A Once Perfect Day for Bananafish

by Mieko Kawakami, recommended by Monkey Business


Monkey Business is a literary journal that aims to introduce English-speaking readers to what’s going on in the contemporary Japanese literary scene, but we also try to establish a dialogue between old and new fiction whenever we can, on occasion asking authors to select their favorite classic and write an essay about it. Thus Naoyuki Ii discusses the “office literature” of Keita Genji, Franz Kafka and Herman Melville in issues two and three, while the third issue also features EnJoe Toh’s take on a hilarious tale about a troupe of desperate actors on the lam penned by Japan’s leading modernist, Riichi Yokomitsu.

Shortly after J. D. Salinger died, we thought it would be wonderful to feature a poem or story about him or his work by Mieko Kawakami — who had once told us of her fondness for Salinger’s Nine Stories — in the Japanese version of Monkey Business. We expected it would turn out to be a nice homage to the beloved writer. (Some time before, Mieko had contributed a beautiful essay in memory of Kurt Vonnegut to Hayakawa’s SF Magazine.) Yet when she submitted this terrific prose poem, “A Once-Perfect Day for Bananafish,” based on what is arguably Salinger’s very best short story — we were blown away.

We love the idea of the three-year-old Sybil Carpenter in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” as an old woman at the end of her life, with the memory of that strange young man, Seymour Glass, flickering in and out of her consciousness. Mieko is a wonderful singer-songwriter as well as one of Japan’s major novelists, and we can hear the beautiful cadence of her poetry in Hitomi Yoshio’s great translation. We could go on and on about how this shows how well American literature is read in Japan, and how much affinity there is between words and music in contemporary Japanese fiction, but more than anything else we think “A Once-Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a great read, which requires no knowledge of Salinger’s original to be enjoyed.

This translation appeared in the second issue of Monkey Business, which came out as a paperback in 2012, while you can read a more traditional type of story by the same author, “Dream of Love, Etc.,” in the third issue, which is also available in ePub, PDF and Kindle.

Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata
Editors, Monkey Business

A Once Perfect Day for Bananafish

The old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. In a faint flicker, she dreams a dream all in yellow. A yellow, hot summer’s day. The old woman lives there, in the faint flicker.

In her bedroom piled with familiar objects, all we know are the bits and pieces that have kept on piling up. On this day of absolute solidity, in our eyes, she has lived for so long. The curtains always half-closed, at times matching her eyelids. In our eyes, the old woman lies still. In our eyes, the old woman lies still for a long, long time. Very lying still on the bed.

No one comes to visit, save one. The caregiver trots in and out several times a day. Lugging a vacuum cleaner, fresh towels in hand. Comes over with a chamber pot. A pitcher of water, some medicine — familiar yet unfamiliar. Then breakfast. Greetings. Some soup and sticky bread. She liked the cool bit at the corner of the sheets stretched out. The square-shaped air breathed in and out. A word. Caress. Smile. Greetings. The tingling of the door closing. Clear liquid just within reach of the right hand. The caregiver is very kind.

A small chandelier hangs from the ceiling motionless, cloudy with dust. The leaf motif engraved on the hook of the hat rack, the round knobs on the chest of drawers, the walnut picture frame, the curling pattern of ribbons on the wall — none will fly into motion as they once did, no matter how long she stares at them. In our eyes, the old woman has lived for so long. So very long. No matter when now is, it can’t be stopped from being now somewhere — and that has become one of the few friends she has left. The true, absolute end, her eyes roam, they roam freely across that world. Without moving, the eyes walk and touch the world, taking along words as company. Lying flat, over the tiny shell-shaped buttons in the fold of her chest, lined up in six answering signals of raspy whistling. Beyond the strings that encounter one another in tiny embroidered laces frayed around the wrist. The back of the hand, the last surface where blood vessels and discolored skin swell and stroll in succession. Then, skim the dull swelling of two plump legs underneath the thick cotton cover, barely able to move. Then, takeoff. The eyes travel a great distance. Above the large silent mirror directly across. What lies on the other side — a dead end, still open, universally comprehensible.

