Asleepby Banana Yoshimoto
“Ms. Yoshimoto’s writing is lucid, earnest and disarming, as emotionally observant as Jane Smiley’s, as fluently readable as Anne Tyler’s.” –The New York Times
Banana Yoshimoto’s novels have established her as one of Japan’s finest and most popular writers, and an acclaimed and best-selling literary star all over the world. Now she delivers three novellas that develop her sophisticated, resonant, and artfully simple vision, in Asleep, a book that is already an international best-seller and may be her most charming since Kitchen.
Banana Yoshimoto has a nuanced and magical ability to animate the lives of her young characters, and here she spins the stories of three women, all bewitched into a spiritual sleep. One, mourning for a lost lover, finds herself sleepwalking at night. Another, who has embarked on a relationship with a man whose wife is in a coma, finds herself suddenly unable to stay awake. A third finds her sleep haunted by another woman whom she was once pitted against in a love triangle. Sly and mystical as a ghost story, with a touch of Kafkaesque surrealism, Asleep is an enchanting new book from one of the best writers of contemporary international fiction.
“Contrary to its title, this slender volume could stifle the most persistent of yawns. . . . You’re briefly yet utterly consumed. . . . Asleep examines the numbness and fatigue that often come with pain and transition. It is to Yoshimoto’s credit, in this artful translation by Michael Emmerich, that she is able to articulate those physical and emotional states that are more often than not aligned with silence.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Ms. Yoshimoto’s writing is lucid, earnest and disarming, as emotionally observant as Jane Smiley’s, as fluently readable as Anne Tyler’s.” –The New York Times
“Banana Yoshimoto is a master storyteller. . . . The sensuality is subtle, masked, and extraordinarily powerful. The language is deceptively simple.” –Chicago Tribune
“Earnest, deep, and unaffected. . . . A sure and lyrical writer . . . Yoshimoto transforms the trite into the essential. This is her odd and charming art.” –The New Yorker
“A master storyteller with a lot of heart.” –Harper’s Bazaar
“Yoshimoto hits some of the same notes that a previous generation’s literary masters (say, Kawabata or Tanizaki) might sound, and yet the effect seems artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Enchanting, surreal . . . [Asleep] brings readers to another powerful, atmospheric place.” –New York Daily News
“Entrancing . . . Banana Yoshimoto is always alert to the marvelous.” –Elle
“American readers of Susan Miller, Kate Atkinson, Anne Tyler [and] Wally Lamb . . . might think they’re on familiar ground . . . [but] whereas the other writers are solid like Gaugin, Yoshimoto is abstract like Monet. . . . Reading her is like taking a trip to Japan. Words, like space, are precious and not to be wasted.” –Raleigh News & Observer
It was spring when we went to see my brother off. He and his girlfriends were waiting at the airport when we arrived–yes, he had lots of girlfriends back then–and they were all decked out like flowers. The sky was marvelously clear …
The flood of memories that streamed over me when this draft of an old letter emerged from the depths of one of my drawers was so powerful that for a few moments I stopped cleaning and just sat still. I read through the English text again and again, speaking the words aloud.
The letter was addressed to a young woman Yoshihiro had dated when he was in high school. Her name was Sarah, and she’d come to Japan as a student. Yoshihiro was my older brother–he’d died a year ago.
Almost as soon as Sarah went back to Boston, Yoshihiro had begun talking about how he wanted to see what it was like to live in some other country, saying stuff like that, and then one day he just chased off after her, hardly giving a moment’s thought to what he was doing. He worked various part-time jobs there and fooled around doing a little of this and a little of that, and didn’t come home for almost a year.
Yes … as I read the letter I remembered more and more about how things were back then. Yoshihiro had gone off so suddenly and contacted us so infrequently that Sarah had worried about it, and she had sent me a letter explaining how things were going in my brother’s life. The letter I’d found was my reply to this. I’d been in high school when I wrote it, and it had never even crossed my mind that things might turn out the way they have. I was writing to a real American Girl–a very kind, very pretty American Girl. I flipped through the dictionary as I wrote, quivering with nervous excitement. Yes … Sarah was an adorable girl with intelligent blue eyes. Everything Japanese delighted her, and she was always trailing along behind my brother. She’d call his name. Yo-shi-hi-ro. Yo-shi-hi-ro. And her voice would overflow with an earnest love.
“If you can’t do your English homework, get her to help.”
