The Emissary by Yoko Tawada translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani

I don’t really understand this book.

But I enjoyed it; it touched me; it’s my new favorite book.

The story concerns Yoshiro and his great-grandson. They live near Tokyo in the not-too-distant future. Things have gone wrong. Not one big thing, but many small things over a period of generations. Honestly, I can’t tell you what happened to society, but things are a mess.

Japan declared itself closed to all foreign contact, to such a strict degree that even words with foreign origins are no longer used. Technology has been abandoned as harmful to children, most foods are no longer available or considered unsafe, few people still have jobs, commerce is all be extinct as is nearly every animal species.

Worst of all, while Yoshiro’s generation appears to have gained immortality, they no longer age at all, the generations after his became progressively weaker and sicker. Yoshiro has watched both his children and his grandchildren die leaving him the only one left to care for his grandson, Mumei, who is facing an uncertain, brief future.

The Emissary kept reminding me of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police which has basically the same setting and a very similar premise. In both books, the main character spends a lot of time thinking about things that have been lost or that will soon be lost to society. What is it like to be the last person (people) to remember something? Both books could be read as metaphors for this experience, for this aspect of aging. Live long enough and you’ll be alone in your nostalgia.

What’s different in The Emissary is that the elderly, who basically stay young, have become the only people who remember what it was like to be young. Though his grandson Mumei and his generation have accepted their fate, they’ve known no other, they are basically old, unable to function without someone to take care of them. Or maybe they have stayed infants, physically. They are quite wise emotionally.

I found this odd role reversal very moving though its portrayal was subtle. There’s no moment of great emotion in The Emissary, no point of extreme hardship. The novel presents their daily activities, I wouldn’t call them struggles, and their conversations. Mumei tries to understand his grandfather’s stories and the advice he gives, but the gap between their experiences is usually too great. All that’s left between them is the love they share.

I’m starting to gush, so I should stop.

Looking over the front pages my library copy I see that Yoko Tawada also wrote The Memoirs of a Polar Bear which is currently on my To-Be-Reread-in-Retirement shelf. I honestly can’t remember what it’s about at all, but only the best books make it to that particular shelf. The rest I give away to neighborhood Little Free Libraries. I’ll have to reread it soon and keep an eye out for more by Yoko Tawada. This is the second time he’s been My New Favorite Book.