When Japanese answer the phone, they usually say “moshi moshi,” which means something like “I’m here and I can talk.” Moshi Moshi, the title of Banana Yoshimoto’s latest novel, refers to the phone that the main character’s father left at home before leaving to commit suicide with his paramour. The main character, Yoshie, dreams that her father is trying to find his phone to call her. But the title also captures the feeling that Yoshie has something to say about her father, and that she can finally say it. She needs to say it.
Yoshimoto elevates the daily prosaic events of her characters into something to wonder at, to take stock of, and even to relish.
The suicide came as a complete surprise. But after the initial shock, Yoshie and her mother, Mom, thought back on the time leading up to it. Yoshie’s father, Dad, was a talented but minor musician and led a musician’s life of late nights and time away. But they realized that all of the time away did not add up to his musician’s life. After this realization, Yoshie is nearly paralyzed with grief, anger, and confusion. She can not reconcile how he could have reached the point of needing to end his life, to never see her again.
As the novel opens after this year, Yoshie has been finally able to move away from Mom and their condo home to the quiet neighborhood of Shimokitazawa. She finds a small flat and secures employment at a small bistro, Les Liens. She does it all there—cleaning, serving, and working in the kitchen, where she can use what she learned in culinary school. However, she didn’t pick the neighborhood at random; she remembers it from previous visits as a small warren of eccentric little shops along its alley-sized street, and the best shave ice, which happened to be served at Les Liens. At first it was a good move:
I was finally starting to be able to feel the joy in sitting down to a cup of tea, or just getting up in the morning. It was amazing what a difference a change in scenery made. I could wake-up without my first thought being that Dad was gone. Back at the condo, it welled up every morning, all around the apartment like a hidden message, clouding my heart.
But my happiness was short-lived. One day, out of the blue, without much more than the clothes on her back, Mom moved in.
Even with Mom there, Yoshie tries to put her Dad’s suicide behind her, as she spends many hours at the bistro. Of course, not wanting to stay home alone, Mom also is at Les Liens for long hours as a customer. Yet, even with the distractions, the lingering questions about her father come to her, sometimes in dreams, especially the one where he is looking for his phone. This must mean he has something to say, Yoshie believes. To find out what that is, she becomes her own private investigator, unearthing clues such as:
… there was a large photo of that woman. She had small, slight features, a slender face. A woman with wavy hair in a side parting, who looked nothing like Mom, who was like a mirage.
When I saw her face, I was struck by an inexpressible terror. This woman has tried to die with other men as well, I thought.
As Yoshie begins to understand what happened with her father, her quiet, redemptive life brings to unravel. A man comes into her life, at first distracting her from trying to understand what happened. Shintani is a handsome and kind man, working in a family business. Yoshie is smitten with him and they begin to spend a lot of time together, but:
The way I saw him was strangely painful, like the way a married man might look at a girlfriend he loved to see—looking at someone who wasn’t right for you, although they might have been, in a different time and place. You could call it the gift of perspective, and it was probably what had enabled things to be easy between us, but I felt a little resentful, too.
Unnerved by this feeling toward Shintani, as well as her dreams and the discovery of her father’s secret life, she tries to hold onto her new life. With more changes in store for her, she must discover her own strengths. Will her father be able to help her?
Moshi, Moshi is subtle yet powerful, intimately personal as well as universal. Banana Yoshimoto masterfully elevates the daily prosaic events of her characters—which are in many ways, all of our day-to-day existences—into something to wonder at, to take stock of, and even to relish. As you can see from the excerpts, her prose is clean and readable, yet full of richness. You will feel good reading Moshi Moshi, and will greatly empathize with the characters.