Chichi to Ran, or “Breasts and Eggs”, won the Akutagawa Prize in 2007, which is basically why I picked it up. Akutagawa Prize winners tend to have some interesting stylistic choices that make them both difficult for my non-native Japanese speaking brain, and seriously rewarding for my book-puzzle-loving brain. Like Asatte no Hito by Tetsushi Suwa, which won the prize the same year and both confused and thrilled me. Unlike, Asatte no Hito however, “Chichi to Ran” is a novella rather than a novel and the slim book is padded with the short story “Anatatachi no Renai wa Hinshi”. Both works, though, focus on the same basic themes: relationships women have with their bodies. The breasts and eggs of the title are not figurative.
“Chichi to Ran” is written entirely in Kansai dialect. I love Kansai dialect and often daydream about moving to Osaka just so I can pick it up. It’s just so much softer and friendlier somehow. And apparently you can’t be funny in Japanese without a Kansai accent, so if I’m ever to fulfill my dream* of being one half of a manzai stand-up act, I’m going to have to move. But until then, my grasp of the dialect is loose at best, and more than once, I had to look up the meaning of dialect phrases used (thanks, Internet!).
Making it all the more difficult is the stream-of-consciousness style Kawakami used for the majority of the novella. The narrator just lets the words tumble through her mind, complete with “ums” and “ahs” and all the abrupt stops and starts a person uses in her mind and when she speaks when she is not in a movie. It takes a few pages to get into this, but once you do, it flows like a river. And it’s so effective as a narration device, especially towards the end when things really start happening and you get to watch it unfold with the narrator with a right-there feeling.
Originally from Osaka, the narrator (Natsuko) is living in Tokyo when her sister Makiko and her niece Midoriko come for a quick visit. The story starts when Natsuko picks them up at Tokyo Station and ends when she drops them back there, making for a nice circular structure. Midoriko is just coming up on adolescence and is refusing to speak. She’ll have conversations, she just won’t talk. Instead, she scribbles questions and answers in a tiny notebook, and carries around a larger notebook as a journal. This journal writing punctuates Natsuko’s long ramblings with carefully constructed sentences with clear beginnings and endings.
Midoriko’s journal focuses on her upcoming menarche. Her discussion of the real word in Japanese for “egg” had me clutching my head at the idea of translating this book, a thought that returned to me more than once as I read. How to translate that dialect? That rambling stream-of-consciousness? The recurring discussions of kanji characters? And all of these are so important to the overall ideas that Kawakami is discussing that I’d be more than a bit nervous at attempting the task.
But it would be worth it. The relationship the three women have with their bodies and with each other’s bodies, how they define themselves socially in terms of their breasts, their eggs, it’s worth reading about. What’s fascinating to me is that literally nothing else is discussed in these pages. Every conversation, every action somehow comes back to the body.
Makiko is obsessed with getting a breast enlargement and spends the whole time at the public bath staring at and evaluating the breasts of the other women there. Her focus on breasts causes Natsuko to start reflecting on her own breasts and her own body, what having a child has done to Makiko’s body. Midoriko sees how her mother is forced to work two jobs to take care of her and scorns the eggs inside her, vowing to never have children. Midoriko’s feelings about the whole becoming-a-woman thing are so perfectly expressed in one part of one sentence: “だいたい本のなかに初潮を迎えた（＜ー迎えるって勝手にきただけやろ）女の子”—Most girls in books welcoming their first period (<–”welcome” when it just invites itself).
The accompanying story “Anatatachi no Renai wa Hinshi” focuses on a woman wandering around Shinjuku, going into shops and buying make-up. She thinks a lot about having sex, with someone she doesn’t know, with someone she does know, but her obsession is the maintenance of her image. She flees a bookstore after catching sight of herself in a mirror washed out and old-looking in the fluorescent lights. This story too is stylistically interesting, as the protagonist is only referred to as “woman” with women in conversations she remembers referred to as “she”. The lone man in the story, the guy handing out advertising tissues on the street, is just “man”. This can make things a little difficult to follow at times, and I feel like this story needs a second read-through to pull out all the ideas in it.
But I love the fact that a book that is essentially a meditation on women and their bodies written by a woman won the biggest literary prize in Japan. The writing is amazing and Kawakami really knows her craft, so she definitely deserved it, but in a world where “manfiction” tends to take the top prizes (both here and in Japan), it’s heartening to see a deserving woman take one.
*Not actually my dream.
UPDATE: Read some of this awesome story in English at Words Without Borders!