Sweet Bean Paste

あん
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Oneworld Publications
February 6th 2013
Paperback
213
Japanese
Alison Watts
November 14, 2021 November 16, 2021
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Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste.

But everything is about to change.

Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue's dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences.

Sweet Bean Paste is a moving novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship. Translated into English for the first time, Durian Sukegawa's beautiful prose is capturing hearts all over the world.

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About the book

Sentarou works in a doriyaki shop, typical Japanese sweets, but uses industrial bean jam. Perhaps this is why the sales are not good.

Tokue is a peculiar old woman, who understands what Sentarou’s problem is and she hopes to get hired by the young man for a very small sum of money. But the woman has deformed hands and a lot of scars and at first Sentarou is afraid that people will not want to eat his doriyaki for this reason.

However, he owes a debt to the store owner and after Tokue lets him taste her bean jam, he realises that he has no choice if he wants to pay off the debt as soon as possible he has to hire Tokue.

What I think

I liked the book very much. Mrs. Tokue is a nice and peculiar old woman, not because of her illness, but because of the way she takes life. The friendship between the two (okay three, but Wakana is not very present even if she is important for a particular of the story) is beautiful and this book conveys the aspect that between two people you can establish a friendship by going beyond the differences and physical defects.

I really liked the fact that Sentarou immediately took Ms. Tokue’s defense when the owner of the place wanted to fire her due to physical defects and that he remained faithful to his dorayaki when the owner of the place wanted to change food sold in the shop.

The only flaw, which doesn’t diminish the stars, is that the author doesn’t say what Sentarou ultimately does with his passion. I honestly thought that in the end, Sentarou himself wrote the book since he wanted to be a writer. Who knows, given that the ending is open, one can imagine this too.

It is a light read even if the disease being treated is not, but it is not difficult to read. The translation very much reflects the Japanese grammar of simplicity of sentences (at least the Italian translation), but this does not mean that the book is simple. Indeed here more than in other books, the simplicity of language has managed to give me more emotions. Japanese writing is usually not emotional in the sense that emotions are not written but are perceived in the words themselves. Here more than other books this fact is noted. I’d like to see the writing in Japanese, but I know I wouldn’t understand anything.

The story of Mrs. Tokue is touching, her life makes us understand a lot, of how even in illness and segregation, one can be free, perhaps not physically but in the soul. Tokue managed to have a husband, she started a family in the place where she lived and in the end she managed to taste the freedom even if she is too old to enjoy it. Despite the deprivation of her freedom, she managed to live a life perhaps better than some “free” people, even though she missed fulfilling her dreams. But even so, she wanted to be a teacher and for a while she was, maybe not in the world, but in her world she managed to realise her dreams and in the end with Sentarou she also managed to realise another one, to work for someone outside the holly hedge (to know what I’m talking about you need to read the book and I hope it is translated like that).

The book also has a bit of philosophy… why are some people born if they die young? what did they contribute if 2-year-olds die? It is a difficult question, but to which the author gives a nice answer. It also focuses on a heartfelt topic which in this case describes a specific disease, but which can be reported to all people with physical defects. Often they are victims of isolation, bullying and nastiness even on from their own government, as has been the case for this disease all over the world. And moreover the author focuses on the “it’s not fair”, nut also he focuses on a person’s happiness. A person is not always happy when s/he has success, money or a good job, you can be happy even if you have nothing, it all depends on how we relate to this word, happiness. This book is also the path of Sentarou who from a depressed and dead-end life finds in this old woman a teacher capable of making his life still worth living, from depression he finds a purpose in life that even if not mentioned in the book, I’m sure that he will be able to live his life without more sad times and with this, he will also be able to help Wakana. I know I haven’t talked as much (okay not at all) about the girl, but honestly I didn’t find her a focal point like Tokue’s and Sentarou’s story are.

Honestly, this book also made me want to taste this an, because eating a “bean jam” has never inspired me so much (also because I don’t like beans, our beans), but reading the recipe and its preparation I am no longer so reluctant to taste it.

Yes I recommend this book, not because it is set in Japan, but for the history and for what this book has given me.

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