The old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. In a faint flicker, she dreams a dream all in yellow. A yellow, hot summer’s day. The old woman lives that day, in the faint flicker.

Waiting for the sound of the waves, fragments of piano melody, the soles of the old woman’s feet swell a little, then rapidly begin to shrink. The wrinkles fill out, squeaking. Limbs, hips, chest, head, fill to the point of bursting, then shrink, steadily tightening. The hair regains its warmth and moisture, expanding, curling, at last recovering its straightness, shining in youthful gold. The small feet, their soles yet to be hardened. Restored to a soft wholeness, the old woman is once again running on the beach.

The old woman is running in a tight two-piece bathing suit.

Running, the ends of her hair stick to her shoulder blades, the hair she is so proud of, unreachable no matter how many times she twists her arms to scratch her back. The irritating smell of the sunscreen her mother carefully rubbed onto her skin before coming down to the beach. Such a strong smell. She runs along, worrying it will stick to the shoulder straps of her bathing suit — her favorite thing this summer after her hair. Then she decides to walk, enduring the hot sand. Pressing the assembly of hot sand particles are the soles of her feet, brand new and freshly made.

On the sand lie many things still nameless, the only thing the old woman recognizes upon close reflection is a castle. She nearly trips over someone’s half-made tower. I wouldn’t mind finishing this up later, she thinks, but being on her way to meet the young man, mutters an apology in the back of her throat. Almost newborn, the old woman apologizes silently on any and every occasion. The strange face of that young man, her mother’s nagging, the lipstick on the straw — they all scared her. She recalls her mother busily chatting away these past few days.

Twisting her boredom, tying and untying a bow, she first bumped into the young man one Friday ago while walking around every nook of the big hotel.

Big ears, strange face full of lines, polite voice — she detected a thin slice of space. The little old woman looked up at the young man, Are you a recovering pianist? If only he would remain silent, or mutter until tomorrow in a dangling voice. I’ll come show you my bathing suit if it’s sunny, she makes a kind of promise, pleased with him at first glance.

Climbing into the warm dampening night, she shares a large plate of shrimp with mother, mother’s friend, and mother’s friend’s daughter, a little smaller than her. As mother and her friend become lost in conversation, chasing tails of words, their differences disappear. Stuck in between, the girl, even more a newborn than the old woman, smears her face with sauce in a very affected manner. Sucking the head of a shrimp, moving her clumsy fingers, she mutters something. To wit, are you aware of the young man who was playing the piano in the corner of the lounge yesterday and the day before? Yes, I am, my foot bumped into his just a little while ago, answers the old woman. Me, I played the piano with him, sitting side by side, she announces triumphantly, the shrimp’s whiskers swinging to and fro. I’m gonna play with him again. How about you? No, I won’t, the old woman answers. I mean, you do it with hands, right? Sorry, but that’s so boring — these last parts unuttered.

The summer, disliking solid air, mixes the pale yellow with hands and eyes, chop chops the hot sand. Aiming for the young man, the old woman remembers their second chance meeting by the piano. Countless cold marble pillars bloom, looking stupid, she thinks she wouldn’t mind playing tag with him, going round and round together. It’s the second time and all, let’s introduce ourselves, he says. The young man’s name slips and slides into her ears. At that moment, oh my. A beautiful array of letters glimmer around him like the second hand of a clock, within reach. They seem to be manufactured in the world, but actually not. And the meaning, where is it manufactured? Where are they usually made, if I may ask? Her feet move in cheerful steps. Everything floats in yellow, the insides rolled up in yellow.

