Set in a future Japan that along with the rest of the planet has endured a soil-sickening eco-environmental catastrophe, Yoko Tawada’s “The Emissary” is a cautionary fable that makes a caprice of mortality. In a climate-change savaged time, nothing is as it was, but not in conventional post-apocalyptic terms. Yoshiro is 109-year-old great grandfather charged with taking care of his youthful great grandson Mumei, unlikely to live either long or well in an age in which children are easily infected by unnamed contamination and prone to genetic transmutation – spontaneous gender change is commonplace. Mumei is malformed, as are many others, half-crab, half-boy, his immune system undone as a consequences of the vaguely defined calamity (a nod as well to the very real, 21st-century rise in immune system disorders).
Only the old live on, studiously divided into the “young elderly,” “the middle-aged elderly” and “aged elderly,” their melancholy task to keep the ailing young alive as long as possible. Japan is isolated from the world by choice, pre-Matthew Perry style, its population dependent on fruit from Okinawa. Tokyo is a wasteland. Cars are gone, as are phones, computers. It’s a new Stone Age in which South Africa and India, two non-isolated nations, play prominent roles. America and Britain are bypassed entirely (“The ability to understand even a little English was evidence of old age. As studying English was now prohibited…”)
Yoshiro, among the middle-aged elderly — some make past 200 — is a former novelist trying to make sense of all that’s happened. He tenderly focuses on Mumei, who at first struggles with any sort of sophisticated cognitive awareness (but he will later become “an emissary,” a clandestine Guinea pig secretly traveling to countries seeking a cure for contamination).
The Tokyo-born Tawada moved to Germany in her 20s and has since written acclaimed work in both languages. “The Emissary” is an ambitious but ambiguous novella that posits a world that mocks the fountain of youth. “For an old man like Yoshiro, time after death no longer existed. The aged could not die; along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.”
Given their short lifespans, contaminated children suffer from a form of arrested development, unable to fathom this “terrible take of watching” felt by the old folk around them.
At some levels, Tawada’s upside down life is a metaphor for a planet increasingly unsure what to do with its again population. Deeper still, it’s globalism turned on end and fractured. The result is a semi-Luddite time in which remission from mortality is its own dead end.
Yet there’s a kind of longing for a return to undistracted humanity concealed in the folds of the future’s starkness. “In this age when paper money, stocks, and interest had lost their luster, people who could barter had top priority,” and bartering in this case exalts nostalgia for the enrichment human conversation can provide, and Yoshiro aches for. In all, this a provocative tale that overstays its welcome only when Tawada clumsily fights her way into the confused but visionary soul of ailing Mumei, eventually opening the door to boy-become-girl stream of consciousness that detracts from her eloquent premise.