In this slim, impactful novel, surrealist master Tawada (Memoirs of a Polar Bear, 2016, etc.) imagines a dystopian Japan reckoning with its own identity.
In the wake of an economic and environmental tragedy that eerily echoes 2011’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, the Japanese government implements an “isolation policy,” cutting the country off from the outside world. Central Tokyo is deserted, the country’s soil is contaminated, its plants have mutated, and its people are living under a capricious governing body that has not only waged a war on words (the term “mutation” having been replaced by the more agreeable “environmental adaptation”), but has proven to have a penchant for tinkering with the laws: “Afraid of getting burned by laws they couldn’t see, everyone kept their intuition honed as sharp as a knife, practicing restraint and self-censorship on a daily basis.” A writer unsettled by the turn his country has taken, Yoshiro’s main concern is the declining health of his grandson, Mumei. In this new era, children are wise beyond their years, but their bodies are brittle, aging vessels, and the elderly have become a new kind of species, cursed with the gift of everlasting life, “burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.” Left in Yoshiro’s care after the death of his mother and disappearance of his father, Mumei, feeble (and toothless) as he is, fills his grandfather’s interminable days with life. Despite the gloomy circumstances, Tawada’s narrative remains incandescent as she charts the hopeful paths both grandfather and grandson embark upon in their attempt to overcome mortality’s grim restraints. Striving to persist in a time when intolerance abounds and “the shelf life of words [is] getting shorter all the time,” Mumei’s searching curiosity and wonder toward the world inspire faith that, even in the darkest of days, humanity cannot be forsaken.
An ebullient meditation on language and time that feels strikingly significant in the present moment.