I spent last weekend puzzling through this month’s selection for our book club, The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada. It was a second reading.
I understand that Donald Trump also spent a puzzling weekend. In his case, he was actually trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together. On Sunday night, he walked into Melania’s White House bedroom and proudly said, “I just finished a very difficult jigsaw puzzle!”
“How long deed it take you?” Melania asked.
“Well, on the box it says ‘3 to 5 years,’ but I finished it in two days!”
I thought of Donald Trump and his administration often as I completed my re-reading of The Emissary. The setting for the novel is a dystopian Japan that has been devastated by an unspecified type of environmental holocaust. Children’s teeth are falling out and they are dying from horrible diseases; plant mutations are rapidly taking place, but the word “mutation” has been replaced by “environmental adaptation”; wild animals haven’t been seen for many years; Tokyo is no longer a vital city; and the country has embarked on an isolationist policy that keeps foreigners out and citizens trapped within the country.
There was more that made me think of the Trump administration. The privatization of government services in the novel has certainly become a trend under our current administration. One of the novel’s main characters, Marika, sees her world “as a series of interlocking conspiracies,” which might make her a candidate in Trump’s administration for a cabinet post.
Speaking of cabinet posts, our former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt—after beginning the largest rollback of environmental laws in the history of the EPA—resigned under a dusty cloud of malfeasance only to be replaced this year by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal mining industry in America. The former head of the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke—after trimming the size of several national monuments to make room for more uranium mining in Utah—also resigned under a dusty cloud of ethics violations only to be replaced by David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for Big Oil and Big Agriculture. If this recent history of American government were fiction, an editor might ask the author to change these stories, and many more, because they were too unbelievable, too puzzling.
Tawada actually begins her novel in a fairly traditional way. A young boy, bird-like in his appearance and demeanor, happily greets Yoshiro, who is just returning from a morning walk with a dog. We soon discover that Yoshiro is a great-grandfather to the young boy, Mumei. They begin a morning routine familiar to many families, world-wide: getting ready for school.
While waiting for Mumei to dress, Yoshiro daydreams about some of their shared household items and then considers the size of modern dandelions with petals “at least four inches long.” That description gave me pause, and I then found out that some Japanese plants were growing larger and larger “to survive in the new environment” while some were growing smaller and smaller, for the same reason. The novel’s first minor crescendo follows in this sentence: “Mumei had never once played in a real field.” And then another minor crescendo:
In a few years’ time, perhaps, they would no longer be able to leave the house, and would have to be satisfied with a life surrounded by outdoor scenes painted on walls.
We are truly in an alien world, but sadly for us, it is not an unimaginable world for any of us who are familiar with this administration’s denial of “climate change” or climate statistics—such as the fact that the last five years, from 2014 until 2018, have been the warmest years in recorded history.
The Emissary becomes many things at once. It is a tender story of a great-grandfather raising his great-grandson alone. It is a story of the breakdown of Japanese culture. It is a story of the breakdown of nuclear families. It is a story about Nature and how Nature is making changes in our environment and in our daily lives to help ensure that we survive in a burgeoning hostile world. It is a dystopian story, a surreal story, with imaginative leaps and inventions. It is a puzzle we must put together.
As readers, we search for meaning. Sometimes the meaning doesn’t come together in a straightforward pattern. We are asked to take different pieces of a story and to mentally combine them into an interlocking picture. Most of us know that an emissary—in its most common meaning—is an envoy, an ambassador. What does Yoko Tawada want us to know when she titles her novel The Emissary?
Our first glimpse of the word “emissary” comes after Yoshiro and Mumei have been visited for a dinner by Yoshiro’s wife and Mumei’s great-grandmother, Marika, who lives a great distance away from them at an orphanage she runs for about fifty Japanese children. However, the government’s “Newspeak” (to borrow a word from another Orwellian novel) for “orphan” is now “independent children.”
After a very brief but happy dinner together for the three of them, Marika leaves Yoshiro and Mumei’s company hurriedly to return to the orphanage where she has to complete much unfinished business, including this task:
Marika had recently been given an important post on the screening committee of a top secret private sector project she’d been involved with for some time now, selecting especially bright children to send abroad as emissaries.
