[New Directions; 2018]
Tr. by Margaret Mitsutani
As a young girl in Japan, Yoko Tawada couldn’t understand how people functioned without speaking Japanese, such is the absolutism of childhood, compounded by living on an island. In an interview she said that as a girl she rarely heard other languages, aside from school’s English classes, which didn’t count. School has its own social mores for protracted dress rehearsal that can often be — lamentably, maybe — entirely separate from the larger world.
It seems that in order to write about Tawada, it’s impossible to elide her life in language (un)learning, and you’d better get to it soon: Tawada was born in Japan and moved to Hamburg, Germany in her early 20s, where she began the process of learning German, a language she now often uses in her writing, and for her writing she’s won several prestigious prizes, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Goethe Medal; the list continues. When Tawada arrived in Germany, she was thrilled to be surrounded by people who spoke foreign languages, sometimes several, and began to ask: why can we not write in foreign languages? Why are writers yoked to their mother tongues? Where Europe Begins — characteristically, there’s no answer to the titular question — was the first novel she wrote in her new language in 1988, a choice she attributes to her pursuit of the abstract movement of the German term for water: wasser. In an interview at Stanford University in 2009, she blinked and shy-grinned. “There’s power in wasser,” she said. “It’s running water, compared to the Japanese word, mizu, which is quiet. It doesn’t run. Mizu just stays there.”
A few years ago, I taught Where Europe Begins to an undergraduate writing workshop and had my students read, very slowly, a chapter in which the narrator bakes, digs into, and eats the belly of her father, who’s made of bread. In the small silence between the final sentence and my pivot, a student in the back row mumbled, “So fucked,” and another snapped in agreement. The short chapter moves associatively but with (Germanic?) certainty: deliberate in where we’re going (raisin eyes, peering at the narrator from her father’s doughy gut) but we pick up all sorts of objects, images, and sensations along our path, which build force and power in the story. “In the language of raisins I say: do not call me by a place name.” The father’s bread belly tastes of venison: so fucked.
Tawada doesn’t often translate her own work. Generally, if Tawada writes a story in Japanese, she might decide to also write a story in German that is related to the Japanese story, but for the most part, the Japanese story remains in its original language, and only by chance shows its face. When Tawada first attempted to translate her own work, she couldn’t stop herself from finding new characters and ideas, and once found, she couldn’t keep them out, and the text became three times longer than its original. “When I’m the author,” she has said, “I can’t say no. That’s the problem.” This makes sense for a writer whose power rests in a multimodal — linguistic, cultural, ontological — interrogation of acts of translation. Tawada asks what she can never sufficiently answer: what can language be? Instead of: what is it? — the 20th-century, Anglophone philosopher’s tradition of searching for propositional truths. The former question invites a reader to dream.
If Tawada steers clear of justificatory translations, her latest novel, The Emissary — translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani — also asks for something else; let’s call it an experiential approach, not only for the persistent questions of translation, but also for what it means to be a modern human. In the novel, we have a centenarian, Yoshiro, who appreciates a long jog every morning with a rented dog. In this novel’s world, one doesn’t own a dog, because there are few dogs left after an unexplained accident in Japan — which has caused the country to seal its borders — and those dogs which are available are only purebreds. The others have been let go, not killed, nothing bloody, but in the way a boss might let go of an employee, and that employee recedes into the backdrop — let go, as if it’s a liberation, but we know better; that means forgotten. Capitalism’s brutalities, at the service of nationalism, are often passive, and what isn’t rich or conventionally useful falls in the deep crevice of the forgotten. There’s where you’ll find the mix-breeds.
In this novel’s world, everything is (or potentially, so it might as well be) poisoned: the water and air, and therefore, everything and everyone is on the verge of being let go, or extinct, except for the elderly, who retain the most verve and energy. The young, on the other hand, are born burdened and with graying hair. Yoshiro is taking care of his daughter’s son’s son, Mumei, who is fragile but insightful. Mumei could not survive without Yoshiro, and there are moments when Yoshiro is troubled by this fact, but for the most part, he is in awe of Mumei and others of his sagacious generation. Mumei, Yoshiro believes, doesn’t seem to know what suffering means. “Perhaps this acceptance [of suffering] was a treasure given to the youngest generation . . . Mumei’s generation might create a new civilization.”
