Breasts and Eggs

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, as surely everyone must now know by now, is in two parts, the first of which was originally published in 2008 (with an excerpt, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, appearing in English in 2012 – worth reading as the dialogue is rendered in a Mancunian accent). Now the longer novel has been translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, though how far a single translator is responsible for each part seems to be unclear. The reason all of this might matter, is that the two parts are quite dissimilar: in length (the second is more than double the length of the first), in tone, and in style. In the first part the narrator, Natsuko, is visited by her sister, Makiko, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Midoriko. At the time of the visit Makiko is considering having her breasts surgically enhanced. In the second part, set ten years later, Natsuko has published a book but is struggling to write a second, and is reflecting on the possibility of having a child without a partner.

Makiko is a single mother, just as her own mother was. Natsuko’s father left suddenly when she was seven – “One day, when I came home from school, he wasn’t there” – and the three of them move in with a friend of her mother’s, Komi. Unfortunately her mother dies of breast cancer when Natsuko is thirteen, and Komi follows two years later, an effect to some extent of the poverty they have lived in all their lives. Natsuko and Makiko have to survive themselves:

“One thing I remember is lying to the factory about my age every vacation, spring, summer and winter, all three years of middle school.”

Now, though, they are quite different individuals. Makiko lives in Tokyo and works in a bookshop; Makiko works in a bar and is excited to arrive in the big city on a visit with her daughter. She, like her mother, is worn down with poverty:

“She wasn’t even forty, but if she told you, ‘I just turned fifty-three,’ you’d wish her happy birthday. She didn’t look older. She literally looked old.”

She is also going through a difficult time with Midoriko who has refused to speak to her for six months for reasons her mother cannot fathom and Midoriko will not explain. Midoroko’s voice enters the narrative via a journal she is keeping which focuses on her entry into adolescence:

“Once I start getting my period ever month, until it stops, blood is going to come out of my body. It’s terrifying. I can’t do anything to stop it from happening, though.”

Makiko has come to Tokyo for a consultation regarding her breast surgery. Rather than talk about why she wants the surgery, she demonstrates her new-found expertise on the subject to Natsuko at length, telling her about the pros and cons of different methods. Natsuko is ambivalent about her sister’s intentions:

“There were lots of other things she could have talked about, and all of them took precedence over the implants.”

When they visit baths, Makiko looks at the breasts of the other women and talks about a time she bleached her nipples so they would look paler. As a hostess in a bar, Makiko’s looks are important to her employment, and, as Natsuko points out, “if Makiko had any other choice, she wouldn’t work nights at the bar or leave Midoriko alone.” In this sense, the first part of the novel is as much about poverty as it is about the pressures on women to prioritise their physical attractiveness.

Book Two also looks at the pressures applied to women, in particular those related to marriage and children. Ten years later, Natsuko has published a successful book of short stories and is working on a novel. Her personal life is conventionally less successful. Her last relationship ended because she has no interest in sex:

“I wanted us to build a life together. But sex with him was not something I needed – not something I wanted.”

She does, however, become interested in having a child by artificial insemination using a sperm donor, a debate which takes place throughout this section of the novel. It begins when she attends a talk by Aizawa who discovered as an adult that his father was not his biological father:

“Donor conception goes beyond pregnancy and childbirth. It impacts the child for their entire life.”

In approaching the topic from his point of view initially, Kawakami makes clear her intention to explore the issue from all angles. Natsuko’s personal journey becomes a thorough examination of the pros and cons of having a child via sperm donation conducted either through characters with a personal involvement – like Aizawa and, later, a sperm donor she arranges to meet – or through characters who offer their opinion on the topic. This is perhaps one reason why the second part felt, at times, less successful, as so much of it gave the impression of the author discussing the issue through the mouths of her characters. More subtly, the fact that these characters are now middle class, unlike the working class characters of the first part, can make the dialogue seem less lively and more like a debate as they offer their views on Natsuko’s dilemma. This is not to say that whether to have a child or not is all that Natsuko thinks about; running in parallel are her struggles to ‘give birth’ to her novel.

Breasts and Eggs is particularly powerful in the way Natsuko is provoked to think about her body in both sections. When she tries to picture her sister’s breasts she finds that she can’t:

“Which I suppose is only natural because it’s not like I can picture my own breasts, even though they’re stuck to me.”

Similarly in the second part, wondering whether she would be able to have sex with Aizawa, she reflects:

“Of course it had changed as I’d grown, but I’d had my vagina my entire life.”

In other words, Kawakami is prepared to tackle her themes on a physical level, as the novel’s title demonstrates. Breasts and Eggs is not a perfect novel but it deserves the praise it has received for its exposure of anxieties around appearance and childbearing, though for me the first part was more entertaining than the second.

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8 Responses to “Breasts and Eggs”

  1. lauratfrey Says:

    I’ve heard very different things about this book, mostly people seem to love it, but this sounds like a more balanced view. I always wonder how two translators work together as well, I read a short story collection with two translators where they divided the stories in half, translated, then traded with each other to edit… wonder what happened here?

    • 1streading Says:

      I think that’s the normal practice – translate separately but then review the others translation. Here it’s complicated by the fact that the two parts may well be quite different in the original language.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This is a really interesting critique of the novel, for which I’m grateful. Like little Laura, I’ve already seen quite a lot of praise for it, and one or two less positive views – but your commentary on the change in tone between the two sections gives me pause. I tend to fare better with 20th century Japanese literature than more contemporary works these days, so it’s probably not a book I would read myself. That said, we’ve had it in the shop, so it’s very useful to see your perspective on it!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting review, Grant. I’m another one who’s been wondering about this having read different views on it. I wonder how much of a gap there was between the composition of both parts, particularly with the first being originally published on its own. Like Jacqui I seem to gel with 20th century Japanese literature and have had failures with more modern books so this may not be one for me!

    • 1streading Says:

      Contemporary Japanese literature doesn’t always work for me, though usually because I find it too tame – which can’t be said for either this or Earthlings!

  4. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] writer Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd) seems the most likely candidate from Asia (i.e. it’s had the most […]

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    […] success of Breasts and Eggs has, of course, opened the door to further translations of Mieko Kawakami’s work; the (hopefully) […]

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