In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, predictably, bleak.

Title: The Emissary
Author: Yoko Tawada
Translator:  Margaret Mitsutani
Publisher: New Directions Books, New York (2018)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2762 9

In Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary the future is, somewhat predictably, bleak. Japanese children are frail and infirm creatures, cared for by grandparents and great-grandparents who remain strong and vigorous well past the hundred-year mark. The two main characters, Yoshiro and his great-grandson Mumei, live in a world recovering from the aftermath of an unspecified disaster. The intervening generations, — Mumei’s grandparents, father, and mother, — are all conspicuously absent. Yoshiro has a vague idea of where they are and what they are doing, but no strong inclination to connect with them. He is entirely invested in, and responsible for, the care of Mumei. Everything and everyone else is of tertiary significance.

There are no cars. English words are taboo. Banks have closed. Higher education has been exposed as a mercenary business that takes students’ money while doing very little to prepare them for finding jobs. The ground has been contaminated and most animals have gone extinct. (Dogs still exist. Yoshiro rents a dog from the Rent-A-Dog store every morning to take on his run along the river). The nation of Japan is cut off from the international community and “closed to the outside world.”

“Why is it closed?”

“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”

Over the course of the book, Mumei goes from barely being able to walk to being confined to a wheelchair. We learn about his and Yoshiro’s daily routines. We watch as he makes a friend and falls in love. To a certain extent, we’re given hints at the fates of their extended family. But The Emissary poses a lot of questions and is frustratingly short on answers. What happened to isolate Japan? Why are children physically deteriorating so rapidly? Why are the elderly, in contrast, so healthy and long-lived? What is the state and status of the generations in between? What is the role of the reader in this story? Tawada is all about world building on the micro scale, to the extent that this novel contains very little plot and an inexplicable fascination with incidental details. The writing is mesmerizingly beautiful. Emotions are conveyed using fluid and clean sentences. It’s easy to understand why The Emissary won newly re-instated, 2018 National Book Award for Translation. But it a work of fiction that is disconcerting both in its construction and lack of hope.

The two fell silent, both thinking roughly the same thing. Since orchards are actually factories that produce food, working in one all day, cut off from the outside world, might be pretty miserable. The word orchard brings a paradise to mind, which makes people envious. They imagine workers walking in the mountains looking for wild mushrooms, discovering miniature farms made of moss on the forest floor on the way as they breathe in moist air wafting through the ferns… That’s not what Amana was doing, though…

Mumei is a remarkably sweet child for whom eating an orange is a feat of strength. He and children like him, are empathetic, kind and wise far beyond their years. They have a cryptic way of speaking – like Greek oracles – making pronouncements that the adults dedicated to their care accept without question. When the pediatrician asks Mumei whether he likes milk, the child says that he prefers worms. Instead of treating it as the nonsensical statement that we imagine it is, the doctor explains the pros and cons of an insect-based diet and advises sticking to flying insects due to ground/soil contamination.

Yoshiro is perpetually sad. He despairs because of his great-grandson’s failing health and his own helplessness against it. He believes he has nothing to teach Mumei as all the institutions and belief systems on which he based his past life on have proven false… or at the very least, no longer applicable in this new society. This strain of impotence and defeat – the inability to fix or make the world better – runs through the story. Tawada makes a feeble attempt at introducing something else resembling a plot to carry the reader forward. We learn that there is a program to smuggle these wonderful children out into the wide world as emissaries of hope. But the percentage of the book spent on what is, at best, a sub-plot is negligible. Tawada appears barely interested in it as an idea, so why should we care?

This is a book that is defined by the number of unanswered questions it contains. Most important among them being: what is the role of the reader in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary? Dystopian fiction is seldom written without an underlying message. So that when I come across this type of book I ask myself – a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge – what does it mean, Spirit? Tawada has incorporated multiple criticisms of our current institutions – distrust in banks, failures in our educational system, the super-aging society of Japan (according to one article, by 2025 “20% of Japanese nationals will be at least 75 years old and 30% at least 65. In other words, Japan will become a super-aged society with no parallel in history”), – but provides very little context. Is this an exercise in immersion? Is it a cautionary tale? An attempt at a genre novel or a reimagining of what a genre novel might be? It’s very difficult to gauge the writer’s intention. And without that…

I also can’t help wondering why the U.S. publisher went with the title: The Emissary and not The Last Children of Tokyo (as it was released in the UK). The latter seems better, and less misleading, considering the substance of the novel.