There is a tightly-held notion that childhood is supposed to be happy, the ascendant years of one’s life, wherein one is told: they can be anything they want. Is it cruel to maintain this narrative in the epoch of protracted decline? Cruelty is a sticky notion to consider in the context of The Emissary. It’s there, and it isn’t. Tawada can be a challenging writer like that, whom it feels appropriate to describe with one too many hedges, it’s possibles or she does and she doesn’ts. The Emissary does not possess a dramatic cruelty; instead, think of cruelty’s broader implications: say, a passive cruelty. Yoshiro’s daughter, Amana (Mumei’s grandmother), leaves the family for a tiny island called The Orchard, where they grow square pineapples, and other sweet oddities that cannot be exported because of Japan’s isolation policy, which also extends regionally — “although no one openly discussed the isolation policy, there was a lot of griping about fruit.” Amana seldom writes home, and never inquires after Mumei, or her son (Mumei’s father). She only wants to talk about the fruit her new home is growing and consuming. Is she brainwashed, or is she cruel? It’s unclear. Many years ago, Yoshiro’s wife left him and their family to raise other people’s children at a school in the country. She returns one evening, eats a dinner that Yoshiro has prepared, and then takes off across the lawn, running as fast as she can, in order to get away from the family she had already left behind so many years ago. A reader can’t feel their way through Tawada’s fiction, which isn’t to say that the characters don’t feel, or that a reader wouldn’t be compelled to feel for them, but the characters’ interpretations of events challenge ideas often held among readers — that character ought to serve as a conduit for easily identifiable feelings. It’s this quality which likely inspires Tawada’s comparison to Silvina Ocampo, whose characters often show no signs of responsibility or guilt, even after they’ve done something abhorrent. Like Ocampo, Tawada’s is a fiction of resistance — to capitalism, imperialism, normative emotional expectations — and that can, sometimes, look a lot like cruelty (it’s hard-edged), although in Tawada’s case, it’s never a cruelty one can easily articulate and position oneself against.
What might also feed this air of cruelty is that the significance in the order of events is not always explicitly linked — what fakes cruelty better than a narrative that doesn’t help its reader keep up? — that, and her writing is stylistically spare, a move which is often misinterpreted as cold, but if you’ll allow me one more incompatibility, her writing is also deliciously tedious in its attention to quotidian activities, normally passed over as too obvious for narration. Mumei’s habits and features, in particular, are scrupulously documented, and the The Emissary opens this way:
Perhaps it was his head, much too large for his slender long neck, that made him look like a baby bird. Hairs fine as silk threads stuck to his scalp, damp with sweat. His eyes nearly shut, he moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on the gravel. The footsteps grew louder, then stopped. The sliding door rattled like a freight train, and as Mumei opened up his eyes, morning light, yellow as melted dandelions, poured in. The boy threw back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and stuck out both his arms like a bird spreading its wings.
Mumei is sitting on a mat and his great grandfather enters. What happens when the mundane loses its predictability, its mundaneness? The mundane is earthly, and to have lost that, to be categorized otherwise, is to belong to the empyrean, i.e. a secret.
