Saturday, April 21, 2018

A new species of human being

On tree day maybe the cherry tree in the schoolyard will fall on top of me and crush me. Almost all trees are sick these days, even if they look healthy their trunks are hollow, so all it takes to make them fall over is a sight from someone standing next to them. That's why all those signs say "Do not sigh near this tree." I can see it now — a whole row of cherry tree falling like dominoes, starting with the one farthest away. I run away.
The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, is a slight novella that poetically hovers over many interesting themes without ever touching down.

I'm hard-pressed to explain what The Emissary is about. It takes place in a future, post-disaster Japan, where children are helpless and frail and wheelchair-bound and elders are robust. (Is this not the way the world is? Or is it upside down? Is it the elders or the children who have wisdom?)
Assuming he had knowledge and wealth to leave to his descendants was mere arrogance, Yoshiro now thought. This life with his great-grandson was all he could manage. For that he needed to be flexible, in mind and body, with the courage to doubt what he had believed for over a century. He'd have to slough off his pride like an old jacket and go around in his shirt sleeves. If he was cold, rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to change his body so that it would 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, he thought, clenching his fists again and again.
Japan has quarantined itself from the rest of the world.
Having been among the first countries to withdraw from the global rat-race in which huge corporations turned underground resources into anything they could sell at inhuman speeds while ruthlessly competing to keep production costs lower than anyone else's, South Africa and India now kept to a policy of supporting their economies by exporting language alone, discontinuing all other imports and exports. The two nations had formed what they called "The Gandhi Alliance," which was gaining world-wide popularity. They got along so well that other countries were beginning to envy them. South Africa and India fought about soccer and nothing else, their positions on humanity, the sun, and language being perfectly matched. Contrary to the predictions of foreign experts, the economies of both were growing steadily. Like these two nations, the Japanese government had also stopped importing underground resources and exporting manufactured goods, but with no language it could export, Japan had come to an impasse. The government hired a linguist to write a paper proving that the language Okinawans spoke was linguistically unrelated to Japanese, to promote its plan to sell the Okinawan language to China for a good price, but Okinawa refused to let this underhanded scheme go through. They came back with an ultimatum: If Japan insisted on selling their language to China, then Okinawa would stop all shipment of fruit to the main island of Japan.
Old man Yoshiro had once written a novel, Ken-to-shi, Emissary to China, which manuscript he'd buried because there were too many foreign place names.

Meanwhile, Yonatani, the teacher, is tasked with selecting the child most suitable to be an emissary. (Emissary to where?) "All he could teach them was how to cultivate language. He was hoping they themselves would plant, harvest, consume, and grow fat on words." He has his eye on Yoshiro's great-grandson, Mumei.

The Emissary imagines a future where the past (our now) doesn't make any sense. Tawada is as playful and surreal as ever. The story, such as it is, is grounded in the intergenerational interplay, but I lost my bearings when trying to understand the big picture, Japan's place in the world, or the new human's role.
"So in another hundred thousand years we'll all be octopi?"

"Maybe so. A long time ago people would have thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all."

"In high school I used to envy people with bodies like Greek statues. I was trying to get into art school, you see. Don't know when I developed a liking for entirely different bodies — birds, say or octopi. I'd like to see everything from an optical point of view."


"No, I meant octopus. I want see through the eyes of an octopus."
Hyperallergic: A Dystopian Fairy Tale Reflects Challenges of the Present
New York Times: After Disaster, Japan Seals Itself Off From the World in "The Emissary"
Words without Borders: Yoko Tawada’s Dystopian Novel "The Emissary" Delivers a Bitingly Smart Satire of Present-Day Japan


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