My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).
Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.
After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)
Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.
When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):
Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.
Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.
There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.
I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.
Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.
When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:
That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.
Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:
Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.
This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.
One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.
There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.
Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…
But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.
This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.