Fiction – paperback; OneWorld; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.
Hot on the heels of my thoughts on Convenience Store Woman, here are my thoughts on another rather delightful Japanese novel in English translation.
Author Durian Sukegawa says he wrote Sweet Bean Paste as an attempt to explore “the meaning of life with a fresh perspective”.
The result is a bittersweet tale about finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places, living your best life, no matter how humble or difficult that might be, and the importance of doing what you love and making a contribution to society.
The confectioner and the old lady
Written in gently nuanced prose, the book focuses on two main characters —Sentaro, who runs a Doraharu shop selling dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), and Tokue, a 76-year-old lady who enters his shop and offers to work for him — and a subsidiary character, school girl Wakana, who is a regular customer.
Initially, Sentaro is skeptical of Tokue’s offer. He’s got a troubled past and is only working in the shop to pay off a gambling debt. He doesn’t want to do anything to rock the boat or put his job in jeopardy.
But when Tokue not only offers to work at a vastly reduced rate but happily prepares a batch of sweet bean paste that tastes incredible, he can hardly say no. She’s hired, but on one condition: she must not be seen by the customers because she has severely deformed hands that might turn people off.
Before long, Sentaro is selling more and more dorayaki thanks to Tokue’s delicious bean paste, while Tokue, desperate to help out in the increasingly busy front-of-house, ignores Sentaro’s rule and begins spending time with the customers — mainly schoolgirls who love her tendency to chat and offer kindly advice.
To temper the risk of the story becoming overly cloying (and sickly sweet) at this stage, the author delivers a sucker-punch about half way through: we discover that Tokue’s hands became deformed when she contracted Hansen’s disease (once known as leprosy) as a young girl. She’s no longer infectious, but rumours have spread and now the confectionary shop’s booming business is on the slide.
Sweet Bean Paste then morphs into a melancholic, deeply thoughtful rumination on what it is to be an outcast and survive. It shows how the stigma of Hansen’s disease had long-lasting and often tragic repercussions on patients who were forcibly removed from their families and made to live in state-run sanatoriums for decades — often long after being cured.
While there’s an element of spirituality that runs throughout the narrative — about the simple ways in which we find purpose in our lives — it’s done with a lightness of touch, so it never feels too obvious.
I found it a rather delightful read, both poignant and poetic, the kind of story that is super easy to read but stays with you long after you’ve reached the final page.