Novels

Heaven: A Novel by Mieko Kawakami-Translator: Sam Bett and David Boyd-New York. Europa Editions. 2021. 192 pages.

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“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. Being 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?”.[1] 

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”.[2] 

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”?.[3] 

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”.[4] 

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.

 

[1] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2021/05/27/books/heaven-mieko-kawakami/

[2]https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2021/spring/heaven-novel-mieko-kawakami

[3] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/10/niet-o21.html

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/07/a-japanese-novelists-tale-of-bullying-and-nietzsche

Review: Alone in Berlin-Hans Fallada. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback. 

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“As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that does not mean that we are alone. It doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not,” ” 

Otto Quangel 

“He who thinks of renouncing “physical” struggle must renounce all struggle, for the spirit does not live without the flesh.” 

― Leon Trotsky, Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It 

Hans Fallada’s excellent novel is set in Berlin of the 1940s. Despite being a fictional account of a German family, the book is based on the life of Otto and Elise Hampel.  Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen, was born in 1893 in Greifswald, Germany. 

To say he had a strange life would be an understatement. At the tender age of  18, he killed a friend in a duel and, according to James Buchan, spent “much of his career in psychiatric hospitals and drying-out clinics or in prison for thieving and embezzlement to support his morphine habit. In between, he worked on the land, wrote a couple of novels and held down jobs for a period on newspapers. Then, in 1944, he shot at his wife in a quarrel and was confined again to a psychiatric hospital.”[1] 

After this shocking episode in 1947, Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein (“Each dies only for himself”) was published in Berlin. In many ways, this was a groundbreaking working work in that it was one of the first accounts of resistance to Nazi rule. Unfortunately, tragically Fallada died of a heart attack that same year. 

The new English translation of Fallada’s novel joins a growing number of recent books that have shown that there was a small but significant opposition to the Nazi regime. Fallada’s book counters the lie that there was no opposition to Hitler and that all Germans supported the regime. As Bernd Reinhardt correctly points out, “Fallada’s nuanced picture of daily life in the Third Reich shows the falsity of the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen and his supporters, holding that all Germans uniformly supported Hitler and the extermination of the Jews. The latest remake of Alone in Berlin (directed by Swiss actor Vincent Pérez) also rejects a collective guilt thesis. “I wanted to present this omnipresent fear. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife”, the director said”.[2] 

Fallada’s book has sold extremely well for a book written over half a century ago. The book’s basic premise is that it follows the life of the Quangel family, who placed tiny handwritten postcards on stairs and hallways. Mr and Mrs Quangel distributed more than 200 such protest postcards in Berlin in 1940 following the death of their son at the front. This was done at a huge risk to them and their family. Anyone caught with the postcards would be executed. It is doubtful whether the English writer George Orwell knew of this book, but there are similarities between it and 1984.

According to Wikipedia, “Three months after its 2009 English release, it became a “surprise bestseller” in both the US and UK. It was listed on the official UK Top 50 for all UK publishers, a rare occurrence for such an old book. Hans Fallada’s 80-year-old son, Ulrich Ditzen, a retired lawyer, told The Observer he was overwhelmed by the latest sales, “It is a phenomenon.” Primo Levi said it is “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.”[3] 

It has now been translated into 30 languages. One reason for the book’s success is the fact that the issues it addresses are contemporary ones. The struggle for social equality is very much a modern-day concern. With social inequality at its highest since the 1920s, many people are looking for answers to combat capitalism. 

This English translation of the book appeared at the height of the new movement of far-right groups such as the National Front in France and Pegida and Alternative for Germany. State violence increasingly dominates everyday life. People need to know the history of the Quangels and other struggles against the Nazi’s. 

To conclude, while this is an important book Fallada had no real perspective to counter fascism in Germany. He was no Marxist, and it is unclear whether he ever read Leon Trotsky on Germany because if he had, he would have probably produced a different book. As Trotsky said, “Fascism is nothing but capitalist reaction; from the point of view of the proletariat, the difference between the types of reaction is meaningless”.[4] 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/mar/07/alone-in-berlin-hans-fallada

[2] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/07/ber3-m07.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Fallada

[4] What Next? (1932)

I dedicate this article to Chen Xueli

Review: Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Annette Dumbach & Judd Newborn-One World publisher-ISBN-10: 1786072505.£9.99

 

“we will not be silent. We are your bad conscience” White Rose Leaflet 

“Even the most dull-witted German has had his eyes opened by the terrible bloodbath, which, in the name of the freedom and honour of the German nation, they have unleashed upon Europe and unleash a new each day. The German name will remain forever tarnished unless finally the German youth stands up, pursues both revenge and atonement, smites our tormentors, and founds a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German people look to us! The responsibility is ours: just as the power of the spirit broke the Napoleonic terror in 1813, so too will it break the terror of the National Socialists in 1943.” 

