When is a book not a book? When it’s two books, of course, and when that’s the case, it’s only fair to look at each of them separately. Confused? Don’t worry – all will be revealed, with this week’s reviews focusing on two books in one from a rising star of the Japanese literary scene. I have a feeling that this is a (pair of) novel(s) that will be of interest to many of my readers, and it’s definitely one you’d expect to hear about in next year’s International Booker Prize discussions…
…perhaps it’s best if I explain myself a little more clearly 😉
Until recently, Mieko Kawakami’s only published book in English was the YA novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, published by Pushkin Press), but she’s been on the radar of anglophone Japanophiles for a lot longer than that. Back in 2012, Words Without Borders published an extract from her Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella Breasts and Eggs, in Heal’s translation, but (surprisingly) it’s taken a long time for the book to make it into English, even if there’s a bit of a backstory there.
Last year actually saw a revised and expanded version of the story appear in Japan, with the original novella making up Book One, and a longer sequel comprising Book Two, and it’s this expanded version that has finally been brought into English as Breasts and Eggs, courtesy of Picador (Europa Editions in the US) in Sam Bett’s and David Boyd’s translation. Given that the two books are, essentially, well, two books, I read them as such, and I’ll be focusing on the original tale today 🙂
Book One is set back in the summer of 2008, with the reader following Natsuko Natsume, a struggling young writer living in Tokyo, as she heads off to the station to meet her sister, Makiko, and her niece, Midoriko. The two have come up for a short trip from Natsuko’s hometown of Osaka, and the entire story takes place over the few days the visitors spend as her guests. However, what you’d think would be a happy family reunion is slightly tenser than expected.
For one thing, the twelve-year-old Midoriko isn’t speaking with her mother, insisting on communicating at all times via messages scrawled in a notebook, which makes the hours spent in Natsuko’s sweltering apartment slightly awkward. Then there’s the reason for Makiko’s visit, one of the causes of Midoriko’s withdrawal. Having reached the age of thirty-nine, Makiko has decided that it’s time for a change, and a fairly radical one at that. The trip to see her sister in Tokyo is actually an excuse to find out more about getting breast implants…
This first part of Breasts and Eggs is a fascinating story, with Kawakami alternating the scenes in the cramped apartment with visits to restaurants and bathhouses, extracts from Midoriko’s journal and memories of the two sisters’ childhoods back in Osaka. It’s a story centred entirely upon women, with very little room for (or mention of) men, and Natsuko, who has a fairly quiet, secluded existence in the capital, is dragged back into a life she thought she’d left behind.
Much of the backstory looks at the poverty the sisters grew up in, the two girls living in a tiny apartment with few windows, hearing fights in the street at night (or simply drunken singing). Their hometown is certainly an interesting place:
Aside from the people coming in and out or simply walking by, you’ll find people slumped down motionless under the payphones, women who looked well into their sixties promising dances for 2,000 yen, and no shortage of vagrants and drunks, but you’ll also find the whole of Osaka. Shobashi comes alive at night. From appearances, it’s a dump. And from sundown to sun-up, on the third floor of a building throbbing with karaoke reverb, you’ll find the bar where Makiko works, five nights a week, from seven until midnight.
p.25 (Picador, 2020)
The sisters grew up poor, having to work hard to survive, particularly after the death of their mother and grandmother, but while Natsuko found a way out, Makiko stayed in this world, spending her nights in a run-down hostess club to make ends meet.
Yet as Makiko fights her way through life, she doesn’t realise that her daughter is different, and is starting to buckle under the strains of growing up:
The other day at school, between classes, I forget who, but someone was saying, “I was born a girl, so yeah I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.” Where does that come from, though? Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman? A potential mother? What makes that so great anyway? Does anyone really believe that? Just because they make us read these stupid books doesn’t make it true. I hate it so much. (p.44)
Having seen how her mother’s life has panned out, Midoriko is afraid of taking the same path and is dreading the arrival of her first period, and the journey towards adulthood it entails. Unsurprisingly, then, Makiko’s constant talk of breasts is the last thing she needs, and it’s going to take a lot more than a few scribbled notes to mend the relationship with her mother.
