Title: The Emissary
Author: Yoko Tawada
Number of Pages: 138
Just when I thought there was nothing original left for writers to do with the dystopian genre, my assumptions were challenged by this odd little book from Japan. The Emissary is filled with a variety of characters, but the only ones who play more than a fleeting role in the story are a little boy and his great-grandfather Yoshiro. The two carve out a meager existence in a world where the elderly remain in good health and live indefinitely while children are weak, disabled, and often disfigured. As far as anyone knows this crisis isn’t going on anywhere else except for in Japan because the country has cut itself off from all the other parts of the world.
Since there is no longer any thriving industry for food shipped from other countries, everybody’s hungry and the kids are in such bad shape they can hardly eat anything without becoming violently ill. Yoshiro loves his great-grandson, Mumei, dearly and Mumei seems surprisingly at peace with his heinous circumstances. Mumei goes to school but for the most part the two live in relative isolation and Yoshiro devotes himself to keeping Mumei alive.
Even though the blurb on the back of The Emissary makes it sounds pretty light-hearted, in reality it’s downbeat and even a little bit creepy. I didn’t feel the two central characters were not as well-developed as they could have been, but the world-building really shines. The reader gets a very strong sense of how bad things have gotten in this novella’s society, and shows how the dehumanizing underbelly of everybody’s lives are softened with systematically placed politically-correct rhetoric. That reminded me of how some Liberals in the U.S. micromanage so nobody can possibly be offended, and focus so much energy on showing off how ‘woke’ they are that it diverts attention from how many people constantly struggle and suffer on a day-to-day basis.
It also shows the disturbing possibilities of immortality and how detrimental it would be despite the beliefs of people who think death is something to be evaded at all costs. In my opinion this book’s only real faults were the confusing timeline and the part where the perspective abruptly jumped to focusing on Mumei and the way he experienced his life. The rest of the book was written totally differently and it was very jarring. Otherwise, this is a unique and intelligent story that portrays a dystopian nightmare where instead of an implosion of apocalyptic violence, life goes on in the midst of increasingly desperate circumstances. Out of the Japanese books I’ve read, this is one of my favorites (if not actually my favorite) so far.
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