NP (1990)

This was published in Japanese in 1990 (as, don’t forget the dot, N・P), and here in an English translation by Ann Sherif in 1994 (as NP, no dot*).

Evidently this book is unusually popular in Japanese – in an interview somewhere Banana talks about people who are fans of just this book, nothing else. I’m not sure I get that.

I’m not sure I get this book. It’s narrated by Kazami, a young woman whose dead boyfriend Shôji had been translating a book of short stories called N.P. by a Japanese-born US-based writer named Takase. The book had 97 stories in it, but there was manuscript for a 98th that Shôji had obtained. Shôji killed himself while translating it. Takase himself committed suicide.

The narrator invokes the old tradition of “100 stories” ghost-story telling, suggesting that if all the stories connected with NP were gathered they’d add up to 100. And in fact, not only is there a 98th, but there are hints at a 99th. Which leaves the reader wondering: where’s the 100th? Of course you’re holding it in your hands, right? The implication (of giving the real-world book the title of the book-within-the-book, among other things) is that Banana’s NP is the 100th story in Takase’s.

The 98th concerns a writer who meets his adult daughter without realizing they’re related (he was estranged from her mother long ago), falls in love with her, has sex with her, and only then realizes their relationship. And in fact that’s what happened in real life, too: Takase fell unwittingly into an incestuous relationship with his daughter Sui, kept it up after realizing who she was, and ultimately killed himself.

He left behind not only Sui, but her half-siblings Otohiko and Saki. And, wouldn’t you know it, Otohiko also has an incestuous relationship with Sui. A few years after Shoji’s death, in the present of the narration, Kazami enters the orbit of the three Takase kids, becoming in different ways best friends with all of them.

There are the makings here of a nice literary mystery or literary ghost story (by that I don’t mean a mystery or ghost story that happens to be literature, but one that takes literature and literariness as its subtext)(it’s a thing). But Banana downplays those aspects of the story, instead playing up the romance of it. Which, okay, I find quite icky. Maybe that’s why I could never connect with this book.

I don’t think it goes much of anywhere, is the problem. It’s a lot of loosely connected scenes, set-pieces, rather than a plot-driven thing – which is fine for romances, but then why introduce the notes of horror and mystery, which tend to demand resolution, which this book refuses? I dunno. Nor do I find that Banana really does too much with the intriguing questions raised by the idea of translating into Japanese the English-language writings of a Japanese-born, Japanese-speaking author. She nods in that direction, but there’s a lot more to be explored there, I feel.

Masao Miyoshi wrote (in Off Center) that he thought he had read everything of Banana’s, but he couldn’t be sure because none of them made the slightest impression. I’ve always thought that was one of the cattier things ever said about an author, but lo and behold, when I sat down to read this a few weeks ago I found all sorts of marginal notes made by myself. And I don’t know when I made them, because I don’t remember having read this book before. And in another ten years, I probably won’t remember having read it now. (Thus, the blog.)

*How would one render the dot in English? It’s usually used in Japanese (where it’s called the nakaguro) to separate loanwords written in katakana. There are no word breaks in Japanese sentences, but editors figure readers need some indication of word breaks when dealing with foreign words, so, voila, the dot. It’s explained very early in the novel that NP, the book-within-a-book title, stands for “North Point.” Which in Japanese takes a dot when spelled out; it doesn’t necessarily need one when reduced to initials, but, cutely, it’s retained here. It makes sense to drop it in translation, but still the translator in me would like to have seen something done with it. N.P. maybe? Or why not get real provacative (which the presence of that dot in the Japanese, between those initials, I think is) and try the Barthesy N/P?