February in Banana’s Kitchen

I loved Kitchen by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto from the first time I read it and I think I’m going to love, read, and treasure this book my whole life. The copy that proudly shows a tea stain in the pic above the post title is from an Italian edition, which had been printed after the release of the eponymous film and includes Kitchen – part I and part II – and the novella, Moonlight Shadow.

Both the stories, Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow, present a female protagonist and deal with mourning and love. When I first read the book I wasn’t dealing with grief but I found it was the truest book I’ve ever read. I can’t really explain why. Maybe it was (and still is) for the lyric and at the same time simple style of its prose. Maybe I immediately loved this book for its beginning. I found an English quote that says:

“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me. Ideally, it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. Where tile catching the light (ting! Ting!)”

But the Italian version I am holding in my hands doesn’t say “the place I like the best”. Speaking about the feelings of the protagonist towards the kitchen, it uses the verb “amare”, to love. My copy of the book begins with an explicit declaration of love and the sense of bare honesty and openness of the protagonist conquered me immediately. It was like listening to a sincere friend talking directly to me from her soul, in a moment of my life when I felt I have none. My book begins this way:

“There is no place in the world that I love more than the kitchen…”

Mikage Sakurai has recently lost her grandmother, who was her last living relative. Now, she’s completely alone in the big wild world. Some days after the funeral, a kind boy who works in the flower shop her grandma used to frequent, Yuichi Tanabe, offers Mikage to come and stay with him and his mother while she rests and figures out what to do next. Yuichi is an only child as well. He lives alone with his only relative, his seductive mother Eriko, who used to be a man, his father.

Kitchen is a book about what remains after you’ve lost everything, everyone, even your old identity. It’s a book that says terrible things in a delicate and intimate way. At one point Mikage, who is also the narrator, says:

“Now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.”

Nevertheless, she’s completely alone. Tanabe’s family is there to tell her that strangers can be friendly encounters, that tragedy is not a thing that belongs to just an individual and that the world does not revolve around her. This is true for any of us, even though when drama hits you badly, you might think universe holds a grudge to you.

A similar message is told in a more dreamlike style by the novella Moonlight Shadow, which is present in my edition of Yoshimoto’s book. If you learn this lesson, you can stand up again, walk your path and also be a light to someone else who might need to catch sight of a friendly face during an ordeal. The light in Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was that friendly face, that gentle beacon during my wistful adolescence. And you? Did you have a “rescue book” or song or friend during a hard time? If you wish, tell me about it here in the comments. In any case, thank you for your precious time.

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