We do not know where these emissaries are sent, what they do, or what their purpose is for. All we know is that the selection process is so complex that “No child seemed likely to pass the screening test, except for one perfect candidate.” Who was Marika’s perfect candidate? Her grandson, Mumei, whom she would secretly promote as one of her institute’s own orphans. Her worry was that “no one could say how long he had to live….”
We don’t hear the term “emissary” again until the novel’s end. Mumei’s teacher, Mr. Yonatani, is reflecting on which of his elementary students might be “the one most suitable to be an emissary.” Yonatani is fairly convinced that Mumei will be the emissary he will nominate. Yonatani considers this task to be “his mission.” But he is also aware that he will have to “watch him [Mumei] mature over the next several years before making a final decision.” Again, nothing is added about what this emissary will be doing, or where.
After Mumei faints, or experiences a seizure, we don’t know which at the time, Tawada compresses time so that in the novel’s next scene, Mumei is now fifteen and confined to a wheelchair. Mr. Yonatani appears at Yoshio and Mumei’s home and asks Mumei to join him for a lunch where he shares stories about his own youth with Mumei, which leads to this:
It was during this conversation that Mumei first heard the word emissary. In hushed tones, Yonatani explained that even thought it couldn’t be made public, the plan to send emissaries abroad was not so forbidden as to be considered a crime, so he shouldn’t let it scare him…however, government policy could change overnight. A person might be sentenced to life in prison next week for doing something no one would even notice today. That was why members of the ‘Emissary Association’ Yonatani belonged to were determined to find a suitable candidate and send him or her abroad now, before government changed its mind.
In this conversation, we find out that the Emissary Association was studying “Japanese children’s health, yielding information that would prove useful if similar phenomena began to appear in other countries.” Mumei also finds out from Yonatani that the Emissary Association is comprised of private citizens who are “unknown to the general public.” They have secret meetings at eighty-eight different sites in Japan so that it is difficult to trace who they are.
Yonatani is certain “that of all pupils he’d taught none was more suitable to be an emissary than Mumei.” Mumei asks his former teacher if there was “a way to tell members by sight?”
No, not really, Yonatani told him. Yet there was a ritual members performed by themselves to reaffirm their sense of membership. They all got up before dawn to light a candle which they took with them when they entered the darkness before beginning their day’s work. The candle had to be exactly two inches in diameter and four inches tall.
At last, Mumei, and the reader, know more about this secret organization dedicated to improving world health for children.
This reader remembered a puzzle piece that he had looked at and mentally discarded at the beginning of the novel’s game. It was when Yoshiro pealed back the wrapper on a loaf of rye bread, purchased at a local bakery, and he began to think about the baker, who is described as “young elderly” since he was only in his seventies compared to Yoshiro who, in his nineties, was considered “middle-aged elderly,” which is of course more government “doublespeak.”
But then we discover that the baker arises each morning at 4:00 and begins his day by “striking a match four inches long” and then “he lit a candle, two inches in diameter and four inches tall, which he put in a candle holder to light the way as he stepped into the pitch-pitch black kitchen.”
The baker is a member of the secret society.
Another discarded puzzle piece came to mind. When great-grandmother Marika was preparing to visit Yoshiro and Mumei, she also performed a morning ritual:
Every morning, summer or winter, before the sun hooked its fingernails on the horizon and began hoisting itself up, Marika was up, had placed a candle two inches in diameter and four inches tall on the table, and lit it with a match.
Marika is a member of the secret society.
Will Mumei become an emissary? If so, Yonatani tells him, he will be leaving Japan soon. Mumei responds, “I understand. I’ll go right away.”
But he doesn’t become an emissary. Tawada introduces more puzzle pieces, too fast and complex for this reader to assemble into the almost-completed puzzle. The human race is becoming feminized. Nature is changing people’s sexes. Boys are turning into girls, girls into boys. The government is becoming privatized. Countries are no longer exporting goods, only languages. Eyes turn into blotches, then lungs, then beans, then human faces.
What at one time looked like a solvable novel puzzle turns into a surreal, Picasso-like image, and we, like Mumei, end up falling into “pitch-black depths.” For Mumei, that means an early death. For us, the readers, it is the known-unknown.