Language and identity seems to be the major theme of my August reading. Just a few days back I reviewed Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel The Colony, which touched upon those topics, and now here I am writing about Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth which highlights those very ideas but in a completely different and unique way. This was my first Tawada and I liked it so much that I definitely plan to read her earlier books particularly The Emissary and Memoirs of a Polar Bear.
Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.
The novel is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.
“Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said, “it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?”
The book opens in Copenhagen with Knut, a Danish linguist, sprawled on the sofa watching TV. Knut lives alone, his parents divorced when he was a kid, and his relationship with his mother is hazy and strained. While flipping TV channels, Knut comes across an interview with the other central character in the book, Hiruko. We learn that Hiruko was a citizen from the ‘land of sushi’ forced to relocate once her country of origin disappeared. Hiruko now resides in Odense, having secured a post at the Märchen Centre. Having created her own language called ‘Panska’ or ‘homemade language’; it’s how she communicates with the immigrant children who attend the centre where she narrates stories showing picture dramas.
“recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”
As a linguist interested in all sorts of languages including the ones that have vanished and are no longer spoken, Knut is struck by the interview and immediately calls up the TV station to connect with Hiruko. He discovers that Hiruko is keen to travel to Trier in Germany to visit the Umami festival where a ‘dashi’ competition is set to take place.
“I’m sure that sometime in the future, when fish are extinct, people will rely on chefs to extract fish traces, distant memories of fish from plants that grow in the sea. That is my project: I call it ‘Dashi Research’.”
On learning that a man named Tenzo is hosting it, Hiruko is excited about the prospect of connecting with someone from her vanished homeland, a chance to seek out her roots and communicate in her now extinct language in a world where she often feels adrift. Knut, interested in how the encounter between Hiruko and Tenzo will play out, decides to join her.
On their quest to locate Tenzo, their travels take them to Trier, Oslo, Arles where they meet a host of people along the way; chance meetings which quickly transform into easy friendships. They come across Akash, a Marathi speaking, red sari-clad transgender student; Nora, a blonde German who has arranged the Umami festival at the Karl Marx House in Trier and is also Tenzo’s lover, and then Tenzo himself whose case is that of mistaken identity – he is not Japanese but a Greenlander. Not to mention, a mysterious character called Susanoo, who disillusioned with the robots his father designs in Fukui turns towards a career in ship building in Kiel, only to completely change course again and become a sushi chef in Arles.
The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole.
The themes depicted are pretty wide-ranging. First up is the idea of language, nationality and loss of identity, a topic touched upon through Hiruko’s dilemma. In the modern world, borders, nationalities, clear-cut identities heavily define an individual, but what happens when these are obliterated? What becomes the fate of people who find themselves in the murky in-between, those caught in a Kafkaesque position of belonging nowhere on paper – refugees and immigrants in particular? As her country no longer exists, Hiruko and the rest of her kinsfolk become stateless refugees overnight forced to migrate all over the globe, struggling to eke out new identities and begin life anew. Other characters like Tenzo are surprised to discover how race and identity matter so much in urban cities, things he had hardly ever given a thought to during his childhood in remote Greenland (“I wasn’t ashamed of being an Eskimo, but a whole life with just one identity seemed kind of dull”).
We get an inkling of the fraught complexities of language and communication as the novel progresses and how helpless refugees are almost always at the receiving end, their fates sealed by the whims, fancies and random policies of governments. For instance, in the dystopian world of Tawada’s creation, Hiruko invents the homemade language because she desires to procure residency in Scandinavia; however, Europe wants to pare down welfare costs and are more than willing to pack refugees off to America where English-language speakers are in demand, but Hiruko afraid of being deported to America refuses to speak English freely even though she can. Tenzo, meanwhile, displays a flair for languages conjuring up a ‘second identity’ for himself (“Learning a new language that would give me a second identity at the same time was much more fun”). One can’t help but feel that language is probably a theme close to Tawada’s heart given her background – Tawada was born in Tokyo but has lived in Germany for 40 years and writes in both German and Japanese.
“Once when I asked Cho who had taught him all this tuff, like how to press rice into little oblongs for sushi, or what to boil to make dashi for miso-shiru, or how to make perfect agedashi tofu, he told me he’d learned it all from a French chef at a hotel where he’d worked in Paris. I was shocked. “When the original no longer exists,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”
The debilitating impact of climate change as well as natural and man-made disasters is another theme explored in the novel. Japan’s disappearance forms the cornerstone of this idea but through Susanoo’s monologue we are also introduced to how the construction of nuclear power plants affects a community as livelihoods dependent on nature (read: fishing) are lost. Then there’s the dead whale whose survival skills are destroyed by the greed of oil companies boring laser beams deep into the sea to detect oil deposits.
But what I really loved about the novel was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other. Tawada’s modern world might be a complex, frightening space but no such barriers exist in the way her motley band of travellers openly befriend one another on parameters not related to race, class, identity and language.
The novel is also delightfully funny in places largely fuelled by cultural misunderstandings. I am reminded of a particular conversation between Hiruko and Akash intently engaged in a heated discussion about the origin of the word Osho, whether it’s a proper noun (the famous sage Osho with his ashram in India), or a common noun (osho, which means Buddhist priest).
As far as the book’s structure is concerned, the reader is presented with myriad points of view – first-person retellings with each character narrating a chapter or two. The language is plain but the story is richly imagined, and the narrative is drenched with an energy that propels it forward turning it into an immersive, absorbing read.
Scattered All Over the Earth, then, is a fascinating prism of a novel refracting a slew of varied ideas; a delectable mash-up of exotic ingredients that are a joy to savour. Highly recommended!