WHERE EUROPE BEGINS by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Selden, preface by Wim Wenders. New York: New Directions, 2007, 208 pp., $14.95 (paper)
For all his originality, Haruki Murakami, in his artful blends of fantasy and the mundane, reminds one of Paul Auster. The other Murakami, Ryu, succeeds in shocking, but he does so in a manner that screams Bret Easton Ellis. When reading Yoko Tawada, on the other hand, though the specter of Franz Kafka flutters, now and then, up from the pages, one is struck less by the resemblance of her fiction to that of other authors than by its utter originality.
Those of us illiterate in Japanese and German (she writes in both languages) have, since the publication in 1998 of her first English collection, “The Bridegroom was a Dog,” had little chance to enjoy the unique pleasure her sporadically available work affords. The dry years, however, appear to be over. The ever-adventurous publisher New Directions, in “Facing the Bridge” and “Where Europe Begins,” has brought us a healthy sampling of Tawada’s work, a cornucopia that, as satisfying as it is, will leave us hungry for more.
Borders, as translator Margaret Mitsutani notes in her helpful afterword to “Facing the Bridge,” have long interested Tawada, and these important and often imaginary lines do provide a useful lens through which to view her work. At the simplest level, Tawada, a longtime resident of Germany, has herself crossed national and linguistic borders, and many of her characters are also engaged in negotiating frontiers.
More interesting, though, are the metaphysical boundaries she considers: the gap between language and the world we imagine it maps, the fuzzy space between sounds that have sense and sounds that are nonsense. Tawada produces texts that cannot be placed neatly on this side or that of any number of generic boundaries and, in so doing, elegantly illustrates, in the forms of her tales, the disjunctions with which she is concerned.
“Facing the Bridge” is, in general, the more accessible of the two collections under review, but in “Saint George and the Translator,” the story of a translator at work on a difficult text, for example, we see a daring similar to that displayed in the work collected in “Where Europe Begins.” Segments of the text the translator is working on appear in the text, for example, and are rendered in an English poetic in its crudity.
The language is raw, as yet uncooked into coherence. Thus we get shards as artful and unintegrated as: “. . . wherever, people go, wherever, arrive, sacrifices, always, already, there, it is, so natural-seeming, there to be, like a monument, like a well, like a sidewalk or traffic light, therefore, in the same way, naturally, overlooked . . . .” The bonds that should exist between the translated fragments have yet to be formed. Language, naked, remains, and steps to the front of the stage in a way it does not in less ambitious narratives.
The translator’s struggles with the text are externalized in encounters she has that run parallel to her struggles with the words in front of her. The translator’s relationship with the author of those words, for example, becomes concrete when they climb a steep slope together, and watch a flock of goats. The author says, “the weakest one always leads the pack.” The translator waits for the “goatherd and dog that would surely follow behind,” but, instead of the “conclusion” she had imagined, there comes not a goatherd but “a skinny little black goat just like the leader.” “Wish I’d known from the start it would end like this,” the translator remarks. The goats, we see, may be goats, but they are also words that constitute sentences whose tails whip around to clip us. Readers who relish such surprising fecundity of meaning will revel in this story.
They will savor, too, “Where Europe Begins,” and in particular the narrative of that title, which crowns a suite of stories that consider various borders, including the line between Asia and Europe. Like all of Tawada’s fiction, this story is many kinds of stories at once. One can find, for example, an account of a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express. “Soon I was enjoying my boredom,” Tawada’s narrator notices. “The birches vanished before my eyes, leaving only the again-and-again of their passage, as in an imageless dream”: one regrets that few literary travelers write this well.
Geography is not the only medium through which the traveler moves. Trips back in time reveal the narrator’s young, idealistic, parents, and the fact that as a child she slept in a hammock because “there was no room for me except in the air.” We learn with her mother of a book “as cryptic and cunning as the forests of Siberia,” and are happy to find ourselves, in this story as in all Tawada’s work, to be lost in exactly such a wood.
David Cozy, a writer and literary critic, teaches at Showa Women’s University.