Book Review: The Last Children of Tokyo (Yoko Tawada)

Much of Yoko Tawada’s short fictional offering reads, unfortunately, as if it were an essay or a thesis on researched findings: the author persists in her attempts at creating a strange world to slightly unsettle but the work doesn’t ever fully rise to the level of fictive fantasy. The problems arise early on with hints that what will follow may not altogether shine with any great authenticity (in the author’s connection of word choices to characters, in a fair forcing of her desire to stamp small strangeness into the pages) and they fail to resolve themselves throughout. It is almost as if Tawada has had an idea but that she forgot to tell a story.

The Last Children of Tokyo (Portobello Books, 2018; originally published as Kentoshi by Kodansha; translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) transports us to a Japan of what can be assumed to be a near-future where the environment has been contaminated, many children are sickly, and the elderly live well past a hundred years of age. The country has adopted a self-imposed isolation from the outside world. The names of foreign cities are banned, as are foreign words. The plot, as thin and as sporadic in its appearance as it is, drifts on the premise that some research could be undertaken in conjunction with others in the world outside Japan and this might bear fruit in alleviating the sickliness of the children. The plot, however, appears to be somewhat of an afterthought in its execution.

Mumei is the great-grandson of Yoshiro. The former is, for the most part of the book, a boy of indeterminate age, such is the author’s inability or unwillingness to pinpoint this facet in her descriptions and dialogue. Yoshiro, we’re told, is over a hundred years old, and later we can deduce that for the larger part of the text he is around one hundred and eight. He is a writer but, in similar fashion to not being fully able to describe Mumei as child, Tawada does not seem to be able to fully imbue Yoshiro’s character with the essence of writer. Yoshiro takes care of the boy who, enfeebled by an unspecified disability, finds even the simplest of daily tasks exhausting. Tawada makes some diversions into fleshing out other members of the absent family (Yoshiro’s estranged wife, Marika; his daughter, Amana; his grandson, Tomo) but the overall affect is merely one of reading more about a world that she wishes to create, rather than a premise to build on or a plot to resolve.

Tawada plays with language, and it appears to be a drive for her to do so; however, the application of such drive is, at best, almost poetic in rare places, and at worst it is clumsy. There is an attempt, for example, to conflate ‘octopi’ and ‘optical’, but the outcome is awkward. Where Tawada does bring a rare gem to the offering is in a simile like ‘[as] yellow as melted dandelions’ in the very first paragraph (notwithstanding the translated omission of the first ‘as’, which is a constant reading bane). Language is a central concern in Tawada’s writing: she highlights English words and literal translations of Chinese characters, thinking how old words might transform into new phrases. It is, therefore, all the more disconcerting that (given the isolationist approach of the Japanese government of her fiction), the translator has produced an American English vernacular, especially in the internalised thoughts of Mumei, later on in the work.

There is a basic jarring in operation between the content and the presentation. A perennial issue with translated works is the concern of authorial lapse or translator’s paucity of skill with regard to word and phrase choices. Vulgar representation of one culture as another (Japanese into American, for example, with the use of ‘real’ instead of ‘really’, or ‘sure feels good’) can be placed in the hands of the translator; oddities such as ‘[Mumei] moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on gravel’ are entirely the fault of the author. This disconnect between child-character and the author’s inability to satisfactorily represent what that means prevails, mostly, throughout. Tawada has Mumei throw his hands in the air on more than one occasion, in pleasure (which is the language of child) but shouting ‘Paradise!’ (which isn’t the language of child at all).

The standard of editing must also come under scrutiny for this publication too. The keen eye, keen to read each and every word because the author has made it clear from an early stage that she wishes the reader to consider the affect of words, finds that there are several mistakes even in the first ten pages. The occasional spelling error, or a missing or repeated word, might not be so evident to many whose reading processes naturally account for and fix such oversights; however, other readers might rightly wonder how any errors at all manage to get through the various stages of the professional publishing process.

