I picked up Yuko Tawada’s The Emissary mostly because of the size. At 138 pages, it seemed to me like a quick read, something I could breeze through on a lazy weekend. Although I read the book in a few hours, what I read stayed with me much longer.
"Being able to see the end of anything gave him a tremendous sense of relief. As a child he had assumed the goal of medicine was to keep bodies alive forever; he had never considered the pain of not being able to die."
The Emissary is set in a dystopian Japan in what Tawada hints might have been a nuclear apocalypse or a chemical event of some kind (some hints: breast milk has poison, infants are born infirm, no fresh vegetables or fruits to consume, etc). Japan has broken ties with all other nations of the world, and free movement even inside Japan is heavily restricted and regulated. Older people don’t die, living in great health for well over a 100 years while the younger population is born feeble and weak. The old are taking care of the young, helping them grow up in less-than-ideal conditions. We are introduced to Yoshiro, a 100+ elderly man who is tending to his great-grandson, Mumei.
The immersive world that Tawada carefully builds as the story unfolds is a joy to read. The meticulous construction of what the “new world” looks like, how the aged behave, what the young desire, the notion of government, privatization, consumerism, female foeticide, etc., are all crisscrossing the main narrative. The sheer breadth of the topics covered was interesting to read, but also felt like a little too much for a single book at times. Some of the details also point to the world we’re in today — isolationist, uber-nationalistic fervor in countries and a general recoil from globalization for instance.
I especially loved the wordplay in this book. It was probably a highlight for me, personally. Margaret Mitsutani has done a fabulous job of translating the original Japanese work into English without losing the wordplay. Translation is hard enough without having to recreate the word-magic -- her work here deserves kudos. A great example was how Mitsutani captured the nuance of the word "fallout" here --
“Fall out,” Yoshiro mumbled before the dentist had a chance to speak. Still flustered, hoping the dentist didn’t think he’d said fallout, he quickly corrected himself. “They fell out of his mouth”
Language plays a pivotal role in the world Tawada builds. The euphemistic words in Tawada’s Japan reminded me of Orwellian “doublespeak” (orphans are called independent children). A lot of the worldbuilding was also very similar to Gary Shteyngart’s brilliant novel Super Sad True Love Story. Yet, quite unlike that book, The Emissary has an ending that is somewhat open to interpretation. The “emissary” angle in the book is a brilliant mystery I thoroughly enjoyed cracking --with copious help from the Internet of course.
The plot was perhaps the weakest link for me. The tender relationship of Yoshiro and Mumei is captured well but it is not as taut as say Ghachar Ghochar (Vivek Shanbhag)
Even so, among the numerous translated Japanese works I read in 2021, I liked this the most. Others I read were Breasts and Eggs (Meiko Kawakami), The Traveling Cat Chronicles (Hiro Arikawa) and Before the Coffee Gets Cold (Toshikazu Kawaguchi)
Some of my favorite lines from this book --
In his youth, Yoshiro had prided himself on always having an answer ready when someone asked who his favorite composer or designer was, or what kind of wine he preferred. Confident in his good taste, he had poured time and money into surrounding himself with things that would show it off. Now he no longer felt any need to use taste as the bricks and mortar for a structure called “individuality.”
The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body? Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bothers to straighten?
This year, I have come to realize that it takes a lot of restraint and discipline for a writer to build a taut narrative in a short book – about 100 pages long. Some of the longer books I read, I often felt like the writer was almost self-indulgent, getting characters to make long speeches about what that author's personal beliefs are – looking at you, Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)*
*Although I will remain a firm Chimamanda fan, my love for her undying and unwavering.