“The Emissary” by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret MitsutaniA major, unspecified disaster has struck Japan, prompting the government to introduce a policy of complete isolation that prohibits both international travel and the use of English words. The government itself is increasingly shadowy, with censorship rife and rumors that the Diet building is empty. Environmental devastation has made Tokyo’s 23 wards toxic and — central to the book’s premise — caused children to grow up as fragile as baby birds, aging even as their grandparents and great-grandparents remain strangely fit and healthy well past 100.
If all of this makes “The Emissary” sound too depressing to even pick up, think again. Tawada, who writes in both Japanese and German, uses a light tone that frequently leans into gentle abstraction and wry humor, producing a slim novel that charms as much as it provokes reflection.
Most charming of all is Mumei. One of Tokyo’s weakened children, Mumei is watched over carefully and lovingly by his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who at 108 goes for a run every morning with a hired canine from Rent-A-Dog, the only place dogs — or much of any animal — are seen these days.
Despite Mumei’s frequent fevers and tender stomach and teeth so soft he can only chew bread softened in milk, there is a complete absence of self-pity in him. He accepts pain as normal and is completely bewildered by Yoshiro’s sadness in the face of it. “He didn’t seem to know what suffering meant,” Yoshiro muses. “Perhaps this acceptance was a treasure given to the youngest generation.”
Neither is the reader allowed to become mired in pity, as Mumei’s physical struggles take a back seat to the pure delight he takes in the world, both imagined and real. (“Paradise!” he spontaneously cries out, thrusting his arms up in the air, when Yoshiro suggests they attend a lecture about an ancient mammoth, or when his teacher unrolls a map of the — unreachable — world.) Wild animals have not been seen in Japan for many years and divisions within the nation make Okinawa and Hokkaido feel as distant as foreign lands, yet Mumei simply lives, equal parts child, mammal and sage.
Odd though Mumei and Yoshiro may seem, in this story humans are already beyond the bounds of what we might consider normal, evolving subtly in the face of devastating change — men experience menopause and children’s hair turns silver. Characters are compared to cranes, puppies, octopi. “Maybe we’re moving toward the octopus,” Yoshiro says, and there is just enough surrealism in the novel to suggest that this cannot be ruled out.
The future seems as capricious as the altered climate, which sees sudden snowfalls in August and sandstorms in February. The adults waver around the edge of despair, knowing the environmental degradation that has brought them to the end of the world was their fault.
Is there any hope? Mumei (and the clue in the title) suggests there is — but not without great loss and adaptation.
— Kiri Falls, Japan News Staff Writer