in review: The Emissary
by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
Publication Date: April 24, 2018
Publisher: New Directions
In her 2014 novel The Emissary, newly translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Yoko Tawada opens with the book’s protagonist, Yoshiro, reflecting on which breed is best to rent from the Rent-a-Dog store. He is loping down—what long ago would have been called jogging. But following an unnamed (possibly nuclear) disaster, Japan has completely cut itself off from the world, and foreign and old-fashioned terms have fallen out of use. New and more light-hearted words have replaced them: Labor Day has become Being Alive is Enough Day, a physical examination is referred to as a monthly look-over, and orphans are referred to as independent children. As she so often does, Tawada defies language barriers while simultaneously honoring the malleability of word.
Plagued by the mysterious effects of an unknown catastrophe, all animals except rental dogs have disappeared from the country’s islands and elderly humans, like Yoshiro, are unable to die, instead growing stronger with age. Like all children of this post-apocalyptic world, Yoshiro’s great-grandson Mumei was born with improper physical development and a deteriorating immune system. So the 108-year-old Yoshiro spends his days taking care of the school-aged Mumei, who cannot chew his own food and can barely swallow liquids, and who struggles to get his wobbly feet through his pant legs. Yoshiro feels deeply sorry for his great-grandson, but nothing bothers Mumei, whose only worry is the imagined monsters that might steal his clothes at night. While Yoshiro constantly recounts life before Japan’s self-imposed isolation and dimly reflects on the now desolate state of the economy and culture, Mumei, in his both heartbreaking and heartwarming utterances, offers upbeat, matter-of-fact ways of seeing the world. “Sparrows get along fine without teeth,” he tells the frightened Yoshiro when his teeth start to decay, and when citrus fruits paralyze his tongue he responds, “Lemon is so sour it makes you see blue.” As Mumei becomes feebler with time, Yoshiro, too, begins to see the grim realities of life post-disaster more kindly.
The relationship between great-grandfather and great-grandson loosely frames the novel as it weaves in several other characters’ perspectives. All of their stories and outlooks culminate into a kind of atlas for a dystopian Japan. Loaded with fabricated folk tales, unconventional descriptions, and typically Tawadian diction, this work is bewildering. Tawada manages to distance readers and at the same time draw them into her world. The novel’s quirky syntax and amusing stories are not pleasurable enough to make the novel merely a fun and easy read, and yet having to make sense of its unusual and, at times, abstract style is why The Emissary is so refreshing.
As in all of Tawada’s work, The Emissary wraps itself up in language—and pulls at its chains. Language becomes above all a lens through which politics and culture can be understood differently. After all, Tawada’s post-Fukushima world is a not so subtle reference to Japan’s past (strategies of isolation, nuclear warfare) that has come to haunt its present (high-radiation levels, aging demographics, climate change). The novel naturally begs the question: What does the future of Japan look like? Tawada’s world proposes a mash of possibilities: rooted and strong, yet driven by anxiety; youthful and hopeful despite everything. With that, beauty and strangeness, sadness and hope emulsify.
—Katie Lauren Bruton