cover image The Emissary

The Emissary

Yoko Tawada, trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2762-9

An anxious writer frets over his wastrel of a great-grandson in this inventive dystopian novel from Tawada (Memoirs of a Polar Bear). Its environment “irreversibly contaminated,” near-future Japan has been cut off from the outside world, leaving 108-year-old Yoshiro trapped with his great-grandson Mumei in a spartan “temporary” house. The population is divided between those born before the calamity—whose life spans have been mysteriously lengthened—and those enfeebled by it: “The aged could not die; along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.” Yoshiro dreams of escape, but it is Mumei who, despite his inability to walk or chew properly, is selected as one of several “especially bright children to send abroad as emissaries.” Mumei’s deteriorating condition is signalled by his hair turning grey, and soon he begins having difficulty breathing. These health problems complicate his potential deployment; while he awaits a decision, he turns to the more urgent task of comforting Yoshiro. Tawada’s novel is infused with the anxieties of a “society changing at the speed of pebbles rolling down a steep hill,” yet she imagines a ruined world with humor and grace. (Mar.)