Beauty and Sorrow

Sentan de sasuwa sasareruwa soraeewa: this was the name of the prose poem that got Mieko Kawakami noticed in 2006, and whatever it means in Japanese (pity the translator who takes it on) it sounds beautiful. Having started blogging as a way of drawing attention to her singing career, she won the 2008 Nakahara Chūya Prize with a collection including that poem, having ditched the music without regret: ‘I wasn’t allowed to write my own lyrics!’ Since then, whether short or long fiction or experimental poetry, every book has won a prize except for her Long, Long Interview (2017) with Haruki Murakami. (In the course of which she gently but insistently takes him to task for sexism, meeting something of a wall. MK: ‘The depiction of women in your stories … irks some people.’ HM: ‘Really? How so?’)    

Her themes in prose are women, children, poverty, broken families – Kawakami grew up poor in working-class Osaka, with an absent father – quiet rebellions and perverse adaptations; I was reminded of the films of Hirokazu Koreeda, with a harsher edge. There may be love, but sex and romance barely feature, replaced by high-voltage masturbation. Prominent in everything I’ve seen is a grappling with the value of ‘normality’, both social and physical, the latter a metaphor for the former and often accompanied by the temptation of corrective surgery. Also prominent, I can’t resist noting, are evocations of sweat, described with wonderful relish; these characters live in bodies verging on the hyperreal. 

Kawakami, now 44, has published nine works of fiction, though it’s hard to keep count as she often recycles her work. The novella that made her name in Japan, Breasts and Eggs (2008), started life as a series of blogposts, and was subsequently expanded into a much longer meditation on the female sense of self amid limited social and institutional choices, called Summer Stories in Japanese (2019; the translation retains the title Breasts and Eggs). Another novella, Ms Ice Sandwich (2018) modifies a chapter from Yearning, an untranslated work of 2015. That book alternates the voices of boys and girls, exploring how Japan’s ‘patriarchal system’, with its ‘religious-like’ pressures to conform (as she defined it to the Tokyo Weekender last year) becomes enforced in children and adolescents of both sexes. Her way of inhabiting youthful confusion owes much to JD Salinger, discovered through Murakami’s translations; but if Ms Ice Sandwich’s ten-year-old is of a difficult age to ventriloquize – the work buys into the ‘charm’ that typifies much recent Japanese fiction, even when unconventional in other ways such as Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) – the fourteen-year-old boy who narrates Heaven is given a flat, queasy voice that immersed me completely.

Heaven, the latest work to be translated, is an earlier and more brutal novel, originally published in 2009. It comes from Picador with a deceptive cover: a pair of impeccably uniformed teenagers, eyeing us with sullen cool, when the real protagonists are a total mess. The unnamed narrator, being born with a lazy eye, is persecuted at school by a gang of boys in thrall to Ninomiya – a popular, handsome high achiever, insecure or insatiable, we do not know. The torments range from the verbal to the perversely imaginative to the very violent, accompanied by feeble wit and sycophantic laughter. They leave no mark, like the work of trained torturers. For the victim, this is just the way life is. It doesn’t occur to him to blab to the (seemingly non-existent) teachers, or to his nice but distant stepmother; the father, whom he loathes, is largely absent. But one day – at the cleverly upbeat start to the novel – he finds a note in his pencil case: ‘We should be friends’.

When, overcoming his fear of a trap, he finally meets the writer in a derelict park, she is revealed as Kojima, the expressionless classmate bullied by the girls ‘for being poor and dirty’ and so, as she sees it, his accomplice. Kojima outside school is a revelation: where the narrator has no self-knowledge, lives in a visual and emotional haze, has never had a friend or properly talked to a girl, she is fey, mercurial, intense and fragile, ruled by magical thinking. As their innocent bond develops through more notes and very occasional meetings, during which they often sit in bashful silence, they must still witness each other’s ordeals: ‘Once I saw them yell “Time for a bath!” and dunk her head in the fish tank… Whenever I saw things happen to her, I got this sharp pain in my chest, but there was nothing I could do’.