White Rose Pamphlet 

“To say to the Social Democratic workers: “Cast your leaders aside and join our ‘non-party united front” means to add just one more hollow phrase to a thousand others. We must understand how to tear the workers away from their leaders in reality. But the reality today is the struggle against fascism. … The overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic workers will fight against the fascists, but – for the present at least – only together with their organizations. This stage cannot be skipped”. 

Leon Trotsky-For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism (December 1931) 

This book provides the reader with a very thorough and accessible introduction to the life of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement. The struggle of the Scholl family belies the common myth that there was no opposition to the Nazi’s during the Second World War. 

The book fails to address the reason why this opposition was so small and disparate. The fact that Hitler was able to rise to power and smash the worker’s movement and the most progressive sections of the middle class was due to the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy who allowed him to come to power without a shot being fired.

This history was to shape the character of the opposition to Hitler. After all, the White Rose movement was a non-violent resistance group comprised of five middle-class students at Munich University. At its heart, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, their fellow students Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and their professor Kurt Huber. 

Despite knowing full well that if caught, they faced instant death, they began distributing leaflets and graffiti. They were caught in 1943 by the Gestapo and, after a brief trial, executed. Sophie Magdalena Scholl was just 21 at the time of her state murder. 

It is clear from the history of Scholl and the White Rose movement that it did not have a fully worked-out political agenda that drove its activities, and some of its activities against the fascist regime were dominated by their religious leanings. Scholl was heavily influenced by the theologian Augustine of Hippo. She described that her “soul was hungry”.Not everything was guided by their religious beliefs. As this statement from a White rose Pamphlet states, “Our current ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. We know that already, I hear you object, and we do not need you to reproach us for it yet again. But, I ask you, if you know that, then why don’t you act? Why do you tolerate these rulers gradually robbing you, in public and in private, of one right after another, until one day nothing, absolutely nothing, remains but the machinery of the state, under the command of criminals and drunkards?”[1]They had substantial political opposition to the Nazi dictatorship. 

As Tanja B. Spitzer writes, “The White Rose was a small endeavour with large consequences. Together they published and distributed six pamphlets, first typed on a typewriter, then multiplied via mimeograph. At first, they only distributed them via mail, sending them to professors, booksellers, authors, friends and others—going through phone books for addresses and hand-writing each envelope. In the end, they distributed thousands, reaching households all over Germany. Acquiring such large amounts of paper, envelopes, and stamps at a time of strict rationing without raising suspicion was problematic, but the students managed by engaging a wide-ranging network of supporters in cities and towns as far north as Hamburg and as far south as Vienna. These networks were also activated to distribute the pamphlets, attempting to trick the Gestapo into believing the White Rose had locations all across the country”.[2] 

They did provide a clear tactic to anyone who wanted to oppose the fascists saying “in their fifth pamphlet. “And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present ‘state’ in the most effective way….We cannot provide each man with the blueprint for his acts, we can only suggest them in general terms, and he alone will find the way of achieving this end: Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine….Try to convince all your acquaintances. Of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!” 

While it was very difficult for the group to act amid war and being hounded by the Nazi’s secret police, a major weakness of the group is that it did not appeal to the one class that could bring down the hated Nazi dictatorship, and that was the German and international working class. The defeat of the German revolution because of the betrayal of Stalinism and Social Democracy had meant the class consciousness working class in Germany had been thrown back for decades. 

It is doubtful that any of the White Rose movement had read any of the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky works, which is a shame because even a cursory read of his work would have given the group an entirely different political outlook. As Trotsky writes “When a state turns fascist, it doesn’t only mean that the forms and methods of government are changed in accordance with the patterns set by Mussolini – the changes in this sphere ultimately play a minor role – but it means, primarily and above all, that the workers’ organizations are annihilated; that the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state; and that a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat. Therein precisely is the gist of fascism. This was precisely the situation facing the White Rose group. 

To conclude, this 75th-anniversary edition deserves a wide readership. The story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement contains an important lesson for the international working class and will inspire anyone who has a burning hatred of fascism and all forms of racism. As Sophie Scholl said, “I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best I could do for my nation. I, therefore, do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.” 

