KR Reviews

The End of Everything: On Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary

Translated by Margaret Mitsutani. New York, NY: New Directions, 2018. 138 pages. $14.95.

These days, most of us have heard of the Seventh Generation Principle. As Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, explains it, “We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure . . . every decision that we make relate[s] to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come.”[1] Yet environmental degradation worldwide is accelerating at an alarming rate. Global corporate negligence has led to oil spills, frackquakes, and massive e-waste dumps; the polar ice caps continue to melt; hurricanes, floods, and forest fires grow more frequent and intense. So despite Yoko Tawada’s dystopian ambitions, the bleak future she portrays in her new novel The Emissary, while often strange, seems eerily familiar.

In the wake of an unnamed, irreversible environmental catastrophe, Japan has become virtually uninhabitable. The earth is polluted, fresh produce is scarce, and most animals have gone extinct. “How many years had it been,” wonders Yoshiro, the novel’s protagonist, “since the absence of animals other than rental dogs and dead cats had ceased to bother him?” Due to high concentrations of poison, fish are inedible, breast milk undrinkable. New holidays, such as “Being Alive Is Enough Day” and “Extinct Species Day,” have replaced outmoded ones. Mutations abound, too—“though the word mutation was rarely used anymore, having been replaced by the more popular environmental adaptation.” Men experience menopausal symptoms as they age; everyone’s sex changes randomly at least once in their lives. Strangest of all, and the novel’s central conceit, the older generations remain hale, yet they’re “burdened with [the] terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.” These children, born frail, weak, and sickly, have teeth so soft they can’t chew fruit pulp and systems so compromised they can’t absorb basic nutrients. In order to prevent the spread of unnamed contaminants (possibly nuclear fallout), Japan, like other nations, has isolated itself from the world, prohibiting all movement across its borders and banning foreign words, foreign language study, and translations of foreign books.

We experience this grim world through a simple plot that follows a day in the life of Yoshiro, a 107-year-old writer, and his seven-year-old great-grandson Mumei, “a name that means ‘no name.’” Yoshiro wakes Mumei, makes sure he’s dressed and fed, then walks him to school, where Mumei plays with his classmates, faints during a geography lesson, has a bizarre, hopeful dream; momentarily awakens, then most likely dies in the arms of Yoshiro and his teacher Mr. Yonatani.

The novel’s primary strength centers on language, in both style and subject matter. Tawada uses vivid imagery throughout the novel, particularly through similes. Notable examples include, “morning light yellow as melted dandelions,” “the river looked like silver ribbons,” and “beautiful as a crane in tow.” Although at times she might overuse such comparisons, on the whole this imagery enriches both setting and atmosphere.

Tawada also problematizes language in The Emissary, revealing its slow degradation as a central, if unexpected, consequence of ecological catastrophe. “The shelf life of words was getting shorter all the time,” we learn, and not only imports from foreign languages: “some words that had disappeared after being labeled ‘old-fashioned’ had no heirs to take their place.” On the other hand, some words have been censored to death, such as “physical examination” (replaced by “monthly look-over”) and “orphans” (replaced by “independent children”). As a writer, Yoshiro becomes a repository of “dead words,” maintaining a seemingly unwarranted faith in the power of language. Mumei, too, obsesses over language, especially words denoting various extinct animals, to the point that he can’t “take his eyes off the name from which he believed a living creature might emerge.” Yet doubt colors his perceptions, too: “Could clothes still be there, just as they were, even after the words for them had disappeared?”

It’s no surprise that a preoccupation with language should anchor this novel. Born in Japan, Tawada moved to Germany in her early twenties, and has lived there ever since, first in Hamburg, now in Berlin. She holds a PhD in German literature, and cites Paul Celan and Franz Kafka as major influences. Known for works such as The Bridegroom Was a Dog (1998) and Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016), she writes in both Japanese and German, shifting between them according to the demands of a given project.

Much of The Emissary’s success can be attributed to Margaret Mitsutani’s clear, often beautiful English translation. Mitsutani, who has also translated Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe, has described her experience working on The Emissary as, “playing with words—very difficult and serious play . . .”[2] And while occasionally blemished by confused syntax (“people were very being careful”), clichés (“like a thief in the night”), or missing articles (“burdened with terrible task”), on the whole, her translation is an admirable achievement. Tawada’s frequent wordplay creates a range of difficult translation problems, including idioms, puns, and a tongue twister, for which Mitsutani finds elegant solutions. In two instances, she includes footnotes to clarify phonological and cultural issues, but this critical apparatus, while cumbersome, ultimately enhances the reading experience, especially for those of us with little knowledge of Japanese. In recognition of her excellent work, Mitsutani’s translation was recently nominated for the 2018 National Book Award in Translated Literature.

Nevertheless, Tawada’s novel suffers from a range of basic narrative problems. The majority of this slim volume transpires in the past, mostly through Yoshiro’s digressive memories and almost entirely in backstory summary. With few convincingly developed scenes, the novel feels static. The structure and pacing prove awkward, too. Even in the last twenty pages, we’re still learning character details that function largely as exposition; what’s more, while Mumei wakes up in the novel’s opening sentence, it takes him more than a hundred pages to finish getting dressed. The third-person omniscience allows Tawada to explore the thoughts of Yoshiro, his estranged wife Marika, Mumei, and Mr. Yonatani when it seems most convenient. Although in the end these frequent perspective shifts, coupled with the thin plot, narrow scope, and a rushed and confusing climax, undermine whatever narrative unity she might have otherwise achieved.

The novel’s title relates to “a top secret private-sector project” in which “especially bright children” are sent “abroad as emissaries”—another interesting plot possibility left mostly undeveloped. Naming such a bleak book The Emissary seems too incongruously hopeful. Yet this translation was originally published in London as The Last Children of Tokyo, a disheartening, though far more apt, title. “What about the seventh generation?” asks Chief Lyons. “What will they have?” Given that only four generations separate Mumei from his great-grandfather Yoshiro, the only possible response can be: nothing. They will never exist. In Tawada’s dystopia, animals aren’t the only ones facing extinction; humans have sealed their own fate. And in the meantime, language itself has become an endangered species.

 

Notes
[1] Oren Lyons, “An Iroquois Perspective,” in American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History, eds. Christoper Vecsey and Robert W. Venables (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980), 173.

[2] Margaret Mitsutani, interview by Emily Temple, Literary Hub, https://lithub.com, November 2, 2018.

J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner, the Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.