Tag Archives: Mieko Kawakami

Review: HEAVEN by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2021)

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (also translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd and released in the UK by Picador Books) was one of my favourite releases of 2020; prior to that I had loved the offbeat humour of her novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2017), and so a new Kawakami was guaranteed to be an exciting event for me.

Heaven was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it does not disappoint. It is a spare yet complex portrayal of teenage bullying, told from the perspective of a an unnamed male narrator with a lazy eye who is subjected to horrific physical and psychological torment from a group of boys in his class. He begins to receive anonymous notes slipped inside his pencil case or taped to the lid of his desk, the first one simply reading “we should be friends” (as a particularly nice touch, Picador sent out with the review copies pencils with this motto engraved on them). Curious and a little nervous, eventually the narrator agrees to meet up with the author of the notes, and from this strikes up a friendship with Kojima, a girl who is also bullied at school, and in whom he finds a kindred spirit, a friend in need, and someone who finally understands both what he suffers and why he does not fight back.

In addition to the wonderfully written relationship that develops between the narrator and Kojima, there are plenty of other aspects to the characters’ lives (an impressive amount, actually, given how slim this novel is). The narrator lives with his (absent) father and his stepmother, who is more of a parent to him than his father seems capable of or interested in being; Kojima also has an interesting and non-standard family story, and with both teenagers there is a subtle analysis of how we become who we are, and how events, circumstances and afflictions shape us.

Kawakami does not shy away from the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and nor does she offer any crass kind of redemption in which the bullies realise the error of their ways. If anything, the only kind of resolution that we get about Ninomiya and his gang is that they are cruel for the sake of being cruel, and that no amount of attempts to make them realise the consequences of their actions is going to make them suddenly develop the empathy they lack. Apart from two notable scenes, we don’t see the bullies outside the school environment – they don’t need to be multifaceted characters with problematic lives of their own, because we see this story through the eyes of the bullied child, and to him they are simply the perpetrators of his daily misery. He has one attempt at a reckoning with one of the ringleaders when he bumps into him in a different location, but his efforts to make the bully aware of the effects of his actions are met with indifference. And the second time that the bullies enter the fray outside of the school setting is the almost-final scene, the apex of their crusade of humiliation, in which the narrator will be stripped of everything he cared about.

The teachers all seem entirely unaware of (and unwilling to notice) the drama that is played out in the schoolroom each day: this is a daily nightmare from which the narrator has no escape. His desperate private wishes that Ninomiya might not notice him, or might forget him, are heartbreaking (“I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world”): this boy wants to be invisible, to blend into the background, and yet both his physical defect and the way in which he has been singled out as a target make this impossible.

There are scenes in Heaven that made me wince, and feel a terror at the simple fact that such deliberate humiliation can and does happen: the callous brutality of the teenage bullies is something that Kawakami excels at portraying. Even more impressive, though, is the way in which she communicates the reactions of the bullied child. It must be incredibly hard to write from the perspective of an adolescent without conferring on the character the wisdom and experience the adult author has gained, and Kawakami manages this superbly. There is something very real about the depth and intensity of their thinking process and their attempts to articulate what is happening to them, and the co-translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is believably adolescent but never in the cringe-worthy manner of how an adult thinks a teenage boy would speak.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Heaven is how different it is from Breasts and Eggs, and how versatile Kawakami is as a writer. There are recognisable traits, such as the focus on characters who don’t fit into standard expectations of “normality”, and the ability to convey so much detail in relatively few words, but the situation and plot are entirely new (which, however much I might love what an author has done before, is always a good thing in my view). Similarly, Bett and Boyd translate in a way that communicates the stylistic similarities or idiosyncrasies, but without producing a “flat-pack” translation, showing their understanding of and attention to what makes this book both recognisable and unique (including the particularly beautiful short sentences the narrator uses to try to understand his reaction to his growing intimacy with Kojima: “She liked my eyes. The memory stood on my chest. It was good and bad at the same time”). There is also a superb translation of wordplay involving the phrase “someday best” (a term I want to adopt and use regularly); in fact, the only negative point about reading Heaven was the way the Bryan Adams power ballad with the same title would not leave my head every time I picked up the book.

In fairness, though, the earworm isn’t Kawakami’s fault. And it would be a bit mean of me to blame Bett and Boyd, especially since the title is important in more than one way.

The ending of Heaven is not at all what I was expecting (also a good thing in my opinion – I don’t like predictable narratives): it made me see certain key sections and dialogues in a new light, and left me thinking about both the narrator and Kojima well after I closed the cover. This is a truly wonderful book: discomfiting, unsettling, and entirely unique.

