Tag Archives: Translated Fiction

Sweet Bean Paste – Durian Sukegawa

Hey Loves!

How are you all? Hope everyone is enjoying July. This year has been so strange you know. I can’t believe we finish for summer this week but it doesn’t feel right. Anyway, it’s completely out of our control. I am looking forward to a break. I’ve got lots of reading planned and a HUGE pile of books to get through. I love that though!

Today I want to share with you a book I read in one sitting. It’s just utterly beautiful and I know you’d love it. I just had to share it with you! It’s criminal not to. I’m talking about Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. This book is a translation but it’s strikingly beautiful. I hope you enjoy!

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What’s it about?

Set in the beautiful Japanese cherry blossom, the novel centres around Sentaro, a middle aged man with a criminal record, a habit of drinking too much and a dream of becoming a writer. The reality is he spends his time watching the blossom come and go making and selling dorayaki – a type of pancake with a sweet bean paste. The mundane reality of his life is getting to him; he longs for more. One day whilst he was working in the confectionary shop, he notices a woman looking at him. He politely nods. This image repeats over time, he recognises her and she seems to spend a long time watching from afar under the Japanese blossom. She approaches the shop after reading a sign asking for workers. Despite her age, seventy six, she wants the job. She offers to work for less but is still rejected. However, she seems to know plenty about the bean paste and wishes to share that knowledge. With over fifty years experience, the reader sees that she clearly has a life before that has led her to this moment and persistency in returning to the shop.

“I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.”

Little did he know, this little old lady, Tokue, would change his world for the better. Deeply in touch with nature, Tokue watches the trees and their movement. She is certain that feelings make food better. She wants to impart this knowledge to Sentaro because he clearly needs saving from the situation he finds himself. He needs saving from himself. There is one major problem: her hands. Nevertheless, after tasting her sweet bean paste he offers her a job there. He has to learn how she does it to help the business. He is well aware that he only has the job because he has a debt to repay to the owner. At first, his motivation was this.

“Sentaro didn’t really care where she made it. He didn’t care who she was, either. All that concerned him was if she could make a good-quality, sweet bean paste to draw in the customers and help him get away from this shop as soon as possible.”

Tokue begins to make the paste by teaching Sentaro what she knows and her technique for creating something so utterly divine: like nothing he has ever tasted. Over time, the two become close. They talk, make bean paste and see an improvement in the confectionary store. Because of the earlier concern about her hands, Tokue tried incredibly hard to stay in the back and out of the way. She does have an Achilles heel: babies. If any young children or babies come into the shop, she naturally gravitated towards them. She seemed to grow and blossom around her. With the success of the product, the increased sales and therefore increased production, Sentaro became more positive and more exhausted. There is no time for drinking! Eventually, this catches up with him and he ends up unable to work. The following day he learns that Tokue creates and opens the shop on her own. She manages the money and writes everything down to help him. Sentaro is completely shell shocked.

‘Sentaro felt like sitting down in shock. How had she managed it? What was her pancake batter like? She had handled all the money with those gnarled fingers…? What had the customers thought of that?’

One of the younger customers, Wakana, takes a liking to Tokue and finds the courage to question her about her life, with a particular focus on her hands and fingers. This image is recurring and we are constantly reminded as a reader that there is a tale to be told here. Tokue is very reserved about it, holding the majority of the story to herself. We learn that she wanted to be a teacher, hence the appreciation and excitement towards children, but an illness when she was younger meant that she was never able to fulfil her dream. Whilst things had been incredibly good, like the seasons and the weather, time brings about change. There is a rumour about a cursed lady working at the shop causing customers to stay away. In his naivety, he accepted the illness story. What he didn’t realise what the extent of that illness or what that illness was. It turns out that as a child Tokue had leprosy. Tokue is old enough and wise enough to know that the drop in sales and the rumours are down to her, so decides to quit. As if beautifully timed, the trees have lost their blossom too…

“There was a time when I’d given up all hope of ever going outside those gates into the world again. But look at me. I could come here. I met so many people. All because you gave me a job.”

As a result of this, Sentaro finds himself back in bleak sadness. He feels as though he has sent his own mother away. Over time, he decides he needs to go back and see her. He takes Wakana with him and they bring a canary for her to look after. It is clear that they all need each other so the gap between them has meant that they’ve missed each other terribly. Yet, he had to make the business work in order to repay his debt. The quality dropped again following Tokue’s departure but Sentaro took his lessons seriously. Because of his huge amount of feeling, this was in the bean paste. It really does change the taste. During the winter months, Tokue sent a letter as a reminder and a shove that Sentaro needs. She felt something in the wind that told her to contact him. Beautifully, she know that something wasn’t quite right. She was correct.

“It’s important to be bold and decisive. When you can say with certainty that you have found your style of dorayaki, that will be the start of a new day for you. I firmly believe this. Please have the courage to go your own way. I know that you can do it.”

More time passed, more letters sent and received and more pressure from the owner to make the shop more profitable. Eventually, Sentaro decides to quit and move onto something else. However, the calling of dorayaki and everything he gained from Tokue called to him. Seeing the vision of Tokue and hearing her words gave him the shove again he so desperately needed. It just so happened that this time he was too late to tell her. The novel closes with one last beautiful letter, a death and a new beginning. Sentaro will never forget the impact that Tokue had on him.

‘Sentaro and Wakana stood close, gazing in silence at the trees all around them. The forest murmured with every ripple of wind that rustled its branches and leaves. As if Tokue was somewhere close nearby, telling them to open their ears and listen.’

