Book review / Half-cut in translation

AMRITA by Banana Yoshimoto Faber pounds 9.99

If anything ever got lost in the translation, it must be in the prose of Banana Yoshimoto. Somewhere in the serving up of visual effects on the page which is a technique of written Japanese (a writer may plump for a word simply because it looks good) and somewhere, too, in the very American translation, a great deal of rum verbiage turns up in English.

Yoshimoto is intent upon capturing the dizziness of youth, and deals with a wide spectrum of mental disarray. She brings her heroine to the edge of more than one precipice, and not so gently nudges her over. Sakumi's beautiful actress sister, Mayu, has recently committed suicide. Her 11- year-old brother is becoming unnervingly tele-pathic. Her mother, who is once widowed and once divorced, has swelled the household with various female lame ducks, who all seem to make a virtue of staying up until the wee hours, drinking lots of beer and coffee. Just to clinch it, Sakumi falls down a stone staircase, splits open her head, is rushed into brain surgery and loses her memory.

Sakumi's consciousness is now a tabula rasa, and she takes to marvelling at the banal. Red patches forming in the corners of her half-cut girlfriend's eyes enchant her: "she was on her third beer and the flush from the alcohol was beautiful." "Swimming was so much fun, we could hardly stand it." This degree of enthusiasm is unaccountably catching. Cousin Mikiko gets terribly excited when the two of them go on a diet: "Don't you think this is great? Strolling home in the middle of the night and talking about how we're going to lose weight? Just thinking about it gives me goose-bumps."

As the baffled reader is feeling left behind by all this joy - it's a bit like watching stoned people laugh at their own jokes (and there is no shortage of oh-wowing) - along comes brother Yoshio to wax "extra-sensory". And he is not the only one. Sakumi has inherited her dead sister's boyfriend, a writer called Ryuichiro, who takes her to the island of Saipan with two psychic friends of his. The wife, Saseko, is a singer who conjures up the ghosts of the war dead - Japanese and American - in her performances. They roll in from the sea like a mist. Brother Yoshio tunes into this telepathically far away in Tokyo and makes an appearance in their midst, astral sleep-walking.

The impact of all this sequential weirdness is hit and miss. Sometimes you can feel for Sakumi's pain at losing a sister, or glimpse what a burden the special psychic gifts convey, or delight in a gnomish description that somehow hits the mark: "his laughter was so humble it could have caused a small flower to bloom." But sadly, more often Yoshimoto's message bobs out of reach on a tide of gush.

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