Womxn in Translation (Part Three)

Three more superb #WITMonth books.

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador)

A novel in two parts, Breasts and Eggs is narrated by Natsuko, a 31-year-old bookshop worker. The first section is set in 2008 when Natsuko’s sister Makiko and her teenage daughter, Midoriko, come to visit Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko’s on the verge of 40 and contemplating breast implants. 13-year-old Midoriko hasn’t spoken to her mother for more than six months, writing notes on a pad instead. She keeps a journal which we’re privy to from the early stages of the book which reveals that Midoriko is concerned about puberty and the expectations placed on women. She’s also angry at her mother for wanting the implants. Natsuko is concerned about her sister, who ‘literally looked old’. The two women grew up in poverty and now Makiko works as a hostess in a bar. The strain of work and her daughter not speaking to her is clearly taking its toll on Makiko. Inevitably the tension builds and there’s a superb set piece towards the end of the section involving actual eggs.

In the second half of the novel, Natsuko is thirty-eight. Since the end of part one, she’s become a successful writer with a best-selling short story collection. Now she’s working on a novel and struggling to believe that she’s gone from poverty to full-time writer. She’s also wondering whether she wants to spend the rest of her life alone. This is partly a question of relationships but largely of whether or not she wants a child. Natsuko’s almost certain she’s asexual (although she never uses the term) and this further complicates the issue. In an attempt to find an answer, she begins to research fertility treatment and makes some unexpected discoveries.

Breasts and Eggs was a best-seller in Japan and has been described as ‘a literary grenade’, partly, I’m sure, because Kawakami so brilliantly sends up the middle-class male-dominated literary scene. There’s a brilliant set piece at a literary event which introduces another female writer, Rika Yusa, who has no time for the big male writers and no qualms about telling them. But what sets the book apart is its focus on three working-class women and their lives. Kawakami writes about money and the impact having so little has on someone’s life; she considers the long-lasting effects of growing up poor; she examines what it is to be a woman from a range of perspectives creating space for single mothers, for those who chose to remain child-free, and for a woman who’s asexual, therefore making room for so many different varieties of womanhood. Breasts and Eggs is a breath of fresh air. I loved it. 

King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Feminism […] is not about pitting the miserable gains by women against the miserable gains by men, it’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.

Despentes’ feminist manifesto/essay collection King Kong Theory comes for the patriarchy from the margins: 

I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh.

From this perspective, Despentes shows how women have been made to feel scared of their own independence and how traditional masculinity is keeping men caged. She writes about her own rape to challenge the idea that that women have to be victims; she details her experiences as a prostitute (Despentes’ vocabulary choice) to lay down parallels with heterosexual marriage; she debates the reasons the establishment give for their attitudes towards porn, tying it to capitalism and the maintenance of the status quo, and she discusses the attitudes of male critics towards the film based on her debut novel Baise Moi (Rape Me), and how the policing of women’s identities is degrading. The latter piece ends with a paragraph of which the opening sentence is Thank fuck for Courtney Love, to which I (and my 17-year-old self) can only respond, hell, yes. 

Originally published in 2006, King Kong Theory has been reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions in a new translation by Frank Wynne, translator of Despentes’ brilliant Vernon Subutex trilogy. It’s spikier and swearier than the original English language translation and better for it. There’s a ferocity to this version that fits Despentes’ anger at society’s gender expectations.

Rather than writing a review of this book, my initial plan was to type out all the bits I’d underlined, but by the time I’d finished reading it, I’d underlined most of the book. I think that tells you all you need to know.

Many People Die Like You – Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel (And Other Stories)

Wolff’s short stories, like her novels, are populated with off-beat characters who either find themselves in strange situations or are the victim of Wolff sending them up. The opening tale, ‘No Man’s Land’ starts with the narrator complaining about a badly written report. Office manager? No. A private detective hired to follow the narrator’s husband. The detective’s dangling modifiers drop him in a predicament neither he nor the reader would have imagined. 

In the title story, Vicente Jiménez, a middle-aged university lecturer (oh, yes), laments the end of an affair with one of his female students (oh, yes). His boss, Jerónimo Inclán, tells him

“Many people die like you,” […]. “Death by stifling is in fact the most common death of all. Statistics will tell you asphyxiation is the most common cause of death.”

He expands this into a metaphor about feeling that you’re not living life to the full before eventually succumbing to melancholy and dying. Vincete’s life changes though when Inclán introduces him to Beatriz de la Fuente; perhaps he’ll escape death after all. I should’ve hated everything about this story, but Wolff has her tongue firmly in her cheek and it’s hilarious. 

