Yoshiro is over 100 years old and will live potentially forever, he looks after his great grandson Mumei who is unlikely to even reach adulthood. This is the dystopic future in Yoko Tawada’s beautifully devastating novel. Japan has isolated itself from the rest of the world due to climate change, for some unknown reason, the elderly are now immortal and the young are dying and have no energy or physical ability.
This is my first Japanese book and I really enjoyed reading it, it’s a dystopia that is totally different to any other one that I have read, where other dystopia’s are all about action and political machinations, this one is about the characters and how they have adapated to this new world, and how they live, and more importantly, what they live for.
The darkness and the dystopic reality in which people live in future-Japan is carefully revealed through normal interactions: the doctors, the dentists, and a particularly harrowing depiction of getting to an airport and how the airport would be now that travel isn’t possible, the deterioration and decay.
In this book, language has changed- with the removal of foreign words along with anything else that the (privatised) government want to, this changing of language, removing terms without replacements so that whole conversations are lost forever is a very ‘1984’ idea in a very different and somehow more shocking way by its seemingly natural (but far from it) adaptation.
What feels so prescient and therefore horrifying about this book is that the future is bleak and only going to get bleaker, the best days for the country and humanity are past. Those old enough to remember the past, pre-isolationism feel sadness at the thought that the young will never enjoy what they have enjoyed, will never get to go where they have gone: the Western thought that the next generation will have it better than the generation before, cruelly reversed.
Whilst it is a dark novel, there are moments of great (obviously dark) humour. Public holidays have the names of their days change, showcasing the change in priorities: ‘being alive is enough day’ and ‘Apologize to the children day’.
As for the ending, I’m not sure about it. The ending felt…rushed, I found it interesting but it felt a bit like she needed another 50 or so pages to really do what she needed to do and say but just skipped to the end instead which is a shame but it hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, I wanted more and that’s always a good thing, better to want more than want less.
The story of fractured relationships, of families gone both wrong and right, of multiple perspectives and points of view, of an entire fully realised world in 138 pages is an exceptional achievement and a great gateway into the wonders of Japanese literature. I haven’t mentioned the translation by Margaret Mitsutani up to now because it’s so good, it feels natural, it’s exactly as it should be and makes the book that much better, elevating it.
A thoroughly good book which will stay with you long after you finish it.