This new book by Yoko Tawada was originally published in Japan in 2018 and has finally made its way into the English translation. The first in a projected trilogy, Tawada constructs a futuristic situation in which Japan is now referred to not as itself, but as the ‘land of sushi’. At points a dystopian reckoning of the world to come, and at other points a clear description of the immortality of human relationships and pure existence.
The novel is relatively short, deceptive with the thickness of the novel but using fairly wide margins in the A&U edition. Within the pages, however, is a depth of writing that it typical from Tamada’s oeuvre. Again, in what is increasingly becoming a trope of Japanese novels, the folklore approach to storytelling really adds to the enjoyment of the writing. With some of these translated novels it can be frustrating to not have the original folklore embedded - as many readers in the original language undoubtedly would - but Tamada manages to create a mythical environment without the need for prior cultural knowledge.
It’s a complex narrative. The world’s of the individual characters leap and dive into each other’s worlds and it can take a little time to get into the swing of things, but once there, it is a rich tapestry which is nimble and highly effective as a plot-building technique.
Each chapter is taken from the perspective of a different character which, again, took a little getting used to. The first person narration really accentuates the individual emotional connection that the reader feels with the characters speaking. It is a very well executed style.
The emergent genre of ‘gentle dystopia’ is becoming more and more apparent in modern literature, a future where the nefarious elements are much more subtle than some of the early iterations of dystopian fiction. But undoubtedly the undercurrent of the novel is clear - this is not a place that the majority of us would be keen for.
Language as a construct, is central to the overarching theme of relationships. It is through language that the central character Hiruko feels the need to find a kindred spirit. Language is representative of more than just culture. It is a symbolic connection with another, a bridge that exists where no other bridge will suffice - not love, not attraction, not touch, not anything. It is this symbolism that was an intriguing addition to the writing.
As the novel progresses, it does drift a little and it does take a little more energy to push through the second third of the novel - but the effort is rewarded with a stellar ending that captivates as much as it entertains.
Overall, as a text this is a very rewarding read, but there is a level of frustration that emerges at points. As you read through this, you find yourself embracing language, culture and life through very different eyes. It is a challenging and more literary read, not something that will suit a throwaway afternoon by the pool on holiday!
Reviewer: Chris Reed
Allen & Unwin