Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


There are moments where the prose doesn't glide along, but I like The Emissary now more than when I completed the book.

Publisher New Directions describes The Emissary as a delightful, irrepressibly funny work and that humor fell flat for me. Maybe it's a failure of Ms. Mitsutani's translation, but I doubt it. It's New Directions. They can afford good people and The Emissary is not Ms. Mitsutani's first translation of Ms. Tawada.

"Food from farms on each of Okinawa's islands was carried to local ports by 'horse and wagon,' where it was loaded onto ships owned by a transportation company in Kyushu, then brought to the major port of Shin-maku-razaki. Despite the nomenclature 'horse and wagon' there were no horses to pull wagons. Satirical cartoons in the newspapers showed dogs, foxes, and wild boars pulling wagons full of fruit, which may have been reality rather than satire."

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The setting's post-apocalyptic, and yes, broadly speaking, the world's bleak, but every day life continues with good humor. My limited knowledge of Japanese media leads me to compare the feeling to a Ghibli background in the daylight. There's a brightness to the setting that never feels at odds with the fact that Ms. Tawada's Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world after an amplified Fukushima-ish disaster. Said disaster changed Japan such that Japanese children are now born ancient, with all of the attendant medical worries, but also with the wisdom of age and the courage of youth.

The story follows a grandfather (Yoshiro) and his grandson (Mumei). Mumei, full of the courage of youth, plows fearlessly into the unknown, which given his ailments, the unknown will kill him. Thus, the vehicle for Yoko Tawada to write Yoshido lamenting how his generation ruined the world in the wake of the massive change.

"Unable to bear the itch of regret, he scratched his head as he apologized to Mumei, but the boy gazed up at him with a puzzled look and said 'Whether food tastes good or not doesn't really bother us kids.'

The boy had shown him his own shallowness when he had least expected it, making Yoshiko so ashamed he could hardly breathe. Criticism from young people tends to upset the elderly, but Yoshiko wasn't the slightest bit angry with Mumei. What really pained him was the way his generation was always hurting young people without realizing it. Adults arrogantly talked about whether food tasted good or not, as if a gourmet sensibility put you in a superior class of people, forgetting that everyone was already sunk to the waist in a swamp of problems—how must they look to these children? Poison often had no taste at all, so no matter how finely honed your palate, it wasn’t going to save your life."

It's How We Got Along After The Bomb (the subtitle to Phillip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney) if we actually did get along. There's still joy to be found in The Emissary's world and people aren't killing each other. Ms. Tawada wrote a novel where the lightness does not detract from the seriousness, that yes, there was a disaster, and the world changed, but the prism is different. The seriousness and the lightness are equally believable and equally engaging. (And not for nothing does the service called Rest in Peace Deep Freeze feel like a thing Phillip K. Dick would've put in Ubik.)

"Not long after that he heard the phrase 'Baby Carriage Movement' from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mother who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they'd had the night before or because being cooped up all day with a swelling infant stimulates memories of the mother's own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a 'baby carriage mark' in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to.

When Yoshiko asked her, Marika was more than happy to tell him more about this 'Baby Carriage Movement.' Pushing a baby carriage was the best way to tell how a town treated its pedestrians. Mothers had to stop if there was no sidewalk, or too many steps. Where the noise was nerve-wracking, or there was too much carbon dioxide in the air, the baby would start howling. With lots of other baby carriages around a sort of domino effect kicked in until the collective howling was as loud as a siren, making passersby  stop to think just how unpleasant or even dangerous this place was for human beings."

My favorite image from The Emissary: discarded, sunken washing machines are now capsule houses for fish.