#WITMonth: Mieko Kawakami

Author photo from Goodreads.

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd

By fortunate coincidence, it turns out today is this author’s birthday, so Happy Birthday, Mieko! And thank you for a very thought-provoking and entertaining read.

If I told you that a book entitled Breasts and Eggs talks frankly and at length about breast surgery, sperm banks, artificial insemination, asexuality, single motherhood and periods, you would probably conclude that it is an angry feminist tract – possibly written by a brash Western writer (Virginie Despentes or Otessa Moshfegh come to mind). The fact that it was written by a Japanese woman makes this book seem even more revolutionary. Japan is still a far from equal society when it comes to gender – in some ways, it has even regressed in recent years under a conservative government.

Yet, of course, Japanese women have been writing books portraying women’s (and men’s) thoughts and their restricted lives for centuries.  Just off the top of my head: Murasaki Shikibu‘s portrayal of men playing their power games with women as their pawns in the Heian period, to the frank description of sexual desire in Akiko Yosano, the trauma of spouses supplanted by second wives in Fumiko Enchi,  the description of working class struggles and the red light district in Ichiyo Higuchi (a writer Kawakami cites as an inspiration), the fiendishly subversive retelling of myths of Aoko Matsuda. There is a plethora of exciting women writers in Japan today and, luckily for us, more of them are getting translated. Alongside the well established names such as Banana Yoshimoto, Natsuo Kirino,  Yoko Ogawa, Hiromi Kawakami and Kanae Minato, we are starting to see the emergence of challenging and fearless writing, occasionally with a surreal twist, by younger authors such as Hitomi Kanehara, Sayaka Murata, Misumi Kubo and Nao-Cola Yamazaki.

So, while I don’t agree that Mieko Kawakami is a revolutionary who ‘lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction’ (as The Economist puts it), I have to admit that this book addresses issues that are typically swept under the carpet in Japan – and, let’s admit it, probably are not discussed that much in fiction in the West either. And she manages to offer us a variety of opinions about motherhood and the female body, while also giving us an involving plot about sisterhood and friendship, well-rounded characters with great back stories, and writing which can span everything from raucous female banter (in dialect) to philosophy to passages of lyrical descriptions.

In the first part of the book, which is by and large the original novella entitled Breasts and Eggs that won the Akutagawa Prize in 2008, we see three women at three different stages of their lives. Natsuko, the narrator, is 30, still young but no spring chicken anymore, and she can feel the clock ticking on her career as a writer in Tokyo. Her sister, Makiko, is nearly ten years older and still lives in their home town of Osaka, doing her best to keep herself and her daughter afloat as a single mum, working in a hostess bar. She too can feel the clock ticking – on her body – and thinks that getting breast enhancement will improve her life and her career. Meanwhile, her daughter Midoriko (the name means ‘green’ in Japanese and she really is very green still, just starting to experience her own bodily changes at the age of twelve) refuses to communicate with her mother in any other way than in writing. Natsuko is mostly the observer and tries to mediate between them, but she struggles to understand her sister’s need for validation or her niece’s judgemental attitude. There are some beautiful conversations between them, but the reminiscing about the past steers clear of either melodrama or sentimentality. One of the most poignant passages was the conversation between aunt and niece as they go round in a ferris wheel – this was the passage that Kawakami read out during her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, and the contrast between the Osakaben that Natsuko speaks with Midoriko and the descriptive passages in literary Japanese stood out even more when she read them.

I would have loved to see more of the sister and niece in the second part of the novel, but that is really Natsuko’s story (the title of the whole book in Japanese is Natsu Monogatari, which can be translated as either Summer Tales or Tales of Natsu). Natsuko is now nearing the age of her sister in the first part, and this time it’s her biological clock that is ticking. She is still single, and doesn’t really want a relationship with a man. She is enjoying some literary success, which is a great opportunity for mocking the pretentiousness of the Japanese literary scene, but realises that she really would like to have a child before it gets too late. So she starts investigating the possibility of using a sperm donor (which is not really possible for single women or same-sex couples in Japan). Along the way, she both befriends and alienates people, and gets to hear a variety of different attitudes about what it means to be an artist or a mother or both in Japan, as well as being the child of a sperm donor (and condemned to never know exactly who your biological father is).

