Tsugumi (1989)

In English the title of this book has been rendered Goodbye Tsugumi. The “Goodbye” has no basis in the original title; presumably it’s been added to tip the reader of the English off to the fact that “Tsugumi” is a person’s name. In Japanese the title is simply Tsugumi – actually TUGUMI, in Japanese school romanization, which in standard romanization would be Tsugumi.

It was serialized in the now-defunct Japanese edition of Marie Claire in 1988 and 1989 before being published as a hardcover in 1989. Mrs. Sgt. T suggests that this is important: we should it expect it to be a light, youth-oriented love story. And indeed it is, sort of. It’s a classic seishun story – it hits hard the themes of youth passing away, fleeting summer as a symbol of youth passing away, love and loss as rites of the passage-away of youth, and the picturesquely dilapidated beach towns in which these stories always seem to take place. It’s a great example of the genre.

And it might be the best novel of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read so far. That is, it displays a novelistic craft I hadn’t suspected she possessed: rounded, varied characters (not just the narrator); interesting story, tightly told; vivid evocation of place and season; and a pleasing tone, ranging from bittersweet comedy to tragedy narrowly averted.

The narrator’s name is Maria – she was, she says, named after the Virgin – and she’s the daughter of a woman whose lover is a married man in Tokyo. Maria and her mother live in an unnamed beach resort town, with her mother’s sister, whose family runs a ryokan. Maria’s mother helps out, and lives for the day when her lover (Maria’s father) will divorce his wife and marry her.

You think that’ll never happen, but this isn’t that kind of cynical love story: in fact, it happens early on, and they move to Tokyo. That’s what sets up the action: right after moving to Tokyo they get news that the sister’s family is selling the ryokan and moving out of the beach town to run a B&B in the mountains, so Maria goes back to spend one last idyllic summer at the ryokan. She’s 19 and just finished her first year in college: cue nostalgia.

Maria has two cousins roughly her age, living in the ryokan: Yôko, a year older than her, and Tsugumi, a year younger. Tsugumi is a problem child: physically weak since infancy, plagued with a number of unnamed, vaguely described ailments – in this she seems, no doubt on purpose, like a character from a 19th century novel, and you’d be justified in suspecting that she’s Not Long For This World. (But you’d be wrong: it’s not that kind of book.)

Tsugumi’s weak, all but an invalid; she’s also (as is the way of these things) startlingly, ethereally beautiful; she’s also (and this is where the comedy comes in) a bratty, bitchy pain in the ass. Tsugumi compensates for her physical helplessness by verbally abusing everybody around her. But they all love her anyway – Maria and Yoko and the rest of the bunch know the score, and are never seriously hurt by Tsugumi’s excoriations. That’s the kind of book it is.

So, during this final summer Tsugumi falls in love with a young man named Kyôichi, the scion of the family that’s building the big modern hotel in town that’s displacing the ryokan business and driving Tsugumi’s family out of town. So there’s some classic rivalry potential here, but it’s really soft-pedaled in favor of the cute love story. Tsugumi doesn’t spare Kyôichi her shrewish tongue (not that the story is about the taming of her), but he quickly becomes devoted to her.

Part of the charm of the story is that because it’s narrated by a third character, we don’t get an inside view of Tsugumi and Kyôichi’s courtship: Maria is present for some of it, but not all of it. The actual nature and development of their love is a mystery, as love always is. This is nicely handled.

Along the way there’s some business with some neighborhood bullies and Kyôichi’s dog, and Tsugumi’s revenge (digging a pit to trap a bully in – and the discourse on the pit and Tsugumi’s feelings while digging it seems to resonate with some other famous pits in modern J-lit, such as Ôe’s in The Silent Cry and Murakami Haruki’s in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – discuss). This, too, is nicely handled: it’s a fictional device, well deployed to reveal character and move the plot along. Precisely the kind of craft that, I confess, I don’t always look for in serious literature, particularly in Japanese, and precisely where the Marie Claire audience-expectations influence may come in.

In other words, I’m prepared to theorize that writing for Marie Claire allowed Yoshimoto to give herself license to write something that employs genre formula (romantic comedy, seishun story) more thoroughly than is usual for her. And as far as I’m concerned it was good for her. This is a much more satisfying book than N/P. It’s less original, less experimental – but I’m not sure it’s less deep, because I’m not sure that N/P had any depths.

It’s a great read. And translator Michael Emmerich, who took over the Banana desk in 2000, deserves a shout-out: this reads better in English than any Banana I’ve yet looked at. It’s accurate, but more than that (Sherif is accurate too) it has a sense of style. I particularly like his creative solutions to the problem of how to make Tsugumi’s speech sound suitably rude, given that rudeness in Japanese consists of very different things than rudeness in English.