Tawada’s writing floats along in this offering without gaining enough traction to solidify into anything really tangible. She discusses the effects of the Japanese isolation policy, immigration, growing and selling fruit, but it all feels like a treatise, a world-building exercise, with no great heart. There are late forays into ‘plot’ with the telling of the Emissary Association, who wish to send Mumei abroad, but there is no heart in this either. The bulk of Tawada’s writing is under the auspices of the writerly sin that is ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and she continues in similar vein with a degree of ‘head hopping’. A brief passage describing how a teacher observes Mumei at play, rough and tumbling, or children’s ability to groupthink without prior discussion, as accurately observed as they are, fail to lift the whole, despite their brief moments of intrigue.

The Last Children of Tokyo is, ultimately, disappointingly devoid of story, though it occasionally swells with its ideas. The writing floats, without any real base, and then it floats away without any true rise of an arc or resolution. One character speaks of ‘dead lines’, and an author might be amused with the thinking: it is apposite, in conclusion. There is creation but not enough craft.

Book Review: Territory of Light (Yuko Tsushima)

The meaning of light is far from clear in Yuko Tsushima’s slim though year-long telling of the unfolding of a young mother. The narrowness of a book’s spine can sometimes belie its depths (this offering certainly aims towards the literary entanglements of being and becoming), but every author ought also to bear in mind the potential of a reader’s state of mind: that is to say, a few faults of character written into a narrative may be excused but a continuance risks alienating the reader for the duration. Tsushima’s unnamed lead character is, for the most part, selfish and unsympathetic. Her situation is made difficult by being suddenly left by her husband of just a few years; she is obliged to rent somewhere to live and chooses a fourth floor flat in a narrow office block for her and her almost three year old daughter; her husband is without regret or concern. One might well expect to encounter such a character who, under these circumstances, may struggle to adapt; however, save for a few fleeting moments of kindness displayed, the young mother is, to an alienated reader, regarded without any great sympathy.

Originally published in 1978/9, in twelve monthly instalments in Gunzō, the Japanese literary magazine, Tsushima’s Territory of Light (Penguin Classics, 2017; translated from the original Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt) is a read whose possible weight is clouded by its disagreeable characters. Both lead character and her daughter are unnamed, though the child’s father is referred to as Fujino throughout. Names add dimensions. That the author can engender an emotion in a reader is commendable; however, that emotion being a steadily developing vexation is perhaps lamentable. The young mother is initially meek, but then also self-centred, unable to fully appreciate her daughter, frustrated at her husband but also, in parts, wanting to be back together with him, and then at other times drunkard, slovenly and irresponsible. She wants to just stand and look at the trees in the park, to her daughter’s irritation, and when the latter runs off, the former is in no great pains to go running after her. The child is not yet three years old. The author has the mother wandering, sitting in the park, ruminating on matters not appropriate when faced with a missing young daughter. She finds her, by chance, and nothing sits easily in the reading in this whole episode.

Early on in the piece, Tsushima explains that the new flat that the young mother has rented is bathed in light. It is a prime reason for taking the rental (though the author does not satisfactorily play with this motif, as one might expect, given the title of the book). The flat is also four storeys up, but the mother leaves all the windows open in the summer and the child drops things out of them when the mother goes off to sleep. She seems none too concerned that the child might fall from the open windows. That is to say, there is a vague notion that this might happen, and then there are unsettling dreams, and a horrible accident elsewhere in the city, but even these are not enough to cause any great depth of reality to spread through this irresponsible character. She goes to a bar when the child is asleep, alone in the flat, and she drinks herself into a stupor with a female stranger. The lead character becomes more and more unlikeable. When she finally shows a little semblance of kindness towards others, it is already too late to bring her back to the realms of sympathy (she and her daughter, for example, encounter a drunk on the street and, carefully and gingerly, awkwardly they rub his back to try to soothe him).