At it’s best, The Emissary is a remarkably polished and seductive exercise in world building. Tawada plays with and develops the details for what we can imagine eventually becoming a more expansive story – one containing a plot, character development, and a narrative arc. But when she halfheartedly attempts to inject those elements here, adding weak plot elements to pad out her page count, that The Emissary is at its weakest. While not her best book, Yoko Tawada has the ability to submerge her readers into strange, new worlds and The Emissary still accomplishes this feat brilliantly.

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, tr. Rhonda Mullins

Title: The Embalmer
Author: Anne-Renée Caillé
Translator:  Rhonda Mullins
Publisher: Coach House Books, Toronto (2018)
ISBN:  978 1 55243 780

We’re all going to die. And while nobody wants to dwell on the state of their own mortality, we’re perfectly happy consuming stories, both on screen and page, involving the deaths of strangers.  Especially if a crime is involved. (We do love our crime. I’ve lost count of the number of murder-of- the-week series in my Netflix queue, true-crime podcasts I’m listening to, and in England, sales of crime fiction have surpassed that of general and literary fiction for the first time.)

But The Embalmer is not a crime novel, though it does feature the occasional victim. Written in the first person, a nameless narrator conducts a series of interviews with her father about his work. He was a mortician — an embalmer. In short vignettes, he describes working with the dead. And she, in turn, describes him. They meet at a diner. The premise is that simple. Except when it’s not. Anne-Renée Caillé manages to convey a great deal with only a few lines of text.

The mother is in the lab, asks for the skates. They are still on his feet, the request is disturbing, then he tells himself she has some ten children, after all.

He unlaces the first skate and pulls gently, but the foot comes off.

In the skate a foot — the mother doesn’t want it anymore, she lets it go.


Parent-child relationships are complicated. The embalmer/father is cautious, trying to protect his daughter (and himself) while still honoring her request and answering her questions. His daughter carefully watches his mannerisms and describes to the reader what she observes. “He thinks and adds…”, “Clearly he saved this for last, put it off —  uncomfortable with the stories he tells me two…”, “He moves quickly through the short list in front of him, handwritten, folded, unfolded, refolded, folded, refolded, higgledy-piggledy.” There is love, but also a distance maintained, in their interactions. Though they are only the briefest of sketches on the page, no names or physical descriptions are provided, these two characters gradually solidify in our imaginations. We’ve all been to diners. They could be sitting in the next booth.

If you’ve read Gabrielle Wittkop (The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene ) then this subject matter is familiar. A shared fascination with death. But while both writers lay out a veritable smorgasbord of death and decomposition, they are very different in approach and intent. Whereas Wittkop’s work is gothic and visceral, almost cloyingly so, Caillé takes a more practical and moderate approach. She is more respectful. While Wittkop’s narrators are gleeful and gossipy, the embalmer is reticent. He summarizes. The rare details volunteered are unembellished.

Morbid fascination. Macabre. Gallows humor. Black comedy. Horror. We want to look, but only when it’s our choice. When no one we care about is involved. When we have the ability to walk away emotionally unscathed. My sister, who has never lived more than fifteen minutes from my parents, jokes that when they die she will have their bodies stuffed and sit them at her kitchen table. “Dad’s forehead is looking a little dusty, get the Swiffer.” We all laugh until she starts to tear up and leaves the room. This has happened more than once. Our parents, though in their seventies, are in amazingly good health. Our father is retired. He drives a shuttle bus on the campus at the local college because he hates sitting at home. Our mother watches my nieces during the week with more energy and patience than anyone else in the family can muster. My point is, neither is teetering on the brink of the grave. And still, the idea of them not being there is terrifying.

Eventually, the stories told across the table, between father and daughter, become more personal. Caillé writes with emotional vulnerability and a complete lack of cynicism, and yet she still manages to insert a twist which surprises and changes her reader’s experience of the book.

There are dozens of novels written by edgy, young writers. They all seem to be short, with unusual formatting, and truncated chapters. They all seem to be published by small, indie presses. Though no one else has that beautiful, textured, Coach House paper. But The Embalmer stands out. It’s worth your time… and not because of the paper. Anne-Renée Caillé walks you to the edge of a cliff and makes you look down. The ending of her book is abrupt, unexpected, and initially, that bothered me. I thought it was a flaw. But it has lingered with me for weeks now. Regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.

