“Whom do I hate most among the rabble of today? The socialist rabble, the chandala apostles, who undermine the instinct, the pleasure, the worker’s sense of satisfaction with his small existence—who make him envious, who teach him revenge. The source of wrong is never unequal rights but the claim of “equal” rights”—Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, 1888
“I was always quite a philosophical child, asking odd questions and in a hurry to grow up”. Mieko Kawakami
“‘Progress’ is a modern idea, which is to say it is a false idea.”—Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, 1888
Mieko Kawakami latest novel, excellently translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is a brutal examination of adolescence in Japanese society. The book is drawn from her childhood in Osaka, Japan. By all accounts, it was a pretty bad experience. Her father was never home. Forced into being the main breadwinner at a tender age to support her family gave her the ability to write this “novel of ideas” “. As Kawakami says, “I was always quite a philosophical child, asking odd questions and in a hurry to grow up”.
Kawakami started to write at a very early age. She explains that “I try to write from the child’s perspective—how they see the world. Coming to the realisation you are alive is such a shock. One day, we are thrown into life without warning.”
In an interview with The Japan Times, Kawakami says, “I wanted to create a story that examines how religion, ethics and friendship influence human relationships,” she says. “Do we live our lives under the guidance of something bigger, like spiritual or ethical beliefs, or do we live as individuals?”.
As Elaine Margolin perceptively writes, “Kawakami is captivated by that precious time of life when one is on the cusp of adulthood but still really a child. The author’s ability to mimic the rhythmic disturbances of a teenage mind is mesmerising; she is a master of the interior voice. She instinctively grasps how one can feel silly and light one moment and be in the throes of anguish the next. In one of her earlier novels, Ms Ice Sandwich, she describes a lonely boy whose family is in disarray, finding solace by visiting a supermarket worker each day who kindly gives him an egg sandwich”.
The book’s theme of childhood bullying is a universal one. ” Kawakami explains that the nature of bullying has changed. “In the old days, there were just two places for relationships — home or school — but now, with social media, there is nowhere to hide, and the pressure is constant. Victims of bullying think the whole world knows they are being bullied. It is even crueller today with the way it can be spread.”
I still remember my childhood bully. His name was Desmond Kavanagh. His reign of terror did not last too long. Unlike Kawamaki’s character, who does not fight back, one person in my school had enough of Kavanagh’s bullying and kicked the crap out of him. The bizarre thing is that Kavanagh tried to befriend me on Friends Reunited a few years later.
Novel of Ideas
Heaven has been described as a novel about ideas. Writing a “novel of Ideas” is a complicated business. Kawakami draws heavily on the work of philosophers like Frederich Nietzsche and Kant. A blog that she started to promote her singing career, “Critique of Pure Sadness,” displayed an unhealthy fascination with Kant. Her latest book leans heavily on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This is a very unfortunate choice, especially for such a young writer. Nietzsche’s hostility towards the working class and socialism and his disdain for objective truth made him a favourite writer of the Nazi movement.
As Stefan Steinberg states, “Apologists for Nietzsche seek to distance him from the policy and activities of the Nazis. But is Nietzsche’s position here so remote from Adolph Hitler’s entreaty, in an internal NSDAP memo of 1922, for the: “most uncompromising and brutal determination to destroy and liquidate Marxism”? Adolph Hitler was certainly no philosopher, just as Nietzsche was not merely a political ideologue. But who can reasonably doubt that the former had little difficulty in seamlessly incorporating the latter’s thoroughly backwards-looking programme of biological racism, hatred of socialism and the concept of social equality—together with his advocacy of militarism and war—into the eclectic baggage of ideas which constituted the programme of National Socialism”?.
The strength of the novel is Kawakami’s examination of ideas as a way of writing a novel. As Merve Emre writes, “dreamlike expression of their fledgling ideas has an artistic value that flies in the face of critics like Northrop Frye, who believed that an “interest in ideas and theoretical statements is alien to the genius of the novel proper, where the technical problem is to dissolve all theory into personal relationships.” But “Heaven” also models a rigorous and elegant process of inquiry that can transcend its pared-down fictional world. It agitates against the enduring idea that the best novels concern themselves with the singular minds and manners of people, offering no resources for the political and moral demands of “real life.” The narrator’s persecutor Ninomiya energetically parrots this argument”.
Kawakami, ability to write from a child’s perspective is astonishing at times and avoids what one writer says are “puffed-up platitudes about the inherent cruelty and sympathy of children”.
If I am generous, I would say that Kawakami also avoids Nietzsche’s social and political pessimism and presents the world of children accurately. One major criticism is that, unlike many great Japanese writers, such as Yukio Mishima and Kazuo Ishiguro, she does not place her characters in this book in a social or political context. The reader would not know that while “Heaven” takes place in Japan, bullying is rife in Japanese society so much that classroom harassment forced a government to bring in national legislation because of a growing number of student suicides.
To conclude, Kawakami’s work is well worth reading. Her fiction deals with the problems of everyday life for working-class people in Japan. That is one of the reasons behind her popularity. She examines critical social issues that permeate Japanese society. These include broken families, absent fathers and children struggling to find themselves in a increasingly cruel world. It is hoped that she does not spend too much time absorbing Nietzsche’s works and instead let herself be influenced by some more healthy writers such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. She has a bright future, and I look forward to her next novel.
About the Author
Mieko Kawakami is the author of the novel Breasts and Eggs, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME’s Best 10 Books of 2020. She was born in Osaka. Kawakami made her writing debut as a poet in 2006 and published her first novella, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, in 2007. Her writing is deeply imbued with poetic qualities. Her work concentrates on the plight of women in Japanese society. Her works have been translated into many languages and are available all over the world. She has received numerous prestigious literary awards in Japan for her work, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Murasaki Shikibu Prize.