A Review of Yoko Tawada’s “Scattered All Over the Earth”
A Scattered Narrative
If there’s any group of people or a culture that has the right to write dystopian fiction, it’s the Japanese. Not only did we Westerners drop two atomic bombs on them, and not only did they have a major nuclear disaster more than 10 years ago, but they have also had to deal with Godzilla destroying Tokyo every couple of years. Ok, so I’m being a bit facetious and playful here, but the point is that Japan has faced a lot of tragedy and seismic events, so they have every right to think about dystopias. However, my experience is that Japanese writers don’t deal with this subject all that much. Haruki Murakami writes some weird fiction, but none of it feels particularly pitch-black either. Well, Yoko Tawads’s new novel, Scattered All Over the Earth, which was first published in Japanese in 2018 and is the premier book of a trilogy, deals with the question: how do you preserve your home language when your homeland has been destroyed?
In Scattered All Over the Earth, Japan — sometime soon — no longer exists. Some guy went around cutting the tops of mountains off with a bulldozer, and rising seawaters from global warming effectively drowned the country. None of it exists aside from the odd person here and there. A woman named Hiruko lives in Denmark at the opening of the book, and she has invented her own language called Panska, short for Pan-Scandinavian. (She also lives as something of a refugee making art for children.) Her made-up language, by the way, makes her sound like she’s talking like Yoda. You know, dialogue along the lines of “Go, you must.” Hiruko meets a would-be linguist named Knut, who gets interested in her cause. The novel, then, gets told from the perspective of different characters that they met on their journey through Scandinavia and Western Europe, looking for someone else who is and who can speak Japanese. Then this short novel ends. There’s nothing much more to it than that, and this first book feels like it’s all surface and backstory.
While I will admit that Scattered All Over the Earth is somewhat interesting at times, it ultimately doesn’t succeed because it jumps from place to place and person to person, never lingering over one thought for too long. Thus, you get a novel that is equal parts about language, food, robots, environmentalism, nationalism, nuclear power, and more. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to this novel, and I’m not sure if you must read the other two books in the series to make heads or tails of it. It just casts such a wide net that it becomes hard to concentrate on it for very long. Characters keep on getting piled on, and we then usually are invited to learn their backstory — and the backstory is usually not all that interesting or germane to the plot.
What’s more, for a novel that’s being billed as being dystopian, there isn’t a whole lot of world-building either. We’re told that the eastern half of Germany also no longer exists, but it’s unclear if the author is talking about the reunification of the country and West Germany swallowing up the mores and values of East Germany or if some catastrophic disaster occurred to the country. It might have been nice for Tawada to include a world map to show us what countries exist, and which ones don’t in the world of this book. And there’s a level of incredibility to this novel, too: characters will meet another character, who tell them that they must meet yet another character who is in a different country, and the whole gang of them will rush off to buy plane tickets. It’s as though these characters all trust one another, and don’t worry that a serial killer is in their bunch. This is particularly hard to believe.
All in all, I wasn’t too keen on Scattered All Over the Earth, and I don’t think I’ll join the fray for the next two books in the series. However, I could see how this novel might be of interest to those who are interested in the concept of languages. This is a novel about how it is that language shapes people and cultures, and whether knowing multiple languages gives you access to someone else’s culture. There’s a lengthy discussion about the word “Eskimo” and whether it’s racist, or if the word “Inuit” accurately captures an entire race of people. This could be fascinating to some. However, even though I’m a writer and should gobble stuff like this down, I found a lot of the discussion to be pedantic. As a result, the novel reads at times like a dry National Geographic special on world cultures. What’s troubling to me is that Tawada will try to make a point and then suddenly switch gears and go off on another unrelated tangent within the same chapter.
Thus, I found Scattered All Over the Earth to be largely a jumbled mess. Perhaps I’m being unfair, and you might have to read all three books of this series to really make sense of everything, but, at the end of the day, book number one seemed to me to be rather juvenile in its writing approach and often felt nonsensical. It’s too bad because I often enjoy Japanese fiction and I’m always willing to try out Japanese writers I’ve never heard of before. I suppose this is a long way of saying that Scattered All Over the Earth wasn’t my beverage of choice, and a lot of my criticism may be purely subjective. Still, you might want to give this one a try: it’s short and the topicality may be of interest to you. If so, there really are worse books to read than this one. Trust me. After all, I read a lot of books, Japanese ones included.
Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth will be published by New Directions on March 1, 2022.
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