Amrita (novel) by Banana Yoshimoto
English Publication History: Amrita (1997, Faber and Faber; 1997, Grove Press; 1998, Washing Square Press)
Original: Japanese (アムリタ), 1994
Translated by Russell F. Wasden, 1997
Synopsis: Sakumi, while not a teenager any longer, certainly has trials and tribulations much like someone half a decade her junior. She scoffs at having an office job so continues her fun and flexible job at a bar, yet, in the long term, it’s a dead end. She lives at home with her kindergarten-aged brother, mother, and two family friends, but the herd of this house seems to be thinning after the death of her elder sister.
What was once an urbane existence amid the toils of divorce and death, her brother begins to exhibit odd behaviors that compels to skip school. As an older sister, she takes his side in order to understand him; however, his supernatural gift of clairvoyance and telepathy catches her off guard: he says gods speak to him; he says what Sakumi is thinking; he sees future events; he recognizes “good” auras of people. Sakumi can’t deny that he has a gift, but it’s something to which she had never been exposed.
After her sister’s suicide, Sakumi lost her memory in a tumble down the stairs, memories which come back in spurts and floods. She understands that her sister used to have a boyfriend named Ryuochiro, but that doesn’t stop her from following a romantic relationship with the same man. As time moves on, her short-term memory forms fewer gaps and her relationship evolves to the point of traveling with her beau to Saipan in the Pacific Ocean, where she more inexplicable supernatural elements of ghosts and telepathy. She’s brought herself out of her comfort zone–albeit still headstrong (oops, a pun)–and forms bonds with the off locals, as does her brother who visits and experiences the same elements.
Returning home, she finds her work closed, her brother studying away from home, and another member of the household had run away. Her spirit is buoyed, however, by suddenly receiving a flood of associated memories, none of which really shed light on her permanent state of existentialism, ennui, and mediocrity.
Analysis: Citing Wiki yet again, amrita is “repeatedly referred to as the drink of the devas which grants them immortality” and is “etymologically related to the Greek ambrosia.” There’s no literal liquid of longevity (damn alliteration) in the story, so the reader must infer what the nectar is that grants immortality in a sense. Consider that memory is a large part of Sakumi’s hardships (well, that and her Gen-X ennui), her gradual recovery of memory enthralls her, as if she were re-living her life again, as if the memories themselves were immortal and material for all to view.
According to the book’s own text, the title amrita “comes from the old Sanskrit word amrta … a divine nectar, something the gods indulged in by guzzling the stuff down.” It is said that “when you’ve let the liquid gush through you, you’ve achieved life, because what happens to the flowing water is similar to what happens to people” (445). This quote comes from Sakumi’s boyfriend, a published author who’s planning on writing his next novel with the same title; further, he says, “[D]on’t you think it will make a good title for a novel? Sure, it might not sell, but that’s beside the point” (445).
This is one point where the book goes meta. It’s not a unique twist where one character decides to write a book with the same title that the reader is reading and is, indeed, what the author and character had intended. It kind of feels like the character–Ryuochiro, the author in the book–somehow reflects Banana Yoshimoto. Ryuochiro seems like a jet-setting writer always looking for inspiration but only writing pulp, who also seems to be sunk in as deep of ennui as Sakumi; though he has a permanent address, Ryuochiro wonders through the world, through women, and through tangled emotions.
Further, the book contains quite a few printed letters from Sakumi’s family and friends, extracts from her life that peak into other’s motivations. While this isn’t meta, the book also summarizes (according to my memory) a movie and a book, which shined light on Sakumi’s situation. The author also referred to certain reals works of fiction that, again, shined light on Sakumi, but also fictional pieces of fiction that didn’t.
Review: It’s all a strange mishmash of correspondence, bits of meta-fiction, and the ennui of a Gen X Japanese girl bent on non-conformity to social standards yet has little motivation or inspiration other than taking one day after another in a struggle to beat boredom with a decent bank account while capturing stray bits of memory that come from association. As much as my summary is very sequential and disjointed, the entire 459-page book reads like that. If this is a sample of Banana’s other works, the rest of her bibliography may not really interest me.