We first glimpse Hiruko, the protagonist of Yoko Tawada’s novel Scattered All Over the Earth, on a Danish television program about people whose countries no longer exist. She came to Denmark as a student, intending to stay for a year, but shortly before she was meant to go home her country—an unnamed archipelago located vaguely between China and Polynesia—disappeared. She speaks about this clearly and eloquently. Everyone understands what she says. But the language she’s speaking has never been heard before. “Tell me,” the host asks, “what is this language you’re speaking so fluently?”
In Tawada’s curiously placid future world, no one is surprised that Hiruko can communicate in a language of her own making. The host is politely interested, and Knut, a self-styled linguist watching from home, is smitten—even aroused—by her mingling of grammars. She calls her personal language Panska, for Pan-Scandinavian, and she explains that she began to speak it because as an immigrant she was shuttled among Scandinavian countries: “no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language.”
Tawada doesn’t dwell on the ineffability of a language that has never been heard before. Hiruko’s Panska is rendered forthrightly, in lower case, with some dropped pronouns and shuffled syntax. (It appears only in direct dialogue: her narrative voice is a non-Panska standard first person.) The effect is at once childlike and gnomic, persuasive in Margaret Mitsutani’s crisp, consistent translation from the Japanese. And yet the paradox of Panska’s existence floats around it like an aura. It is mysterious and ordinary, miraculous and practical. As Hiruko puts it, “it’s a language that just sort of came into being as I said things that people somehow understood.”
She goes on to give a more political account of Panska’s origins, explaining that immigrants used to end up in one country, needing to learn only one language, but now they are constantly in transit and a hybrid is required. Perhaps Panska is a miracle, heralding the inception of a harmonious postnational world. (And what better place for its birth than the model countries of Scandinavia?) Or perhaps it is a tragic necessity, a tool forced upon Hiruko by the disappearance of her homeland and her status as a passportless migrant.
Tongue-in-cheek commentary on current affairs abounds in Scattered All Over the Earth. Sometimes the novel can seem cartoonishly topical, skewering everything from air travel to computer games to global supply chains to the US (“english speaking migrants sometimes by force to america sent”). But like Panska itself, the state of the world is veiled in strangeness. Tawada’s words are easy to understand—in this novel more than ever—and her dystopia is Day-Glo bright. Yet the novel questions its own ease of consumption and by implication our complacent passage through the world.
Tawada has lived and worked between languages since she moved from Japan to West Germany in 1982, at the age of twenty-two. Her great love was Russian literature, which she studied as an undergraduate in Japan, but a move to the Soviet Union would have been complicated, so she availed herself of an internship in Hamburg, arranged by her bookseller father, and later enrolled at the university there. She was first published by a German press in 1987, and it wasn’t until four years later that she was published in Japan. Since then she has written in both German and Japanese, alternating from book to book and story to story. From the start, language itself has been a central preoccupation of her fiction. In her darkly surreal early books—full of folklore and dreams and humans morphing into animals—she is interested in language at its most elusive or incomprehensible.
The protagonist of her first novel to be translated into English, The Naked Eye (2004), is a young woman not entirely unlike Hiruko, marooned in Europe thanks to circumstances beyond her control. She is Vietnamese, invited to speak at a youth conference in Berlin, then abducted by an East German student before she finally ends up on the streets of Paris. Unlike the lucky creator of Panska, she is “a mute creature devoid of language skills, unwashed and lethargic,” spending her days hiding out in theaters, watching movies she can’t understand. It isn’t just French that presents an insurmountable barrier. The very act of speech requires a terrible effort: “Speaking meant wrenching one’s mouth wide open or pursing the lips to form a narrow passage for air and forcing the breath out violently or rubbing the consonants against the mucous membranes of the throat.”
Another young woman, in Tawada’s short story “Canned Foreign,” feels this same thrumming intensity when confronted with the German language. In this ferociously condensed account of what it’s like to live in an adopted country, from Tawada’s first collection of stories translated into English, Where Europe Begins (1991), the unnamed protagonist objects to the very sensation of speaking German: “The Ö sounds, for example, stabbed too deeply into my ears and the R sounds scratched my throat.” But at the same time, she begins to grow suspicious of how comfortable it is to speak a familiar language:
Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them.
The friction of one language rubbing against another generates possibility and averts cliché.
Tawada is quite explicit about seeking out this sensation of friction. A small number of writers change languages at some point in their career, for one reason or another. Scarcely any, however, make a habit of switching back and forth. The Naked Eye was completed in an especially unusual fashion: part in German and part in Japanese. As Tawada explained in an interview:
Before…I wrote in German or in Japanese. Separate books. But I had the feeling the force of one language must come near the other…. I wrote five sentences in German and translated them into Japanese, and then continued the text in Japanese, five sentences, and then translated those into German, and so on.
This was an effort not to be repeated (“I never did it before and I will never do it again!”), a personal edge case for Tawada in language experimentation.