Her husband does not appear a great deal, but when he does he is, by turns, misogynistic, also irresponsible (with regard to his financial obligations), and preferring to devote his attentions more to his vague creative projects than to his family. We can have no sympathy for him either. The young mother proceeds to practically cut her own mother out of her life, and she unsuccessfully tries to illicit more attention from a former student of her husband’s, now twenty three, but he — Sugiyama — wants nothing more of this. There is a slow spiralling of the lead character’s ways of being, downwards, as she tries to retain whatever it is of herself that she needs to retain, to look after her daughter but also to keep the child’s father away from her (though this is no noble aim), and to hold on to her job at the library archives. Tsushima succeeds in a slow unspinning, but she forgets to instil enough compassion into her young mother character. The only person who lifts from the page in any bright way is the child. She is rendered as real in her wonder and in her tantrums, in her urgency and in the affect on her that her parents’ actions have caused.

As with perhaps all translated works, it is difficult to ascertain where criticism should lie with regards to selections of words and syntax: the author or the translator? Spelling choices, however, are more of an editorial consideration when, as with this publication, no clear distinction between British and American English has been made. That is to say, spellings specific to both versions of the language are mixed here throughout. Where constructive criticism might be conferred upon the translator, matters of word choice and syntax are apposite fare. Harcourt has, for the most part, delivered a text that flows but occasionally it jolts and jars: ‘She nodded laughingly’; ‘I was afraid, and would have liked to bolt’. The coarseness of the words here only compound the reader’s agitation at the characters.

Where there is light there must be beauty. This is the case in fleeting moments in Tsushima’s writing (for example, the description of reflected red light in the child’s tears up on the roof terrace, from what at first could be fireworks but are actually from the explosions of a chemical factory; the subtle delicacy of almost love for a stranger who lets the lead character sleep on his shoulder on a train and who then, without a word, alights at his stop; the equally gentle weight of the young mother as a child herself, in dream, as she presses herself to the back of her unseen and long deceased father). These moments of light and beauty, however, are few and far between. In the final reckoning, eventually, and after the unspinning and attempted spinning back together of her main character, Tsushima abruptly has her up-sticks and leave the flat that is the territory of her transitional year from married woman to almost divorcee. The young mother finds a new flat for her and her daughter: one that is almost devoid of light altogether. The story ends without colour, fanfare or fireworks.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

There is a suspicion that all is not as it seems in Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale, which is set just the slightest plausibility removed from our present reality. That is to say, as we are carefully nurtured through the unfolding narrative by the author’s first person and very occasional second person exposition, and as we — like the characters themselves — begin to form our ideas, discarding them here and there, adding new theories, piecing together the greater puzzle, something ‘other’ in the writing may be seen to linger. It is, of course, dependent on our worldview and, in the reading a conspiracy of thinking ensues: what lies beneath this author’s words? On a more accessible level, Ishiguro presents us with a weave of ethical consideration, borne out via the interactions of a group of close friends: firstly charting their insular and protected days at Hailsham (what appears to be a secluded boarding school), then into adolescent student days, in the transition into adulthood, at another site (The Cottages), and finally in what are described as ‘carer’ roles, and beyond.

The difficulty in reviewing Never Let Me Go (Faber and Faber, 2006), for those not yet having read the work, primarily lies in not describing too closely, lest the spoiled construct become worthless. Ishiguro has woven a naivety into the art of telling: his characters, as we first meet them in any great depth, are children not fully aware of what is transpiring around them in their sheltered existences at Hailsham. As we read, Ishiguro drops in enough clues for us to suspect what might be happening, but he doesn’t fully declare this at such an early stage. The child characters, likewise, seem to have an inkling of ‘something’ beyond the bounds of what they have been told and learned to trust, but they are not entirely sure. As with children’s culture everywhere, they form bonds, test out their ideas, invent stories, engage with long-standing mythologies, circulate rumours. We feel drawn into the web, suspicious and looking for a reveal.

Ishiguro duly obliges, to a small degree, some one third way through the book. However, we know and we suspect there must be more to it all. Our narrator is Kathy H., who leads us through the pages as her early thirties adult self, at first reminiscing on, and giving due consideration to, events that took place at Hailsham. Her closest friends are Ruth, a somewhat difficult character who struggles with her relationships with others, who is forthright and often demanding, and Tommy, uncreative, not so sharp on the uptake, quick to anger, but who inspires varying degrees of care from both Kathy and Ruth. It is this creativity, this need to be creative, so strongly encouraged by the staff at Hailsham, that provides a thread from which Ishiguro hangs one of his ethical hooks. Suffice is to say that the author wishes us to consider, in the fullness of time, and by way of this thread, what makes us who we are.

