“We simply couldn’t bear it” – The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

Yoko Tawada is interesting. A Japanese writer living in Germany and writing in both Japanese and German who has bagged herself just about every significant literary prize in the country of her origin (not least the Akutagawa Prize and the Tanizaki Prize, which may give you a glimpse of the esteem she is held in in her homeland and also the position she holds, both as a current shining star and also as a writer who isn’t far off holding a position in the canon, as it were), and a handful in her new adopted homeland (including the Goethe Medal and the Kleist Prize). The Last Children of Tokyo is the first book by her we’ve read, and we simply couldn’t bear it.

Set at some fuzzy indistinct point in the future in which old people no longer die and children are as frail as butterfly wings, the loose narrative is mainly centred on Yoshiro who is main carer of his great grandson Mumei. Over a rambling and discursive 144 pages, we get a glimpse into the minutiae of their day to day life, as well as brief forays into how their life came to be (with sidesteps into Yoshiro’s marriage) – and occasional offerings from other perspectives including Mumei himself. Part of the problem with The Last Children of Tokyo is that rambling, discursive style:

“In the old days, everyone strolled across the street as soon as the traffic light changed from red to green. Back then people used to call the green light “blue”. Blue was the color of fresh vegetables, of grassy fields. Oh, and sometimes even Sundays. Not green. Blue. Azure. The color of the sea, the fields, the sky. Not green. Or clean. Green, clean. Clean politics? No, never!”

Here’s another example:

“Thanks to Lord Apollo, it is full of strange and wonderful forms. Even now, jellyfish, octopi, frilled lizards, crabs, rhinoceroses, human beings and lots of other creatures live on the earth, changing all the time. Buds sprout from an embryo, which opens in the shape of a heart, tadpoles like little musical notes turn into frogs like the round wooden drums you see in temples, caterpillars become butterflies, wrinkly newborns age into wrinkled old men.”

But you also get a clear sense that Tawada is making happy play with language, to a degree that much of the humour has to be explained in translation – a feat that yanks humour out like a wax strip peeled at speed from a hairy leg:

“”Off-line Day” to commemorate the day the Internet had died (“off-line” being written with Chinese characters meaning ‘Honorable-Woman-Naked-Obscenity’)”

And:

“”What’s the most important thing in your life?” “Can’t think of anything really.” “Well, give it some thought then. When do you feel it’s better to be alive than dead?” “When I’m excited, maybe?” “And when do you feel excited?” “When I’m doing those three special things.” “What three things?” “Buying. Throwing. Drinking.” “You left out the direct objects.” “I have no particular objects, directly that is.” “I’m not asking what your object is,” Yoshiro fumed. “I’m talking about the grammatical term ‘direct object.'”

If you read the above excerpts and tittered away and thought, my goodness, this language effervesces on my eyes like popping candy, then by all means jump in – you’ll probably like it. If, like us, you felt even a modicum of irritation, we recommend you steer clear.

Any Cop?: It’s a short book that feels like a long book, a meandering yawnfest that doesn’t appear to know what it’s setting out to do, a charmless, boring, prattling waste of the time it took us to read it. Defiantly not for us.

 

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