Review copy of Heaven provided by Picador Books

Women in translation 2020: my literary picks for the year that was…       

I had intended to post this piece in December, but the end of the year brought some unexpected challenges and I had to delay it until the new year. So although you may have left 2020 behind with relief, I hope you’ll still be willing to travel back there with me in books: 2020 will be remembered for many things (okay, mostly for one thing), but here’s a reminder of some of the great books that were released in a year none of us saw coming.

It feels strange now to look back on the post I wrote a year ago about the books I was excited to read in 2020. Throughout the year, I didn’t read as much as usual. The reasons are probably obvious: the concept of “free time” shifted radically with the lockdowns and restrictions. I read a total of 56 books, and there were quite a few I didn’t really connect with – I don’t know whether this is partly to do with the circumstances, or whether 2020 just wasn’t the year for me in terms of new releases – but it does mean that the ones I really, truly loved were very easy to pick. I’ve gone for a “top nine”, which I know is a little irregular, but these were the ones I didn’t hesitate about when I came to pick my favourite books from this strangest of years…

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Hurricane Season was the second book I read in 2020, and it set the bar. I felt a little sorry for everything I read in the weeks after this, as there was just no way anything could come close for me. Hurricane Season opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. A torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there, Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind. Bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, the translation by Sophie Hughes is astonishing: if I had to pick just one book for the year, this would be it. Full review

 

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books)

Natsuko longs for a child of her own, while her sister Makiko thinks life will be better if she has breast enhancement surgery and her niece Midoriko has taken a vow of silence. All three women are trapped in social conventions, and Breasts and Eggs is a delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments. Full review

Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)

I’ll be honest: Charco had me at “new Margarita García Robayo novel in 2020”. In Holiday Heart, García Robayo’s talent for blending tragedy with humour and offering a fresco in a snapshot were in full force. The characters always disappoint: Lucía and Pablo are middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, stagnating in their location, their social status, and their marriage. They left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but they are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped. This is an uncomfortable story, and García Robayo excels at depicting a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us. Full review

 

Lucy Fricke, Daughters, translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books)

Hilarious and emotional madcap road trip through Western Europe. Sold? You should be. Daughters was an outstanding release from new imprint V&Q Books, in which best friends Martha and Betty embark on a car journey to Switzerland to accompany Martha’s father to his appointment with euthanasia. Or so they think – a detour reveals a hidden agenda, and they never make it to Switzerland. There are losses, reunions, an accident, romantic intrigue, and the reappearance of someone long presumed dead… The storytelling of this fast-paced and eventful journey switches effortlessly between grief and humour, both of which are superbly communicated in Sinéad Crowe’s energetic translation. Full review

 

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her fragmented family together years later. Her first baby was taken from her during the war, and years later the spectre of the lost child hangs over the rural family life and its daily difficulties. Two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home. This simmering narrative is a story of resistance and resilience, quiet losses and enduring love, and is translated with great sensitivity by Julia Sanches. Full review

 

Négar Djavadi, Arène, Éditions Liana Levi (French; as yet untranslated)

Négar Djavadi’s second novel came out in French in the autumn, and it is magnificent. If you don’t read French, I highly recommend starting with her first novel Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover, Europa Editions), and then crossing your fingers that this one will be picked up for translation before long. The arena of the title is Paris: in a Belleville bar one night, a young man from a deprived housing estate knocks into the head of the biggest media streaming platform; neither of them are aware that this chance collision will draw them and everyone around them into a maelstrom of violence. Yet Arène is not just about the tragedy that unfolds, but also the chain of barely perceptible events that led there. Djavadi eschews facile stereotypes, and in a linguistically sumptuous narrative invites us to understand what lies behind our quick assumptions about power, race and relationships.

 

Europa28, edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press)

2020 wasn’t just the year of Covid-19, but also the year the UK left the European Union. In response, Comma Press teamed up with Hay Festival and Wom@rts to commission Europa28, a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe. In this visionary project, editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean: from the personal to the allegorical, the real to the fantastic, this collection is by turns gentle and fierce, witty and emotional, bringing together 28 very different stories with a common purpose of discussing Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility. Full review

 

Salma, Women Dreaming, translated from Tamil by Meena Kandasamy (Tilted Axis Press)

This beautiful story of a community of women in a small Muslim village in Tamil Nadu is exquisite in its style, pace, and depictions of the reality of life for women who have no real autonomy. When Mehar’s husband Hasan takes a second wife, she exercises her legal right to divorce him, and finds herself ostracised by the community. Goaded by Hasan’s righteous wrath and no longer able to bear her mother’s constantly-voiced fears for her future, Mehar marries again in order to regain her status, but she loses her children in the process. Eloquent, emotional and powerful, Women Dreaming is essential reading, in a dynamic yet delicate translation by Meena Kandasamy.