Or am I mistaking the secret for the supernatural? Tawada’s stories and novels often feature people becoming animals, or people have decidedly animal-like features. Like Kafka, whom she admires, Tawada returns to alienation and mystical transformations. In her 2016 English translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear — a novel which spans three generations of polar bear, ending with the narrative of Knut, the famous polar bear born in captivity in a Berlin zoo and abandoned by his mother — a reader might feel compelled to stop and backtrack a few paragraphs in order to ask themselves: is Sea Lion an actual sea lion or a man who behaves like a sea lion? (It’s the latter.) Is it useful to attempt to discern whether or not the supernatural impinges itself upon events or is imagined by characters? Either way, the supernatural is always offered as an alternative. In an interview with the LA Review of Books, the translator for Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Susan Bernofsky, speaks to Tawada’s interspecies writing:
It is really about people. It is about human otherness and the othering of people of various races and ethnicities. To me, this book is all about race. Knut goes to a party and someone touches his hair—a microaggression…Tawada is translating this phenomenon into interspecies relationships, but I think she is really talking about how we humans other others.
Tawada circles alterity, where the hegemonic imagination has inscribed and delimited identities they see as Other. Memoirs of a Polar Bear used the alterity of animals, and so does The Emissary, but with the added focus of age: the young and old. The animal-ness acquired by osmosis by select humans, across Tawada’s stories, can be either ominous or fortuitous. “Languages are animals,” Tawada once said. “More than human beings.” Keeping this in mind, and re-attempting to answer our earlier question: what can language be? Or, what could language become under neoliberal authoritarianism? After the Fukushima-like incident, which has happened off-page in The Emissary, but from which the country is still reeling, people changed, and so did the nomenclature of their customs, objects, and people — for example, orphans are now “independent children.” This isolated country, fueled by post-apocalyptic versions of capitalism and nationalism, devises strict regulations around language in order to control the population. They invent, or rename, holidays: Children’s Day becomes Apologize to the Children Day; Labor Day becomes Being Alive is Enough Day (Tawada is hilarious, by the way). There’s a long list of forbidden words and songs, which are only sometimes whispered in secret. Yoshiro contemplates whether or not they have lost free speech, and after reading an op-ed in the newspaper, which softballs a few political criticisms, he seems consoled: “If a letter like this can be written in the paper, then freedom of speech isn’t gone.”
And yet he privately questions: “My grandson wants to have a picnic in a field. Whose fault is it that I can’t make even a little dream like that come true? Why are all the fields contaminated?”
And maintains his dreams and his memories: “Bread reminds you of faraway lands—that they exist, I mean—that’s what I like about it. I’d rather eat rice, but bread sets you dreaming.”
What does it mean to write a post-apocalyptic book? A book of the future? Often, in such fiction we are denied leisurely ambiguity — mystery is created in order to make way for authorial scene building, and plenary truths are laid bare in the aftermath of tragedy, leaving little acknowledgement of the deep mysteries of the (moral) world. Tawada has never been a writer of Truths and its attendant seriousness, so she has not written a dystopian story that looks for causality. It is empyrean; it asks that its reader get comfortable with the unknown, its secret. Tawada upends the retrograde idea that one ought to trust their writer, or that a writer who tackles large and unwieldy social issues, like identity and alterity, ought to also attempt to palliate our social traumas. She does no such thing.
“Maybe we’re moving toward the octopus,” Yoshiro considers. “People always thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all.” It is rare to find a writer who crafts illustrative and philosophical sentences and stories so lightly and artfully, and still manages to convince us of her moral interest. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic book devoid of hope. Dark, there’s no comfort, but it’s not hopeless. While we can often find correlations between the ways that a city or state modernizes and the ways in which a population’s soul does—or has as its potential—there remain exceptions. The children’s gentleness, against this authoritarian backdrop, offers propitious light. When Mumei gets too tired to play, he wears a sign around his neck that says “come back later,” and the children all respect this, and each other, and contain not an ounce of self-pity, even though their world is decaying beneath their feet. The Emissary questions what it means to be human in a world that doesn’t particularly value human life.
On YouTube I found a video of a lecture Tawada gave at The University of Chicago, in Japanese, entitled, “Life or Person: Which is More Important?” and as her translator repeated each paragraph in English, Tawada cut little bodies out of her pages of notes, and without commentary let them go, and they slowly sailed to the ground.
Chelsea Hogue is a writer based in Philadelphia, PA.