Yoshihiro just tossed open the door to my room and said this: that’s how casual an introduction he gave Sarah the first time he brought her to see me. She’d gone to the Summer Festival at a local shrine, and on her way home she’d stopped by our house. I happened to be sitting at my desk at the time, attempting to plow my way through several acres of summer homework, and since this sort of thing didn’t happen every day, I had her write my English essay. She seemed so eager to help that I felt it would be unkind to refuse her. Really, I’m not lying. English had always been my best subject.
“I’ll let you have her for an hour–but no more. After that I’ll walk her home,” Yoshihiro said. Then he went into the living room to watch TV.
“Sorry to spoil your date like this,” I said in my rather wobbly English, and Sarah replied, “Hey, no problem. It’ll take me about five minutes to get this done, and while I’m doing it you can be finishing up your work for some other subject, right?”–or words to that effect. Her English was smooth and easy, her voice was lovely, her blond hair seemed to be streaming down her head. She grinned.
“Well then–I guess if you could just make up something about `A Day in My Life’ and write it out, that would be terrific. If you make the sentences too complicated it’ll be obvious that I got someone else to write it for me, so I’d appreciate it if you could make it more or less like the sample they give here,” I said, struggling desperately to form these sentences, to make her understand.
“Okay. So what time do you get up every day? Do you have a Japanese-style breakfast? Or do you have bread? And what do you do in the afternoon?” She asked these and a few other questions, and suddenly we were finished.
I looked at the essay she’d written.
“Oh no! I can’t turn it in like this–your handwriting is too good!” I cried. “I’ll have to copy it out in my own ugly scrawl.”
Sarah burst out laughing.
Thus, little by little, we began to loosen up, to start feeling comfortable with each other, and we spoke openly about all sorts of different things. The evening was slightly chilly, and the night air shivered with the shrilling of crickets. Sarah sat with one of her elbows propped up on a low table that I’d set out in the middle of my room, continuing to help with my homework. I found myself in a world of wonderful colors–colors that made it seem as if the entire room had been suddenly flooded with light. Blue and gold. Her white, almost transparent skin. The sharp line of her jaw as she gazed straight at me and nodded.
I thought of the black boat Commodore Perry arrived on when he came to “open” Japan. It was the first time I’d ever talked with someone from a foreign country at such close range, and she’d come whirling into my room so suddenly, so completely unexpectedly. I could hear the thump of drums and the sounds of flutes and a few other instruments out at the festival, ballooning along on the wind. Off in the distance a round moon drifted weightlessly up through the black sky. Every so often a soft breeze would slip in through the open window.
“Do you like Japan?”
“Yeah, I’m having a great time. And I’ve made lots of friends. Friends at school, and then Yoshihiro’s friends. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this year.”
“What do you like about my brother?”
“Yo-shi-hi-ro is like this giant ball of energy, you know–I just couldn’t keep my eyes off him. I’m not just talking about some sort of physical energy. The thing I felt was something that came bubbling up from inside him, you know, something that will never run out, something extremely intellectual. I feel like just being with him makes it possible for me to keep changing, turning into something new, like I’ll be able to make my way to someplace really far away, but in a way that’s totally natural.”
“What are you studying? Will you go back to school in Boston?”
“I’m studying Japanese culture. And I’ll be going back a year from now…. It’ll be hard for me to leave Yo-shi-hi-ro, but my parents are completely in love with Japan, they come over all the time, and then Yoshihiro has been saying that he’d like to come to the U.S. sometime, so I’m sure we’ll meet again. Right now I’m putting every ounce of energy I have into studying Japanese. Except that for me, studying is basically just something I like to do–a kind of hobby. I’m sure I’ll go on studying for the rest of my life, you know, but at the same time I really want to become a good mother, just like my mother. And for that reason I find Japanese women very interesting. I feel the same way about a lot of things as this Japanese Girl you hear so much about, I can sympathize with her more than I do with American girls. Because I think that certain parts of me aren’t very American, you know? I guess eventually I’ll end up marrying some businessman, maybe someone like my father, an international businessman. And then I want to put together a pleasant, bright, stable household.”
“Do you think … I mean, it’s possible my brother will become something international, but do you think he’s got what it takes to be a businessman?”
“You’re right, he doesn’t. You get the feeling he’d be fired pretty quickly. They wouldn’t like it that he’s always thinking of himself.”
“Of course he’s still in high school, right? Maybe he’ll change. I think it’d be great if he got interested in that kind of work. Maybe you could kind of steer him in that direction …?”
