Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is compelling and disturbing in equal measures.
The issue is cruelty This is a novella that goes deep into the mind of a 14 year-old-boy who is tormented by classmates because he has a lazy eye. The bullies begin with verbal abuse then progress to slaps, shoves and kicks but as time goes on their behaviour becomes increasingly violent and feral.
He feels he is entirely alone until handwritten notes begin turning up in his desk. The author is Kojima, a girl from his class whose scruffy clothes and unwashed body have made her a target for the bullies.
Friendship blossoms between the two school mates through secret messages and clandestine meetings in the park and on the fire escape. They support each other through their ordeals, united at first by their status as outcasts. Their attitudes towards suffering don’t always converge, creating a potential breach in their relationship.
Kojima believes everything has meaning. She knows the bullies will never stop but in the act of suffering she sees a form of beauty and power. To her, those who endure and rise about their pain can be transformed by the experience.
Tellingly, her favourite painting, one she calls Heaven, depicts a pair of lovers who have found harmony after enduring immense suffering. This is the idealistic future she envisages for her and her friend. “When it’s all over,” she tells the boy, “we’ll reach a place, somewhere or something we could never reach without having gone through everything we’ve gone through.”
Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere. The same thing. The weak always go through this, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Because the strong never go away.
The narrator of Heaven— we never learn his real name, only his nickname of “Eyes”— is more concerned about surviving the here and now rather than dreaming of a future paradise. Until he met Kojima, he was on the point of giving in, recognising that to resist the bullies was futile. More than once he hints about wanting to ”disappear”.
“I told myself it didn’t really matter what I did,” he reflects. Nothing would change.”
But under Kojima’s influence he begins to question why he doesn’t fight back, why he suffers in silence.
When they bullied me and beat me up, why could I do anything but obey them? What does it mean to obey? Why was I scared. What does it mean to be scared
Through the friends’ conversations, Heaven explores answers to some of those questions. Kawakami also looks at the motivation of the perpetrators.
Part way through the book, after a particularly harrowing encounter, the narrator plucks up the courage to confront Momose, one of his tormentors, seeing an explanation of his behaviour. The answer he gets is chilling.
Momose rejects the boy’s notion that “no-one has the right to hurt anyone else” and pours scorn on the suggestion he has a responsibility to think about his victim’s feelings. He persecutes those weaker than himself simply because he can and they can’t.
Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do it because they want to. … There are things that they want to do and things that they don’t. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes. It couldn’t be any simpler. People do what they can get away with.
Heaven is an unsettling novel about lives blighted by violence. Although the two central characters are teenagers this isn’t a YA novel as such;. the issues it addresses, about the weak versus the strong in society could equally apply to adult situations of domestic abuse and coercive control.
Kawakami poses questions about victimhood: are the victims of oppression and bullying chosen because they are different or because they make themselves appear victims? Should they accept their fate and endure like Kojima who almost makes a martyrdom out of it. or should they challenge their tormentors like the narrator?
The subject matter is challenging and readers who have experienced this type of behaviour may well find it too disturbing to read this book. There are some uncomfortable scenes and one horribly violent episode, but I never felt the violence was gratuitous. They’re there to show how small acts of spite and malice escalate once the attackers realise how much they can get away with.
The torment suffered by the teenagers happens without any intervention by the school authorities — did they fail to notice because such behaviour was normal? Or, a more disturbing thought, did they choose not to notice? Kawakami shows clearly the mental and physical suffering caused by childhood bullying but doesn’t provide a full solution. The book ends with a degree of resolution for one teenager but my mind kept returning to the other friend and whether there is any glimmer of hope for that child.
Heaven is a remarkably thought-provoking and troubling novel. It’s topic is bullying but really this is a tale about endurance and courage.
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami: Footnotes
Kawakami made her literary debut as a poet in 2006, and published her first novella, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, in 2007. Although well respected within Japan, her work has only recently appeared in English. Published in Japanese in 2009, Heaven was Kawakami’s first full-length novel. It won the Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature, an award reserved for female authors.
The English translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd, (who also co-translated her 2020 novel Breasts and Eggs) was published by Picador in 2021.