Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (transl. Alison Watts): More than just a simple confection

Cover image I seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.

Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.

Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.

24 thoughts on “Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (transl. Alison Watts): More than just a simple confection”

  1. I’ve heard of this one and am keen to read it. Not least because I adore Japanese sweet bean confectionery. I used to live near a park which had been a leper’s graveyard and they hesitated a long time before starting to build on it, so afraid were they of releasing the ‘germs’. I also know of a leper colony on an island in Greece, so am familiar with the stigma associated with this disease.

    1. I’m sure you’d find it interesting, Marina. Coincidentally, our house is built on an old leper colony. I pass the hospital whenever I walk down into town. We’re up a hill looking down on the ‘miasma’ above Bath which I imagine was thought to be germ-ridden at the time. Ironic, as it’s actually a product of the hot mineral springs thought to be so health-giving. Now, of course it’s also full of petrol and diesel fumes!

  2. One of my book groups has recently read ‘The Dark Circle’ but interestingly the question of prejudice from the outside world didn’t come up in our discussion. We very much concentrated on the sanatorium as a microcosm of what was happening in the U.K. in general in the 1950s. This might make a good follow-up as a way of taking that discussion further.

    1. I think they’d make an interesting couple of books to compare and contrast. It was the isolation hospitals that brought Grant’s book to mind but the stigma of TB lingered for some time I believe.

  3. This sounds wonderful. I very much enjoyed your review. I don’t know how you do it: you’re always highlighting appealing books that I have somehow never heard of! It must be that bookseller radar 🙂

    (And how funny that the author’s first name is a smelly fruit!)

    1. Thank you – mission accomplished! I suspect it is, long kept alive by years as a book reviews editor, too.

      I noticed the smelly fruit name. Presumably not something they have in Japan unless Sukegawa has particularly mean parents! They do grow not too far away…

  4. I don’t read a lot of Japanese literature because it doesn’t seem to find its way onto my shelf very easily but this book sounds lovely! How did you first hear about it?

  5. I was eyeing this up in Waterstones the other day, but decided against it because I was exercising my backbone (whilst buying a copy of Ali Smith’s Winter). Now I wish I hadn’t. This sounds like a lovely, humane read with an interesting set of characters all of which have their shame to bear. The description brought to mind Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden, which also deals with themes of illness, leprosy in particular, and has similar heartwarming tones. I might cave at some point and pick this one up. Thanks! Oneworld definitely seem to be on to something.

    1. They’re fast becoming my favourite publisher! Without wishing to challenge that backbone too much, I think you’d like this, Belinda. And Christmas is coming… Thanks for mentioning The Samurai’s Garden. I’ll look it up.

  6. Although I haven’t read it myself, I wonder if it would be interesting to compare the friendship in Ali Smith’s Autumn with the friendship in this novel. I do admire authors who take on the task of making such connections live and breathe. And kudos to you for avoiding the use of the word ‘heartwarming’ in expressing his success in this case!

    1. I haven’t yet read Autumn which is making its way up my pile. Perhaps we need to reconvene! And thank you – it’s one of those cringe-making words I avoid like the plague

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