On the southwestern Japanese island of Shikoku, there is a village populated almost entirely by dolls. More than 300 doll likenesses stand-in for the people who have died or moved away from Nagoro. Like many of Japan’s rural villages and even smaller cities, Nagoro has all but disappeared.
In Yoko Tawada’s novel, Scattered All Over the Earth, the rest of Japan has disappeared as well.
Tawada’s dystopia is a quiet one. Like her 2014 novella, The Last Children of Tokyo (published in the US as The Emissary) or Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 The Memory Police, the cause of disaster here is ambiguous or even irrelevant. Urban sprawl led to the leveling of Japan’s mountains. Sexual hormones had become “practically extinct”. Rumors hold that the Japanese could not “distinguish between the virtual and real worlds” and “laborers who worked eighty-hour shifts without sleeping”. But there is no easy explanation for Japan’s disappearance.
The apocalypse looms even in Europe, where environmental poisons stimulate salmon the size of whales leaping out of the water.
The novel opens with Knut, a disillusioned Danish linguistics student. One afternoon, he watches a televised panel discussion between people whose countries no longer exist: East Germans, Yugoslavs, and Soviets. Then the show turns to a young woman whose face looks like a character from an anime. Hiruko is from “an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia”—a country that has now disappeared.
Even the word “Japan” is absent from the novel. For the reader, Hiruko’s nationality is obvious, but Tawada never refers to Hiruko or her first language as “Japanese”. Instead, the novel is a running commentary on the ubiquity of “Cool Japan’s” soft power, even divorced from Japan itself. Hiruko looks like she’s from an anime, and other characters discuss cosplay. Sushi is one of the novel’s most important motifs.
Hiruko doesn’t speak Danish. Instead, she has concocted her own “homemade language”, which she has named “Panska” from “pan-” for “all” and “-ska” for “Skandinavia.” Panska allows her to communicate with people from all over Northern Europe, where many of the languages are more-or-less mutually comprehensible. Knut describes how he sees her “breathing in several grammars, melding them together inside her body, then exhaling them as sweet breath.”
Together, Knut and Hiruko embark on a search for any other person speaking the language of her homeland. Each successive chapter turns to a new narrator. They meet a gender non-conforming Indian immigrant named Akash, a German woman named Nora and her sushi-chef boyfriend Tenzo, and an ageless man nicknamed for the impetuous god of storms Susanoo. In each city on their trans-European journey, these multi-lingual cosmopolitans consider whether “homelands” or “native languages” even exist.
The real heart of Tawada’s novel, though, is the “eroticism” of language—a love of language so all-encompassing it takes on a devotional fervor. When Akash asks Hiruko if she is a Buddhist, she responds, “No… I’m a linguist.”
“Is that a religion?”
“Not really, but language can make people happy, and show them what’s beyond death.”
The reader encounters each character’s love of language in her own words as she narrates. For example, Nora describes “melancholy vowels” that “dye the air blue” and how she must keep printed material out of the bedroom so words don’t “flit around the room all night” like mosquitos.
Tawada is herself a great lover of language. Born in Japan, Tawada now lives in Germany. She has published literary fiction in German as well as Japanese, including a trio of Kafka-esque novellas, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, starring the polar mammals. Much of her work highlights the strangeness of one language to the speaker of another.
That isn’t to say her prose is tedious. Tawada approaches language with wry humor. Knut sees “tako” (octopus) on a sushi menu and comments that it must be the singular of tacos. A stranger criticizes Hiruko’s use of Panska because “we [don’t] need language anymore now that we have emoji.”
It is also worth noting how alluringly Margaret Mitsutani translates this homage to language. Panska is artificial—derived from Scandinavian languages and transcribed in Japanese. This layering of languages is beautifully rendered. For example, an interviewer asks Hiruko what kind of work she does. Hiruko replies
storyteller at Märchen Center. stories from long ago to children tell… everything from yesterday disappears, then yesterday into long ago transforms.
English readers may be startled that the novel uses the term “Eskimo”, which some people find offensive, to describe indigenous peoples of Subarctic regions. Tawada takes up word’s problematic connotations. A Greenlander explains that
Lots of people who consider the word “Eskimo” racist think it’s enough just to replace it with “Inuit”, even though strictly speaking not all Eskimos are Inuit.
He’s also tired of being “driven into an ethnic corner” in Northern Europe because of his “exotic” features. (The novel uses the word “exotic” a total of six times, in the narrative voice of almost every character.) Like many of the characters, he questions the ways people talk about race and asserts that people should be allowed to speak on their own behalfs.
Scattered All Over the Earth doesn’t come to a neat conclusion. It is the first part of a planned trilogy that will, perhaps, answer some of the questions Tawada leaves unanswered here. Even as a stand-alone novel, as both a story and a work of translation, it is a remarkable tribute to language.