The Emissary, Yoko Tawada

Writing weird and quirky fiction,the kind that borders on the fantastic, seems to be a tradition in Japanese literature. Between Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe, Kobo Abe, and now Yoko Tawada, there is no shortage of puzzling but delightful stories pouring out of Japan. Tawada is no stranger to the Japanese fiction landscape, but she was new to me, and The Emissary, her latest translated work to hit U.S. shores, is one of the oddest books I’ve ever read. Despite its at-times mystifying plot, I enjoyed The Emissary much like I did my first forays into those other odd Japanese titans, and consequently am excited to see where my reading of Yoko Tawada goes.

The Emissary features Yoshiro, who is not the titular character but his great-great grandfather, and most of the novel deals with Yoshiro’s caretaking of his progeny, Mumei, a child abandoned by parents in a world where everything is on its head. Despite surpassing 100 years in age, Yoshiro is one of the healthiest and most vibrant characters in the novel. What is not apparent right away is that The Emissary is post-apocalyptic. Tawada masterfully doles out this information, never coming right out to say whether nuclear war ravaged the world or if some alien race invaded our atmosphere. Rather, she gives us a slice-of-life view of people living in Japan in the aftermath of whatever happened. One consequence of this particular apocalypse is that those alive when it occurred no longer age in the same way as those who came after. Children, like Mumei, are often sickly and malformed, have trouble eating or functioning, and it is up the elderly, who don’t seem to age much at all, to take care of each successive generation. No doubt this role-reversal is much in response to Japan’s current genealogical climate, which boasts one of the highest elderly populations in the world. Tawada imagines a world where it isn’t the young taking care of the old, but the opposite, and it’s as heart-breaking as it is hilarious.

We mostly stay within Yoshiro’s head through the book, watching as he cares for Mumei and navigates this new world where Japan has closed off its borders once again so that whatever crises devastated the world remains isolated until it can be dealt with. Tawada pokes fun at an unreliable Japanese government that, despite its new landscape, is likely not a far cry from what current power structures reside. Yoshiro’s sole aim in life is to ensure that Mumei survives in an age that lacks the modern conveniences that we now take for granted. His anxiety is offset by Mumei’s near Buddha-like ability to take everything in stride. Tawada asks the reader to imagine a child growing up without expectations. If one had never seen a television or watched a movie, would they understand boredom in the same way that we do? If they had never tasted exquisitely cooked food, would they realize that their simple fare was lacking? Yoshiro still lives with one foot in the past, but Mumei exists only in this different version of that world.

Tawada does not stay entirely within Yoshiro’s view. Her ability to experiment without losing the thread of her plot is unique. Not only do we jump to Mumei’s perspective at a late point in the novel, but we even see through the eyes of Yoshiro’s estranged wife as well as one of Yoshiro’s teachers. That this all comes in the last third of the book would be strange enough, but Tawada also jumps around in her point of view. Having decried this in the past as unnecessary experimentation, for some reason I accept it in Tawada’s work. The rest of the novel toys around with the very nature of reality so much that I can accept these strange shifts in perspective without feeling annoyed or confused. It works. I don’t fully understand how, but it does.

I don’t love The Emissary, but I do find it fascinating from an authorial standpoint. The experimentation with form and the sheer oddities abounding within Tawada’s work are memorable and excite me to read more of her writing. There just aren’t authors like this, that I am familiar with, in the English speaking world, and I continue to return to Japan for books that bend my brain in new and interesting ways. I feel that there are themes I missed while reading this novel, and metaphors that I may not be equipped to deal with, but that did not stop me from enjoying Yoko Tawada’s twisted reality. 

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