Acceptance was a treasure

Excerpt from The Emissary by Yōko Tawada

This is an excerpt from the book The Emissary by Yōko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani.

“Mumei, are you all right? Does it hurt? Can you breathe?” Yoshiro would say, his eyes filling with tears as he patted the boy lightly on the back or held his head in his arms, pressing it to his chest. Yet despite the appearance of suffering, Mumei himself would be strangely calm. As if resigning himself to a storm at sea, he’d simply wait for the coughing fit to pass.

When the coughing stopped, Mumei would go back to drinking his juice as if nothing had happened. Looking up at Yoshiro, he wold ask in surprise, “Great-grandpa, are you all right?” He didn’t seem to know what “suffering” meant; he simply coughed when food wouldn’t go down, or vomited it back up. Of course he felt pain, but it was pure pain unaccompanied by any “Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?” sort of lamentation that Yoshiro knew so well. Perhaps this acceptance was a treasure given to the youngest generation. Mumei didn’t know how to feel sorry for himself.

When Yoshiro was a child, his mother babied him whenever he caught cold or ran a fever. Wallowing in self-pity had felt sweet, warm, and deliciously sad. As an adult he knew that, although he had to go to work no matter how much he hated it, illness would give him a bona fide excuse for staying at home, spending the whole day in bed reading or just thinking. It was easy to catch the flu. All he had to do was make sure he didn’t get enough sleep. And even after he recovered, he always managed to get sick again a few months later. Finally, he realized that his true purpose was not to come down with some illness, but to quit his job.

Fortunately, Mumei had never seen adults clinging to illness in this unseemly way. And if he kept on in this way, he would be free until he died, never feeling sorry for himself or using his weakness to ingratiate himself with the people around him.

For about ninety percent of children these days fever was a constant companion. Mumei was always slightly feverish. As checking the thermometer daily only made the adults nervous, a flier came from school instructing them not to. If told they had a fever, kids would start to feel dull and lethargic. And if they were kept home every time their temperature was above normal, some would hardly go to school at all. Besides, since every school had a qualified doctor on duty, it was really best for them to com to school when they were sick. “Because the purpose of fever is to kill germs, children shouldn’t be given medicine to bring down a fever” had been standard medical advice for ages, bu t only recently had doctors begun to tell parents “Never take your child’s temperature.”

Yoshiro and Mumei buried their thermometer at the Thingamabob Cemetery, a public graveyard where anyone could pay their last respects to something they wanted to part with. Some of the buried objects, still longing for the world above, were apparently trying to return to it; from the earth, disturbed by the rain that day, part of a white headband with a red Rising Sun in the center peeked out, fluttering in the wind. Yoshiro imagined its former owner as either a high school student who was done with his university entrance exams, or a youth who had graduated from some right-wing gang. The leg of an upside-down teddy bear stuck out of the ground. The bear probably wanted to get out, too. Mumei imagined all the various things buried here: broken garden shears, split into two tadpoles; worn-out shoes with paper thin soles; a toy drum with a broken head; the wedding ring of a couple now divorce; a fountain pen with a bent tip; a map of the world. Yoshiro had once buried the manuscript of a novel he was working on here. He’d thought of burning it in the garden but submitting it to the flames had seemed so cruel he couldn’t bring himself to strike a match. Everyone has reasons for burning some bits of trash but not others. Ken-to-shi, Emissary to China, he’d called it, his first and only historical novel: he was already well into it when he realized he’d included the names of far too many foreign countries. Place names spread throughout the novel like blood vessels, dividing into ever smaller branches then setting down roots, making it impossible to eliminate them from the text. he’d had to get rid of the manuscript for his own protection, and since burning it was too painful, he had buried it.

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The Emissary – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Japan, after suffering from a massive irreparable disaster, cuts itself off from the world. Children are so weak they can barely stand or walk: the only people with any get-go are the elderly. Mumei lives with his grandfather Yoshiro, who worries about him constantly. They carry on a day-to-day routine in what could be viewed as a post-Fukushima time, with all the children born ancient—frail and gray-haired, yet incredibly compassionate and wise. Mumei may be enfeebled and feverish, but he is a beacon of hope, full of wit and free of self-pity and pessimism. Yoshiro concentrates on nourishing Mumei, a strangely wonderful boy who offers “the beauty of the time that is yet to come.”

A delightful, irrepressibly funny book, The Emissary is filled with light. Yoko Tawada, deftly turning inside-out “the curse,” defies gravity and creates a playful joyous novel out of a dystopian one, with a legerdemain uniquely her own.

Copyright © 2014 by Yōko Tawada.

Translated by: Margaret Mitsutani

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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