Written in 2008
Original Japanese publisher Poplar Publishing Ltd
© David Karashima, 2011 - English translator
Publisher: Alma Books
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I'm drawn to novellas; this could be to do with the duration of the book rather than style or author preference - Also, I admire books which convey stream of thoughts from the protagonist; no sign of chapter structure or break-off symbols to inform the reader to have a breather. Thought in reality is a stream of conscience that fails to stop for any reader craving for a break, ambulance service, dog that runs out into the road, or fifteen minute interval. Thought is always streaming and happening... even now, listen to your inner thoughts data buffering. Ito Ogawa employs this inner voice to her book; 'Restaurant of Love Regained.'
Ogawa was in her mid thirties when she wrote her novella of inner-voice anecdotes. What I didn't realize was the author hadn't originally written the novella in English, it was in her mother tongue, Japanese; and then had to be translated to a global market by David Karashima. A ploy that best selling foreign authors tend to adopt; albeit, I cannot see how translation could aid the script, surely it may misinterpret the initial stream of Japanese prose, not get across the plot line accurately - often the residence of the foreign author changes due to the misgivings of cultural translation, inadvertently severing origin ties to their national communities. A sad ordeal, alas such circumstances do occur too often when best selling foreign authors conquer their homeland and automatically go global. If they choose to stall on global literature stardom, rarely the chance is offered again, publishers tend to promptly label the authors shortsighted, well just like buses another best seller is never too far away. This isn't the case with Ogawa, as this novella embraces the universal interest of eating establishments and notably food. A recipe for success, maybe - nevertheless, Ogawa's protagonist Rinko just draws short of offering the readership 'actual' recipes, there is just enough technical obscurity to leave food types befuddled with Rinko's gastric endeavours.
Rinko's initial string of events from the onset embroidered the plot line - An unexpected lifestyle turn of a love that cleaned out their love-nest and flew off - leaving Rinko a mute, due to the shock. Her plight then takes her to her estranged Mother where she re-lives her childhood memories and embarks on her own unique restaurant called 'The Snail;' with food at the novella core, at each nostalgic thought - her grand mother's vase never too far away; a family heirloom of significance Rinko's love for the vase overrides all emotive for her lost love; Ogawa skits about the lost love emotive by including gastric orientated memories in short sentences i.e. - "we had fish that day," and evident in Rinko's daydreaming - "For some reason, I always picture a majestic mosque and a beautiful sea stretching out behind my boyfriend, as he sits and eating beans and vegetable curry..." Instead of feeling for Rinko's stark plight, her clinical tone, matter of fact reaction, disengages a reader's sympathy; when in fact it shouldn't, due to the contemporary style and Rinko's inner-voice anecdotes. The protagonist's actions aren't plausible, and this is where Japanese to English translation has failed to communicate her plight back to the reader. A fine example can be observed with this statement: "After replacing the lid of the heavy vase, I struggled to tuck it under one arm;" then, instead of taking the lift, (which is what most people would do if carrying a heavy vase) instead..."chose to take the stairs, moving carefully so as not to trip and drop the vase, and set off on my way." I could put this down to a creative license, as it is modern fiction - I really wanted to; but the implausibility continued... still carrying the heavy vase she stops off at the landlord's place to return the key and thereafter... she walks the dark streets, walking the equivalent of *several stops* along the train line until she comes to a main bus terminal. No mention of the physical toil of carrying a heavy rice-bran vase. I would even forgive Ogawa if she made a flippant remark - 'my aching arms, my aching heart.'
Rinko 's inner-voice also didn't spurt out her internal anguish of losing her voice; she treated her own tragic circumstance as if she's picked up a sniffle. Without explanation she was suddenly using flip-cards to communicate - the use of flip-cards was due to Rinko realizing something profound had happened. She questions when she had lost her vocal cords ability - before flicking back to the main event of walking into her room to find it empty, at that shocked juncture, immediately she was a mute - not due to the human evaporation of her Indian love, but because her room was sparse - bare... exactly what it was like when she had first set eyes on the space. I wasn't enamoured with the obvious lost in translation script - where by too many loose ends lay dormant, making the narrative seem saggy - ill-fitted student dungarees popped to mind. My disappointment went beyond the cosmetics of narrative and went straight to the heart of the novella. There was an untouched area which contemporary fiction would suit perfectly, the concept of miscegenation - Japanese and Indian. Two young twenty-something's in a city, experiencing different cultures. It didn't come across, hardly at all, beyond the culinary twists of emotive wrapped up in dishes. This begs the question: why was the novella titled, 'Restaurant of Love Regained' if the plot line had no conventional romantic connotation? An example of misconceived translation; Ogawa's young protagonist portrayed anything but a seductress, in fact Rinko's Mother had this role - believable, yet not convincing - not helped by Ogawa's appearance term: transvestite - although her Mother's alleged seductress qualities was aplenty it didn't lure me to believe it, after reading her mannish appearance. Ogawa then fell into the trap of over-elaborating on breasts, allowed as they're a credible food term. The old clichés of twin peaks and mountains and valleys depicting mammary glands was churlish, evidence of Ogawa attempting adult literature, a far cry from her background roots of Children's' books.
