Friday, January 27, 2023

Scattered All Over the Earth

Scattered All Over the Earth / Yoko Tawada
trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
NY: New Directions, 2022, c2018.
256 p.

This one sounded really fascinating, as it grapples with language itself, and what happens when there is nobody left to speak your mother tongue with. 

It's set in an undeterminate near future, in which Japan has disappeared from the earth. Hiruko is a climate refugee who is now a storyteller in Denmark, where she's come up with her own language, PanSka (pan-scandinavian). This language shapes the way the story is told, as she meets a cast of diverse characters -- from the Danish Knut, a young man who is a bit of a linguistics scholar, to Nora, the curator of a German museum where Hiruko hopes to find another Japanese speaker. This is Tenzo, a chef and Nora's lover -- however, he's really (secretly) Nanook from Greenland, not Japan. And rather late in the story we also encounter Akash, an Indian trans woman who joins their motley crew. 

Their search for someone else from Japan is rather like a lost cause; Hiruko seems to be the only person in Europe who still speaks Japanese (it's a stretch, you have to just buy in to that premise). They have all sorts of experiences, encounters with all sorts of people all over Europe and Scandinavia, and just when you think something is going to conclude, this rather short book comes to an abrupt halt -- oh, that's because this is the first in a projected trilogy. 

I had hoped to like this more than I actually did. The PanSka element was a bit irritating after a while, like reading too much dialect. An example: “homemade language. no country to stay in. three countries I experienced. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language.”

Also, the plotting seemed to be based on just adding more and more to the story: strange encounters and coincidences, characters who are unknowingly linked, and many locales. I did appreciate that the breadth of the characters meant that there was representation of a wide variety of languages and cultures, something the book is investigating as a primary theme. But somehow I just didn't connect to it fully, it felt carnivalesque when I wasn't in the mood for that. So I'm not sure I'll read parts two and three when they eventually appear. This is the second book I've tried by this author, and I didn't find the first one compelling, so perhaps her style and preoccupations just don't mesh well with mine. 

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