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Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

Yoshimoto's mixed-up women


By JOHN HAYLOCK
ASLEEP, by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Zimmermich. Faber & Faber, 2000, 477 pp., 9.99 British pounds (paper).

In these three stories the principal female characters, all young, seem as interested in their own sex as they are in men. They are impulsive and impressionable.

In "Asleep," Terako suffers from somnolence; she just can't keep awake. In "Love Songs"; Fuki is a heavy drinker. Both women have male lovers and both are in thrall to women.

As a student, Terako shared an apartment with Shiori, who has become "a restrained prostitute." Her clients are rich businessmen, who want a sympathetic listener, not sex. Shiori goes abroad and kills herself. Terako is distraught. She still suffers from sleeping sickness; however, a telephone call from her lover wakes her and they spend an evening eating eel and watching fireworks.

Fumi, in "Love Songs," once shared a lover, a thug, with Haru, of whom she was jealous. The thug disappears and Haru dies.

Fumi's boyfriend, Mizuo, tells her that the strange singing she hears comes from Haru, who wants to speak to her. Mizuo takes Fumi to a medium and she has an encounter with the ghostly Haru, who tells her she always wanted to be her friend. Fumi feels better and thinks that she may be able to overcome her addiction to alcohol.

"Night and Night's Travelers" is different from these two stories in that it is more about Yoshihiro than his sister, Shibami, the narrator.

Yoshihiro has an affair with Sarah, a visiting American student. He joins her in Boston, but soon returns to Japan, where he continues his affair with his sister's friend, Miri. Shibami was fascinated by Sarah, who marries an American; their son, however, bears traces of Yoshihiro's features. Yoshihiro is killed while on his way to meet Miri. Miri and Shibami console each other.

Yoshimoto burdens her stories with events. The female relationships seem to have lesbian overtones and yet the women have male lovers. In each story there is a violent death, which causes great grief to the narrator.

The translation reads smoothly. The words "incredible" and "unbelievable" appear too frequently: "The room was unbelievably cold" -- why not say "icy"?



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