Are these the last days of writers writing in Finnish, Catalan, Japanese and other languages? This slender book finds reason to worry that with English as the “universal language,” national literatures will disappear.
Some may find it puzzlingly meta to translate into English a book that complains, to a Japanese audience, that English is swamping the world. The idea of the hegemony of English is not new, of course; George Steiner was writing about it half a century ago. The idea that monoculturalism is undesirable is similarly old. What is new is novelist Mizumura’s (A True Novel, 2013, etc.) insistence that at least some of the blame lies with the Japanese government’s willingness to roll over, in the case of the Japanese language, before the invader. Defending a national language, after all, is the business of the nation, and in a nation whose educational system is centralized, she finds “astonishing…the meager content of junior and senior high school textbooks for courses in Japanese language arts.” A move toward increased substance, she adds, is essential, as is a commitment to the establishment and presentation of a “modern literary canon.” It is perhaps uncharitable to wonder whether there is a self-serving element in that call, but one understands Mizumura’s frustration that a great artist such as Soseki Natsume should be represented by only six lines from a single novel. Readers of this book would be well-served by some background in the Meiji Restoration and its politics, but Mizumura’s unhappiness with things as they are and her unwilling status as intermediary needs no cultural glossing. She wonders whether she is invited to important cultural conferences abroad only because she speaks English, not because of her status as a writer of Japanese literature.
A best-seller in Japan, Mizumura’s essay is likely to find only a narrow audience here, but that does not diminish its urgency in the least.