In the Distance With You by Carla Guelfenbein, tr. John Cullen

I know some bloggers/critics don’t want to waste their time reviewing books they don’t like when there are so many good books to talk about. Which makes perfect sense. But for me — and if you follow Reader@Large you already know this — I enjoy talking about books that aren’t exactly masterpieces. I think it comes out of my art school background. When visiting museums the works that excite me the most are the ones where the pencil lines are still visible under the paint. Or, even better, an incomplete study in an old sketchbook where the artist is working out ideas for his or her final piece.

I’m also fascinated by the whole wabi-sabi home thing.

Below is an excerpt from my review of Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance With You, which was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books site (August 31, 2018). The title of the piece, which I didn’t choose but still love, is Messy Human Beings: On “In the Distance With You”. The novel, itself, is a bit of a mess… but a delightfully well-crafted mess. Despite that (or maybe even because?) this is one of my favorites of all the reviews I’ve written over the years.


THERE’S NO DENYING the thrill of a well-constructed book in which plot and characters move across the page in perfect synchronicity. Why, then, is it so often the messier books, riddled with inconsistencies and never reaching logical resolutions, which capture our imagination? Books that, intentionally or not, invite us to stick our fingers into plot holes and probe around, and that cause us to shake our heads in frustration at the incomprehensible choices of their authors. Those are the ones that stay with us, that we pick apart in our book clubs, that provide the endless fodder for heated discussions with other like-minded literary obsessives.

Carla Guelfenbein’s In the Distance with You starts with a promising premise. An 80-year-old writer is discovered unconscious in her home, her half-naked body crumpled at the foot of the stairs. The obvious conclusion is that she tripped and fell. But Daniel, the friend and neighbor who finds her, believes she was pushed. He convinces the local authorities to open an inquiry and, at the same time, begins his own investigation into what happened. As he searches for answers, he compulsively carries on a one-sided conversation with her, at her bedside and in his head.

Your hands were curled into claws, as if they’d been scratching invisible bodies before they surrendered. A pool of blood encircled your head. You also had a long scratch on one arm, a reddish streak that ran from your wrist to your elbow. Your nightgown was bunched up around your hips, and your pubis, smooth and white, showed between your open, elderly legs. I covered you as best I could with your nightgown.

This is our undignified introduction to Vera Sigall, the fictional Chilean writer who spends the majority of Guelfenbein’s novel in a coma. She is modeled on the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (whom Guelfenbein has cited as a literary influence, along with Virginia Woolf), but could just as easily be based on any number of the 20th-century female artists — Georgia O’Keeffe, María Luisa Bombal, Agnes Martin, and Victoria and Silvina Ocampo — whose tumultuous lives and savage talent gained them cult-like followings in their lifetimes. This link, between Vera and her historical counterparts, is the lure. But though it is presented ostensibly as her story, Vera Sigall is merely the juncture at which other stories converge.

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, translated by Bienvu Sene Mongaba

Title: Mr. Fix-It
Author: Richard Ali A Mutu
Translator: Bienvu Sene Mongaba
Publisher: Phoneme Media, Los Angeles (2017)
ISBN: 978 1 944700 07 2

Mr. Fix-It by Richard Ali A Mutu, a Congolese writer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a book I’m really excited about. It was originally written and published in Lingala, a language spoken by roughly 10 million people and almost exclusively in the DRC  and the Republic of Congo*.  The U.S. publisher, Phoneme Media, explained in an email that Mr. Fix-It was “put out by a publishing house based between Kinshasa and Brussels, run by Ali A Mutu’s translators.”  The house, Editions Mabiki, “publish textbooks used throughout the DRC, as well as a small number of fiction titles in both Lingala and French.” 

An excerpt from the novel (at 102 pages it’s really  more of a novella) was originally published in the anthology Africa39 in 2014. For those not familiar with the Africa39 project or its significance, it was “a partnership with Rainbow Book Club, celebrating Port Harcourt: UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 by identifying 39 of the most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora”.  For context: Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is also a contributor to the Africa39 anthology.

The title Mr. Fix-It is a play on the hero’s name, Ebamba, which  means “Mender” in Lingala. A misnomer, as this young man is anything but. His is a story about love, betrayal and loss. Ebamba is a sad-sack protagonist in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, and while much of what happens to him is beyond his control, if there is a bad decision to be made it seems likely he will be the one to make it.

The book opens with a dowry negotiation during which the bride’s mercenary family recites an ever-growing and ever more expensive list of demands. When Ebamba’s uncle (who is negotiating on behalf of his nephew) attempts to interject he is immediately cut off.

