(translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd)
As it says on the cover, this novel is “breathtaking”. Although she is an established literary star in Japan, I believe this is Kawakami’s first novel widely available in English, and it is quite something.
Natsuko is 30 years old, she published one novel 3 or 4 years ago to some acclaim and although her editor is very nice about it, it is clear that there is an impatience for the second novel to see the light of day. Natsuko herself does not seem all that bothered. She says she is writing, but refuses to show it to anyone or even discuss it. Natsuko is also single. She has had one lover, and it didn’t go well. She believes her body incapable of having sex.
In the first half of the book Natsuko is joined in a very sweaty Tokyo by her older sister Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko, who is 12. Midoriko has given up on speaking to anybody apparently for fear she may cause harm, now she communicates by nodding, pointing, or writing terse comments in a small notebook that she carries with her. Makiko is described as fading escort / dancing girl. She is approaching 40 and worries that her looks are fading. To combat this she has concocted this trip to visit Natsuko in Tokyo, from their home in Osaka, as a cover to get breast enhancement surgery. It is pretty much her only topic of conversation – she brings a bunch of brochures from different surgeries asking for which her sister and daughter think is the one likely to produce the best results. These conversations don’t go well.
The second half of the book switches the focus to Natsuko’s wish to be a mother, to experience pregnancy – it is unclear if that experience is actually more of a force driving Natsuko’s desire, than the wish to be a mother. She has conversations with a variety of people, including Makiko, about the finite number of eggs she has, the ‘ticking clock’, her distaste for / inability to have sex. She meets a would-be donor who has an extremely high regard for the potency of his own sperm. And she meets her editor Sengawa, who she describes thus, “Her short hair gave her ears nowhere to hide, and when she laughed her face went wrinkly, which for whatever reason made me smile“, several times, without discussing any progress on the novel.
She describes tribulations with an earlier editor: “I spent two years working over what I’d written with this male editor, who forced me to practically rewrite the thing more than once. These were not the best years of my life…His favourite dispensations included, “I can’t see the reader’s face,” “this isn’t how people act,” and “I need you to convince me.” That should give you a taste of our sessions. At first, I assumed he was right, that his opinions were important, but once I gave myself permission to be skeptical, I realised he was full of crap.“
When Natsuko starts discussing, with her friend Yuriko, her desire to have a child by artificial insemination, the conversation does not go quite as Natsuko expected: “What if you have a child, and that child wishes with every bone in her body that she had never been born?…Why is it that people think this is OK? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it is not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born. You do this absurd thing because it is what you want for yourself and that doesn’t make any sense.“
(Too many) People move around on the metro system, meet in cafes, get drunk on imported beer and sake, a very drunk and tired Natsuko stops off at a karaoke bar and sings herself to sleep, and they live in cramped apartments where the air conditioning is temperamental at best. So Kawakami uses the shorthand signifiers of modern Japan commonplace in contemporary literature, she twists them, uses them in interesting new ways. The book is grounded and very definitely ‘set there’ but it is speaking to the experience of women in Japan and that is a welcome change.
Her small observations lift it: “The owner liked to tell one of his old stylists had become a stunt man, how if you watched carefully you could see him on TV. He always told you the same story, with the same absurd enthusiasm.”
The ground she covers is not a million miles from Murakami and while there’s not quite the same surrealist elan of the older writer, there is something more meditative, something ‘closer to home’ that gets under your skin. I will be keeping an eye out for further translations appearing in English.