[1] See the http://whiteroseproject.seh.ox.ac.uk/

[2] https://www.nationalww2museum.org/contributors/tanja-b-spitzer

Review: Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution by Selina Todd.Chatto, 304 pp., £18.99, August 2019, 978 1 78474 082 5 


Selina Todd is a gifted historian, and her books are well worth reading. Tastes of Honey is no exception. The book is essentially a biography of the working-class female writer Shelagh Delaney. Delaney was 19 when she wrote her greatest work, A Taste of Honey. Todd respects and even admires Delaney. She describes Delaney as being one of the first writers to show that women “had minds and desires of their own… She develops this point further by saying, “more than a decade before the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in Britain”, her work “challenged the assumption that women found fulfilment in marriage and motherhood”. They “openly longed for a taste of honey, craving love, creativity, adventure and escape”. 

Like the former Communist Party historian E. P Thompson, Todd would like to rescue people from the condescension of history, and she does precisely that with Delaney. Delaney, it is true, does need to have all the dead dogs cleared from on top of her. The book is extensively researched, and Todd was given access to what little papers were left to her daughter by Delaney. Delaney was a complex figure, and despite writing some very good stuff, she found writing difficult, a point echoed by the director Lindsay Anderson, who said, “She finds it difficult to turn the stuff out”.Delaney was part of a generation of working-class writers that had to fight every inch of the way to get recognition and reach a wider audience. On a personal note, I and probably a lot of my generation were influenced by the books of Delaney and other authors Like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote among other books Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Late Night on Watling Street by Bill Naughton, The ballad of a Sad Café by Carson McCullers. However, last but not least, A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. These books were on the list of every Comprehensive school’s English class when I was growing up. I shudder to think what is on there now. 

Like I said in the opening to this review, Todd is a very good historian and is a very good writer. I have no qualms over her portrayal of Delaney. But Todd has an agenda and presents a distinct perspective on Delaney. As Simon Lee put it, “Todd is particularly invested in repositioning Delaney as a paragon of feminism, specifically the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. But the question remains: to what degree is this authentic to Delaney? Todd’s repositioning assumes an authoritative stance because of its biographical form. 

As a result, Tastes of Honey makes a strong claim about its subject, but the book’s relative success or failure can be gauged by how well Delaney supports that claim”.Todd’s feminist agenda has been emboldened by the new Me too movement that originated in the United States and is now a Global Phenomena. As David Walsh points out the “The ostensible aim of this ongoing movement is to combat sexual harassment and assault, i.e., to bring about some measure of social progress. However, the repressive, regressive means resorted to—including unsubstantiated and often anonymous denunciations and sustained attacks on the presumption of innocence and due process—give the lie to the campaign’s “progressive” claims. Such methods are the hallmark of an anti-democratic, authoritarian movement, and one, moreover, that deliberately seeks to divert attention from social inequality, attacks on the working class, the threat of war and the other great social and political issues of the day”. 

While it is important to rescue figures like Delaney, whose work is still relevant and tackles issues still with us today, trying to portray Delaney as a feminist icon has more to do with Todd’s politics than Delaney’s actual legacy.As Lee again writes, “Todd herself has become somewhat of a lightning rod of controversy as one of the more prominent figures of “gender critical” feminism — otherwise known as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists,” a movement that sprang from 1970s second-wave feminist politics”.In the section entitled policy and politics on her website, Todd outlines her political views. She writes, “If we are to create an alternative to dog-eat-dog capitalism, then we can only do so collectively through socialism. I have written for the Guardian and other media on the need for comprehensive, non-selective, free education for everyone, at whatever stage of their lives. I am also a feminist who believes that sex and gender are different. I believe that boys and girls should be able to do exactly what they want to do and do not have an innate gendered identity, based on my historical research, which shows that as expectations of boys’ and girls’ behaviours change, so do their actions and ambitions. There is no innate ‘feeling’ that defines womanhood, as some organisations such as Stonewall suggest. My research leads me to believe that women are and have been treated as different and inferior to men on the basis of our biological sex and our potential and actual role as mothers. As such, sex needs to be taken very seriously in understanding the discrimination women face. I also believe in the right to evidence-based debate about women’s rights. As such, I am proud to be involved in the women’s rights group Woman’s Place UK”. 

Todd’s socialism is, at best, a watered-down form of reformism. At worst, her support for a feminist solution to female working-class emancipation, no doubt how sincere, will lead to the pitting of female workers against their male counterparts. She does not believe in revolution, and she is certainly against a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism which is the only way female emancipation will come about. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said, “Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone, but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat”.