by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd.
Picador, 176 pp., £14.99, June, 978 1 5098 9824 4
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It’s hard not to read the title of Mieko Kawakami’s first novel, Breasts and Eggs, as some kind of provocation. I keep seeing them in front of me – a perverted breakfast, breasts over easy, with a side of ketchup. What are they doing there, those breasts and eggs? It turns out this is misleading: the eggs are the kind that give human life. But the title is appropriate. Kawakami is interested in presenting the biggest, most abstract questions in a way that makes them seem almost absurdly direct, cutting out the problem parts and putting them on a plate. In this case the problems are those that come from living in a body that has limitations, that doesn’t bend to one’s will. Forget men, children and all the rest: mind and body is the original impossible cohabitation.

Breasts and Eggs is about a woman called Natsuko (or Natsu for short). In the first half of the book, she is living alone in Tokyo, in her early thirties, trying to write and surviving on very little money. Her sister, Makiko, comes to visit and tells Natsu that she’s getting breast implants. She’s 39 and worries that her work as a hostess in a bar will soon dry up.

Those are the breasts. The eggs come in the second half of the book. Natsu decides she wants a child of her own. She’s eight years older now, has written a book of short stories, and is actually making some money from her writing, a development that surprises her as much as it gives her pleasure. She’s stuck on her latest book, a novel about day labourers. The glow from her first success has faded. Sitting alone trying to write gives her time to think. She researches IVF and reads about adults born via sperm donation.

Kawakami poses two questions through Natsuko’s dilemma. The first is whether it is OK to have a child in vitro and raise that child on one’s own. (Makiko thinks her sister is crazy even to consider it.) The other is whether it’s OK to have a child at all. These are big philosophical matters, closely tied to the biological limitations of the female body. But, reading the novel, I began to think that the characters in it are women not because questions of reproduction particularly affect women, but because women are more likely to articulate them. (We are, after all, expected to decide whether or not our genes deserve to get passed on before the age of forty.)

After she makes up her mind to become a mother, Natsu goes to a conference for children born from donor sperm where people talk about their experiences of deceit and deception. Donor conception, one woman says, is all about ‘ego’. ‘Yes, the egos of the parents, but also the egos of the doctors, who view the life they bring into the world as an end that glorifies the means.’ This discussion annoys Natsu. Without thinking she stands up and says:

‘Who can guarantee if any couple is going to stay together? Aren’t these questions relevant to anyone considering parenthood? I believe you also mentioned God, but how does that matter? Do you really think there’s someone or something that can determine which families are ready for a child? What, exactly, qualifies as a real family?’ … I realised I was basically shouting.

It’s not hard to see why Natsu is riled. In Japan, single women are forbidden from using sperm donation to get pregnant. Natsu has two choices: travel abroad to a foreign IVF clinic or acquire sperm from an illegal donor.

One of Natsu’s options for contraband sperm is a man called Onda, who blogs about his ‘donations’ on the internet. He says he must interview her. (He gives various reasons for this interview.) When they meet, he announces that he has ‘the very highest quality of semen. As potent as it gets’, and describes sperm donation as his vocation: ‘About the time I started middle school, I decided to use one of those microscopes to get a good look at my own semen … I’d masturbate every day, to get a fresh sample for my microscope.’ She doesn’t use his sperm.

Men, their failures, their absences, their smallness and their inability to perform what is expected of them are recurring themes. The exception is Aizawa, a doctor Natsu meets at the conference, who has spent the last few years searching (unsuccessfully) for his biological father, having learned that his mother used donor sperm. Like Natsu, he has started to think about having a child of his own. A friendship develops – perhaps a romance – but Aizawa already has a partner.

Natsu and Makiko’s father disappeared during their childhood. ‘He was always wearing the same stained tank top and longjohns and lounging on his futon, a permanent fixture of the room.’ Her sister’s husband also ran off, leaving her to raise her daughter on her own. Men are hangers-on, absconders, wet blankets, quiet admonishers. At one point Natsu thinks she sees a tiny man on the street imploring her: ‘Where’s mum?’