This was a totally childlike thing to say, a thought even more distant than a dream. But Sarah was still enough of a child that she could have such dreams, and she had enough leeway to do so. The courage of a person who has no fear of the future. She laughed and then started to speak, with a look on her face like she was dreaming. Her eyes were those of someone who’s just fallen in love, someone who sees nothing but her lover, someone who has no fear of anything. The eyes of someone who believes that every dream will come true, that reality will move if you just give it a push.
“Yeah, it would be awesome if it were Yoshihiro, wouldn’t it? We could have one house in Japan and one in Boston, and go back and forth between the two. God, that would be so much fun! Because I really love Japan, you know, and if Yoshihiro got to like Boston then it’d be like we each had two countries, that’s how we’d think about it! And then our little baby would grow up listening to the languages of two separate countries! And we would all go on trips together. It would be so fantastic….”
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….
It was spring when we went to see my brother off.
He and his girlfriends were waiting at the airport when we arrived–yes, he had lots of girlfriends back then–and they were all decked out like flowers. The sky was marvelously clear, and my brother was in such a great mood, he was so delighted at the prospect of traveling that the rest of us got carried away too, and we were all happy and laughing. Those were good times. And we were all so glad that you and my brother were in love. It’s strange, but somehow my brother just does that to people–all of a sudden you find yourself seeing things the same way he does. But of course you know that!
The cherry trees were in bloom when my brother left. I remember seeing petals drifting down here and there, like tiny flecks of light.
My brother doesn’t write very often, but I assume that means you’re both doing well. I hope you’re having a nice time. Come visit us again in Japan.
I look forward to our next meeting. Shibami
Once, back when I was still a girl, my brother and I and our cousin Mari went for a walk together along a dusk-darkened road. Our relatives had gathered for a memorial service or something like that, and we’d gotten terribly bored and secretly slipped away. We were just out wandering, we had no destination in mind.
The road stretched along one of the mounded-up banks of a river near the house where my father had grown up. It was that time of the evening, when off in the distance the other bank of the river is just beginning to drop away into the darkness of night. Soon the halo of light that always hung over the town at night would be reflected in the river, and even now the clear air was gradually filling with indigo, the indigo air drifted up, so that you almost felt as if you were seeing the air itself. The sky gleamed ever so faintly with the last traces of daylight, and everything was blurred, difficult to distinguish. Everything was beautiful.
I don’t really remember what we’d been talking about, but I know that my brother said to me, “See, the problem with you is that you aren’t bothered enough by what you might call the dirt of life.”
As I recall, I’d been stating rather insistently that When I was an adult I was either going to be a businesswoman or else marry into some fabulously wealthy family, one or the other, that was absolutely definite, and if they wanted to know why, the reason was that our aunt Reiko–who’d married a businessman from a fabulously wealthy family–had looked simply gorgeous in her black dress, and because her genuine pearl necklace had been so splendid, and I was sure that if I could spend that kind of money on myself I’d look just as elegant as her.
My brother continued.
“Listen kiddo, by the time you grow up you’ll have collected a whole lot of this `dirt of life’ stuff, right, you won’t know where it’s coming from but it’ll pile up, and clothes and pearls won’t look as beautiful to you as they do now–that’s for sure. The problem is that dirt, see? You can’t ever settle down in one place, you’ve got to live like you’re always, always staring way off into the distance.”
“Then how come you spend all your time at home?” I asked.
“You really do a great job of making things difficult, seeing as you know perfectly well what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the body. Besides, you and I are still just kids, that’s why we’re still at home. Soon we’ll be able to travel as far as we want to.” Yoshihiro grinned.
And then Mari spoke, sounding dreamy. “Yeah, but I sure would love to marry someone rich …”
“God, the two of you just don’t listen, do you?” My brother smiled peevishly.
“I mean I sort of understand what you’re saying,” Mari continued, “but I still think I’d rather just marry into some rich family. After all, I don’t really like to travel around too much, and I’ve got lots of friends I don’t want to leave.”
Mari was three years older than me, and she already looked quite grown up. She could express what she was thinking very clearly, and she never hesitated at all when she spoke. “I just want to fall passionately in love with someone.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” my brother said.
“Well, it’s not likely that I’ll end up leading a life that different from the one I’m leading now, is it? So there’s nothing for me to do but fall passionately in love. Besides, I just love the idea of having everything fall to pieces. In the end you give in and slink off to get married to someone more appropriate. After all, these passionate love affairs always end badly,” Mari said.
“I know what you mean,” I said.
“You’re a very strange young woman,” my brother said.
