Does a body’s ability to become pregnant and nurse a child – that is, the possession of breasts and eggs – determine the fate of that body? For impoverished novelist Natsuko, the protagonist of Mieko Kawakami’s Japanese bestseller, motherhood and self-sacrifice seem to encapsulate the experience of working-class women. But she wonders: can breasts and eggs give rise to liberation? What makes a person free?
Novelist and politician Shintaro Ishihara described Breasts and Eggs as “unpleasant and intolerable”, which might be another way to say that it is not afraid of sperm, used menstrual pads, poverty and the working poor. Natsuko’s language, as translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is actually quite polite. I had the feeling of listening to someone speaking in the dark: casual intimacies interspersed with fanciful, terrifying and dreamlike interludes.
Breasts and Eggs is Kawakami’s first full-length novel to reach English-language readers, and is divided into two sections. Section one is a reissue of a 2008 novella; section two returns to the same narrator, Natsuko, eight years later. Section one is compact and ferocious. It moves in a tightening circle as Natsuko’s sister, Makiko, an ageing hostess, makes a visit to Tokyo: “I’ve been thinking about getting breast implants.” She arrives with Midoriko, her 12-year-old daughter, who refuses to speak. All three are alarmed by their lives and bodies. For Midoriko, hatred of her changing body threatens to become hatred of her mother, the source of her life and symbol of the intolerable condition of being female.
Section two, the bulk of the book, is digressive and reflective. Natsuko is working on a second novel. She wants to have a child but her body cannot tolerate sex, which disquiets and grieves her. Artificial insemination is forbidden to single Japanese women: she must either go to a sperm bank outside the country or make illegal arrangements with a donor. This section is made up of conversations as Natsuko passes time with a fellow writer, an editor, a former co-worker, and briefly, Makiko and Midoriko.
The meetings that disorient Natsuko, however, are with two acquaintances whose biological fathers were anonymous sperm donors. Aizawa was raised by a father he loved; Yuriko was raised by a paedophile whose horrific abuse has robbed her of all well-being. Every decision to bring a child into this ugly existence, Yuriko argues, is an act of violence. “Nobody should be doing this,” she tells Natsuko, adding, “You know what makes you think doing that’s okay? … whoever the child is, the one who lives and dies consumed with pain, could never be you.” Yuriko’s words reverberate throughout Breasts and Eggs as Kawakami places birth itself under scrutiny. We are thrown into a world that surrounds us with its netting; some flourish, others suffocate.
One fascinating element of Kawakami’s work, for which she has been celebrated in Japan, is her use of Osaka dialect. Although this language is described in Breasts and Eggs – “the real Osaka dialect isn’t even about communicating. It’s a contest … How can I put it? It’s an art” – translators Bett and Boyd do not render it. In 2012, an excerpt of Breasts and Eggs was published by another translator, Louise Heal Kawai, who offers Makiko’s “I’ve been thinking about getting breast implants” as “Natsuko, I’m thinking of getting me boobs done”.
Kawai compares Osaka dialect to Mancunian: rough, friendly, outspoken. In Bett and Boyd’s translation, Kawakami’s feminism is vivid, but the language occasionally feels placid; meanwhile, in Kawai’s translation, feminism and language collide in a way that feels deliciously irreverent. Here is Brett and Boyd, translating Midoriko’s response to her mother’s desire for surgery: “It’s gross, I really don’t understand. It’s so, so, so, so, so, so gross … She’s being an idiot, the biggest idiot.” Here is Kawai: “I don’t get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! … She’s off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks.”
In terms of rhythm and raunchiness, I’m not sure – when comparing the two strikingly different translations at length – which part is Kawakami, which the rehousing and reimagining that is translation. Section two is where the question is most pressing: this extended part of the novel flags because its questions about female freedom are reiterated – except by Yuriko – in fairly standard ways. Would representing Natsuko’s irreverent Osaka dialect, her linguistic inventiveness, have thrown a wrench in things? Is Kawakami’s mix of comedy and pain more acute, stinging and revolutionary than it appears in English?
No matter the linguistic and structural variations of Breasts and Eggs, this idea reverberates in all the novel’s permutations: the body, giving birth and passing away, is the past, present and future. The longing to raise children, and to know another state of freedom, haunts many women. Each time we give birth to a new life, we are also continuing an old one. Natsuko’s sense of her unborn child is visceral; her determination to make a life over again seems as much a backwards glance towards her beloved mother and grandmother as hope for a future daughter. “I don’t want to have [children]. I want to meet them. My child.”
• Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel is Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.