 

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)

The final offering from Tilted Axis in 2020 is astonishing – possibly my favourite Tilted Axis book of all time. I had already read and loved Yan’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press (and reviewed here), so I was excited to read this earlier work. Yet I wasn’t quite expecting to be so moved by this tale where humans and fantastical beasts co-exist (unharmoniously) in a Chinese city, trying to ignore the reality that sometimes the beasts are more human than the people and the humans more monstruous than the beasts. Though there is plenty of allegory in Strange Beasts of China, I just loved it for its compelling storytelling, the mystery at its core, and the heart of all the characters – whether human or beast. The translation by Jeremy Tiang is outstanding; I kept pausing to admire a turn of phrase, a beautifully crafted sentence, or a sensitivity to register.

 

 

So that’s my slightly belated round-up of my favourite releases of 2020. I hope there’s something in here that will pique your interest, and offer a small ray of joy from a challenging year. Happy New Year to all friends of Translating Women, and thank you as always for reading!

Review: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2020)

Breasts and Eggs is a spectacular and delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. The breasts and eggs of the title indicate difficult decisions about breast enhancement surgery and fertility for two sisters over the course of a decade, and Kawakami’s characterisation, dialogue and plot development are exquisite. English-language readers may have seen a glimpse of this in Kawakami’s previous novella, Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai (Pushkin Press) – I loved the beguiling awkwardness of the narrator in that novella, and Breasts and Eggs echoes this diffidence (an excruciating coffee date with a potential sperm donor is one of the squirm-in-your-seat highlights) while still offering an entirely new perspective on relationships. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments.

We meet narrator Natsuko one sticky summer, when her older sister Makiko is visiting Natsu in Tokyo with her adolescent daughter Midoriko in tow. Midoriko has taken a vow of silence where her mother and aunt are concerned, corresponding with them only via a notebook (and even then, in the most taciturn of epistolary communication). Makiko’s visit is not purely social: she has spent months researching the best way to have breast enhancement surgery, which she believes is the key to a more successful life. Makiko works as a hostess at a bar in the sisters’ hometown of Osaka, and is painfully aware that her advancing years mean that she is no longer at the top of this already fairly inglorious game. Makiko’s obsession with her breasts is desperate: she has already dedicated herself to painful, expensive and time-consuming methods of bleaching her nipples to make them pinker, indicating not only the idealised traps of gender, but also those of western culture.

We get to know Midoriko through Natsu’s observations of her niece, but also through snippets of her journal, which are presented to us out of time until the point that Natsu gives in and reads Midoriko’s journal. With Natsu, Makiko and Midoriko unable to find ways to connect to one another, the climax of their silent stand-off is perfect in its breaking of silence, hearts (and eggs), jagged words painfully egested so that we see the private pain that both Midoriko and Makiko share in isolation, each until now unable to understand the other. It is in scenes such as this one that the translators Sam Bett and David Boyd excel, communicating profound emotion with few words. The entire novel is understated, recounting significant personal upheaval and tragedy without ever descending into melodrama, and Bett and Boyd render this very well in a prose that strikes a deft balance between lyrical and contained.

Natsuko allows us insights into her childhood, raised by her mother and grandmother in near-poverty. Makiko’s greatest hope for her own financial security is her hostessing job, and Natsuko is an aspiring writer – a precarious position in a male-dominated industry, but one which introduces us to some fabulous supporting characters in literary agent Sengawa and radical writer Rika. The insights into Natsu’s circumstances offer an excellent view of creative life, showing a writer who does not have the luxury of time or the privilege of space in which to write; equally, they offer fresh perspectives on being a single woman in a world where others loudly and ostentatiously define themselves by their relationships.

Breasts and Eggs is also about bodies – Makiko’s ageing body, and her belief that by having it surgically enhanced her life will be better; Natsuko’s body, devoid of sexual contact by choice, and her deeply internalised need to have a child. It is about relationships, but not conventional ones, and indeed the narrative seems set on resisting all expectation and stereotype. It resolutely refuses to fall into tropes of defining what working-class womanhood “is” (though, as we see in one gloriously sardonic scene, it is definitely not about eating in trendy galette restaurants) – rather, it’s about everyday dreams and extraordinary bonds. Above all, Breasts and Eggs is a story of quiet tragedies: unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without great means, the people we lose (whether through death or by growing up and apart) and the longing for a person never met – whether an anonymous parent or an unconceived child. It is ambitious in scope and beautiful in expression, and quite simply one of my favourite books so far this year.

Review copy of Breasts and Eggs provided by Picador Books