As for being a wife, well, I can just imagine the reaction of the reading public to the quote below by a fellow writer Rika, who is also a single mum, and whom Natsuko befriends:

Everything men do repulses me, I can’t tell you how good it felt when we got divorced and my ex left the house. It was like I could breathe again… It’s just, men can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves/. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort, but they go out in the world and act all big, like I’m such a agood dad, such a provider… For better or worse, living with someone is nothing but friction, the collision of incompatible ideals. It takes trust to make it viable. I mean, love is basically a drug, right? Without love and trust, resentment is the only thing that’s left.

Well, I could certainly relate to that, and so could many women, particularly those living in rather patriarchal societies. Yet, in her Edinburgh Book Festival interview, Kawakami expressed some surprise and amusement that her book was a big hit with male readers as well in Japan.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both of them novels of ideas, with the focus here being on women’s bodies and motherhood instead of race and immigration. Much as I loved Americanah, I felt that Kawakami was more successful at integrating her ideas into the flow of the narrative, rather than having long blog-like passages, which slightly marred Adichie’s book for me. However, another reviwer I admire feels that there is a blog-like quality to the second half of the book and overall it’s chick lit with a feminist agenda. I think individual passages taken out of context can sound flat, but when all the layers come together, it certainly left me with a powerful impression.

Thank you also to Tony Malone, who in his review of Breasts and Eggs, pointed out that there was an alternative translation of part of the first part by Louise Heal Kawai, using a Mancunian speech pattern to render the Osaka dialect. I think it’s a brilliant version and wish we could have had the whole book translated like that (although Sam Bett and David Boyd have done a good job of smoothing out the language to appeal to a wider audience). And, although I’m the last person to suggest that books by women writers should only be translated by women, given the particular subject matter, I cannot help wondering how different it might have looked if it had been translated by a woman.

 

January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

The Devotion of Suspect X

January in JapanPerhaps this is not quite the literary work that Tony had in mind when he proposed the January in Japan reading month. It’s crime fiction, so it combines my love of a (fictional) criminal life with my love for Japanese authors. But, above all, it is a love story of a very unusual kind, something that Japanese literature excels in.

I had never heard of Keigo Higashino when I downloaded a copy of ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’. I let it sit on my e-reader for a while: perhaps the blurb ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ put me off? But then I heard this novel had been nominated for awards both at home and abroad, and several bloggers I trust also gave it the thumbs up. (A couple did not like it, though, which made me all the more curious to read it.)

DevotionI am used by now to the challenges of translating well from Japanese. A simple, unadorned style becomes flat and lifeless in English and yes, the American slang was slightly disconcerting. However, setting that aside, I found much to like about this book. It is not a flashy thriller with wacky surreal elements in the style of Murakami (either of the two, Haruki or Ryu), nor is it relentlessly dark and hopeless like a Natsuo Kirino novel. This is an apparently simple story of cat and mouse, slightly reminiscent of ‘Crime and Punishment’. A murder is committed, somewhat accidentally, within the first few pages of the book. Single mother Yasuko and her daughter are distraught and rely on the help of their next-door neighbour Ishigami to cover up the crime. The rest of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel their alibi. Police detective Kusanagi feels something is not quite right about the scenario, and finally turns to his friend, physicist and amateur detective Yukawa, for help. It turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami knew each other in college, and they engage in a rather chilling battle of wits.

It’s not just the puzzle which I find intriguing (and the author manages to keep a few tricks up his sleeve), but the way in which guilt, sense of duty, obligation and affection affects these rather lonely characters and draws them to one another. I had a strong sense of sadness while reading this, feeling sorry for all the people involved, especially those who are deluded enough to believe that logic alone can triumph. The ‘unknowability’ of human feelings always interferes and spoils the best-laid plans.

This book should be more palatable to Western audiences than Kirino, yet it still retains enough Japanese characteristics to make it a quirky read, rather different from standard crime fiction fare.