The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada
Translated by Margaret Mitsutani
New Directions Publishing, 128 pps. $14.95
I have seen the future and it’s murder — Leonard Cohen, “The Future”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Death walks into a bar, wielding a scythe, which he intends to use in shaving God’s face. Death, in his wanderings, has been hearing rumors about the wooly burning bush that covers God’s face like topographical phenomena, and he has made it his self-directed duty and obligation to give God a clean shave. The thing is, Death doesn’t find God in the bar, so he begins using his scythe on all the people he encounters in the bar, and then continues his bloody shave-fest out in the real world, as he continues searching for God’s hairy, burning beast of a face. In the end, Death is a misguided barber, and God an absentee with bigtime street cred. To dance the razor’s edge between vaudeville and nightmare requires a certain sense of marvel and precision, a certain joie de vivre to keep one company while suspended over an abyss, and this is the sensibility that Yoko Tawada exacts with finesse and fluency in her satirical timebomb, The Emissary.
The Emissary (also known as The Last Children of Tokyo, and in Japan, Kentoshi), which won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018, is the new novel by Tokyo-born, Berlin-based author, Yoko Tawada. With hallucinogenic levity and lightness of touch — imagine dystopia done in amusing watercolors — Tawada paints a portrait of a Japan that’s been given an apocalyptic makeover. Whatever catastrophic shit hit the fan (The Cause is left to our imagination), we are shown the results, the after-effects, which becomes a hydra-headed meditation on loss, restoration and stewardship.
The novel’s protagonists, Yoshiro, and his great grandson, Mumei — the fledgling “emissary” of the book’s title — embody and reflect the make-up of their generations: the young are born infirm, unhealthy, pickled in a declivitous state closer to death, while the elders keep going and going, the do-ers who are locked in a cycle of rote and perpetual activity: “While it wasn’t clear whether or not Yoshiro’s generation would really have to live forever, for the time being they had definitely been robbed of death. Perhaps when their bodies had reached the end, even their fingers and toes worn down to nothing, their minds would hang on, refusing to shut down, writhing still inside immobile flesh.” Despite Mumei’s frailties and deficiencies, he moves through life with an almost Buddha-like pliancy: “He didn’t seem to know what ‘suffering’ meant; he simply coughed when food didn’t go down, or vomited it back up. Of course he felt pain, but it was pure pain, unaccompanied by any ‘Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?’ . . . Perhaps this acceptance was a treasure chest given to the youngest generation. Mumei didn’t know how to feel sorry for himself.”
In Tawada’s “new isolationist” Japan, which could be the ominously forecast double of Trump’s America, the world beyond its borders has become a taboo anachronism, a reality that is no longer viable or admissible, with foreign words and images and products having been outlawed, and Kafka-esque paranoia on the rise, “There was a strange new law against saying the names of foreign cities out loud, and although no one had been prosecuted for breaking it yet, all the same people were being careful. Nothing is more frightening than a law that has never been enforced.” Swift, Orwell, Voltaire, Twain and Rabelais, could easily form the satirist’s cheerleading squad for Tawada, and her grotesquely comic exposition on morality and the bankruptcy of resources. The Internet has died, along with most of Japan’s wildlife; Tokyo has become an environmentally-contaminated ghost town; the privatized police force is now more of a brass-playing circus act than law enforcement; climate is as mercurial as the amorphic relationship between night and day; and transgenderfication is part of the new wave, as “Everyone’s sex changed either once or twice, and people couldn’t tell ahead of time how many times their sex would change.” As for sex between people, which is a dying art in need of a boost, there’s “Pillow Day” — to encourage conjugation — along with a slew of other themed holidays reflecting the zeitgeist: “Extinct Species Day,” “Bone Day,” “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” “Apologize to the Children Day.”
Beneath the metamorphic jazz of Tawada’s surreally exploded landscape is its true and simple heart: Yoshio’s love for his great-grandson, whom he has raised. With unflagging devotion and protectiveness, he takes care of Mumei, who has been the catalyst for Yoshio’s own altered perceptions and rebirth: “Assuming he has knowledge and wealth to leave to his descendants was mere arrogance . . . This life with his great-grandson was about all he could manage. And for that he needed to be flexible, in mind and body, with the courage to doubt what he had believed for over a century. Sloughing off his pride like an old jacket, he’d have to go around in his shirtsleeves. If he was cold, rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to grow a thick coat of fur like a bear’s. He was not really an ‘old man,’ but a man who, after living for a century, had become a new species of human being…”
It is this notion of change — radical in its braving of new internal frontiers and the wild unknown — that functions as an embryonic seed of hopefulness, a stray glimmer of light dancing along the darkened edges of closed doors that have not yet been locked. “Wealth, prestige, none of it has the value of a single blade of grass,” Yoshio muses. Therein lies the incalculable wonder, and far-reaching implications, upon which the fate of Tawada’s world and ours may rest.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of three novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, Raking the Dust and Nocturne Variations, as well as a collection of stories. Biscello’s debut poetry collection, Arclight, is out now on Indie Blu(e) Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com