IN MIEKO KAWAKAMI’S 2009 novel Heaven, now available from Europa Editions in an English translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd, the Akutagawa Prize–winning author of Breasts and Eggs (2008; Europa Editions, 2020) turns her eye toward the sufferings and cruelties of adolescence.
A highly interior novel, Heaven locks us in, maybe even traps us, in the viewpoint of its unnamed 14-year-old protagonist. Bullied in school because of a lazy eye, he approaches the world with apprehension, and Kawakami really makes us feel his urge to look down, to make himself small, so as not to attract unwanted attention. He is befriended by his classmate Kojima, also a bullying victim. Our narrator and Kojima begin writing secret notes to each other, and soon enough they’re meeting in the school stairwell near the rooftop, talking about everything and nothing. The narrator finds himself drawn to Kojima, even though he describes her several times as reeking, a result of not bathing for days. When these two characters are together, it feels like a YA coming-of-age story, though in fact it is a tale with highly graphic scenes of violence. In one freeing chapter, the narrator and Kojima take the train to an art museum. Away from their tormentors, the novel opens up, letting us escape the claustrophobia of the school scenes and bask in the budding friendship — this precious, secret, fragile thing that needs protection from their real lives. They only ever talk about their experience of bullying in passing, as if it wasn’t the fulcrum of their friendship in the first place.
Heaven is written in a direct, unadorned style; the language is so straightforward, verging on plain, that the depictions of bullying seem shockingly brutal and yet, for the narrator, blandly normalized — almost a reportage, one fact after another. When he visits an old park for the first time, he automatically starts imagining how the setting could supply ingenious props for his tormentors to torture him. He counts the nuggets of animal leavings in a sandbox, for example, thinking that his bullies might make him eat them. This line of thinking might sound extreme, until a bit later on when the narrator catalogs all the things his bullies have actually made him swallow, an inventory of abuse. These unflinching details, and the matter-of-factness of the narrator’s daily terror, surprisingly don’t overwhelm and desensitize, which is a tribute to Kawakami’s writing. None of it feels gratuitous, just heartbreakingly inevitable, a steadfast fact of the narrator’s life, as basic and inescapable as the climate:
At the end of June, the rain came all at once. If you tried opening a window for fresh air, the moisture filled the room. Everywhere was just as stuffy as the school. During art class, Ninomiya said let’s make a railroad, and told his friends to hold me down and spread my fingers while he shot staples into my palm. The little holes they left stung worse than bees. Dark clouds hung in the sky for days. The smell of rain was everywhere.
The prose evolves throughout the novel, as if tracking the rising action — the ever-escalating scenes of cruelty, but also the narrator’s growth, his burgeoning maturity. By the middle of the book, the tenor has changed slightly, the spareness giving way to more highly descriptive sentences: “The bed of earth stretching like a plank between the trees had turned rich brown with moisture. I took a deep breath through my nose, but the smell of rain was gone. All the same, the soil was moist, and the slurp and pop under my shoes threatened to suck them off into the earth.” With this change in tone comes a deeper lingering on the narrator’s dread, a slowing down to keep us in scenes of horror longer. Ninomiya tells the narrator that punishment is coming, and Kawakami takes us through his stages of terror, as though we’re trapped in a falling elevator, clinging fruitlessly to the walls, with certain doom rushing to meet us. As the terrible climax approaches, we keep asking ourselves, is Kawakami really going to make us read through this? We have no doubt that she is perfectly capable of doing so, and our knowledge of her ability to keep us looking, adds to the horror of the scene.
The novel’s exploration of bullying hinges on the characters’ appearances. It is not lost on us that the narrator’s bullies are the attractive kids in school. Ninomiya is described as beautiful; Momose, another bully, as handsome. By contrast, the narrator feels so unattractive that he avoids mirrors, and Kojima is always described as unkempt and stinky, her sneakers and uniform dirty, her shirt wrinkled, her hair sticking out in all directions.
The importance of appearances becomes more pronounced when we learn of Kojima’s beliefs regarding her bullying. Shortly after the duo’s visit to the museum, she explains that she only looks the way she does because she wants to feel closer to her father, a working-class man her mother divorced before remarrying into money. Kojima calls her refusal to bathe and her dirty clothes her “signs,” and declares her suffering — hers and the narrator’s — to be a noble thing. This rebellion against codes of propriety would be laudable if it weren’t so misguided — or worse, an insulting cosplay of poverty. The fact that Kojima, unlike the narrator, has a choice about her appearance (it is worth noting that she only stopped bathing after she became rich) renders suspect her encouragement of the narrator’s acceptance of his brutalization. She tells the narrator that it’s right for the two of them to just “let it happen.” After a particularly harrowing scene involving a volleyball, Kojima even tells the narrator, whose head is bleeding, that “it’s almost like we chose this.”
Except, of course, the narrator doesn’t choose any of it, especially not in the way that Kojima chooses a deranged class solidarity. But Kojima is special to the narrator, the only person in school he’s close to, the only girl who has ever told him that she liked his eyes. When the narrator finds out about a surgery that could fix his strabismus, it causes a rift between him and Kojima, who has by then intensified her facade of poverty by starving herself. To Kojima, the invitation to suffer is a calling, a special cause, one that her unenlightened classmates couldn’t possibly understand, one that only she and the narrator could ever really see. It’s telling that she calls her behavior her “signs,” as if she were a saint marked by stigmata.
In contrast to Kojima’s embrace of existential suffering is the nihilism advocated by Momose during a chance encounter, when he declares that the narrator’s feelings mean nothing to him. In fact, everything is meaningless: the strong always brutalize the weak, morality is a sham, everyone does what they can get away with. Momose tells the narrator that he gets bullied because he lets it happen, preposterously proposing that his lazy eye has nothing to do with it, and even dares the narrator to hurt him and Ninomiya the next time they bully him. Of course, Momose can afford to philosophize about the narrator’s predicament: after all, he’s not on the receiving end of the casual torture and can thus afford to approach the situation as a mere thought exercise. The narrator feels trapped between two warring philosophies, unable either to martyr himself for Kojima’s cause or to stomp on his enemies as Momose dares him, and so finds himself sinking ever deeper into his own despair.
Heaven doesn’t lend itself to easy conclusions. Even its denouement feels fraught, as if we are betraying something in ourselves by going along with it. In a novel where violent pressures force the narrator to change, our acquiescence feels like giving up on our own capacity to rebel, to doubt our ability to escape an unfair fate. Kawakami never lets us settle comfortably, which is a testament to her storytelling power. Long after finishing the novel, I find myself recalling its harrowing details and troubling contradictions.
Soleil Davíd moved from the Philippines to the United States at age 17. Her work has appeared in Arkansas International, MARY, Cream City Review, and The Margins, among others. She received a BA from UC Berkeley and an MFA from Indiana University, where she served as Poetry Editor of Indiana Review. Davíd has received support from PEN America, VONA and Bread Loaf Translators Conference. She lives in Washington, DC.