Yamano Records or Printemps or wherever, and dashing off to stand on that dirty concrete embankment beneath which the tide is forever dawdling ... . It occurs to me that this is what people mean by `nostalgia': the pain of knowing that this powerful yearning will eventually fade."

Here, the references to designer stores is a nod in the direction of youth fashion. But the interest in her own unfocused longing, and especially the thought that it won't last, is pure Proust. (But that this is not by any means the usual meaning of "nostalgia" may allow us to remember not to take Banana in her more philosophic moments too seriously).

Goodbye Tsugumi centers on a teenager who suffers from a number of physical disorders. They're unspecified, but the upshot is that she won't live long. But this girl, Tsugumi, is the last person in the world to want sentimental sympathy. She knows she can look forward to less life than her able-bodied friends, but seems to live more vigorously as a result. She's unpredictable, plays practical jokes, and is aggressive almost whenever she speaks. But she also has the power to charm, and fools around with every good-looking boy in town.

The action mostly takes place in a Japanese coastal resort. The narrator, Maria, "named after the Virgin Mother," is Tsugumi's cousin, and she and Tsugumi spent their childhood living in the town's Yamamoto Inn which Tsugumi's parents owned, and where both their mothers worked. But while Maria is at college in Tokyo a decision is made to sell up. As a result, Maria goes back to her childhood home to spend one last summer in the house she grew up in.

The gist of the plot is that Tsugumi falls for a boy called Kyoichi. His father is constructing a big hotel in the area, and as a result Kyoichi is victimized by local teenagers whose parents stand to lose by the new development. When they kill his dog, Tsugumi plans her grotesque revenge.

This "new" novel is in reality not new at all. Although the English translation (by Michael Emmerich) is new, the novel itself came out in Japanese in 1989. This suggests something else about Yoshimoto. She has in fact published far more books in Japanese than have appeared in English. It's as if she turns them out effortlessly in her native language, and as a result they are considered in Japan as relatively ephemeral entertainments. But abroad they are released more selectively, and so seem more special. At home she's a dispenser of romantic adolescent dreams. Abroad, she's literature.

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