‘Heaven’, by Mieko Kawakami: NPR
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have suffered from a reading disability. My concentration is bad; my engagement, worse. I blame the world, not the books, but I’m especially grateful to the writers whose novels broke my mental clouds. First on this list is Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami, whose English debut, Breasts and eggs, was one of my favorite books of 2020. I wasn’t alone; Breasts and eggs, in the flawless rendering of Sam Bett and David Boyd, was a decisive success. No wonder Kawakami’s American publisher, the excellent Europa Editions, chased him so quickly with another Bett-Boyd co-translation, this time of Kawakami’s 2016 novel. paradise, which once again cut straight to my funk.
paradise is a raw, painful and tender portrayal of adolescent misery, reminiscent of both Elena Ferrante’s fiction and Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eigth year. I cannot in good conscience endorse it without warning: this book is very likely to make you cry.
paradise is less sophisticated than the tripartite Breasts and eggs, which changes perspectives and timelines for approaching the feminist issue of reproductive autonomy from various angles. Here, Kawakami tells a simpler story in a simpler form. Its 14-year-old protagonist suffers horrific bullying daily from his male classmates. In the heart-wrenching first chapter of the novel, they hit him, laughed at him for his lazy eye, force-fed him with chalk, and shoved him into a locker. Heartbreaking, he seems used to these torments. From the locker he calmly told the reader, “I was no stranger to the dust-clogged air and muted darkness. Whenever this sort of thing happened, I just started counting in my head. , without thinking about anything else. ” But through his brave brow, he is clearly miserable. Her home life is silent and stifling, her school life tortuous; he longs for the human bond, but he is too afraid to seek it. No wonder, when his outcast comrade Kojima starts leaving notes on his desk, their correspondence becomes his “only source of pleasure.”
If Kawakami were a more conventional or sentimental writer, Kojima would be the narrator’s first love. Instead, she occupies a more hazy space in her life: their friendship is intermittent and confusing, rooted less in their personal connection than in Kojima’s fragile teenage idealism. In her conversations with the narrator, she preaches a gospel of social martyrdom that might appeal to JD Salinger’s Franny Glass, to whom Kojima bears more than a fleeting likeness. Kojima firmly believes that being harassed is, as she puts it, a ‘sign’. She sees herself and the narrator as designated empaths; their suffering enables them to “know exactly what it means to hurt someone else” and raises them to a better understanding of pain. She welcomes this understanding and accepts her daily torments as rites of purification.
Kawakami makes it clear that Kojima’s beliefs are not only incorrect but risky. Just like Franny in Franny and Zooey, it turns idealism into self-harm. She also objects the narrator, whom she sees less as a real person than as living proof of her theories. Kawakami handles Kojima with enough sympathy that it is impossible to blame her. She’s 14, after all, and is dealing with a horrible situation without the help of an adult. Ultimately, however, she cannot offer the narrator true friendship or solidarity; it is not ballast, but a weight.
Kawakami slowly and painfully leads readers to this realization, but we get there before his narrator, who takes almost the entire novel to figure it out. He only does this through a brutal episode of depression in which he struggles with suicidal ideation, then “los[es] touch with what sadness is meant to be. Kawakami uses his narrator’s numbness to redirect the book. Because he is no longer afraid of pain, the narrator is able to confront one of his bullies. Their confrontation – which is, in reality, a sneering monologue about the role of the bully; his cruelty at times took my breath away – compels the narrator to admit that he cannot live by Kojima’s code. Within days, the “fragments of righteousness that m ‘had retained [stop] interlocking. His time as a potential martyr is over.
This trajectory is unusual: How many novels about bullying, or about adolescents, end in liberation via nihilism? In paradiseHowever, the narrator’s embrace of insignificance seems, like his friendship with Kojima, to be a necessary but impermanent developmental stage. paradiseThe end of this book is not entirely happy, but, for the first time, Kawakami lets some light into the book. Its last chapters are reassuring without losing sight of the still disastrous reality of the narrator. They promise that the narrator will someday have a future that not so long ago he and the reader feared they would not live to see.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.