The inarticulate boy conveys most of his feelings through sensation in this way – ‘Nervousness filled my stomach like a gas’, ‘I noticed how thick and dry my tongue was’ – and asks himself lots of questions that go nowhere, but for Kojima, the world is meaningful and controllable. She used to scissor into the edges of curtains or books, a private ritual that made her feel that nothing was ‘wrong or great. Just normal’. Her unkempt appearance, for which she is bullied, is misleading, for her mother has remarried into money. But because her beloved father was left destitute, Kojima’s unwashed, matted state is deliberate – not the self-punishing discipline of a Christian saint, though she often reminds us of one, but a faithful connection, ‘a way of staying close to my dad, so I wouldn’t forget him’. And her passivity in suffering is not like the boy’s unthinking resignation, but a twisted form of power, which she tries to rope him into: ‘This is our will. We let them do this. It’s almost like we chose this. That’s all the more reason why they can’t leave us alone. They’re so scared, so terrified, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it’. To her, the boy’s infirmity is his blessing: ‘I really like your eyes’. 

The weak are the strong, disfigurement is beauty, squalor is love? Such comforting inversions are not allowed to stand. Ninomiya has a sinister sidekick, Momose, who only watches, and – it is very subtly suggested – has some invisible disability of his own. When they cross paths at the hospital, the narrator confronts him. (This uncharacteristic impulse is left unexplained, a token of the author’s finesse.) A long, riveting, circular dialogue ensues as the boy pleads natural justice and do-as-you-would-be-done-by, languidly countered by Momose’s radical amorality.

‘… that thing you said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else. How we should leave you alone because you didn’t do anything? I don’t understand that.’

‘What’s so hard to understand?’ I asked.

‘Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to.’

Worse, it’s not even about the eyes. ‘And your eyes are messed up, so everyone calls you Eyes. That’s true. But it’s just a coincidence. Your eyes have nothing to do with what happens at school. … It could have been anyone’. Even the symmetry argument founders: ‘Why can’t I do things to people that I wouldn’t want other people doing to my sister? … If you don’t like it, stopping it is up to you.’

Momose’s position is impregnable, because he has nothing to gain from cruelty. He doesn’t even think differentials of character are essences: ‘We can. We do. And you can’t. … Six months from now, a year? Who knows? Who cares?’ His nihilism is purer than that of the Sadean libertines, who reject Christian morality for selfish ends. He harbours neither a will to power nor the conception of a superior man.

The narrator, ever more out of his depth, gropes towards a solution that defies both Momose’s and Kojima’s positions: he might have his eye fixed. He makes the mistake of confiding this to Kojima, who is devastated. Thinking he has lost her begins to lend a disturbing eroticism to her image, and things build from here towards a dreamlike climactic scene, where a Kojima crazed for martyrdom seems horrifyingly to fuse with Momose in the little park where the friends first met. To be honest, I am helpless to interpret the insanity and sorrow of what happens here. And then, without transition, the tone turns sunny for another, more unexpected climax. The two scenes together recall the boy’s feeling about the Chagall exhibition Kojima took him to – ‘Every painting was a moment of destruction coinciding with the birth of something wonderful’ – and the novel’s last word is ‘beauty’.

Heaven is a short book that tackles philosophical, ethical and social issues without ever slowing the momentum or distorting the personality of its adolescent speaker (a translation triumph for Sam Bett and David Boyd). There is just the lightest suggestion, for instance, and without using the word, that the boy is this close to becoming a hikikomori, those young Japanese, mostly male, who never leave their bedroom. By contrast, the hefty, expanded Breasts and Eggs interleaves an affecting personal odyssey with considerable sociological data. At the other end of the scale, Kawakami’s short stories are spellbindingly strange. Pieces from the last decade findable online, like ‘Marie’s Proof of Love’, ‘Shame’ (with extra sweat), and the Salinger homage ‘A Once Perfect Day for Bananafish’, deserve to be collected. And when will we see the poetry?

Read on: Vera Mackie, ‘Feminist Politics in Japan’, NLR I/167.