In three distinct sections, we are offered the progression of a close-knit group of friends who, from the earliest times, have been subtly told (or ‘told but not told’, as one character — Miss Lucy — has it) how their lots have been marked out for them. The children accept this, diligently, throughout. They may later come as close as they can get to questioning it, but they still accept it. In the first section, the lives of the children are variously portrayed, jumping around in time: they are thirteen, then there are scenes with them as much younger, then as eight or nine, and finally the early teenage years. In the second section, certain members of the close group (Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and a few others) are moved on from their closeted existence, all they have ever known at Hailsham, to some farm buildings where slightly older students, the ‘veterans’, are already living. It is a transitional arrangement. The main characters know they must, at some point in the not-too-distant future, move on again: they must become ‘carers’. By now we know what this means. We are enmeshed in the still unfolding puzzle.

At Hailsham, Ishiguro introduces the occasional presence of the somewhat sinister Madame. She arrives for unspoken business, something to do with the children’s artworks, and the children’s world is rife with rumour. Madame seems repulsed at the sight and proximity of the children. It is a further drip in the narrative on our quest to unravel all the minutiae of the mystery. The institution is staffed by a variety of mostly thinly sketched adults (Miss Emily, who we might assume to be the head; Miss Geraldine, a favourite; Miss Lucy, and others, both male and female). Miss Lucy is the spanner in the works, as far as Miss Emily and Madame are concerned. The children, now young teenagers, sense an uneasiness in her, and in time she obliges by telling them what she feels they need to hear, what has been eating away at her. Still, some of them don’t fully acknowledge this, such is the level of their indoctrination.

It is this background concern, this low-level back-lighting, that permeates throughout: the children have been ‘told but not told’ the important matters of their existences. The indoctrination feels a little disconcerting, but in a shift (which, relayed here, would not create a disturbance too far, a spoilage), Ishiguro later creates a virtuous perspective regarding Miss Emily and Madame’s ethical slant or stance on the treatment of the children. It is throughout this particular thread of thinking, woven into the whole as it is, that the reader might find their own worldview parallels of particular aspects of the reality of society which he or she calls their own.

Never Let Me Go is written, for the most part, cleanly and carefully. Kathy’s character is gentle, caring, considerate but sometimes conflicted too. Her concerns are often minor, at face value, but Ishiguro digs deeper into the moments she relays: such is the layered delicacy of many of the interactions of her and her friends. There are some minor quibbles with the writing, however, not least of which being Ishiguro’s opening. In context, in the beginning of a mysterious affair, we are rightly struck a little confused by his opening passages, but we must read through these with faith. The author does also have the predilection for the occasional distressing of syntax (for example, ‘I was all the time afraid she’d turn and look at us . . .’) and this does have the potential for temporary dislodgement of the fictive flow. Also, on this note, his several-times-too-often use of the possessive gerund (‘Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.’) becomes a little distracting. Finally, in criticism, although we are treated to reveals throughout (reveals that don’t altogether feel like reveals because, like the characters discovering things for themselves, deep down we kind of knew things all along), the author’s last reveal does feel a little clumsy: like the villain telling all to the hero of a stereotypical film we’ve seen the likes of many times before. It is, however, perhaps inevitable that he would eventually have to tell us, and his main characters, everything, somehow and in some more concrete way.

Minor quibbles aside, Ishiguro’s writing in this offering is at once and for the most part clean, disarming, quietly portentous, delicately prodding something beneath the surface, potentially poking at something hidden in plain sight. Never Let Me Go is an ethical thinkpiece, a love story, or love stories, a reverie, a tale of friendships and losing them but of trying to keep them close. We might read at a variety of levels. What lies beneath the author’s words? Allegory springs to mind, though we never can be sure. Ishiguro writes: ‘. . . the odd rumour will go round sometimes about what Hailsham’s become these days — a hotel, a school, a ruin.’

This work is, ultimately though, a story of something other, but it is also a story of something much too close for comfort.