Author: Mieko Kawakami Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Fiction
Heaven triggered memories that should’ve been left alone and not touched. The memories of being bullied at school, by four boys who called me their friend, and yet would bully me every single day for five years.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami is perhaps all our story – of the ones who were bullied at high-school, the monstrosity of it all, the nightmare, and the solace found in unexpected people.
The book isn’t an easy read. Kawakami will not make it easy and redemptive. The bullies will bully and will think of innovative ways of doing so, for instance, taking the unnamed narrator’s head and using it as a football. The description isn’t nice. It isn’t meant to be. It is raw and gritty.
The unnamed fourteen-year-old (who also has a lazy eye) goes through all of this and more, till he meets someone at school – Kojima – a kindred spirit, a classmate who is also being bullied by a bunch of vicious girls, through exchange of notes, their friendship blossoming, and they rarely meet. Over a summer break, they visit an art museum, where Kojima plans to show him her favourite painting about men and women who have discovered harmony and joy after immense suffering. She calls the painting “Heaven”.
The book is set in early 1990s in Japan and to me it was the most beautiful meditation on the nature of suffering, coming of age, and what it is like to perhaps overcome in some manner or the other. They aren’t lovers. They will never be. But they are bound by their suffering and constantly asking questions around it: What is it? When will it end? Why are they going through it?
The translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is concise and to the point. Having read Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami, also translated by them, I can say that the tone is spot-on. The atmosphere of the school world of Japan in the 90s is clearly communicated. I loved how the translation does not ramble away to explain anything – it lets the prose be for people to see and doesn’t tell anything.
Heaven is a book that might seem YA as it did to me when I started off but worked on so many other levels. The poignancy of growing up, but to have to do so when being exposed to bullying made me go through all of my school life in my head, and it wasn’t easy at all. Perhaps it was extremely cathartic as I did find myself not reading after a point and tearing up, but it was also needed to revisit it all, for life like fiction to transform.