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.

Womxn in Translation (Part Two)

Four more #WITMonth offerings. All very different; all very good. (Part One is here.)

Tender Is the Flesh – Agustina Bazterrica, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses (Pushkin Press)

In a future world that feels slightly too close to our own reality, people have stopped eating animal meat following the announcement of a virus, carried by animals, that’s fatal to humans. The lack of protein means some people take matters into their own hands: ‘In some countries immigrants began to disappear en masse. Immigrants, the marginalized, the poor. They were persecuted and eventually slaughtered’. In an attempt to prevent this, humans are legally bred for meat. 

Marcos Tejo runs a processing plant. He’s grieving the death of his baby son and his wife is living at her mother’s, unwilling to speak to him. Then an old friend gifts him a pure gene, almond-fed female and Marcos has to decide what to do with her. 

Tender Is the Flesh isn’t for the faint-hearted. In one section, we’re given a tour of the processing plant as ‘heads’ (it’s illegal to refer to them as humans) are slaughtered. There’s a fairly graphic rape scene and multiple images of humans in captivity. But how far from today’s world is this really? Bazterrica draws clear lines to our treatment of immigrants, the poor and women and although Marcos is conflicted, he is also utterly complicit. Ultimately, Bazterrica suggests we’re too selfish to save humanity; when it comes to it, we’ll make sure our own needs are met first.

A Girl’s Story – Annie Ernaux, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

I am not constructing a fictional character but deconstructing the girl I was.

At a summer camp in 1958, 17-year-old Annie Duchesne was sexually assaulted by one of the camp’s head instructor. Sixty years later, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) tries to analyse what happened to her and the impact that summer had on her life. Ernaux sees the girl she was as ‘the missing piece’; she’s tried to write about her and that summer many times but has never managed it. Now, she separates herself from this girl, referring to her as ‘she’ and her present self as ‘I’ in order to unearth who she really is. 

What’s most interesting about the project is Ernaux’s thoughts on how to approach it and what can really be learned from an event so long ago that new memories of it are unlikely to be found. At one point, she thinks about the man and the imbalance of the impact he’s had on her compared to the one she had on him. ‘I do not envy him: I am the one who is writing.’ And I’m grateful she is. Ernaux’s work is always intelligent and thoughtful and A Girl’s Story is no exception. 

Where the Wild Ladies Are – Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (Tilted Axis)

A collection of ghost stories drawn from traditional Japanese tales to which Matsuda applies a feminist twist. There are saleswomen who subtly sort out a lazy husband; a newly-single woman who, with the help of her aunt, question why she spends so much time on grooming procedures; a sex worker whose child is quietly watched over when she has to leave her alone in order to work; a tree which might have special properties, and a woman who works with her pet to protect women who are being harassed and abused. There is also a series of stories set in and around a company run by Mr Tei, a recruiter of both human and supernatural beings. 

Matsuda plays with form and voice across the collection. There’s an interesting piece – ‘Having a Blast’ – which moves from the perspective of a dead wife to her widow and then to his new wife, which shifts the reader’s understanding of the characters as it progresses. ‘The Jealous Type’ is told in second person which begins quite confrontationally but takes an interesting turn when the speaker is revealed. 

Some of the stories come with a primer for the original tale. These were interesting in terms of seeing how Matsuda had changed or developed them, but I didn’t feel that not knowing the original stories diminished my enjoyment of the new versions. This collection is a joy. 

Territory of Light – Yūko Tsushima, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt (Penguin Modern Classics)

Originally written and published in 12 parts in 1978-79, Territory of Light follows a year in the life of a young woman who has left her husband and is living alone with their two-year-old daughter. As the year proceeds, the woman has to learn how to adjust to this new life – how to cope when she needs to go to work but her daughter’s sick; how to manage the presence of her ex who wants to see his child but can’t pay maintenance; how to build something that is hers while taking into account the needs of her child. 

On the surface, this book appears to be quite gentle; the sort of narrative which is sometimes described as one in which ‘nothing happens’. But there is an underlying darkness to the stories: a fire that breaks out at an apartment; the sound of water that can’t be located; objects thrown from a window; the daughter acting out, and the ex-husband being verbally abusive. These are stories with a depth that belies the smoothness of the writing; tales that linger and expand after you’ve finished reading them. 

Review copies of A Girl’s Story and Territory of Light provided by the publisher as listed. All others are my own copies.