Elsewhere, a girl tells her high school guidance counsellor that she could imagine being a sex worker, leading to unexpected but inevitable consequences; an older woman asks a younger man for piano lessons which become regular appointments for sex instead; a man has a terrible time on holiday with his wife because of the patriarchy and the establishment and absolutely nothing to do with his affair (oh, no); a woman’s ex-lover turns up at her marital home with a strange request, and, on a coach trip, a woman sees a terrible omen.

In the longest and most complex piece, ‘Misery Porn’, a young man buys a second-hand television which starts to pick up a channel where a woman sits in a chair crying. The woman turns out to be his neighbour and he gets drawn into both a relationship with her and the content she produces. Wolff uses it to comment on society’s expectations of women who’ve suffered and the double-bind it places them in. As in many of the stories, Wolff’s interested in the conventions of society and what happens if you break them. These tales are odd, inventive and often laugh out loud funny.

Review copies provided by the publishers as stated.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs – Lina Wolff (translated by Frank Perry)

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs begins with the narrator, Araceli Villalobos, being told a story by Valentino Coraggioso about Alba Cambó. Valentino was out with Alba, walking, trying second-hand clothes on, dining at a restaurant, discussing marriage.

That was the way we were going to live. Full on, flat out and no teasing the brakes. Wholeheartedly. Otherwise why bother? We would live life even if it killed us. That was what we would do and that was the moment I realised it. Alba Cambó and I would live life, even if it killed us.

At the end of the day, Alba takes a ‘phone call and reveals to Valentino that she has an inoperable tumour.

Alba Cambó’s a writer. On the day she moves into the flat below Araceli and her mother they read her short story, published in Semejanzas, about a lonely, socially phobic man. The climax of the story comes when his daughter organises a surprise birthday party for him. He enters his apartment unaware that anyone else is there and lets out a fart that’s been building all day:

The sound that came out of the man was lengthy and sustained. It echoed between the walls and was drawn out into a kind of lamentation; it was then transformed into the cry that issues from the gullet of a bird one evening on some isolated mountain lake, and was finally followed by a sigh of relief. The daughter stood there paralysed in the darkness. The whole thing fell apart.

Apart from possibly being the best description of a fart in literature (are there others?) these two short pieces introduce the key theme of the novel – storytelling, translation and particularly, how each of us translates the same person differently depending on our experiences of them. We do meet Alba but she’s shown to us by Araceli who, we discover in the second section of the book, is studying to be a translator. In that second section, Araceli gives an account of the dinner she and Alba attend at the apartment one of her teachers. It’s one of the few moments when Araceli directly discusses Alba. Also in that section, one of Alba’s stories is included in full, unlike at the beginning of the novel when it’s related to us by Araceli. However, even the inclusion of Alba’s story is a decision made by Araceli and, ultimately, Lina Wolff writing as Alba Cambó. Everything we learn is filtered through someone else’s viewpoint.

The book also includes the stories of those around Alba. In the first section, Alba’s housekeeper, Blosom, tells Araceli and her mother her story. In the final section, it’s Rodrigo Auscias and how he became mixed up in a business arrangement and more with one of Alba’s former lovers. The title of the novel (and isn’t it a great title?) belongs to his story when he procures a dog for his wife from a brothel:

We’ve got a kennel and all the dogs in it are named after famous male writers, she [the sex worker he’d spent the night with] had said. Whenever some guy pays us a visit and is nasty to us, we give the dogs rotten meat.

Their names are a result of ‘an intellectual feminist from the city…[who] said she wanted to help us, though the truth is she looked down on us’. When she discovered the dogs were unnamed, in a passive aggressive move, she named them Dante, Chaucer and Harold Bloom. Bret Easton Ellis is ‘named after a book someone found one morning on the bedside table’. I can’t help laughing at the nod – and a middle finger? – to American Psycho there.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is a clever, thoughtful novel whilst also being a really interesting, well-told, engaging story (or set of intertwined stories). There’s a lot of noise at the moment about the American novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (which I’ll review in a couple of weeks). In that, the protagonist – a young, female, indie film director – is revealed through the stories of those who knew her best. Wolff does something similar but subtler with a slightly older, female writer. If you prefer your literature European filtered through Latin America with an occasional kick of dark humour, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs is the one for you.


Thanks to And Other Stories for the review copy.