Don’t let the title fool you. The long-awaited English translation of Mieko Kawakami’s novel “Breasts and Eggs” is not some elevated, literary piece of Japanese chick lit. It’s a novel of humanity, a multifaceted consideration of the fundamental question: What does it mean to exist?
That Kawakami considers the idea and all its implications from a mostly female viewpoint, covering contemporary issues such as sex work, single motherhood, beauty and gender norms, societal isolation and meaningful vocation does not diminish its universality. It heightens it.
Catching up with Kawakami over a video call from her office in Tokyo, she says, “While it’s true that this is a story about the life of one woman … it’s ultimately a story of people, living life through tears.”
It’s an attitude Kawakami knows well. Raised in a single-mother household in Osaka, it’s no wonder she can construct such an abrasively realistic version of Japan in her fiction, a trait she shares with an oft-cited influence, Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96). Like Higuchi, Kawakami grew up a few steps from destitution, always looking in at more financially stable worlds.
“I’m part of the ‘lost generation’,” she says. “People who were born after the ’70s in Japan. Both men and women of this generation have a hard time living a normal life. They can’t get married, can’t find work, can’t have kids. It’s not out of choice, but because it’s financially impossible. Even if they work hard, they can only earn about ¥140,000 a month, and that’s impossible to support a family.”
Her work doesn’t shy away from such financial struggle and aims to capture a meaner side of Japan with its rampant economic inequality, something she says has been hardly discussed in Japanese literature, especially books that make it into translation. “Until now, the Japanese literature that has gained international fame is usually set in Tokyo and contains an element of the weird or the bizarre. That may be what people find appealing, but I didn’t want to write that kind of story.”
Kawakami instead offers a humorously gritty tour de force, the sprawling story of an aspiring writer from Osaka stumbling toward a more fulfilling life. Told with wit and verve, Kawakami’s 448-page novel, expanded considerably from the original Japanese novella — and divided into two “books” within the book — unfolds with comitragic instability.
Book one focuses on Makiko, an aging Osaka hostess and single mother obsessed with breast augmentation surgery. We observe her quest through the eyes of her younger sister Natsu, a struggling writer and introvert now living in Tokyo who doesn’t understand her older sister’s obsession. Makiko’s daughter, 12-year-old Midoriko, also offers her perspective through journal entries. The emotional thrust centers around Midoriko’s estranged relationship with her mother — the girl has refused to speak to Makiko for nearly a year, instead writing down terse answers on a notepad or scribbling in her journal.
In book two, set 10 years later, it is Natsu’s desires that give the novel shape as she searches for a way to actualize her obsession: to “know” her own child. While exploring options for artificial insemination, Natsu also struggles with her nascent writing career and society’s strict expectations of who deserves to be a mother.
Kawakami lays open a wealth of philosophical ideas, and writes with a clean, lively directness that evokes the unruly creativity of the Osaka dialect. Kawakami lauds her translators, Sam Bett and David Boyd, for rendering the fractious power of the dialect into English.The narration careens from the present to the past, layering a dense tapestry that treads the boundaries between dream and reality. Natsu’s perspective sometimes veers into the surreal, especially in the moments before sleep when memories intrude:
“Walking home alone, men standing in the shadows underneath the telephone poles or by the vending machines, catcalling and snickering. Filthy mouths, stained pant legs, jittery hands. I run all the way up the stairs. Soon I couldn’t see the difference between things I’d heard before and things I hadn’t. Things I’d seen in dreams were tangled up in memories. I lost track of what was real.”
“Breasts and Eggs” emerges as a triumph of storytelling that champions the power of storge (Greek for familial love) — between sisters, between father and son or mother and daughter, between friends and colleagues.
“Familial love helps people to overcome hardship, and I was fortunate to experience this myself, despite the struggles,” Kawakami admits. “Japan’s society doesn’t recognize individuals and only recognizes the family. But love for one’s family is something that needs to be reexamined. We shouldn’t think of love for family as something that occurs naturally, but instead work at forming relationships to attain this love. Love can’t be manipulative but must be based on true compassion.”
A street-smart, distinctly Osakan empathy reverberates throughout this perpetually surprising, cleverly spiraling novel; life is never easy, but you’ve got to laugh through your tears.