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.

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.

 

 

 

Welcome to Women In Translation Month 2016 – #WITMonth

WomenInTranslation Logo 2016Women In Translation Month is here again.  This event, in its third year, was started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski.  The idea came out of a number of posts she wrote in which she used The Three Percent website’s yearly translation database to determine the percentage of books in translation written by women which are published each year.  The 2014 and 2015 results were depressing and this year seems to be a continuation of previous years’ trends.

In case you’ve forgotten: the goals for Women In Translation Month are simple –

  1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation
  2. Read more books by women in translation
  3. And if you’re a blogger or reviewer (or both) – BE AWARE!  Make sure you’re reviewing women in translation.  If publishers aren’t sending you the books, then start requesting them. It’s our job to let the readers know what they’re missing.

Want to be a part of the discussion?  –

I’ll be reading and posting about Women In Translation all of August. And while I probably won’t get to them all, here’s a peek at my TBR list –

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Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

HollowHeart

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.