Scattered All Over the Earth
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In the unspecified near future, environmental collapse and political strife have caused several countries to disappear from the face of the planet. Japan is one such country; it has sunk into the ocean, its countrymen sent as refugees across the globe, and its language and history all but forgotten.
This is the background for Yoko Tawada’s latest novel, Scattered All Over the Earth, but despite how grim a synopsis seems, the story itself is much lighter, its outlook more optimistic. The main character, Hiruko, is one of the refugees from Japan. She has relocated to Denmark; she has only vague memories of her home country, and for the rest of the world, it is as if Japan ended at the same time as the Roman Empire. Never finding other Japanese-speakers in public, Hiruko has invented “Panska,” a mixture of several Scandinavian languages, mutually intelligible across the Nordic countries. After Hiruko is invited on a television panel featuring people from dissolved nations, she is approached by Knut, a linguistics student interested in Hiruko’s “Panska.” There follows a trip across Europe, featuring an assorted cast of diverse characters, on a search to find another speaker of Hiruko’s native language.
The set-up is comparable to another Tawada novel, 2014’s The Emissary, which won the National Book Award for Translated Literature. In that one, a near-future Japan suffers from a polarized age gap; a strange mutation is making every newborn baby extremely weak and malformed, while every elderly person lives upwards of two hundred years, with increased vitality. The Emissary was dystopian fiction about contemporary Japanese issues (declining birth rate, disappearance of Japanese traditions, etc.) with a distinctly optimistic flavor. Likewise, Scattered All Over the Earth uses a failing future Earth as a conceit to talk about problems pertinent to Japan and the world; namely, global culture, global warming, and global conflict.
While Japan is magically obscured from cultural consciousness in Tawada’s novel, the country has left its mark. Characters wonder frequently if sushi is a Scandinavian food, and other Japanese words are used by people oblivious of their origin. Hiruko’s friends, from Akash the Indian trans woman, to “Tenzo”/Nanook, an Inuit man masquerading as Japanese, all carry forward valuable information about Japan from Hiruko, and inform her about their own cultures. The result is a non-fatalistic, nuanced appraisal of our generation’s moment: the environment is going to hell, and our politics are in a similar place, but people at heart are good, and it’s not too late.
Finally, a word must be said about the impressive feat of language this novel, and its translation, is. Tawada writes in both German and Japanese. Scattered All Over the Earth is one of the Japanese novels, so included are sections ostensibly written (that is, in Japanese but mimicking) in Hiruko’s pan-Scandinavian language, Japanese, English, German, and other languages, besides. The differences can be seen in each language’s respective paragraph, and the translator, Margaret Mitsutani, does an incredible job reworking this complex linguistic stunt into English.
All in all, Yoko Tawada’s latest endeavor is another endearing, thought-provoking experimental success.