There was no doubt Ogawa was attempting to capture the Joanne Harris magic which served Harris so well in 'Chocolat' (1999). So the Japanese novella title of 'Snail Canteen' required the Harris treatment; the result was; 'Restaurant of Love Regained.' The unconventional love of food; has no bearing on the book jacket design - alas, another example of the novella being lost in translation.
Sporadically, Ogawa pops up a diamond in the rough, namely Hermes; a spoilt pig which has only the best of all things 'great or small;' not to be confused with the French brand Hermès Paris, whereby their fashion labeled quality goods are prevalent in Japan. 'Only the best is Hermes!' Rinko's Mother pours her heavy, heaving buxom affections on to Hermes the pig - choosing the four legged kind, rather than the less worthy two legged kind. The undertone resonated Orwell's dystopian novel Animal Farm - 'four legs good, two legs bad.' Pigs were the brains of the outfit so had the cream of the crop; in Rinko's case, Hermes held the trump cards - her Mother's house Hermes rules. Rinko seeks her own rules nearby in a restaurant like no other, which serves one table per night. No menu, no food ordering, just extreme trust that Rinko can gauge the likes and dislikes via client observation. Believable if conversations had taken place, but as converse is at a flip-card minimal, the special-ness is hit or miss. Obviously, the whole novella frames food as the answer to all situations. Food is the divine power - a form of alternative medicine for all of 'The Snail's' clients. Rinko is the silent culinary Messiah; Lord of the fries. I'd buy the palate parable if 'The Snail' slipped up on several occasions; clients slowly crawled to the door pondering what they've just eaten. There was no mystic peruses by those sitting at the table finger twitching at the prospects of what will arrive before them. It was taken as gospel. The descriptive terminologies of food prep, made stomach's do somersaults, they were graphic and grotesque and will repulse readers who've food issues; notably the vegetarians - perfect for Japan's culinary culture of barbaric dexterity and sumptuous professionalism. What the novella does tell you is that the love of food is about blood and guts, hard graft Ogawa style. I, quite honestly felt there is a genuine issue of adult content overkill in regards to this novella; this is prevalent in writers who swap book genres; (from Children's books to Adult books) - More famous authors than Ogawa have fallen on this particular sword, some more-so than others. The protagonist devoid of poignancy is an achievement of its own, odd, considering the sensitive plot line - hardly clever authorship cultivating a novella on cold, stark, mechanical sentences, on par with the concept... 'Hawking has a voice for radio.'
What capped the whole novella off for me was the written flip-card comment of:"The weather is beautiful." No-one in Blighty uses such romantic wordage to describe English weather, because firstly, no weather pattern here is beautiful and secondly, if it may sway towards 'lovely' it is too hot for many. Karashima's translation is odiously wayward, dysfunctional, poorly researched and is highly assumptive - you needn't be surprised at the ultimate banana twist at the end either - lo and behold a divine cliché, to end all clichés- one from the children's storybooks - namely; 'The Brothers Grimm' - grim indeed.
A few weeks ago I came across an exceptional bargain after reading Martin Lewis's Moneysavingexpert newsletter. As an avid reader, I thought the opportunity to pick up 8 books for a tenner was just too good to miss so I popped over to the website of Thebookpeople and loaded my virtual shopping basket with everything I could find that looked even remotely interesting. At £1.25 a go, I could afford to take a few risks. 'The Restaurant of Love Regained' by Ito Ogawa was one of my choices - a book about which I knew nothing, but on which I was willing to take a punt. I'm very glad that I did. Even if the other seven had all turned out to be duds, I'd be happy with this one on its own.