The temptation here is to relate Natsu’s existential anxieties about motherhood to the conservatism of Japanese society, where sexist legislation and unrealistic idealisations of working mothers are at least partly to blame for one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The novel encourages you to read it in sociological terms. ‘If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had,’ Natsu thinks at the beginning of the novel. ‘I was born poor, and I’m still poor.’ Interiors are described precisely, and class distinctions noted, not only between the window haves and have nots, but between Osaka and Tokyo, between the income of a struggling writer and that of a mildly successful author. One woman has ‘the sort of problems you can only have when you come from money’.

Kawakami is a thoughtful feminist voice in contemporary Japanese literature. (She once took Haruki Murakami to task for his ‘female characters who exist solely to fulfil a sexual function’.) But her proper interest, in these two books, is in the reality of the body; there’s no financial redistribution or piece of law that will make Natsu’s choices any easier. At one point, the two sisters sit in a bath house together and Natsu imagines ‘a bunch of tiny people’ crying out ‘THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS WOMEN.’

One of Kawakami’s strengths is the power of her physical descriptions. Here is Natsu listening to her sister describe her plans:

Throughout these spirited updates, I tried remembering what Makiko’s breasts were like, but kept drawing a blank. Which I suppose is only natural, since it’s not like I can picture my own breasts, even though they’re stuck to me.

And then:

Her breasts themselves were little more than a couple of mosquito bites, but her nipples were like two control knobs stuck onto her chest. Or like a pair of rubber tyres on their sides. And the colour. Imagine the softest pencil you could find – I guess that would be a 10B. Now imagine really bearing down with it and blacking out two little circles.

The persistence of these images is as interesting as the images themselves. In novels by women, novels I might call feminist, there are often only two possibilities for the body: celebrate it or get rid of it entirely. It’s an impediment or a tool, to be set aside or used for further ends. Here, however, the body is simply, heavily present. Makiko’s teenage daughter writes in her diary:

Dear Journal, Today in health class we talked about ‘menarche’. So basically your first period. Pretty much everyone else had already had theirs but that’s what we talked about … Once it starts, it keeps happening, for decades. How does that ever feel normal?

The voice of the novel is clear and friendly. I liked, for example, Natsu’s description of a literary event: ‘Everybody just wanted to hear themselves talk, which made it hard to tell what anyone was talking about.’ Or her description of a good night’s sleep: ‘The sleep was like it had been cut out from a slab of clay, round and clean.’ But it’s hard to capture Kawakami’s writing in single sentences, because the questions she’s concerned with are so much bigger. A single phrase snipped here and there feels insufficient. Breasts and Eggs flirts with some of the same themes that have occupied writers like Jenny Offill and Rachel Cusk. But, unlike the characters in their novels, Natsu isn’t interested in whether motherhood is incompatible with creative work. What she wants to find out is whether motherhood is incompatible with being a good person. Her deliberations are almost mathematical in their precision.

The book is neatly constructed to provide four different outcomes. We meet Rika, a happy single mother who tells Natsu that ‘we can look back at this time, when women and men tried to live together and raise families, as some unfortunate episode in human history.’ Sengawa, who had a career and no children, tells Natsu: ‘Get a grip. Kids. Do you know how boring you sound? Great writers, men and women alike, never have kids.’ A married woman called Rie complains that wives become ‘free labour with a pussy’, but also worries about what she would do if she left her husband, who is depressed and unable to work.