“But…”

“But, but… What are you arguing for? Are we going to haggle over this? Is this the market?”

“No, but…”

“What do you mean, ‘no but’? You have a problem with this? We aren’t even finished yet. The girl’s uncles haven’t spoken, or her mom. Her older brothers and sisters have yet to state their demands…”

Eyenga, the fiance, also attempts to protest the mercantile treatment of her potential marriage. But to no avail. Her mother explains that when she was young “they only asked for salt and some kola nut. It was the good old days when we lived according to the traditions of old. Now things have changed. When you have a daughter, you have a readymade treasure…” 

As bad as the situation is for the couple, it’s hard not to laugh at the machinations of their friends, relatives and neighbors. Ali A Mutu balances humor against hard truths about the economic situation for young people like Ebamba and Eyenga, caught in a world transitioning from tradition to Capitalism. Jobs in Kinshasa are hard to come by and so, despite being intelligent and well-educated, Ebamba is unemployed.  There is no hope of his fulfilling Eyenga’s family’s list of goods. He is past due on his rent and avoids homelessness only because his landlady has decided he will make the perfect husband for her daughter, Maguy. Maguy wholeheartedly agrees with her mother and initiates a campaign of seduction Ebamba is too weak to resist for long. It all ends in tragedy, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Ali A Mutu has a gift for writing funny, back-and-forth banter and takes full advantage of that talent. Mr. Fix-It reads like a genre novel, though it’s a genre I’ve never encountered. A rom-tragi-com, perhaps? Whatever it is, it’s entertaining as hell and goes by much too fast.
Mid-way through the most wonderful thing happens. Ebamba and Eyenga go on a date, and while sitting at a bar begin to sing to each other. For nine pages, Ali A Mutu transcribes the lyrics to Cheval by the Congolese Soukus (a type of dance music) singer Koffi olomide.  A little digging turned up this video on YouTube. It’s a duet, and the singers have beautiful voices… I recommend giving it a listen.  

 

 

Cheval is just one example of the many ways which Mr. Fix-It feels like it’s been written for a local audience. In some ways it reminds me of Alain Mabanckou’s work, though less cosmopolitan in scope. Ebamba’s trials and travails call to mind the journey of the hero of Black Bazaarin particular, perhaps because both men write with humor and empathy about their characters’ attempts at navigating relationships. But, despite some similarities of spirit, Richard Ali A Mutu’s prose remains distinctly and uniquely his own. Uncluttered by preoccupations with style and concerned only with serving the story, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Fix-It as a graphic novel.

These are exciting times for readers interested in contemporary African fiction. Writers like Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo), Wilfried N’Sondé (Republic of Congo), Naivo (Madagascar), Ondjaki (Angola), Amir Taj Al-Sir (Sudan) and the aforementioned Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) are all available in English and can be easily found online. All thanks to the work and dedication of small university and independent presses.

 

 

*For context: There currently 570 million Spanish speakers, 300-400 million English speakers, and 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers. The population of North Carolina is estimated at 10,273,419 people.

 

 

 

WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH 2018 – Thank You, Meytal! #WITMonth

Women In Translation Month is upon us!  Meytal Radzinski (Biblibio to those who knew her back in the day 🙂 ) embodies the idea of being a “literary citizen” to her core. She is a force of nature and someone I hugely admire. In 2014 she began a conversation on her blog which  evolved into an international celebration of women writers in translation.  The fact that it has spread as far as it has in the four years since then is entirely due to her hard work and lovely personality. I do not mean to minimize the work of the publishers, translators, booksellers, bloggers and all the other people who make #WITMonth a success year after year – but I think it’s important to acknowledge who this community is built around and why she built it.  So, in her own words:

Approximately 30% of new translations into English are of books by women writers. Given how few books are translated into English to begin with, this means that women are a minority within a minority. The problem then filters down to how books by women writers in translation are reviewed/covered in the media, recognized by award committees, promoted in bookstores, sent out to reviews, and ultimately reach readers themselves.

While imperfect, WITMonth gives many publishers the chance to promote their existing titles written by women in translation, while also giving readers an organized means of finding the books that already exist. WITMonth ultimately serves to help readers find excellent books to read… those books just happen to be by women writing in languages other than English!

For my part – you will find most of my Women In Translation Month recommendations on Instagram and Twitter. Every day of the month of August I will be featuring a book written by a woman and translated into English. You can follow me on IG @taracheesman and on Twitter @booksexyreview

And don’t forget to check out all the #WITMonth hashtags on both Twitter & Instagram.