Again and again, the old woman calls out the young man’s name, her favorite this summer surpassing her bathing suit, her superb bundle of hair. Every time she calls it out, she weaves her mother’s frown. The sound is so comforting, and the sensation just before the words become sound appears to her eyes like this: how sublime and wonderful! So she wants to say to him, but her newborn freshness thwarts her. Then the young man starts talking. He starts talking, I usually lie on the beach all alone. All we see are his bits and pieces always blown by the wind. In the irretrievable break of the afternoon, the sunny day covering the sky, the old woman decides, Let’s go to him and ask about the piano. In our eyes, the young man lies still on the sand. Lies still, long. The swimming tube just above his head. What a knowing look it has. It’s laughing in the shape of a ring, the inevitable sequence of coming in and going out. The chair with the girl passes by. The old woman repeats the young man’s name, and in between her breaths he calls out her name in return, and further in between, inspecting shells with his fingers, he skillfully displays how the scenes came about — the forest, his favorite wax, the wasteland, addresses, tigers, his fingernail biting. Clearly. Then mixing together. The yellow water melts the tiger. The trees burn like candles, the jagged tops bite into the sky. When the old woman kicked the wasteland, it rained, creating a mirror like a lake. The knot is clearly visible in the young man’s hand. The two gaze into the lakelike mirror in his hand. Who is reflected there, if I may ask? The old woman reaches her hand out to the young man. Who can it be? The young man reaches his hand out to the old woman. He picks up the knot glimmering through his cradlelike hand with the fingertips of his other hand and puts it in his mouth, swallows it without blinking. Her admiration enfolds the moment, all the sand particles of the summer day — the adorable old woman in a yellow bathing suit, tummy slightly protruding. Clearly, so very clearly.

The old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. In a faint flicker, she dreams a dream all in yellow. A yellow, hot summer’s day. The old woman is alive there, in the faint flicker.

The young man and the old woman enter the sea. The waves are soft glass particles; they inhale, inhaling the rays of the sun all over, and exhale, exhaling, illuminate her supple skin, the aloof facade of the swimming tube, the dimple in his gigantic semicircular earlobe. I could squeeze myself into your ears forever! Her feet move in cheerful steps.

So when the old woman, almost a newborn, absentminded, heard from the young man’s mouth none other than that that that that bananafish, her body was about to explode. Bananafish! More than anything, bananafish was her forte.

Yet, with friendly intimacy, she determines to keep it a secret until the bananafish actually appears. Truly, absolutely, it was her forte, fortissimo, if it weren’t a bananafish it might as well have been a blue unicorn. Feigning ignorance to test him, she listened to the young man with curly hair and gentle wide-set eyes saying all kinds of correct things about bananafish. Neither too much nor too little, intimately, and above all, empirically!

Yeeeess, yeeeess. The old woman rolls up as far as she could the small mouth not of her bathing suit but of the puffed-sleeve blouse she was wearing just a moment ago, using her even smaller lips, and holding tight, she dips her face into the seawater, the sea enters, enters into every nook and cranny.

Then, at that moment, a bananafish passes before her eyes.

Oh, how boring, how boring it is.

She drops a tsk in the water, making it rotate. So like this, the unveiling ceremony and farewell address took place in just a few seconds, and oh, how boring, how boring it is. She tells the young man what she saw, and sure enough, he drops down to a boring temperature too, and without asking, Well then, let’s just get out of the water. Looking up at the sky all pale like a thin omelet, she saw a small bird approach from the long distant past. It was black and old-looking, like something made of iron. How can it fly, that thing, without wings, I didn’t call it over. The old woman sees a single dark shadow in her heart, turns toward the young man. Why does it come, that thing, it’s not necessary, I wish it would leave me alone. The young man, too, is looking up at the ancient bird. He smiles silently. The old woman’s shadow becomes darker. Gazing intently together with him, she forgets to say good-bye. After a few steps, she turns around and sees him lying on the sand in the same position as at the beginning.

The old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. In a faint flicker, she dreams a dream all in yellow. A yellow, hot summer’s day. Though she lived long, she remembered that summer’s day only once — in this flicker. She has already forgotten her own name. She forgot, too, the lovely name of the young man from that yellow summer. Such a pretty name. All she remembers is the yellow-tinted “see more, feet, go numb.”

While she lived, she was always on the go. But — the old woman on the bed at the end of her life, the true, absolute end. What visited her in her last moment — it was the yellow, hot summer’s day. All we know are the bits and pieces that have kept on piling up, day by day. In our eyes, that place, that moment is alive.

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