Writer: Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai)
Publishing House: Pushkin Press
Date of Publication: May 7th 2020 (first published November 2013)
Rating: 5 stars
“If video games make you stupid, then what do mobile phones make you?”
A young boy buys egg sandwiches every day. The reason? The mysterious young woman behind the counter. Her black hair and beautiful eyes with eyelids the color of blue Popsicles make him fall in love with her. His visits to the store provide his sole wish in an otherwise mundane daily life where no one seems to understand him.
Kawakami creates a novella about what we like to describe as “the coming-of-age” of a boy but I don’t think that Ms. Ice Sandwich is just that. The child is the only focus of the narration and we see his world through his eyes and enter his mind. His mum is a kind of fortune-teller, distant and quite selfish, her only activity is staring at a mobile screen. Like, you know, 90% of our stupid world…His classmates are indifferent, with the exception of Tutti, his father left the picture long ago. His only confidante is his seriously ill grandmother, his escape is sketching beautiful sceneries.
Through his thoughts we are shown truths and realities, his innocent remarks aim at the heart of the significance of appearance in this society. The bright blue eyeshadow of the woman is disturbing to many customers. She is different. Why? The public decides and condemns. The young boy questions everything, he is sensitive and begins to regard the world of the adults as a seriously weird territory. Tutti, his friend, is a girl who loves violent action films and drawing gunfights. Gradually, the boy understands that loss, sentimental and physical, is one more reality he will have to come to terms with.
There is a quiet critique in Kawakami’s writing, a tenderness towards a protagonist we would like to hug and protect and have endless conversations with. Behind the whimsical tone and the elegant humor, there is sadness about the deep loneliness of a child who is an old soul, wise and honest. On a side note, I loved the use of The Tinderbox, one of my favorite fairy tales, within the context of the boy’s story.
“Well, then you’d better come back again and watch. He’s the best-Al Pacino!”, she says, a big grin on her face.
“You know-the film we just saw Lieutenant Hanna. Al Pacino plays him.”
“Oh, it’s somebody’s name. I thought it might be how you say goodbye in some other country.”
Japanese Literature is a world treasure. We need ALL of the translations and I can’t wait to read more of Kawakami’s work.
“But then I find that I can’t say any more and I stop talking. It’s silent in the room, like time has just stopped, but after a bit I can hear a bird chirping. It feels like it’s coming from so close by that I spin around to check, but there are no birds anywhere.”
Many thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.