Supposing that my left arm were transformed into a chicken, I would consequently go looking for a rooster that could call out the hours of the night. Suppose that my right arm were transformed into a crossbow, I would consequently go looking for an owl to roast. … Those who are unable to win release for themselves are bound by things. — Zhuangzi, circa 300BCE

One could call Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary science-fiction, since it takes place in the future. The earth as we know it has changed dramatically — environmental waste has led to genetic mutations, nations are isolated from each other and in Japan, where the novel takes place, even mentioning other peoples or places in speech can lead to jail. Yet The Emissary’s dystopian future could also be viewed as a reflection or alternate version of the present, in which we already live in isolated, environmentally damaged states. However, perhaps the novel is closest to the fairy tale mode. As with fairy tales and other folklore, half-understood forces bear down upon the characters’ lives. For each detail that is revealed, something remains unspoken, lurking just out of sight. This sense of uncanniness constitutes the human pulse of the novel. As Tawada writes, “Whereas individual factors can be measured specifically, human beings live in the general.”

The protagonist and primary narrator of The Emissary is Yoshiro, the great-grandfather of a young boy, Mumei. He prosaically narrates his daily routines, including reminiscences about his youth as well as laments about his country. The elderly people around him hold jobs, if possible, and, Tithonus-like, seem unable to die. In contrast, most of the young people do not work, and are not encouraged to work. Indeed, they seem to die young (the exact details are never fleshed out). Their bodies are beset by numerous illnesses and mutations: Yoshiro’s granddaughter-in-law transforms posthumously into a birdlike being; his great-grandson has avian features that limit his movement and the foods he can eat; his neighbor’s daughter must constantly wear a suit that covers her entire body; children’s genders change as they mature physically. Foods are contaminated with chemicals and no wildlife seems to survive.

A large portion of Yoshiro’s narration centers on political and environmental instability; he wonders what kind of world he lives in. His thoughts are often framed by feelings of alienation that affect him and other members of his generation. He met his wife, Marika, when they were leftist protesters in a 1960s-type countercultural scene. Following their marriage and the birth of a child, they agreed to live apart (by the book’s present they are nearing a century in separate homes). Marika frames her life as an extension of a domestic scene that doubles as an allegory for the larger sociopolitical sphere.

Until then, she had never seriously thought about the history of that house. Generations of people whose names she didn’t know, whom she’d never cared about, had been born and died there. The sweat of women forced to work like slaves drenched the walls; the pillars were splattered with semen of masters of this house who had forced themselves on the young servants. She smelled the cold sweat of a young son who had strangled his bedridden father to get his inheritance. The walls and ceiling that had witnessed these atrocities glared down on her. … The umbilical cord binding the generations of a respectable old family is also a rope around the neck.

Yoko Tawada (photo by Nina Subin)

Mumei is, like most of his peers, oblivious of his great-grandparents’ legacies and the changes that have taken place in his surrounding world. He is largely ignorant of the most rudimentary geographical and scientific knowledge, and is unaware that his physical deficiencies are actually physical deficiencies. He believes his physiological experience, and those of his peers, to be the norm, while the people of Yoshiro’s generation are physical anomalies.

The perception of physical and mental deficiencies as healthy and potentially attractive by Mumei’s generation is a radical means of addressing changing attitudes that accompany changing biological and ecological conditions. Tawada dramatizes the theme through the teenage Mumei’s interest in the girl next door.

He’d seen the girl with this woman who looked after her out front on their way to school. But as the child was always dressed in what looked like a white spacesuit, he had never seen her face. Yoshiro assumed the suit was solar-energy propelled muscle wear, though when Mumei sighed, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” he had to admit that, yes, there was definitely something about the suit that made the word beautiful seem just right. Maybe this was the beauty of the future. Yoshiro remembered how girls used to choose clothes that would emphasize the curve of their waists or the size of their breasts, leaving the thighs or the backs exposed whenever possible. As he watched this little girl float down the sidewalk like a cloud the word that came to mind was not sexy but elegant.

It’s difficult to call this optimism, but it registers a change in Yoshiro’s tone from resignation to appreciation as he quietly celebrates a new kind of being in the world and new parameters for judgment. Yoshiro’s ability to accommodate his present by letting go of his past is among The Emissary’s most notable features. It allows a new concept of beauty to emerge — elegantly — despite the novel’s bleak future.

At a recent reading in New York, Yoko Tawada was asked about how the past influences her work. She replied that the past, per se, does not influence her, but, rather, she is interested in characters and the “hidden futures” in each of them. One can also think about a “hidden future” as a latent present — in other words, a present made possible by one’s choices or a present that lies in wait for us, even as we resist it. Despite the serious environmental and political challenges presented in The Emissary, Tawada suggests that another path exists. The questions for the reader are whether or not we find beauty in our present, and what that means.

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (April 24, 2018) is published by New Directions and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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Matt Turner

Matt Turner's writings can be found in Seedings, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, and Bookforum. He has translated or co-translated Lu Xun, Chan Chi Tak, Yan Jun and Hu Jiujiu, and is prose editor...