One of my favorites of her fictional experiments is the brilliantly absurd story “Saint George and the Translator,” from Facing the Bridge (2007), her second collection to appear in English. The protagonist is working on deadline from a borrowed house in the Canary Islands. “I’m translating a story from a foreign language into my own,” she explains with comical succinctness. Yet it doesn’t prove so simple. A friend advises:
The trick is to read one sentence slowly while taking a deep breath, hold your breath while you translate the sentence in your head and rearrange the words, then, while carefully exhaling, write the translation down.
The protagonist finds herself panting and panicking, and the catalog of her desperate measures to complete the work could stand as a through-the-looking-glass translation manual. In the end she is left with unconnected words scattered across the page: “for them, is waiting, the same, lot, they, grow up, into it…”
This story is itself translated, of course—by Mitsutani from the Japanese—and it is a bravura performance. Elsewhere, Mitsutani and Susan Bernofsky, Tawada’s translator from the German, perform impressive feats with her linguistic effects (and her simplest sentences, too—few things are as hard to translate as artful candor or casual vernacular). Some interlanguage play is surely lost; in the Japanese version of Scattered All Over the Earth, for example, “Hiruko” is rendered in Latin script, making the character a kind of Western-Japanese hybrid not unlike a young woman in an earlier story who is described as “start[ing] to have one of those faces like Japanese people in American movies.” But what is lost in one place is compensated for elsewhere. Japanese words as foreign objects (usually in transliterated form) are very much a part of Scattered All Over the Earth.
In the title story of Where Europe Begins, the protagonist embarks on a voyage by ship and the Trans-Siberian Railway from Japan to Germany. Tawada herself made the same trip a few years before she moved permanently to Germany, and the journey from East to West is a staple of her fiction. For the Western reader of “Where Europe Begins,” there is something dizzying about the length of the trip and the reversed cardinal directions (“Where is Peking?—In the West.—And what is in the East, on the other side of the sea?—America”). The continent of Europe itself seems to dissolve into a haze, incongruously replaced in the narrator’s fantasies by its most far-flung and least European outpost: Moscow. Tawada’s interest in Moscow and Russian becomes a fascination with the cold war, which serves as the backdrop for The Naked Eye and, especially, the ambitious Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2011).
It was the latter novel, in Bernofsky’s translation from German in 2016, that introduced many anglophone readers to Tawada. Though its premise is charmingly eccentric—three generations of celebrity polar bears live out their lives in the Soviet Union and Germany, before and after the fall of the Wall—the book is in some ways Tawada’s driest, with a tendency to plod. It’s a story of life under Communist rule and an examination of the writing life: the matriarch of the family writes a best-selling memoir under the oppressive direction of human impresarios, and its translation and reception are much discussed; her daughter Tosca becomes part of a circus act in East Germany, with the focus on the writing and marketing of her performance; and Knut, star attraction of a Berlin zoo, is packaged and sold to journalists and the public.
There are some funny riffs on animals as minority writers and some deliciously weird and lovely reflections on the physical life of bears (“My round, soft upper body is encased in sumptuous white fur. When I press my raised right arm and rib cage slightly forward, hypnotically shimmering particles of light are released into the air”). The effort that the reader must make to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at once—bears are both perfectly comprehensible and utterly alien—is very Tawada. But the novel drags a little, particularly in the middle section, with the bears held captive as static embodiments of various facets of the writing life. I longed for the moments when they’re allowed to roam freely—the writer-bear through the shops of Berlin, and Knut through the zoo, where he talks to the other animals.
From the twentieth-century dystopia that was the Soviet Empire, Tawada has moved on to dystopias of our own times. The Emissary, inaugural winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018 and to my mind her best novel—luminous and humane while as bracingly weird as ever—is a kind of shadow companion to Scattered All Over the Earth (itself billed as the first book in a trilogy). In The Emissary, Japan has become cut off from the world for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but seem to be a combination of nuclear disaster, climate change, and an earthquake. In its isolation, it outlaws the use of foreign words; the knowledge of other countries fades. Yoshiro, once a novelist, is now more than one hundred years old, but in the toxic new climate of Japan, the elderly live on and on, tending to the nation’s frail and failing children. Yoshiro’s great-grandson Mumei is tottering and birdlike, with wispy hair and wobbly teeth. Yet he is marvelously cheerful: his generation is “equipped with natural defenses against despair.”
What plot there is has to do with Mumei’s fate, but it doesn’t kick in until late in the novel. Mostly we get an absorbing litany of the before and after times, and of Yoshiro’s and Mumei’s everyday routines. The reversals that have befallen Japan are various and fascinatingly specific: the earth is contaminated, there are no cars, no wild animals, the banks have failed, sex is almost unheard of, a holiday called “Off-line Day” marks the death of the Internet. Yoshiro is able to reflect on the past with sadness and equanimity, and to focus on what is still good. Slicing an orange for Mumei, he thinks, perhaps ludicrously but still hearteningly, “In the past ten years or so, lots of species have gone extinct, but the earth is still warm, and bright.”
To adapt to his postapocalyptic reality and to care properly for Mumei, Yoshiro has had to transform himself, but he is in control of his remaking, painful though it is. If his old self isn’t suited to his new reality, he muses,
rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to grow a thick coat of fur like a bear’s. He was not really “an old man,” but a man who, after living for a century, had become a new species of human being.
