Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Review by Elizabeth Morgan of "The Last Children of Tokyo" by Yoko Tawada
Generations after a fictional (and very vague) environmental catastrophe, Japan struggles. The elderly often outlive their grandchildren in the world of this novel, a feat of magical realism and ecocriticism. Young people have fallen sick, due to the older generation’s negligence of the natural world. In this post-Fukushima society, reflections of intergenerational suffering are astute. Guilt for his generation’s selfish actions towards the planet are present always, in the elderly protagonist.
This is also an exquisite feat of psychological exploration that ties the past to the future. In banning the naming of foreign cities, the author not only nods to Orwell, but leads us to remember isolationist Japan during Edo times. Tawada’s imagination leaves us with painful questions. Why is the prose describing irremediable catastrophe of nuclear meltdown so arresting - and yet, the creeping effects of pollution and global warming more subtly written? Present, too, is the fear of surveillance - quite popular with dystopian authors, as the elderly protagonist writes: "He was already well into it when he realised 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."
Mumei, the protagonist, is introduced to us in his silk pyjamas, waking up one morning. This is a Kafkaesque opening (reminiscent of the awakening in "The Metamorphosis"), bleak; yet the author still makes room for aesthetically gentle prose. Typically Japanese literature contemplates beauty, even in the remains of horror. We are left understanding that we must rage on for all that is withheld by the government, never relaxing our search for protecting those simple pleasures we rely upon for happiness.
About the reviewer
Elizabeth Morgan is a twentysomething who enjoys reading Japanese literature.