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 Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, tr. Isabel Fargo Cole

Title: The Sleep of the Righteous

Author:   Wolfgang Hilbig

Translator:   Isabel Fargo Cole

Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang HilbigIn his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…”  Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing.  Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.

Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between  East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.

The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction.  These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator.  Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man.  Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”,  the adolescent boy runs away.  He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany.  This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life.  Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives.  “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”

“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”

Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –

“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.

I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud,  nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”

Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister.  In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather.  The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder.  In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable.  In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover.  The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.

Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades –  instilling the place with a lonely mysticism.  The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate.  These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon.  He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes.  The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.

The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…

What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual  paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.  

In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience.  The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi.  A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.

What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…

Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy.  Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race.  Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy.  All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live.  It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract.  As  Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists.  But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, translated from the original French by Sue Dyson

Gallic Books is a small UK press that publishes French books translated into English. They  were founded in 2007 by two Random House alumni.   Later in September I’ll be reviewing The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. It tells the story of Daniel Mercier, an average man who finds President François Mitterrand’s black felt hat and puts it on.  “It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow… different.”

Intriguing, right?  I can’t wait to find out where the author intends to go from there.

The Suicide Shop is an altogether different book by an altogether different author.  Yet, the two novels are similar enough – whimsical plots that don’t take themselves too seriously – for the personality of the publisher to begin to show itself.  Gallic Books seems to delight in the slightly off-kilter.  They’re a refreshing new (despite being established 6-years ago this is the first I’ve encountered them) voice in the world of translations.  A world too often dominated by dense, cerebral novels at one end of the spectrum and Nordic Crime fiction at the other.

The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure?  Let’s make your death a success.”  In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).

Death has been good to this family.  The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations.  But that changes with the birth of their youngest son.  He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day.  He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings.  Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.

Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted –  the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret.  The author, Jean Teulé,  is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film.   The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation.  Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years.  And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.

My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future.  While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either.   No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society.  And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.

But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read.  Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation.  I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example,  it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 906040 093

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Things We Didn’t See Coming

New authors love short stories… and Steve Amsterdam is no exception.  His debut collection follows the life of a boy who grows to adulthood through the course of 9 episodic stories.  The setting is an uncertain dystopian future.

The stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming are all narrated in the first person (like everything else between two covers these days).  Amsterdam is at his best in the first two and the last.  “What We Know Now” is about a young boy being rushed to his grandparents’ country home in preparation for a Y2K event.  The second story “The Theft That Got Me Here” has the same boy, now a juvenile delinquent, fleeing the city with his grandparents on a Bonnie & Clyde type adventure.  The final, in my mind the best, has our hero detour his end-of-life tour group for a last visit to his father (“Best Medicine”). These three stories are each complete and self-contained.  The characters have clear motivations.  The individual plots proceed to logical conclusions. And Amsterdam leaves just the right amount unsaid, while still providing resolution at the end.  The writing, particularly in “Best Medicine”, is lovely and evocative.

The other six stories are much less successful in my opinion, making promises they fail to delivery on.  Think of each story as a flash.  In the first story the central character is about 12.  In the next flash he is in his mid- to late teens.  Next his 20’s.  By the last story he’s 40 years old.  Between each story/flash are huge gaps in the narrative.  There’s a LOT of missing information… most story lines are left dangling.  And because, as before mentioned,  Amsterdam is a writer who doesn’t spell everything out (something I usually like) the result is that most of the stories in the collection feel incomplete.  It’s frustrating.

As for the writing style, it is strictly no frills – like generic packaging in a supermarket – with rare moments of brightness.  All the stories are written in the kind of clean, straightforward prose that often works in an author’s favor, but (for the most part) doesn’t here.  The overall effect is rmarkedly lackluster.

In my experience an author must choose whether to construct a complicated plot or focus on language.  The greats do both.  Amsterdam does neither.   Even what I believe to be the most original thing about the book, its approach to an apocalyptic future, is recycled in that it has been done better by someone else.  Signs, my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, is about an alien invasion from the perspective of an ordinary family.  Their knowledge of what is occurring is limited and they’re only goal is to survive.   These people are not heroes saving the world,  yet they still battle the aliens (and their own personal demons) within a perfectly constructed microcosm.

Amsterdam’s hero grows up to be, not Mad Max, but a petty thief and eventually… wait for it…a government employee.  The most action packed confrontation in Things We Didn’t See Coming happens when a dying vagrant wanders into the hero’s camp and taunts him – while he sits in a tree to avoid infection.  While this perspective may be unorthodox, it just doesn’t make for much dramatic tension.  To keep a reader’s interest something exciting has to happen eventually.  Even the unexplained apocalypse of the story becomes nothing more than a background against which this character’s uneventful life plays out.

My final verdict?  I can’t completely bring myself to  dismiss the Things We Didn’t See Coming.  Because…and here’s the rub…  what if Amsterdam, Shyamalan, and even T.S. Eliot, have the right of it?  That (unless some zombies show up) the end of the world will be remarkably mundane?  Tedious, even.  Scrounging for food and water, avoiding disease and infection.  Hustling and stealing and lying in order to survive.  It’d be a let down, but rings true.  Ultimately, I’m ambiguous –  unsure if Things We Didn’t See Coming chooses the best way to tell that particular story.  Amsterdam has succeeded in making the end of the world banal.  And while he may someday have the satisfaction of being proven right, it isn’t an adventure  I see most readers  enthusiastically signing on for.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Publisher:  New York, Pantheon Books (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 307 37850 7 

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