After Disaster, Japan Seals Itself Off From the World in ‘The Emissary’

On at least one occasion, the writer Yoko Tawada has given a public presentation of her work by reading aloud a poem written on a white glove. Reaching the end of the text, she pulls the glove off her hand, turns it inside out, and reads from the other side.

It’s a moment of cultivated eccentricity, to be sure, but also something of an artist statement. To Tawada — the acclaimed author of tender, screwy parables about outsiderdom — we are clad in language. It is a second skin; it determines the limits of our perception.

Tawada writes in Japanese and German, drifting between the two languages, sometimes within the same book. (She moved to Germany in 1982, in her early 20s, and has lived there since.) For her novel “The Naked Eye” (2009), she began in German, switched to Japanese and carried on, chapter by chapter, in whatever language she felt like. Then she translated the book into both languages and sent it off to her publishers in both countries.

Translation is an explicit theme in her fiction. She often writes from the point of view of animals, and takes a Nabokovian delight in neologisms (my favorites from her work: “stingword,” “headtheater”). “When you learn a language — as a child, or as a foreigner — you don’t just learn words but also how to make them, you learn the mechanism of the language, and you can keep making new words,” she told one interviewer. Tawada turns sentence structures inside out, just like that white glove. Every word feels frisked, investigated down to its root.

Her new novel, “The Emissary,” translated by Margaret Mitsutani, is a contentedly minor work. It has a recessive, lunar beauty compared to the sunny ambition and inventiveness of its predecessors, including her masterpiece (with the self-explanatory title), “The Bridegroom Was a Dog” (2012), and “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” (2016), which followed three generations of a distinguished literary family of polar bears.

The new book is set in Japan after an unnamed disaster (nuclear fallout is suggested). The country has quarantined itself from the rest of the world. The only wild living things left are spiders and crows. Language has started to vanish, too. The shelf life of words seems to have shortened; they pass out of fashion quickly and aren’t replaced. Men go through menopause. Children are so enfeebled that heartsick pediatricians begin to kill themselves.

Only the elderly remain robust — none more guiltily than Yoshiro, who is raising his great-grandson, the impossibly, almost unbearably sweet Mumei, who grows kinder and more tolerant as his body wastes away. When Mumei’s teeth begin to fall out, he reassures the horrified Yoshiro, “Don’t worry, Great-grandpa, sparrows get along fine without teeth.”

Tawada is a great disciple of Kafka’s; he “predicted reality,” she is fond of saying. And while she shares certain of his preoccupations — with otherness and evoking animal life — hers is a more prosaic mission: She mirrors reality. Although her work is frequently described as strange — which it is, determinedly — there is always a stark social critique at its core. “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” is, after all, an immigrant novel and a stirring defense of the human right to migration. “For polar bears, national identity has always been a foreign concept,” she writes in that novel. “It’s common for them to get pregnant in Greenland, give birth in Canada, then raise the children in the Soviet Union. They possess no nationality, no passport. They never go into exile and cross national borders without a visa.”

“The Emissary” is as bleak a portrait of contemporary Japan as you could imagine. Tawada takes on the graying of the population and the trauma of the 2011 tsunami and the ensuing radiation leakage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Hovering above all this, as always, is Tawada’s interest in the issue of translation, but this time the gulf is between what Susan Sontag called the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.

It’s quite a premise, but remains just that. The book feints at a narrative and at wrestling with the issues it raises — about the temptations and dangers of isolationism, the desire to imagine the lives of others, how the Fukushima tragedy tapped into Japan’s history of radiation poisoning going back to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tawada seems content to evoke mood, to polish her sentences to a high sheen. Her language has never been so arresting. But as Virginia Woolf wrote, novels are composed of paragraphs, not sentences. “The Emissary” is stalled there, at the level of a flickering brilliance that never kindles into more. From a writer with Tawada’s gifts, mere beauty can be a disappointment.

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