Book review: In Scattered All Over The Earth, Japan ceases to exist

First published in Japanese in 2018, Scattered All Over The Earth reads like the Berlin-based Yoko Tawada's homage to her native country. PHOTOS: THOMAS KARSTON, GRANTA BOOKS

Scattered All Over The Earth

By Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Fiction/Granta Books/Paperback/224 pages/$29.95/Buy here
3 out of 5

Japan ceases to exist in a not-so-distant future dreamt up by award-winning writer Yoko Tawada, who this time goes one step further than in her previous novel, The Last Children Of Tokyo (2018, buy here), when she made the capital so polluted that it has become uninhabitable.

In Scattered All Over The Earth, the entire archipelago has mysteriously sunk into the ocean in an unspecified disaster, though the dystopian setting does not give rise to a parable about climate change.

Instead, Tawada puts a rather buoyant spin in her focus on one refugee's hopeful quest to find a compatriot with whom she can once more converse in Japanese, a language that has become critically endangered.

The protagonist, Hiruko, is a citizen of nowhere - passport renewal is impossible because Japan has vanished, known reductively only as the "land of sushi" with the dish exoticised to the point of kitsch by Westerners.

In Tawada's world, where the word "Japan" appears to have been forgotten, the country is remembered for dashi stock and umami, its practice of whaling, sardine-packed rush hour trains, culture of overwork and obsession with virtual idols.

Hiruko is a resident of Denmark, where she is a language teacher to migrant children and finds it difficult to fit in. She invents her own language, Panska, that is supposed to be a mish-mash of Scandinavian languages.

"If I just have someone to talk to, that will be enough," says Hiruko, craving the familiarity of the Japanese vocabulary and the soft caress of the language's intonation.

She gets tip-offs after appearing on a variety programme about lost languages, leading to a multi-city quest across Europe with an expanding ragtag entourage of characters.

While she leaves Denmark with Knut, a Danish linguistics student who converses with her in Panska, she comes to meet Tenzo, also known as Nanook, a native of Greenland who tries to pass off as Japanese, and his girlfriend Nora.

Completing the quintet is Akash, an Indian transgender woman who tags along after taking a fancy to Knut.

The novel contemplates beautifully the nuances of the Japanese language without veering into didactic territory - the use of the formal, distant anata vis-a-vis the casual kimi, both of which mean "you", or how the word natsukashii (nostalgic) "seemed to be made of mist, a mist I was wandering? through with unsteady steps".

First published in Japanese in 2018, Scattered All Over The Earth reads like the Berlin-based Tawada's homage to her native country - she was born in Tokyo in 1960, but relocated to Germany when she was 22 and now writes in Japanese and German.

Readers who crave explosive drama will probably not enjoy the quiet narrative, which is heavily centred on conversations and the power of listening.

But the novel - the first in a planned trilogy - is an exquisite folkloric read of the power of language in shaping identity and what it means to lose a sense of self.

If you like this, read: Things Remembered And Things Forgotten by Kyoko Nakajima, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori and Ian MacDonald (Sort of Books, 2021, $19.80, buy here). Loss - of a culture, a loved one or a cherished place - permeates this haunting collection of 10 stories about memory and grief.

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