The Emissary, one of the strangest and most inventive stories that I’ve read, follows a day in the lives of a Japanese grandfather and grandson after an unnamed environmental catastrophe. In this dystopian world, children are born frail and sickly while the elderly remain healthy and strong. Due to the pollution, most animals and plants have gone extinct, everyone changes sex at least once in their lives, and old holidays have been replaced with new ones like “Being Alive is Enough Day”. Translated from its original Japanese, this short novel pushes the boundary of both language and visions of the future.
Winner of 2018 National Book Award in Translated Literature
Library Journal Best Books of 2018
Yoko Tawada’s new novel is a breathtakingly light-hearted meditation on mortality and fully displays what Rivka Galchen has called her “brilliant, shimmering, magnificent strangeness”
Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”
A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.
About the Author
Yoko Tawada writes in both Japanese and German and has received the Akutagawa, Lessing, Noma, Adelbert von Chamisso and Tanizaki prizes. Last year her novel The Emissary won the National Book Award.
Margaret Mitsutani is a translator of Yoko Tawada and Japan’s 1994 Nobel Prize laureate Kenzaburo Oe.
Near-future Japan has been cut off from the outside world, leaving 108-year-old Yoshiro trapped with his great-grandson Mumei in a spartan "temporary" house. The population is divided between those born before the calamity—whose life spans have been mysteriously lengthened—and those enfeebled by it: "The aged could not die; along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die." Tawada’s novel is infused with the anxieties of a 'society changing at the speed of pebbles rolling down a steep hill,' yet she imagines a ruined world with humor and grace. — Publishers Weekly
Tawada, who writes in both Japanese and German, uses a light tone that frequently leans into gentle abstraction and wry humor, producing a slim novel that charms as much as it provokes reflection. — Kiri Falls - The Japan News
Recessive, lunar beauty [with] a high sheen. Her language has never been so arresting—flickering brilliance. — Parul Sehgal - The New York Times
Persistent mystery is what is so enchanting about Tawada’s writing. Her penetrating irony and deadpan surrealism fray our notions of home and combine to deliver another offbeat tale. An absorbing work from a fascinating mind. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Emissary carries us beyond the limits of what is it is to be human, in order to remind us of what we must hold dearest in our conflicted world, our humanity.
A mini-epic of eco-terror, family drama and speculative fiction. Tawada’s interest is satirical as much as tragic, with public holidays chosen by popular vote (Labour Day becomes Being Alive Is Enough Day) and a privatized police force whose activities now centre on its brass band. It’s this askew way of looking at things amid the ostensibly grim premise, and a sprightly use of language that makes The Emissary a book unlike any other. — Guardian
"Like sashimono woodwork, Tawada needs no exposition to nail down her dystopia. The Emissary achieves a technically impossible balance of open-hearted fable and cold-blooded satire."
— Financial Times
An airily beautiful dystopian novella about mortality. Tawada’s quirky style and ability to jump from realism to abstraction manages to both chastise humanity for the path we are taking towards destruction and look hopefully toward an unknown future. — Enobong Essien - Booklist
A phantasmagoric representation of humanity’s fraught relationship with technology and the natural world. — Brian Haman - Asian Review of Books
Charming, light, and unapologetically strange...There’s an impish delight in [each] sentence that energizes what is otherwise a despairing note. Tawada finds a way to make a story of old men trapped in unending life and children fated to die before their time joyful, comic, and—frankly—a huge comfort. — J.W. McCormack - BOMB
A Hieronymus Bosch–like painting in novel form. Tawada's charming surrealism imparts an off-kilter quality to her work that would make it feel slight, if it weren’t for the density, precision, and uniqueness of her mind. A slim and beguiling novel in Margaret Mitsutani’s enchanting and flawless translation. — Marie Mutsuki Mockett - Public Books
"Everywhere in the Japan of Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, strange mutations unfold. In the years (perhaps decades, or perhaps generations) since an environmental catastrophe, the basic tenets of biology have broken down. Children are born weak, with birdlike bones and soft teeth. The elderly, in turn, are youthful, athletic, seem to have been ‘robbed of death’. Men begin to experience menopausal symptoms as they age. Everyone’s sex changes inexplicably and at random at least once in their lives...Tawada has gifted us a quiet new magical realism for the Anthropocene."