Mari grinned. “But the best of all would be if you’d hurry up and get extraordinarily rich. Then as soon as my passionate love affair ends I can just slink on over to you. It’d be a really nice way of doing things, and since I know the sort of person you are I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”
Even then my brother must have had that certain something that makes a man popular with women. He didn’t even blush when our lovely older cousin teased him like this. He wasn’t the slightest bit uncomfortable.
“It’s true, isn’t it. No hassle involved–nice and easy,” he said.
“And I bet our parents would be thrilled, too.”
“It’d be fun if we could live in the same house as you,” I said.
Mari nodded, smiling slightly.
“But a lot of things are going to happen from now on,” my brother said.
He sounded almost like he was talking to himself. I still find it strange. Why was it that even then, when he was still just a boy, my brother had such a profound if sketchy understanding of so much of life? Why did you get the impression that he already knew all about that mode of living where you’re always making plans, always moving ahead, moving ahead, never settling down for good in any one place?
The three of us walked on and on along the bank of the river. The roar of the water crashed through the air with such thunderous force that it somehow ended up seeming very quiet. Even so we were speaking quite loudly, and every little nothing we said seemed strangely pregnant with meaning.
I often remember that evening, the river flowing on into the distance.
And now a year had passed since my brother died.
It really did snow a lot that winter. Maybe that explains why I hardly ever went out at night, but just stayed holed up inside my room. I was in college, but it had been decided that I’d study abroad the next semester, and that meant I didn’t have to take any makeup exams. Which is to say that my situation ought have been very pleasant and carefree, but for no particular reason I’d gone and turned down every invitation I’d received to go skiing or to travel around spa-hopping. I guess maybe I’d gotten to like the feeling of being snowed in–maybe that explains it. All the plain old houses lining the plain old streets were dusted with white, so that it seemed like something out of science fiction. It was great. You felt like everything had come to a halt, like you were stuck in some sort of snowdrift where what had piled up wasn’t snow but time.
It was snowing again that night. The snow kept streaming down outside, fast and thick, deepening. My parents had already gone to bed, and our cat was asleep–you couldn’t hear a single living sound anywhere in the house. It was so quiet that I could even distinguish the low moan of the refrigerator out in the kitchen, and the rumble of cars driving along the main street.
I was reading a book, concentrating intently, so I didn’t notice what was happening for quite some time. Then suddenly I glanced up, startled by the rapping I heard, and saw a white hand at the window, beating very precisely on the glass. The sight was so chilling it made the air in the room start to quake and quiver the way it does when you’re listening to a ghost story. I was so shocked that I just sat there, not saying a word, staring at the window.
Mari’s familiar voice and a string of giggles sounded faintly outside the window, muffled by the glass. I went over to the window and slid it open. Looking out, I saw a thoroughly snow-plastered Mari gazing up at me with a big smile on her face.
“God, you startled me,” I said.
But even as I spoke I was having trouble accepting that Mari was there, suddenly there in front of me–I felt like I was dreaming. She’d been living with us until about three months earlier.
“Well then, I’ll startle you even more.”
She pointed to her feet. I focused my eyes on the dim rectangle of light that the window cast into the darkness, and realized that Mari wasn’t wearing any shoes. I shrieked. All the time I was standing there gusts of snowy wind had been whirling around me into the room.
“Hurry inside. Go around to the front door,” I said.
Mari nodded and walked off toward the front garden.
“What on earth have you been doing?” I asked her as soon as I’d given her a towel, and was setting the heater in the room on high. She’d been drenched when she stepped through the door, and her hands were so cold they seemed like they might be turning into ice.
Mari didn’t say a word about how cold it was outside or about how warm it was inside or anything like that. She just grinned with her brilliant red cheeks and said, “Oh, nothing much.”
She peeled off her wet socks and then sat down and put her bare feet up against the heater. Our cat slipped in through the crack between the door and the doorframe and came over and rubbed up against her. He’d always liked Mari. She started petting him, and I watched her, and gradually I began to understand. Mari was more or less a caged bird: she couldn’t step out the front door of her house without first reporting to her parents. No doubt she’d been sitting by the window, gazing out at the snow, and suddenly she’d felt this urge to go outside, and since she didn’t want to have to ask her parents for permission, she had just slipped out through the window. Luckily her room was on the first floor….
Mari stood up. “You want some coffee?” she asked.
When I nodded she opened the door and strode off into the kitchen. The cat rolled himself up into a ball in the place Mari had been sitting, making it seem less and less obvious that she’d actually been there. As a matter of fact it had always been like that with Mari, even when she was living with us. She’d march through the house almost exactly the way a cat does, with that same air of belonging, and if you left her alone she’d just sit there staring off into space, not saying a word, or else go to sleep. You hardly even realized she was there. She seemed to be in the process of fading away.
