In recent years Haruki Murakami has become THE Japanese writer. Everyone knows him, everyone reads him. His fiction, with its loneliness and surrealism, has found an audience all across the world. Which is why I am annoyed Yoko Tawada has not caught on. She can be uneven. She can be too out there. She can be too vague, too obscure, too unsatisfactory in her endings, but when she is on point, she does what Murakami does, but even better. Her novellas and novels, often depicting outsiders lost in foreign landscapes with few if any landlines, are also riddled with loneliness, and while Murakami dips into odd scenarios, Tawada is like Kobo Abe turned up to 11.
This is one of her better books available in English. It consists of three novellas. The first tells in parallel stories about a European slave stolen away from Africa who finds himself sponsored to study and become a professor, and a Japanese student living abroad in Germany. The second stars a German resident (formerly from Japan) who spontaneously decides to go on a trip to Vietnam and feels her sense of identity slip away. As for the third, before I go into it I should explain what I’ve heard about Tawada.
I saw her give a performance in Boston and while there I talked to a professor who explained that Tawada thinks of herself as a literary DJ, taking old stories and remixing them. Some of her stories that follow this format can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other work, but for some, it is vital. The third story here, about a translator on an island off the coast of Africa trying to do some work, is a retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon and falls somewhere in between. It can be a pleasant read with no knowledge of St. George, but if you’re familiar with the original, it adds a whole new dimension to the Tawada.
Some biographical material might also help: Tawada was originally from Japan before moving to Germany after university, where she has lived ever since. She writes in the languages of both countries, sometimes flipping back and forth during a draft, and language is an important theme that runs through all of her works.
Her endings don’t always work, but these stories taken as a whole are haunting. They read almost like fables that spiral out of control.
Any fan of authors like Borges or Kobo Abe (or Haruki Murakami) will find a great new author here. After reading a few of her books, I think either this or her collection THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG are the best places to start with her. If you choose the other collection, be warned: the title story is…quite lacking, but the other two novellas more than make up for it.