In her worldwide bestselling novel Breasts and eggs Mieko Kawakami (1976) shows what it means to be poor and a woman in Japanese patriarchal society. Her main character, the author Natsuko, does not feel like a man, but would like to have a child.
The first part of the two parts Breasts and eggses you can read as a stand-alone story or an introduction that describes the background of the narrator. Natsuko begins his story in the summer of 2008: ‘If you want to know how poor someone used to be, just ask about the number of windows in the house they grew up in.’
She grows up in a cave-like one-room house in the port city of Osaka, where she lives with her petite, unemployed father with loose hands (if one mentions his height, it also seems to emphasize her undisguised contempt), a hard-working mother and her big sister Makiko. One day, her father disappears, after which her mother and her two daughters pack up to live with Grandma Komi in another part of town. Her mother died when she was thirteen and her grandmother two years later. The two sisters then have to do it on their own.
In 2008, 30-year-old Natsuko lives in Tokyo and works full time in a bookstore. Little has changed: She is still poor, she barely has a social life and even though she writes a lot for her blog, there is no prospect of a life as a writer.
Her sister Makiko comes to visit her after years with her daughter Midoriko. The real reason for the visit turns out to be her intention to undergo a breast augmentation in Tokyo by a rogue plastic surgeon. Natsuko, who stopped thinking about his body early on, does not understand why. The reader understands this very well: Makiko looks tired and shabby, but her appearance determines the tips she gets, her market value. The competition at the bar is young and tough for that reason alone. Kawakami shows that a woman’s body must always be desirable to men – and women do everything to meet that.
In the second, most voluminous part of the novel, Kawakami leaps eight years. We arrived in the summer of 2016. That division is also a nod to her name Natsuko Natsume: double spelling for ‘summer’.
While the summer of 2008 was still dominated by poverty and breasts, Natsuko is doing better eight years later. This part revolves around fertility in both the literary and biological sense: this is where the ‘eggs’ come into play.
Natsuko has now published a collection of short stories and makes a living from writing, although it is not without struggle. Her (male) editor calls her drunk and says, “You will never write an original novel. You will never be a true writer. (..) How old are you really?” This tirade is good for it, but also makes her angry, we read.Her reaction, anger or after-effects of this phone call are not described.she tells instead of showing anger.
Separation of body and mind
Natsuko is original and funny at times, but sometimes it seems like she’s mostly made up of a voice. She registers, but she does not incarnate the story. Would Kawakami have just consistently implemented the separation between body and mind that is part of Natsuko? Natsuko once had a girlfriend. She loved him, but she hated sex. She does not know feelings of desire. Olivia Laing describes in Each a body how hunger and poor physical conditions (such as poverty) can cause a separation between body and mind. Maybe Natsuko is asexual or emotionally damaged?
It is good that Kawakami leaves this kind of psychological interpretation to the reader, who may also be confronted with his own normative (narrow-minded) views. For why is there something wrong with you if you, like Natsuko, do not feel the need for a physical relationship with a man (other sexes are not mentioned)?
At the age of 40, after a run of 188 pages, Natsuko begins to long for a child. Therefore, she is studying artificial insemination with donor sperm (kid). In Japan, however, like IVF, this is only available to heterosexual couples with fertility problems, not to single women or gay couples.
While searching for information about a child, Natsuko meets Jun Aiwaza and Yuriko Zen, who both feel fooled by a child. June because the donation in Japan (still) is anonymous and he will probably never meet his father and Yuriko because she had a terrible childhood. “Why do you want a child?” ask them and she paints a beautiful moral dilemma about a cottage in the woods where ten children sleep. ‘(…) There is no joy or happiness or sorrow or sorrow, for they all sleep. Then you are faced with a choice. You can wake all ten children or put them all to sleep. If you wake them all up, nine out of ten children will be happy that you woke them up. Except for one child (…), for whom it is immediately clear that from birth to death it will be plagued by a pain worse than dying. ‘
But Natsuko wants to get pregnant. The reactions in her surroundings are pronounced. Her feminist author friend cheers, her sister thinks it’s ridiculous. However, Jun offers her a listening ear and she falls in love with him.
Saying, the moment she thinks of him and sticks her hand up in her panties in an attempt to evoke feelings of excitement. It does not affect her. She wonders, “Why should the feelings you have for another person and this part of the body be so closely linked?”
Natsuko frees the moment she wants to have children. And as her determination grows, the women around her take on more shape and color. She is already surrounded by women who do not fit the equal norm: her sister and author friend are single mothers, and her editor is deliberately childless.
Breasts and eggs seems unbalanced in some respects. The novel’s main theme has a too long prelude, and the way Kawakami describes Natsuko’s desire for children and liberation is powerful, but relatively too fleeting. Still, the idiosyncratic Natsuko is fascinating: You want to hear what she has to say.
Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and eggs
Translated by Maarten Liebregts, Podium Publishers, € 24.99, 496 p.