Final Thoughts

I’ve used the word beautiful copious amounts in this review because it absolutely is. It moved me in ways I didn’t expect. I was worried regarding the translation and if it would lose its eloquence but its simplicity makes it elegantly sublime. By noticing nature and listening to the messages in the wind, we can all learn to live differently. Tokue’s character showed us that when times are incredibly difficult, we always have hope. Her hope was young people and babies. They animated her and brought light to her. They showed her that she wasn’t foolish to have those dreams. The illness may have taken her opportunity as a young adult, but she had a different opportunity in that shop as an elderly lady. The bond between the older generation is a gift. Like Sentaro, we can always learn something and better ourselves. There is always light, even in the darkest of times.

I genuinely loved this book. I’d say, so far, that this is my favourite book this year. It was blown away by its simplicity, it’s tenderness and love. I highly recommend to absolutely everyone. Everywhere.

Big love all xxxx

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Silk – Alessandro Baricco


Hi all! 

Another book review to close August. Can you believe it’s the last day of the month? I can’t! I feel like time is whizzing past me and I’m struggling to keep up. It also means with September fast approaching, I’m one step closer to being back at work. Better to put that thought on the back burner and concentrate on my review today. Today’s book is a little, cute thing I found at a charity book shop on my travels: Silk by Alessandro Baricco. 

Originally written in Italian in 1996, this book was translated in 1997. What’s strange is I stumbled across this 20 years later. It was sticking out, on a slant on the shelf. It caught my eye. I quickly saw that the cover was beautiful and the back of the book was full of quotes like:  

“A moving allegory of life as a quest…”

and

“A heartbreaking love story told in the form of a classic fable…”

Clearly a bargain at £1. 


What’s it all about?

The 1860s silk trade was booming and Hervè Joncour travels around the world buying silkworm eggs. Eventually, after problems with the silkworm eggs in Africa, Joncour travels to Japan. He buys eggs from the interesting character of Hara Kei, a French speaking nobleman. Joncour falls in love with his mistress, a rather curious and silent character, ultimately incredibly beautiful also. He makes a note of her eyes in particular. 

“Suddenly, without the smallest movement, the young girl, opened her eyes.” 

During his second visit to Japan, Jancour learns about the aviary of exotic birds that Hara Kei has built. His mind, however, seems distracted by the young girl. He leaves a glove her the mistress to find in a pile of clothes: a token. Towards the end of this visit, the mistress gives him a love note written in Japanese, the first of many over the travels. Unable to understand, Joncour visits Madame Blanche, a rich draper and brothel owner. She translates the letter for him. 

“Come back, or I shall die.” 

During Joncour’s third visit to Japan, Hara Kei’s mistress released the birds from the aviary. Through the darkness, as time progresses, they make love, thus starting their affair. It should be noted that Joncour was married to Hélène. She waits patiently at home for his return. Hara Kei conducts the silkworm egg transaction via another associate and refuses to say goodbye when Joncour leaves. 

However, when it is time for Joncour’s fourth trip to Japan, war had broken out in Japan. He finds Hara Kei’s village was burnt to the ground; nothing remained. From what appears to be out of nowhere, a young boy appears and gives him the glove that he dropped on the pile of clothes for Hara Kei’s mistress. Showing unlimited trust, he follows the boy to a place where the refugees from Hara Kei’s village are camping. 

“In front of him, nothing. He had a sudden glimpse of what he had considered invisible. The end of the world.” 

Unlike his previous visits, Hara Kei refuses to welcome Joncour, rather urging him to leave. They are living in a war and clearly nothing was left. Nevertheless, Joncour refuses to leave. The following morning, Joncour sees the body of the boy who guided him, hanging from a tree. Hara Kei has executed him for carrying the glove to Joncour and bringing him back to their village. 

Rather hastily, Joncour procures a supply of eggs but leaves far too late in the season to transport them. The silk mill, despite its earlier success, sits idle. To help the workers in the seven mills, Joncour decides to essentially landscape his garden, offering work to those who were missing out in the idle mills. 

“Occasionally, on windy days Hervé Joncour would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.” 

Time passes and Joncour receives a letter, again written in Japanese. This cues another visit to Madame Blanche who, after some reluctance, translates this for him. It is an erotic love letter from a woman to her beloved master. It’s lyrical, almost moving.  It tells the tale of a love that we all hope for. After reading, Madame Blanche gives him some of her trademark blue flowers. 

It is at this point that Joncour decides to retire from the silkworm egg business. At this point he and Hélène have three daughters. Unfortunately, Hélène gets sick and dies of a fever. Joncour lives a life of existing, visiting his wife’s grave whenever he gets lonely. It was at one visit he notices Madame Blanche’s blue flowers there. This sparks one final visit to her. 

“When loneliness mastered him he would go up to the cemetery…The rest of his time was taken up with a liturgy of habits that succeeded in warding off sadness.” 

It is with great sadness that at this visit, Joncour learns that this great love letter was authored in fact by his wife. 

“She even wanted to read it to me, that letter. She had the most beautiful voice. And she read those words with an emotion that I’ve never been able to forget. It was as if they really were her own words.”


Overall:

This novel is quite possibly one of the most highly descriptive, moving and emotionally charged novel I’ve probably ever read. It is beautiful and lyrical. It keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. It’s probably one of the best £1’s I’ve spent. 

Big love xx

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