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When I heard about Scattered All Over the Earth, I worried I’d need a PHD in linguistics to appreciate Yoko Tawada’s exploration of language and identity in a quasi-dystopian landscape. Luckily, this is one of those rare novels that challenges the intellect while creating engaging characters to whom almost any reader can relate. At its core is the belief that “language can make people happy and show them what’s beyond death.”
Originally written in Japanese and set in a not-too-distant future in which climate change has caused many of our present-day countries to disappear, the novel focuses on Hiruko, a former citizen of Japan, which is now known as “the land of sushi” Living in Denmark and working as a teacher, she is desperately seeking another speaker of her native tongue. As part of her quest, she meets a ragtag group of characters – each obsessed with language in one way or another – who form “an International Research Team.”
With an episodic structure in which each chapter is narrated by one of the main characters, Scattered All Over the Earth is unlike anything I’ve read before. As the book progresses, the group travels across Europe and encounters a dead whale, a man who hasn’t spoken for decades and automated robots who tell children the lies their parents cannot. Likewise, its tone, described as “cheerfully dystopian” by its publishers, was new to me. Despite a backdrop of global disasters and personal tragedies, many of the characters are relentlessly upbeat. Although this attitude doesn’t always befit their circumstances, it is oddly charming, which is a testament to both the book’s writer and its translator Margaret Mitsutani.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a National Book Award-winning author who writes in both Japanese and German, Scattered All Over the Earth is first and foremost a love letter to language in all its forms. This theme is most evident through Hiruko who, in her attempts to adjust to life in her new home, has invented her own language. “It’s an artificial language that can be understood throughout Scandinavia, which I privately call Panska. I stuck the “ska” of Scandinavia on the end of “pan,” which means universal. There’s a kind of ethnic folk dance in Sweden called the “polska,” which sounds like it should be from Poland though it’s actually Scandinavian in origin. I’m hoping my name for this language I’ve invented has the same sort of strangeness.”
Such is the characters’ passion for language that it often acts as a surrogate for sexual feeling, with Hiruko claiming that sexual hormones had almost died out in her people. When she meets Knut, a graduate student working on a project to teach children through computer games, the two become “lovers” It is, however, a shared enthusiasm for language, rather than sex, that ignites Hiruko’s passion. When she meets Knut, she comments that “I could sense his libido gushing out not toward me, but in the direction of language.” In a comparison I certainly never expected to draw, these lines reminded me of scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale in which scrabble becomes a tool of seduction for a woman deprived of the freedom to read and write.
Fascinating as these themes are, Tawada’s most impressive achievement is the creation of emotionally credible characters who are more than simply tools to further her thematic preoccupations. In the opening sentences, for example, Knut discusses his childhood habit of taking the TV remote control into the bathroom to prevent anyone from changing the channel when he left the room – a peculiarity he has continued into adulthood. Throughout the novel, we also discover that he has a recreational drug habit and a pathological dislike of his mother. As with most of the characters, he is a well-rounded individual with quirks and resentments, as well as being a logophile.
Perhaps the most interesting figure in the book, however, is Akash, a tour guide who is transitioning to become a woman. Through this character, Tawada probes the experiences of trans individuals, with Akash commenting that: “I don’t want an operation or the hormones Western doctors love to prescribe, I am making the transition gradually, through many different methods such as diet, meditation, exercise, breathing techniques and chanting, or copying the sutras.”
But it is Akash’s observations about the relationship between Knut and Hiruko that are the most telling facet of the character. Having developed an immediate attraction to Knut, Akash becomes jealous of the woman he perceives as his love rival. While the character provides fascinating insights into issues of trans rights and racism, Akash is also a person subject to the same emotional vacillations as any reader. In addition to being of scholar of language, Tawada is clearly an astute observer of people.
What is also clear from reading Scattered All Over the Earth is that the writer has an accomplished background as a poet, with Tawada publishing her first collection in 1987. The novel delivers some exceptionally lyrical lines, especially in its expression of alienation. After experiencing several unsuccessful relationships, the character of Nora, who “[wears] loneliness like a cardigan with a jacket over it” returns to her empty apartment and observes: “There was a cup stained with lipstick and a plate with breadcrumbs on it. Someone had eaten breakfast there that morning before leaving the apartment. Though it was undoubtedly me, it now seemed like some stranger from the distant past.” Elsewhere, Nora makes one of the most astute observations on the modern workplace that I have ever read: “Work is to some degree a place where strangers pull at you from right, left, above and below, pinching, rubbing, and generally making a mess of you from morning to night.”
Yet for all its lyricism, the novel firmly grounds its dystopian themes in many of the most troubling issues facing readers in 2022. In the most notable example, Tawada makes it explicit that it is the environmental impact of climate change that has led to the disappearance of so many countries. Elsewhere, members of the group observe that “immigrants always have to worry about being arrested for some silly reason or other.”
In one of the most revealing explorations of 21st century social mores, Hiruko recounts how a stranger suggested that, rather than searching for speakers of her language, she should focus on having a child. Whatever changes have taken place between this era and our own, women’s personal reproductive choices remain subject to public scrutiny. Despite these echoes of modern life, it isn’t quite possible to determine when Scattered All Over the Earth takes place. Tawada ensures this sense of timelessness through frequent references to ancient myths and fairy tales, which Hiruko uses as a teaching tool with her students. We also learn that the character’s name is that of an ancient goddess who was set adrift in the ocean because she didn’t meet the standards for a healthy newborn.
And, seemingly at odds with the relentlessly cheery interactions between her characters, the writer is also keen to explore the darker side of some of her creations, which is most notable through the character of Susanoo and his sinister recollections from adolescence. “What worried me more were my strange sexual thoughts; in fact, I worked so hard at keeping them under control that it was starting to wear me out. Seeing a woman’s soft flesh made me want to lash out and hurt her.” Indeed In some of its other darker themes, the novel also looks at the bleaker aspects of language itself, with Knut realising that he can use words as a tool to manipulate his mother and other characters discussing the origins and nuances of racist terminology.
Was there anything I didn’t like about the book? When I started reading, portions of dialogue did feel stilted. It wasn’t until I read on, that I realised this effect is a deliberate attempt to highlight the strangeness of verbal communication. No matter how much the characters love language, it can be an imperfect tool to communicate across cultures. My biggest frustration, however, was probably with the character of Hiruko who, for me, is the least relatable in the book, with her reliance on Panska occasionally grating.
These are, however, minor quibbles in an otherwise rewarding work. And, while Scattered All Over the Earth won’t be for everyone, I was certainly pleased to learn that it is the first novel in a planned trilogy. Following its open-ended conclusion, I’d be keen to discover how the co-dependent dynamics develop between this group of characters and how Tawada balances the chirpiness of her work’s tone with some of its more disquieting themes.
By Yoko Tawada
Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
New Directions, 256 pages
Katy Ward is a freelance journalist from Hull. Her work has appeared in The Metro, The Overtake, LoveMONEY and Independent Voices. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and a postgraduate diploma from City University.