Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto
Counterpoint, 2016; 204 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
Let’s talk about literature in translation. Books are a near conscious method of creating empathy for various points of view. Sure, they are fun, but they are also a GPS of other cultures and those culture’s unique take on lived experience. It’s a shame then, that so often that signal is lost because of our inability or unwillingness to translate. To be a good citizen of literature is to read work in translation, because reading work in translation assures more translations will be made furthering other points of view and creating a better informed global literary community. But the world is big and the task of reading its literature daunting. Where to start? Well, just go ahead and start with Banana Yoshimoto’s Moshi Moshi.
Yoshimoto’s book was a hit when it came out in Japan in 2010, and it’s easy to see why it would be a success on a global scale. Moshi Moshi is a coming of age story about Yocchan, a daughter of a man who was recently involved in a murder-suicide with the woman he was having an affair with. The book begins with Yocchan’s mother moving back in with her daughter, because she can’t deal with the (metaphorical? It’s fuzzy) ghost of her husband that casually pops up around their shared apartment. The murder-suicide, the most dramatic thing that happens in the novel, takes place off page. What follows is a very slow catharsis, as mother and daughter each repair themselves in different ways. Though Yocchan’s story passes through many touchstones of a broader tale—anger at her father’s secret life, resentment at her mother for infringing on her freedom, searching out romantic interest and confusing those interests for father figures (sometimes in creepy ways!)—the cultural specificity of its relationship to Japanese culture and its expectations about family, grief, and propriety drive the story in a way that would be significantly less interesting if, prior to reading, the reader were intimately familiar with the details of Japanese society.
There’s a lot of emotional truth here. And it’s real and it’s got depth and sometimes the gravity of the rendered situation sneaks up on you. But it’s also kind of boring in its slowness and matter-of-fact in a way that mutes that truth rather than amplifies it. If we return to the conversation about literature in translation, all of the qualities that make it a mediocre novel make it a prime candidate for dipping your toes in the water. Its grief and its catharsis are global, yet its geological pacing allows you to inspect the cultural specificity that—depending on the kind of reader you are—will make it unique among the books you read this year.