Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Review: Spiritual safety from romance and Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘N.P.’


“N.P.” stands for an artistic tome that culminates in death for those who sink too deeply into its stories. This fictional compilation of repurposed memories is the flashpoint on which Yoshimoto’s novel dwells. Although the creative phantom “N.P.” encompasses almost 100 different narratives, the desperation, the longing and failed attempts at redemption seem stark and condensed into just the last couple. We can be fairly certain that the eponymous book title does not stand for “no problems.”

Our protagonist, Kazami, is a young women in her early twenties prone to self-isolation in her single apartment. She makes a modest living by providing a translation service — a skill she acquired through English lessons from her mother. Her mother also pursues this line of work, and in one of the more revealing dialogs she describes the mystical side of translating:

“Why, sometimes I get so far into the author’s thought processes that I feel no resistance at all. I become unable to distinguish my thoughts from hers, and sometimes I find myself thinking the way she would, not just about the book, but about my own life, even when I’m not translating. Particularly if the author has a strong personality, a translator gets drawn in so tightly…”

This neatly describes Kazami’s own innate sensitivity, as well as the sensitive natures of the family members that obsess her.

The Curse

Kazami began her intensely voyeuristic journey into the lives of three siblings (they share the same father, the author of “N.P.”) after seeing two of them at a party. Their inescapable physical allure turns out to be just a small part of their overall attraction; this family is nursing a secret, the emotional weight of which seems to bear down on them with a tremendous force.

Some of them think it’s a curse.

What I find interesting in this novel and ripe for exploration is this: the possibility that these characters’ romanticizing of their own lives and their loves is the very source of their destructive tendencies.

The most subtle form of this comes together in the contrast between Kazami’s matter-of-fact, even boring, descriptions of her day-to-day activities versus any mention of the three siblings. A look from Sui that’s reminiscent of lilies. The brooding wells of sorrow in Otohiko’s eyes. Saki’s glowing skin. All of these, in their elaborate descriptions, start to take on a poetic, ethereal quality. They are not merely physical artifacts. They become infused with a spiritual heaviness.

Kazami describes this as “beautiful,” in fact so beautiful that it might make a person crazy — and that much is clear to me.

But one wonders about the self-defeating darkness that might be wrapped up in this kind of beauty. In Kazami’s moments outside her obsessive trance, she recognizes that these encounters are emotionally draining. What she doesn’t seem to recognize is the possibility that she is just as much responsible for her heady, romantic attachment to these people as they are by virtue of their deliciously tortured backstory.

I think Kazami made up her mind to spill all of her maudlin emotion into these people even before she came close enough to see them clearly. Her implicit insistence that she is merely a receptacle to their mystery seems not so much disingenuous … as self-deceptive.

Kazami’s probable self-deception, her belief that she is powerless and in awe of these beautiful spirits, is mirrored in the struggles of Sui and her preoccupation with suicide. Sui sees death not only as a way out of her suffering, but as a way of merging with her father’s story, the story that seems more “real” than her own existence.

‘She smelled of a syrup of boiled-down despair’

Sui wants to fuse with art because she can’t face the banality of her existence. Sui wants a release from a hope that she finds painful, because she feels too weak to take her destiny into her own hands. There’s a guilt there that goes unnamed.

So the ultimate question seems to be, is Kazami’s experience of such soul-shattering emotional stimulation, or “beauty,” worth the instability and pain that it brings? The author seems to think that it is, but I cringe to imagine an entire life spent wallowing in a dozen pages of some hyper-real memoir and a trio of tortured progeny.

By way of contrast, I submit the following: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity (Justice Arlen Adams).

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This entry was posted on January 16, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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