Rinko works as a chef in a Turkish restaurant in Japan, living seemingly happily with her Indian boyfriend. One day she returns from work to find the flat is empty - no furniture, no kitchen equipment, no money hidden in the envelope in the futon, and most shockingly, no boyfriend. Everything she has and has ever had has gone, evaporated without a trace. The shock of losing everything leads her to lose her voice. She says nothing, makes up some cards with typical stock phrases on, and elects to remain mute. Everything Rinko owned has gone except for her grandmother's 'bran vase', a traditional utensil for preserving vegetables, which was tucked away at the back of a cupboard. Rinko takes up the bran vase, spends her last yen on a ticket to her ancestral village and does what abandoned and disappointed women have done throughout history - she goes home to mum.
Rinko's mum is an odd woman. Not the most maternal of characters, she showers the love she withheld from her daughter on a pig called Hermes. Hermes is like the better loved younger sister that Rinko never had. Mother buys her pig expensive designer bread and serves her only the best of food - nothing but organic goodies for her Hermes. Meanwhile Rinko has a plan to open a restaurant in the old storage hut. With the help and support of her old friend Kuma, another abandoned and deeply damaged soul, and with a loan from her mother at suicidal interest rates, she restores the storage hut and converts it to her special restaurant which she names 'The Snail'.
The Snail is a very special restaurant. Rinko accepts only one booking per day and then gives her total attention to her client or clients. She gets to know about the client and what they like, but also what they are like - what are their worries, what do they want from life? She then designs the perfect menu for each visitor - pouring love into every dish. She travels all over the region looking for special ingredients to give the best she can. Word of the almost magical powers of her food soon spread around her small town as young tongue tied would-be lovers find ways to express themselves, as a mistress who has been in mourning for her dead lover for many years finds colour in her life again, and as others come alive through the power of food. Then when all seems to be going well, Rinko learns some shocking secrets about her mother and has only a limited time to pull her past together in order to secure her future.
Rinko has viewed going back to her roots as a sort of admission of failure but gradually as she finds her way back into her community, builds up a few gentle friendships, and learns to understand her complicated mother, it becomes clear that there's a lot to be said for 'going home'.
~Arigato! Ito Ogawa~
I have read few Japanese authors but I've never yet had a bad experience. I had never heard of Ito Ogawa, didn't know before ordering the book if she was a he or a she, or that her book was a best-seller in Japan. Sometimes when you have no expectations you get the biggest surprises.
What I loved about The Restaurant of Love regained was that every word seems to be carefully selected like one of Rinko's ingredients. Ogawa never writes 10 words where 3 would suffice, never drags out a passage or over seasons her sentences. Everything is pared down to the minimum necessary to deliver a powerful message. It's like a 193-page, double spaced, elongated haiku. This is not a book that will take you a long time to read but it's such a tasty, juicy, brain-nurturing, soul-enhancing little book that you might want to slow down your reading to eke out the time you'll spend with the book.
I'm quite a foodie (unavoidably so due to working in the food industry) and I do enjoy really good food writing almost as much as really good fiction. Ogawa writes about food so compellingly that you can almost taste the dishes as you read. I'm not a fan of books where food has almost magical properties, but I could allow myself to believe (rationally at least) that a chef could impact the mood of her clients by truly understanding their needs at more than just a nutritional level.
The character of Rinko is almost as complex as her recipes. When her boyfriend disappears with all her things, she doesn't rant or rave or express any anger. She calmly takes the bran vase and gets on the bus. She refers to herself as heart-broken but tells nobody what's happened and barely even seems to reflect upon it. We have no idea why he left and we learn nothing more about his leaving. Rinko fixes the love affairs of others but remains loveless herself at a romantic level, solving only the problems of the love her mother has withheld. The author could very easily have fixed Rinko up with a nice boy to solve her broken heart, but she doesn't. Rinko is an oddly cold, and even by Japanese terms, highly controlled person. To understand the emotions of others so well whilst expressing none of her own makes Rinko an oddly enigmatic heroine for a story like this one.
If I have one tiny complaint - and this is something that needs a small flaw in order to offset the perfection of the total, a little like the intentional fault in a fine Islamic carpet that exists to prove that only God is perfect - it would be the lack of chapters. The book is not a long one but navigating is not helped by the entire thing being one long stretch of prose. This chapter-less technique is annoying to me as I'm the sort of reader who likes to put down a book at a natural break, and I feel a little manipulated to keep reading past the point at which I'd like to stop. Other than that, I'm struggling to find anything to not love about The Restaurant of Love Regained.
The Restaurant of Love Regained, Ito Ogawa
193pp. Published by Alma Books. RRP £7.99