Archive for the ‘Mieko Kawakami’ Category


August 16, 2021

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.

Breasts and Eggs

January 22, 2021

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.