The success of Breasts and Eggs has, of course, opened the door to further translations of Mieko Kawakami’s work; the (hopefully) first of these is Heaven, written shortly after the first part of Breast and Eggs in 2009, and now translated by the same translators, Sam Bett and David Boyd. Heaven is a story of bullying, and contains within its 167 pages, some astonishing acts of cruelty ‘Eyes’, a fourteen-year-old boy with a lazy eye, is relentlessly picked on by the rest of his class, largely at the behest of Ninomiya, the most popular student:

“He was the best athlete in our grade, but he also got straight A’s, and he had a chiselled face that anybody would consider beautiful.”

The bullying is consistent but varied – in the first example they make him eat chalk; at another point in the novel they fill his desk with rubbish. The situation has an element of cliche about it, as does the friendship which develops between Eyes and Kojima, a girl who is also bullied, in her case for looking untidy and unwashed, which begins when she leaves him a note asking if they can meet. Their relationship largely revolves around writing short letters – they certainly can’t talk to each other in school – but their friendship comes at a cost:

“I was thinking about Kojima in a completely different way,

“Not like it was anything new, but it got harder and harder to watch and listen to the other girls in our class bully her, just like it was stressful knowing that Kojima watched me being bullied.”

The reader, trapped in the narrator’s powerlessness, will be disappointed if they are expecting a typical redemption arc. Kawakami is not so much tackling the theme of bullying as examining violence and cruelty in a more general way. to this end she introduces the character of Momose, who is as clever as Ninomiya, but who, unlike the others, participates in the bullying in a detached manner, almost like an observer. When the narrator meets Momose at a hospital, after a scene in which his head is placed inside a volleyball and kicked, he speaks to him for the first time, asking “Why…” Momose presents a cynical view of the world:

“Good and bad don’t enter into it. Everyone does whatever they feel like doing, whatever works.”

He portrays a world of urges which people can act on if they want to – “Isn’t it pretty obvious that no-one else is going to look after your emotions?” Does Kawakmai share this view? Certainly, there is no attempt to psychoanalyse Ninomiya’ behaviour in the same way as Kojima’s lack of personal hygiene sis explained. Breasts and Eggs demonstrated that Kawakami uses her characters to argue different positions around a topic and Heaven is no different. Kojima, too, has her theory about the bullying they suffer:

“Maybe we are weak, in a way. But that’s not a bad thing. if we’re weak, our weakness has meaning. We may be weak but we get it. We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong.”

Kawakami has expanded on this in interview:

“I think we have a tendency to categorise people as strong or weak, but I think that weakness is really what’s at the core of, or a fundamental part of humanity.”

In the same interview she states, “In order to pursue happiness, I think there needs to be a sacrifice,” and in the novel, when Kojima takes Eyes to see the painting she calls ‘Heaven’, of “two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table” she tells him:

“Something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony.”

The focus therefore is on Kojima and the narrator’s ordeal, rather than the bullying itself; in other words, Kawakami does not allow the bullies to take centre stage. In the novel’s climax Kawakami manages to escalate the bullying to a crisis while at the same time providing an unexpected resolution. That the narrator, in visiting the hospital, learns that he can have his eye corrected cheaply, suggests that he has, ironically, gained from his cruel treatment.

Heaven is a disturbing read as the cruelty on display is wilful and conscienceless. There is also a sense that it is to be accepted, that if the bullying wasn’t directed at Kojima and the narrator it would be directed at someone else. This makes for a novel which is both emotionally powerful and philosophically challenging. Though it lacks the range and the novelty of Breasts and Eggs, it more than makes up for it in the focus of its narrative and the ferocity of its ideas.


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4 Responses to “Heaven”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like a striking yet nuanced treatment of a very difficult subject – your comment on it being both emotionally powerful and philosophically challenging seems very apt. That said, I think I would find this too traumatic to read right now, particularly given the explicit nature of the bullying…
    A strong bet for next year’s International Booker longlist, perhaps?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Another strong review for this one, Grant – I keep reading about how good it is, but like Jacqui I’m not sure I could take the brutality of the bullying just now. Bit too close to home, too, as we start to get nearer to the start of term…

  3. Booker International Predictions 2022 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Rojas) – and Mieko Kawakami – who missed out with Breast and Eggs – may have more luck with Heaven (which I preferred, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd). The popular Cursed Bunny by Korean […]

  4. International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Picador) […]

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