The Emissary / Yoko Tawada; translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
New York : New Directions, 2018
I picked up this quirky little read when it came in at my library - it was the first I'd heard of it. But now I'm seeing it mentioned everywhere, though usually under the UK title of "The Last Children of Yokyo".
It is a short dystopian tale; after an environmental disaster, Japan has cut itself off from the world. Foreign products are disappearing and are now a nostalgic memory - even day to day food can be a struggle to source. Old people live to be very old, while the children are being born with a weakness that makes them unable to stand, run, eat easily etc. - our main characters Yoshiro and Mumei live together, grandfather caring for weak great-grandson.
Yoshiro is over 100 but still runs daily. The book opens with a light and entertaining explanation of the dogs he rents to run along with him, and how their natures affect his level of exercise. He is one of Japan's "aged elderly" who might just keep living on and on.
Mumei, on the other hand, was born old. He's frail and can barely move - Yoshiro has to ferry him to school on his own bicycle every day. But while he's physically old and weak, he's cheery, good-natured and full of natural wisdom. Their interactions are the heart of this story.
The Japanese government, meanwhile, is trying to find a cure for the children of Japan. They will need to send emissaries to other parts of the world to do so -- will Mumei play a part in this scheme?
There is sadness, humour, lightness, gravity, and mystery in this story. There are many inconclusive elements brought up just to hover over the narrative as well; this feels like a dream sequence in many ways. And the ending of the book also feels like a dream to me - it just ends, not concludes. It felt a little abrupt to me and left the effects of the set-up inconclusive. So while I enjoyed most of the story and found it clever and actually quite lovely, I was a bit let down by the loose ends. I'd have liked to have a better idea as to what was real, what was likely to happen next, and so forth.
Still, this was a great introduction to Yoko Tawada, and now I can't wait to read more of her work.