The strongest argument against childbearing comes from Yuriko, Aizawa’s partner. A member of the donor conception group, Yuriko was abused as a child. She is against childbearing, not because of donor ethics but because she rejects the creation of new life under any circumstances. She asks Natsu to imagine coming across a house in a forest with ten sleeping children. ‘Now, in that moment, in that small house, there’s no joy, no pain, no happiness, no sadness. So what do you do? Wake them up or let them sleep?’ Nine of the ten children will be happy to be awake, she says. But the tenth won’t. ‘Every second of that child’s life will be more horrible than death itself.’

It took me a moment to realise that Kawakami is not asking: ‘Should this fictional character have a fictional child?’ Nor is she interested in the question of whether one should have children in a world on fire. Her preoccupations run deeper. The question at the heart of Breasts and Eggs is: ‘How can I balance my own happiness against the pain that happiness might cause others?’ Or: ‘What do you do with another person’s pain?’

Pain​ has a central place in Heaven, the second of Kawakami’s novels to be translated into English (it came out in Japan a decade ago). The book follows two children who are being bullied. It is set in 1991 and although the bullying is constant and physical, it is also invisible. The narrator explains: ‘Whether they were kicking or punching or pushing me, Ninomiya and his friends were careful not to ever leave a mark. When I got home and saw I had no bruises, I always wondered where they could have learned this kind of trick.’ Kawakami says that she was influenced by the severity of bullying in Japan, where ‘many children take their own lives on the last day of summer vacation.’ But the sociological contours are less distinct here than in Breasts and Eggs; the focus is more closely on the characters.

At the start of the book, a boy finds a letter in his pencil case which says: ‘We should be friends.’ The boy is known as ‘Eyes’, because of his lazy eye. We never learn his real name. He’s a target for the class bullies, who kick and beat him. But someone likes him. More notes continue to arrive. ‘What were you doing yesterday, when it was raining?’ ‘If you could go to any country in the world, where would you go?’ They come from his classmate, a girl called Kojima, ‘short, with kind of dark skin … her shirt was always wrinkled, and her uniform looked old.’ Their classmates call her ‘Hazmat’ because, they claim, she smells. Soon they are exchanging letters. Kojima draws Eyes into her philosophy. ‘The other kids, the rest of our class, they don’t understand anything. They have no idea what anything means. They don’t know how they make other people feel, and they’ve never stopped to think about other people’s pain.’ She takes him to a museum to see a work of art called Heaven, ‘a painting of two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table’. In her view, ‘something really painful happened to them. Something really, really sad.’ But they get tired and leave the museum before seeing the painting. Kojima explains that ‘the more you look at pictures, not just of Heaven, but of anything, the more the real thing starts looking fake.’

Unlike Eyes, Kojima has some control over her appearance. She isn’t poor, although she rejects her family’s money. There’s something else driving her. She accumulates ‘signs’ to show her suffering. She grows thin. The narrator notices how fragile she looks. She yells at Eyes for considering surgery to change his appearance. He is looking for the reason he’s picked on, but when he runs into one of the bullies by chance, he learns that there’s no reason at all. ‘Good and bad don’t enter into it. Everyone does whatever they feel like doing, whatever works.’ It’s not surprising that Kawakami often writes about adolescents: it’s the last time when it is socially acceptable to act on the basis of feelings. I thought of Natsuko in the first book, asking the ‘adult’ version of the question her niece asks as a teenager. ‘Is this really normal? And if it is, does that mean it’s OK?’

At the end of Heaven, the bullies set upon Eyes and Kojima. They ask them to get undressed and tell them to have sex. Kojima strips and laughs. ‘Her smile had an ineffable strength, light years beyond the way she smiled after falling down by my desk.’ Moments later, she is tackled by one of the bullies. Adults intervene and Kojima is taken away. The two friends never see each other again. Eyes is distraught: ‘I guess I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world.’ He confesses the bullying to his stepmother, who urges him to fix his lazy eye. After the surgery, ‘the world come[s] into focus.’ In Breasts and Eggs, Natsu ends the novel with the child she desires. During delivery, ‘her head and body [fill] with blinding light.’ Each goes on living.

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