cover image Scattered All Over the Earth

Scattered All Over the Earth

Yoko Tawada, trans. from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani. New Directions, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2928-9

Vernacular noir, etymological postapocalypse, a romance in syntax—it’s hard to nail down which genre National Book Award winner Tawada’s brilliant and beguiling latest belongs to, except to say it’s deeply rooted in the power of language. At the center is Huriko, a refugee from a Japan that has vanished both from maps and cultural memory, who works as a children’s illustrator in Denmark, where she befriends the diffident Knut, a computer game programmer with a connoisseur’s interest in language and who is fascinated by Huriko’s homegrown dialect, which she calls “Panska.” Soon a group of amateur linguists forms, including Akash, a trans Indian woman, and Nanook, a Greenland Inuit sushi chef masquerading as an authority on Asian cooking. After they visit an umami festival in Trier, they continue to a culinary competition in Oslo, only to be derailed by a racist terror attack and an investigation into the killing of whales for their meat. Eventually, Huriko considers leaving the group for Arles, to meet the precocious son of a robot programmer in love with language and ships of all sizes, who may hold the secrets to Huriko’s past and country of origin. At every turn, at least two narratives coexist: the central story line and another hidden just under the surface, emerging through inflections of speech and the vagaries of translation, making the text as thrillingly complex as its characters. This pulls readers deep into the author’s polyphonic convergence of cultures. Once again, Tawada doesn’t cease to amaze. (Mar.)