Review: THE EMISSARY by Yoko Tawada
Review by Riley Bingham
Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-a-Dog store for his daily jog. Except Yoshiro can’t call his exercise jogging, as jogging is a foreign word. Nor is Yoshiro understood by saying he’s taking a dog for a walk, because to take the dog for a walk is an obsolete and foreign expression in this mysterious, cloistered, post-disaster country of The Emissary, where “the shelf life of words,” the narrator observes, is “getting shorter all the time.”
Yoko Tawada is one of the century’s most famously exophonic authors, and not just because she writes in both her native Japanese and German. A Tokyo-born woman living in Berlin for almost three decades, Tawada has, in her career, outlined a relationship to language in which language often plays the role of a playful muse. Language not in the sense of the mere beauty of words, but language in the sense of worlds of homophony waiting to unfold from any word, of any language; language in the sense of the frisson of inspiration that can spark as words from different languages strike. Tawada in her own words, from an interview with Bettina Brandt:
“You can give a word more depth by listening to its history. Then we can ask ourselves, within one culture, what a certain word meant for Goethe or for Schiller…in the eighteenth century…in the fifteenth century…What I am doing now in my writing, however, is to ask what a particular word means when it is inserted in the context of multicultural and multilingual world where words from different languages create purely poetic correspondences.”
That was 2005. In 2018, with The Emissary, Tawada continues her long exploration of multilingual world beyond purely poetic correspondences and asks, what happens when a multilingual world shuts itself off?
The Japan of The Emissary has isolated itself from the world, cutting away any vestiges of foreignness in its culture. It is unclear what government-imposed penalty awaits citizens who won’t let go of their foreign words, but Yoshiro can’t take the chance. He’s responsible for more than himself; he’s got a sickly great-grandson to care for.
Proof of the endurance and savviness of Tawada’s obsession is that she chooses to set her story–one of a mysterious human-made disaster that has left the adult population of Japan seemingly deathless–in the eyes of Yoshiro, who was a novelist before the world changed. What better vessel to illuminate the profound loss in the banned language than one whose life was language, one for whom every word lost is a phantom limb.
This absented, contraband language builds another barrier besides mere age to communicating with his great-grandson, Mumei. Yoshiro has entire lexicons at his disposal Mumei wouldn’t understand. There are words Yoshiro will say in the privacy of home, but what might happen should his great-grandson repeat these sounds in public? Tawada does an expert job leveraging small worries and communication breakdowns like this into a subtle, low-level worry collecting like a gas in the small spaces of each page.
And it’s this language gap that makes The Emissary stand out among the disaster- or apocalypse-adjacent novels of our moment. Tawada pushes beyond the staid exhibitions of infrastructural fallout so possible for novels of natural disaster or political upheaval to languish in, instead showing a society’s deeper, more abstracted fissures. The language gap between Yoshiro’s and Mumei’s generations shows how disaster can, in an instant, tear new generations out of whole, poisoned cloth. No longer are the easy and steady divisions of generations across an aging population: there are only those who lived before, who remember the old world and its language, and those who came after.
One of the questions the novel poses, then, is: which of these generations has it worst?
If The Emissary pities Yoshiro and his undying ilk, it is not for his loss of language, a society, a world. If the novel pities Yoshiro, it is for the pain of his own incommunicable pity, a pity for his great-grandson.
Yoshiro’s great-grandson, Mumei, like all other children in this new world, is different from the children of Yoshiro’s childhood, and of his children’s’ childrens’ childhood. Mumei has trouble eating, walking, holding up his head. Mumei, and his whole generation, is born into the pain and debility of mysteriously premature senescence: basically, they’re tiny people more feeble than their own great-grandparents.
We might catch on to something of Mumei’s essential instability from the novel’s first page, where his head is described as “too large for his slender long neck,” and his hair are “fine as silk threads stuck to his scalp, damp with sweat.” But this is one of The Emissary’s great pleasures: it opens its world slowly, resisting with great discipline the urge to explain everything at once.
Tawada repeatedly buries the lede with respect to the novel’s big questions. What is Mumei’s experience like? How did he, and the other children, develop their condition? And, always lingering in the background, the question of what happened. What happened to the world? What happened to make chrysanthemums double in size, to change a person’s sex numerous times in one life, to make Mumei’s bones refuse calcium, to make his hand shake, lifting a spoon to his mouth?
To the reader, and to Yoshiro, Mumei’s existence seems like one of torture, wracked by myriad inexplicable agonies. But these children born in the new world have no point of comparison but the new world. Mumei feels little sense of being different in regards to his weak body, his tender mouth full of weak, soft teeth:
The rye bread Great-grandpa toasts for me smells good, but it’s sure hard to chew. The mean little spikes of dried grain stick to the soft places inside my mouth all at once. I taste blood…Once when I said, ‘This toast tastes like blood,’ Great-grandpa looked like he was about to cry, so I decided never to say that again. Great-grandpa has real bushy eyebrows and a square jaw, so he looks strong, but his feelings get hurt real easily, and he often looks like he’s about to cry. For some reason he seems to pity me.
For all of Mumei’s quirk and wonder, Tawada is at her most gutting when showing the world through his uncomplaining viewpoint. Mumei’s stoicism in pain doesn’t absolve those responsible for creating the new world. Mumei is supposed to be the novel’s hero, its titular emissary, some vague sort of light to guide humanity back towards what Yoshiro would call a “normal” future. But if Mumei is a beacon, it’s hard not to see, too, the shadow he casts: beyond a damning critique of the guilty parties (all preceding humanity), his perspective offers a subtle appraisal of the human capacity for historical ignorance, and this capacity’s tendency towards a normalization of any disaster we pull upon ourselves.
The Emissary’s back copy proclaims that Tawada turns “inside out the dystopian scenario,” and Booklist blurbs the novel’s ability to “both chastise humanity for the path we are taking…and look hopefully toward an unknown future,” and they’re kind of right: this isn’t The Road, by any means. On certain pages, this dystopia can dwarf mere depression, but it is undeniably a departure from the self-serious brinkmanship developed in the apocalypse genre over the last decade or so, and the praise it’s received for this is warranted, due evidence of just how relieving and satisfying the humor and beauty found in the novel can be, given its context. And much of this humor and beauty is achieved through Mumei, the world’s diminutive, could-be-savior.
Mumei’s delights are as nimble and bright as the novel itself. In one of its best runs, The Emissary shifts easily into Mumei’s voice, giving a glimpse of the novel’s strange, new world, not through the eyes of one awed (and saddened) by its difference from our own, but through a gaze of childlike mild wonder mixed with equanimity, where the problems are kid problems, not world problems.
And this new world feels real, and it feels entrancing–able to hold our attention by its odd familiarity, its unimaginable changes to the natural world, and the creeping sensation of its potential possibility. Tawada’s disaster world is fantastical, but doesn’t feel like a fantasy. Reading The Emissary, as in reading any Tawada, often feels like Mumei felt reading the words for animals that Yoshiro has written down on a calendar in the kitchen:
“It wasn’t just the Naumann Mammoth that cast a spell on Mumei. When he heard or saw the word heron, for instance, or sea turtle, he became obsessed, unable to take his eyes off the name from which he believed a living creature might emerge.”