What does it mean to be a woman? In the memorable novel Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami explores the question by looking at two key periods in the life of Tokyo writer Natsuko Natsume.
The focus on the nature of contemporary womanhood is sharpened by the eye-catching title of the English translation, Breasts and Eggs. The original Japanese title was Natsumonogatari, which Google Translate renders as the somewhat bland “Summer Story”. (I’m not a Japanese speaker, so I’d love to hear a confirmation or correction on that from someone who is.)
So the translators, Sam Bett and David Boyd, made quite a radical change in the title. I think it’s largely because the Japanese title is also a play on the main character’s name, and that wouldn’t work in English unless you also translate her name to “Summer” throughout the book, which would be weird.
But Breasts and Eggs also just works better as a title, and not just because it’s more attention-grabbing than Summer Story. It works because breasts and eggs are recurrent themes in the book.
The first part of the book focuses heavily on Natsuko’s sister Makiko and her plans to have her breasts surgically enhanced. The second, which occurs a decade or so later, is more about eggs: Natsuko’s dwindling supply, and her growing desire to have a baby using donated sperm.
But the themes show up in other ways too. In the first part, there’s a memorable scene in which Makiko’s daughter Midoriko starts speaking to her for the first time in months and punctuates her words by taking eggs from a carton and cracking them over her head. Makiko then starts cracking eggs on her own head too:
“They took turns, working their way through the carton. Their heads glistened from the eggs. Shells crackled underfoot. The floor puddled with yolk and blobby egg white.”
Kawakami takes an unusual look at motherhood in this novel. Upending the common description of childbirth as bestowing the “gift of life”, she more often depicts it as a burden dumped on an innocent, unsuspecting victim.
The young Midoriko in the first part, for example, is furious at her mother for giving birth to her and all the problems it led to for both of them:
“Think about how great everything would be if none of us were ever born. No happiness, no sadness. Nothing could ever happen to us then. It’s not our fault that we have eggs and sperm, but we can definitely try harder to keep them from meeting.”
Later in the book, as Natsuko researches the possibility of sperm donation, she meets a group of people who were conceived using donated sperm and felt betrayed when they found out that they had no way of finding their biological fathers.
One of them, Yuriko, describes parenthood as a selfish gamble—while every parent thinks their child will be healthy and happy, many are born into horrific pain. And they make the gamble because it’s safe—it’s the child who will suffer, not them:
“The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours.”
Yuriko evokes the image of coming upon ten sleeping children in a house in the forest. If you wake them up, nine will be happy and grateful, but one will suffer nothing but pain. Do you wake them up or leave them blissfully asleep?
I don’t think the analogy is entirely fair. For one thing, the chances of giving birth to a baby whose life will be full of nothing but pain are a lot smaller than one in ten. For another, most parents also suffer when their child suffers, and they do their best to spare their child as much pain as they can. But looking at childbirth from the perspective of the unborn child is certainly interesting and thought-provoking.
Breasts and Eggs also explores the nature of womanhood through sex. Natsuko is unable to have sex—she found it so painful and unpleasant that she hasn’t had sex for years and experiences no desire to do so—and this leads her to ask herself: “Am I really a woman?” It also leads her to give up on the idea of a relationship and decide that she must live alone and have her baby on her own, even though she has met a man who loves her and, it seemed to me, could have accepted her aversion to sex.
But extreme reactions and judgments are part of the book. Natsuko’s decision to have a child using donated sperm doesn’t seem to be that controversial to me, but other characters like her sister and her publisher react in horror or describe it as ridiculous. The same goes for Makiko’s breast enhancement surgery in the first part—she gets more condemnation than seems warranted.
Perhaps some of it is due to cultural differences—Natsuko notes several times in the novel that the West is more accepting of sperm donation than Japan. But I think some of it is also due to a choice by the author to highlight the ways in which women and their bodies are judged and evaluated, with any deviations from the accepted norm treated harshly. That, sadly, is still very recognisable in any culture.
I read Breasts and Eggs for Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find more reviews of Breasts and Eggs and other works of Japanese literature over there. Or read more of my Japanese literature reviews here. And feel free to join in with the challenge yourself if you have time—it runs until March!