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broodings from the burrow

February 18, 2019

into the stacks 2019: february, part 1
posted by soe 1:51 am

I only finished one book in the first half of the month, so this will be short. (I’d expect a bunch for the end of February.)

The Emissary, by Yōko Tawada (Translated by Margaret Mitsutani)

Set in Tokyo at some point in the middle-distance future, the rather loose story focuses on Yoshiro, a spry centenarian and former novelist, and the delicate great-grandson, Mumei, he is raising on his own. A great catastrophe — a radioactive one we are meant to understand — occurred a generation ago or so, causing Japan to close up its physical and metaphoric borders and create a dystopian, isolationist society in which foreign words — and concepts — are forbidden and the elderly do not seem to die (they now have three categories for senior citizens that include “young elderly,” which starts when you reach your 80s) or really even especially weaken (Yoshiro jogs daily, for instance, and his daughter works in an orchard picking oranges). Children, on the other hand, are so weak and constantly ill that they have difficulty eating, that doctors secret away their official medical reports and that parents are told to stop taking their children’s temperatures because they are always running fevers and it just depresses everyone. Mumei, despite all the suffering he seems to undergo simply by existing, is a rather philosophical child, with deep thoughts and a placid demeanor.

Most of the story is told from Yoshiro’s perspective, focusing on how life has changed and how much he worries about his great-grandson. A few chapters are told from his estranged wife’s perspective, when she comes for a rare visit from her school for children whose parents have moved elsewhere in Japan to work. A couple more are told from Mumei’s teacher’s point of view, as he considers language, the globe, and how the fragile children in his class interact with each other. And most of the final chapters in the book are from a teenaged Mumei’s perspective, as he navigates life from his wheelchair and prepares for an adventure. Each of these four characters will consider the importance of an emissary in one way or another.

You may remember that I partially picked up this slim novella because it had won the National Book Award for Translated Literature and also because its blurb suggested it was going to be a lot of fun. It’s possible I missed something, but I did not find the book “delightful, irrepressibly funny,” or “playfully joyous,” and it was really hard to separate the reality from that overbilling. I will say that the author and her translator clearly love and respect language greatly, as it’s a recurring theme in the work and that she has a reasonable concern for what the globe will look like in a few decades, regardless of whether there’s a nuclear meltdown, given the disaster-level scenario climate change is likely to wreak. So, a fair assessment of The Emissary is that it gives you a lot to think about, particularly given its length, but none of it is playful or fun.

Pages: 138. Library copy.

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