The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, trans. by Margaret Mitsutani (New Directions 2018)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
It had been my intention all along to review Yoko Tawada’s most recently translated novel The Emissary this week, and the announcement that Tawada was the recipient of the first award for translated literature since the National Book Award became the National Book Award in the early 1980s only solidified my thrill at getting the chance to write about this novel. Though all the books selected this year are exciting – I am particularly interested in finally reading Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend – I am particularly happy to see this nod to translated books in American literature. Compared to most countries America’s publication of translated works is nominal, and I respect and appreciate the National Book Award in their effort to encourage publishers to look internationally for new voices.
I first heard Tawada’s latest novel described as (apologies as I crudely paraphrase) “the most heart-warming book about the end of the world you’ll ever read,” and I have to say that based on my own mental catalog of dystopian literature, that’s a fair assessment. The novel picks up in an indeterminate future, after a series of global environmental disasters have caused Japan to close its borders in order to protect itself from other vulturous global powers. From here, the book separates itself from the conventions of dystopian literature almost immediately. The disasters themselves are rarely if ever discussed, and obviously built upon each other, rather than the book stemming from one cataclysmic event. The focus of the book isn’t on survival, but rather on the shifting relationships that human beings develop with each other, with aging, and with the idea of death as the environment around them changes. In this sense it reminds me a bit of Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed Station Eleven, though Tawada’s book is even more personal in nature than Mandel’s, focusing its attention on the relationship a rather robust centenarian, Yoshiro, has with his beloved great-grandson and ward, Mumei.
One of Tawada’s primary goals is environmentalist in nature, and much of the book is spent with Yoshiro as he laments the loss of nature, which he knew as a boy, and reflects on his new relationship to the outside world. For a large portion of this slender novel Yoshiro talks about squeezing a precious orange for Mumei, whose fragile body struggles to ingest even small amounts of the acidic juice. Yoshiro’s daughter Amana works at an “orchard,” and at one point Yoshiro and the clerk at the local stationary store reflect on how their imagination of the word “orchard” differs significantly from the new reality of what an orchard has become:
“The two fell silent, thinking roughly the same thing… The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe moist air wafting through the ferns… – playing, really, in nature. That’s not what Amana was doing, though – she was working from morning to night in a fruit factory called an orchard.” (60)
Perhaps most important in Tawada’s reflection on the loss of nature, beyond the grief of that loss, is the effect that a dramatic change in environment has on human health and the human body. Though I want to believe that all people would be inspired to act on climate change at the thought of losing birds, deer, squirrels – those common, rascally animals that speckle our days – there is a selfish quality present in the vast majority of the human race that I think necessitates further, more anthropocentric consequences. And those consequences are very much present in The Emissary. Yoshiro and his generation, now in their nineties, hundreds, even hundred-and-teens, are healthy and vital, and responsible for much of the new world’s manual labor. Comparatively, Mumei’s generation is delicate and frail, coming out of the womb with poorly formed and malnourished bodies. They are, in a sense, born old, and age rapidly. It is a struggle to keep them alive, and the older generation feels immense guilt over their own vitality – the result, we can imagine, of proper nourishment as children, a more welcoming atmosphere, birth into a more hospitable world.
The result of this relationship between the vital elderly and fragile youth is an inversion of the idea of knowledge and wisdom – any wisdom that Yoshiro believes he has to pass on is almost instantly made moot by the rapidly evolving world around him, and Mumei is monk-like in his peaceful acceptance of his fate. This inversion of where knowledge comes from is the part of The Emissary I most enjoyed thinking about, and offers a bizarre notion of not only what we owe the next generation, but how we will and must struggle with the guilt we’ll carry for handing over a world that was once lush and is becoming, rapidly, more barren. Through the eyes of Mumei, Tawada provides a sometimes refreshing, sometimes disturbing look at what we can accept and learn to love simply because we have been born into it. Perhaps the most startling element of Tawada’s future world is not that the world has changed so dramatically, but that after disaster our relationship both to that world and to each other will not change nearly as much as we might have imagined it would.
All told, this is a stunning novel and beautiful translation, and I’m thankful to Margaret Mitsutani for her work bringing this surreal, magical world to an English-speaking audience. This is a book which asks difficult questions, but gently – perhaps even gently enough that we might, for once, allow ourselves to hear them.