That’s not the way it used to be.
Mondays are English conversation, Tuesdays are swimming, Wednesdays she studies the tea ceremony, Thursdays she studies ikebana … that’s the sort of feeling she had about her. She was the sort of person who was always doing something, and who did it all beautifully. In those days her very presence suffused a room with brightness and vigor. She wasn’t an extraordinary beauty, but she had a really nice body, and her legs were long. Her features were all very compact and her face was tidily arranged, so the impression you got, looking at her, was one of cleanliness and purity. Whereas now she just seemed subdued. And I didn’t think this was because she’d stopped using mascara and rouge, or because she was now twenty-five years old.
Mari had stopped responding to the outside world, she’d pulled the plug on the whole system, she was taking a break–I felt convinced of this. Because, as she saw things right now, life was nothing but pain.
“Here you go. One coffee with milk.” Smiling, Mari held out a cup, rousing me from my thoughts.
“Thanks,” I said.
She held a cup of strong black coffee in her hand, just like old times.
She kept grinning.
“Are you planning to stay over tonight?” I asked.
We’d left Mari’s room in pretty much the same condition it had been in when she was living with us, and used it as a guest room. Though she hadn’t read very many books during that period, and she hardly ever went out, and she hadn’t listened to much music–basically all she did was go to sleep and then get up again, like a guest at some hotel who wasn’t even having meals.
Mari shook her head. “No, I’ll go back home. It’d only cause a big stir if my parents found out, so I’ll go back before they do. I just had this urge to talk to someone, you know, and I figured you’d probably still be awake.”
“Then I’ll lend you some shoes before you head back,” I said. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
“Nothing, really. Actually I feel better already,” Mari said.
Since it was late we both kept our voices down. As a result you almost had the feeling you could hear the snow whirling down outside. Snowflakes skittered whitely through the darkness on the far side of the fogged-up window. Everything seemed to gleam with a pale light.
“This sure is some snow,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet it’ll pile up tonight.”
Mari’s tone of voice made it sound like none of it really mattered much to her. For someone who’d just come walking barefoot over asphalt through the pitch black, she seemed pretty indifferent to the cold. I looked at her profile, her long hair, her small round lips. She was flipping disinterestedly through some new magazine.
I walked her as far as the front gate when she left.
The snow really was incredible–it hopped around chaotically right in front of your eyes, like it was dancing. The street just in front of our house was lost in the darkness and the snow. You could hardly even make it out.
“Hey,” Mari said, laughing. “Wouldn’t it be chilling if you got a notice tomorrow morning saying that I’d died sometime late tonight? Don’t you think maybe I’m really a ghost?”
“Don’t even say stuff like that! I’ll be up all night, you know, all alone!”
I’d practically shouted this. But it was true, I’d been thinking all along that this was an awfully spooky situation–almost like a haunting.
A barefoot cousin who bangs on the window late one snowy night.
“Which reminds me, I had a dream about Yoshihiro yesterday afternoon,” Mari said. “It was the first time I’d dreamt about him in ages.”
She’d taken a pair of bright red gloves out of her pocket, and as she spoke she slipped her hands into them, clomping her feet around in the much-too-big shoes I’d lent her. Her clear voice glittered in the night; the air was so cold it felt like pinpricks.
“It’s been months since I dreamt of him, seriously. In the dream I only saw his back, and he was wearing that jacket–the black one. I was walking down some street when I noticed that there was a back I sort of recognized, up ahead of me, in the middle of a crowd of people. So I’m thinking, Who can that be? Who on earth can that be? And then I decide to go find out, right, so I chase after him. And as I get closer and closer I start feeling so confused and so nervous that my chest starts to ache. I’m really upset. That back seems to be so precious to me. I don’t exactly understand why, somehow it just seems precious to me. So precious that I want to hurl myself onto it and hold it tight and squeeze it to a pulp. And then all of a sudden, just as I’m about to lay my hand on his shoulder, I remember his name. `Yoshihiro!’ I actually called his name. And that woke me up. I was sleeping on the sofa in the living room, you know, and I shouted so loudly that my mother came in from one of the rooms in the back of the house and asked if I’d called. I told her I’d had a really scary dream. And it’s true, isn’t it? It really is scary.”
Having said this, she waved and called good-bye, smiling.
And then she vanished into the snow.
©1989 by Banana Yoshimoto, translation ©2000 by Michael Emmerich. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.