This trepidation regarding becoming a woman is placed beside some slightly more graphic details regarding the issues women face in society. When Natsuko and her visitors spend time at the apartment, the television is often on in the background, and the stories covered in the news programmes tend to be rather disturbing. On several occasions the trio hear of crimes committed against other women, with the poor victims sexually assaulted and even butchered, then dumped like rubbish. In this way, what starts out as a slightly messy, disjointed tale of an awkward family reunion becomes an examination of what women can expect from society, and as Kawakami shows us, it isn’t always pretty…
And yet, overall Breasts and Eggs is a light-hearted, fun experience. It’s a well-paced short novel that sees the three women forced to examine their lives from a different perspective, and while Natsuko approaches the few days covered in the story with hesitation, by the end of the stay, she and her family have become much closer, with each of them ready to carry on, whatever the next stage of life might throw at them. In fact, by the final page, I suspect many readers will be sad to be waving Makiko and Midoriko off at Tokyo Station, wishing there was more to the story.
It’s great, then, that there is 🙂
Before I finish up today, it would be remiss of me not to take a closer look at the WWB excerpts, as they throw up some very interesting questions regarding translation. Kawakami is known for her Osaka roots and the use of her local dialect in her writing, and Heal Kawai had fun with this by rendering parts of Breasts and Eggs in her own native Manchester accent/dialect. Take this extract, for example:
Makiko’s my older sister and Midoriko’s her kid so that makes Midoriko my niece and me her unmarried auntie, and because it’s been nearly ten years since Makiko broke up with Midoriko’s dad she doesn’t remember living with him, and I haven’t heard anything about her mum having them meet so she knows sod all about the bloke—but that’s by the by—and we all go by the same name now.
(Words Without Borders, 2012)
And here’s an extract from the book version, albeit slightly altered:
Makiko, the one visiting me today from Osaka, is my older sister. She’s thirty-nine and has a twelve-year-old daughter named Midoriko. She raised the girl herself. (p.15)
Or how about this one:
Me and Mum don’t talk much. Well, I’ve stopped speaking to her at all. Every day she’s researching this breast surgery crap, and I pretend not to be looking, but to put fake stuff in your chest just to make your boobs bigger? I can’t get my head around it, what’s it for? For her job? I don’t get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! I’ve seen it on the telly, and in photos too, they cut you open. Then they shove this thing in and it’s dead painful. Mum doesn’t understand anything. She’s off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks.
Compare that with:
Mum and I aren’t really talking. Not at all, actually. […] All my mum ever does is research breast implants. I pretend like I’m not watching, but she’s too busy thinking about boobs to notice anyway. Is she serious? I mean, why? I can’t even begin to understand. It’s gross, I really don’t understand. It’s so, so, so, so, so gross. So gross. I’ve seen what it looks like. I’ve seen it on TV and online. It’s surgery. They cut right into you. They slit you open so they can stuff you, literally. It hurts. What’s wrong with her? What the hell is wrong with her? She’s being an idiot, the biggest idiot. (p.93)
I’m sure you’ll agree that these are fairly different texts.
I realise that with getting the book out to as many readers as possible, particularly in the US, the priority here, Heal Kawai’s version of the text, reminiscent of an episode of Coronation Street (or an extended argument between the Gallagher brothers), was never likely to get picked up. However, the final text, while perfectly adequate, does seem rather tame by comparison, a slightly flat version with an American-tinged neutral flavour (with two obvious frequent alterations – ‘mum’ and ‘bumbag’ – for the Anglo-Australian market). Not everyone will agree, but I’d have preferred something a little closer to what we get in the WWB extract 😉
Another thing I noticed when comparing the two versions is that they can be very different in places. In particular, the memorable bathhouse scene, where Makiko is a little too fascinated by the breasts of the other women bathing, seems to be missing a lot of description when we get to the book version. Here, I suspect (and certainly hope) that the differences are down to the changes Kawakami made between the original novella and the later adaptation, with the writer deciding to tighten up certain scenes for the new book. It just goes to show, though, that there’s a lot more to translation than simply picking up a book and bashing out a version in English, and that what eventually makes its way into the hands of eager readers may be very different to what the original audience experienced…