It took me a while as I’ve been busy with editing deadlines, but I finally finished reading Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.
I loved it and I’m glad I was ‘forced’ to take my time with it.
The book is about Sentaro, a middle-aged man, who works at a dorayaki shop and is pretty tired of his job and his life. Once upon a time he thought he might be a writer, but then he ended up in jail and in debt, and now he simply goes through the motions, making and selling dorayaki in the day and getting drunk in the evenings.
One day, Sentaro is approached by an elderly woman who suggests that she will make the delicious sweet bean paste for the dorayaki pancakes and is willing to work for a tiny salary.
Sentaro has been using tinned bean paste that is mediocre in flavour. When the old woman, Tokue, brings some bean paste for Sentaro to sample, he is amazed at how good it tastes. Eventually, he agrees to take on Tokue as a part-timer at the shop.
Tokue’s method of making bean paste is unique and unusual as she seems to converse with the azuki beans, encouraging them to be delicious and thanking them for their efforts.
As a result of the improved dorayaki filling, business booms and Sentaro becomes busier than he has ever been. He is forced to think differently and consider things that hadn’t previously occurred to him, or he had deliberately ignored. Slowly, but surely, and perhaps a little against his own will, Sentaro becomes a different person — someone who is aware of and thinks of others.
The author Durian Sukegawa was once a punk rocker and late night radio host. He wrote this novel book because he used to pose the question ‘What is life all about?’ on his show and he wasn’t satisfied with the answers he got from those who called in, which was, basically, ‘life is about being a useful member of society’.
Sweet Bean Paste is an attempt to explore the reason we are put on Earth. ‘We were born in order to see and listen to the world,’ says Tokue in a letter to Sentaro. If you figure out what she means, and whether or not you agree with her ideas, it’s an interesting concept to ponder.
‘If all you ever see is reality, you just want to die. The only way to get over barriers is to live in the spirit of already being over them,’ she says.
Sentaro eventually discovers the truth about Tokue’s past: Diagnosed with leprosy as a young girl, Tokue was taken from her home and confined in a sanatorium. Her clothes were incinerated and she was forced to adopt a new name. She never saw her family again and it was not until she was an old woman that the law was changed and she (and other former leprosy sufferers) were allowed to leave the sanatorium and go into public spaces.
But Tokue found a way not to be undone by her circumstances. The story is not unfailingly upbeat and positive as to be annoying and preachy though. Tokue learns to be positive, but she is realistic and matter of fact. She is also willing to appreciate and revel in the good things she experiences rather than be so overwhelmed by the hardships she faces.
I needed this book just now. Usually, when things are very dark, I read A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge, or one of the few other books that provide emergency comfort. How nice to have another book to turn to for help in trying times.