CBR Bingo: Recommended
When I was in the early days of my summer of Irish fiction, I visited a couple friends in DC and one of them passed off her copy of this novel to me. “When you get a moment, I think you’ll like it. It’s an easy read, but not a dumb one–more like where you feel better at the end of it.” Since I read plenty of serious and/or bleak stuff, I’m always grateful for a recommendation like that, but it took me until this fall to really get into it, though it is a quick, gentle read once I had time to dig in.
Our protagonist is Sentaro, a failure of a man: he is not the writer he once dreamed of becoming, but instead a man with a criminal record and a drinking problem, who spends his days numbly churning out dorayaki, a kind of pancake filled with a sweet bean paste. He puts as little effort into this as possible, buying his bean paste pre-made from suppliers, and the shop’s clientele is desultory at best. Then Tokue, an elderly woman with hands disfigured from some disease, turns up and offers to make sweet bean paste for a pittance in pay. Sentaro agrees, and nearly comes to regret it with the labor that Tokue draws him into, and yet her bean paste is transcendent in flavor. The shop starts doing increasingly brisk business, and despite himself, Sentaro gains fresh interest in his work, fiddling with the recipe of his pancake batter and paying keen attention to Tokue’s lessons in confectionery. A young schoolgirl, Wakana, who visits the shop regularly, but only has money for discard pancakes, also becomes attached to Tokue and her gentle attentiveness. But then the reason for Tokue’s twisted and gnarled hands comes to light, and customers, spooked by stigma, stop coming to the shop, and Tokue, in an effort to limit the damage, stops coming, too. Sentaro’s new lease on life is cut short, and the back half of the novel deals with his effort to sort himself out and find Tokue once again.
The summary of the novel given by the publisher describes Tokue as having a “dark secret,” but this is misleading: it’s not precisely a secret, and the darkness of it is in the response, not in Tokue herself, who it turns out was institutionalized for leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as a young woman. While cured, she has never moved away from the sanatorium where she was quarantined for almost all of her adult life, and most of her family has cut ties with her. Sentaro and Wakana thus represent to her fresh points of connection to the outside world, and above all, points of relationship that give her life new energy and meaning–nor is this a one-way street, as she offers something very similar to them.
But this isn’t just a story about pancakes and friendship; as Sukegawa writes in his afterword to the novel, this is the gentlest of rebuttals to the cultural idea in Japan that what makes life meaningful is being useful to society in some way. This seems healthy enough, but as Sukegawa points out, it can be despair-inducing for those who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to be useful, such as Tokue with her disability and its accompanying stigma, or Sentaro and his criminal record, or Wakana, whose poverty seems to be closing doors all around her. What purpose, then, can characters like these find? And Tokue is the gentlest teacher, in her making of bean paste, of an alternative view: that we exist to pay attention to the universe, to listen to it and witness it, even if our means of witness are the smallest, like a Hansen’s disease patient who, robbed of the sense of touch and sight, and lacking mobility, can still taste the marvelous sweetness of tenderly-crafted confections. What matters, Sukegawa writes, is not the doing, but the noticing, of being alive to a universe that calls out for our attention. As Tokue explains:
If I were not here, this full moon would not be here. Neither would the trees. Or the wind. If my view of the world disappears, then everything that I see disappears too. It’s as simple as that.
Every witness to the universe is precious; their awareness and witnessing is a contribution to the whole of existence, and thus sufficient justification in itself for their value in this world. Sukegawa’s afterword is the kind of thing that makes me want to go read the novel all over again (which is pretty feasible because it clocks in at barely over 200 pages–and smallish pages with invitingly sizable typeface, at that). If you’re feeling a bit battered and bruised in the soul these days, maybe put this to the top of your TBR; it’ll comfort you like your own favorite food.
(Full disclosure: I was not a fan of red bean paste when I was in Japan as a teenager! but damned if this novel didn’t make me want to try it again.)
(Also, a nod to translator Alison Watts. We all should be reading more translated books!)