Saturday 21 April 2018

Facing the Bridge

(January 2018)

After my first experience reading Tawada was something of a qualified success, I decided to try again with this older collection of three longish short stories. In summary, it confirms what I think I already knew—she’s an intriguing writer, and one worth engaging with, but not one I’ll ever really love. There’s just a little too much distance in her work, too much detachment to engage on that more emotional level. To be fair though, that’s probably deliberate.

Unlike Memoirs of a Polar Bear, the stories here have been translated into English straight from their original Japanese, rather than passing through German on the way. Germany still features prominently in the first tale, though, as it splices the life of (the real-life) Anton Wilhelm Amo with the experiences of (the fictional) Tamao, a Japanese exchange student studying in Leipzig.

The Shadow Man is a curious consideration of the status of the immigrant, but not an entirely successful one. This is not least because Amo was stolen from Ghana by Dutch slavers in the 18th century (and later went on to become the first African to study at a European University). He’s shown as integrating relatively successfully, while Tamao’s efforts are far less effective, centering as they do around his immature love-hate relationship with another Japanese student in the same town. I can certainly sympathise with the confusion of not knowing quite how to respond to a fellow fish out of water, but the disconnect between how the two main characters arrived in Europe is never really addressed. In fact, it’s implied that Tamao doesn’t really want to be in Germany in the first place, and has just gone because he’s too apathetic to stand up to his professor back home. To draw a parallel between this and the slave trade is delicate ground, to say the least, and not one that’s ever really addressed in any depth, to the detriment of the wider story.

The second story, In Front of Trang Tien Bridge, is about a Japanese tourist in Vietnam, wrestling with the legacy of her country’s support of that war (through the deployment of American troops from bases in Japan), and further issues of her own self-image as she has an affair with a white tourist who speaks fluent Japanese and who insists he is as Japanese as she is. Again, an interesting if not exactly riveting story that, if considered with Garland’s The Beach and Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, would make for an interesting discussion on tourism, imperialism, complicity, and identity.

The final story is probably the best of the bunch. Saint George and the Translator is a vaguely dream-like tale about a literary translator who borrows an acquaintance’s holiday apartment on an island idyll and slowly loses her ability to distinguish between fact and reality, between her original self and her self in translation. Who’d have thought a banana plantation could seem so ominous?

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