His devotion to Mumei reminds the reader that caretaking is another essential element in Tawada’s novels—a rare source of stability in chaotic times. From the prostitute who shelters the protagonist in her Paris basement squat in The Naked Eye to the human keeper who nurses baby Knut in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, unlikely companions bring comfort.
Such is the premise of Scattered All Over the Earth, in which a band of impromptu comrades roam Europe in search of lost speakers of a language that can only be Japanese. Hiruko and her friends seem to live in the same postapocalyptic world as Yoshiro, but in Europe the damage is remote. No one knows what’s happened to Japan—in fact, hardly anyone remembers that it ever existed. When another character informs Hiruko that sushi is Finnish, she strongly disagrees but can’t say why: “I alone say, no one will believe.” Japan is simultaneously known and not known, existing in some black hole of comprehension.
This airbrushed global reality is reflected in the glossy façade of the novel’s characters and the seamless way they fall into contact with one another. After Knut sees Hiruko speaking Panska on TV, he calls the studio and twenty minutes later he’s invited to meet her there (“one of the nice things about living in a small country is that you’re rarely ignored”). As it happens, Hiruko is leaving the next day for an umami festival in Trier (“some mother tongue person might meet”), and Knut decides to tag along. Once they get to Trier they discover that the festival is canceled, but they collect two more instant friends: Nora, the German festival organizer, and Akash, a trans woman student from India who develops a crush on Knut. They decide then and there to travel together to Oslo to track down Tenzo, the missing sushi-chef headliner of the umami festival. As one character says later on, in what might be the book’s motto: “I can go. Of course I’ll go.”
Like avatars for their countries of origin or those dolls in native costume that travelers used to collect, the characters each represent a national type. The novel is narrated from their alternating perspectives, and each person is constantly remarking on the defining characteristics of the others. Hiruko (in Akash’s view) is like “an anime character, cute yet slightly creepy” (she also reminds Knut of a young Björk); Knut is a handsome blond northerner with impressive cheekbones; Akash wears only red saris; Nora is tall and commanding. Tenzo’s role in the story is based on mistaken conclusions drawn by the other characters about his origins, which he initially does nothing to clear up (“So that’s where he was from—the land of sushi”). Tawada’s gleeful use of stereotype seems at once designed to send it up (sometimes looks are deceiving) and to redeem it (isn’t stereotype just a kind of shorthand, like language itself?).
It’s possible to interpret the novel as a cozy, upbeat response to global crisis. The young characters celebrate their differences while at the same time eliminating all barriers to communication, setting off on adventures together that are designed to heal in some small way the wounds of planetary dysfunction. Tawada suggests as much herself: “In this novel, I wanted to focus on a small group of people making their way through that world, to write about the bond of friendship that holds them together.” Still, it’s hard not to prefer Yoshiro’s deep-rooted, loving steadfastness in The Emissary to the rather machinelike chumminess of Hiruko and her friends.
In a flashback chapter set in Japan—told from the perspective of Susanoo, a migrant like Hiruko, but from a previous generation—Susanoo’s engineer father warns him about robots. “Robots should look like robots,” he says. “Robots you can’t tell from human beings are old-fashioned, and dangerous besides.” They are part of the industrial apparatus that dooms Japan (Susanoo’s father’s robots are trained to give speeches about the joys of local nuclear power plants), but Tawada also gives unsettling hints that Susanoo has robot-like qualities himself. It’s probably a step too far to conjecture that all of Tawada’s characters are part automaton, and anyway it’s not necessary. Humans are just as likely as robots to follow outmoded scripts and let preprogrammed language lead them astray.
Scattered All Over the Earth is a deceptively easy read. On a sentence level, one thought follows another in an apparently naive way, with words occasionally marching into little pools of non sequitur (“But actually I have great respect for coyotes. This is because I am wrapped in layers of cloth like a mummy”) or blank-sounding profundity (“languages can make people happy, and show them what’s beyond death”). The novel’s lightness tells us something about the human ability to assimilate (to disaster or to a new country or language) and move on, while its vacancies alert us to the cognitive dissonance of assimilation and to the more dangerous prospect of collective self-delusion. The curious forgetfulness of Tawada’s characters—their flitting from thought to thought and place to place—is all too familiar.
Once Tenzo’s non-Japanese origins are revealed, Susanoo replaces him as the common object of pursuit. Older and more opaque than his posse of seekers, he is like someone out of an earlier Tawada book, a drifter whose wandering has left him in a darker place. When the friends finally track him to a sushi restaurant in Arles, Hiruko sits down with him at a table and eagerly pelts him with conversation in Japanese. When he fails to respond, she tries specific words that might spark an interest: “Yaritaikoto—I’ll bet that’s a word that takes you back.” Words contain the essence of their missing country, but the linguistic reunion so eagerly anticipated never comes about. Susanoo, it seems, has lost the power of speech—until at the very last he demonstrates a brand-new form of universal communication, one not tied to any particular country or language. The novel concludes with a moment of wordless expression, a step beyond even Panska in miraculous connection. The silence is at once empty and full of meaning, so long as we’re able to hold both possibilities in mind.