Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature (and by the celebrated surrealist author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear), The Emissary is a slim, tender dystopian novel set in an isolated, post-disaster Japan, focusing on a sick-but-cheery boy and his great-grandfather.
The poles between which Tawada oscillates are thus, not quite independently of her choice of language, the interplay between seriousness and frivolity. The result, in which farce is played as tragedy and tragedy as farce, is a big part of what makes Tawada one of the best and most unique writers working today ... The book’s vision of closed states, xenophobia, mass extinction, and the gulf between the undying adults and their feeble progeny makes it one of the few literary futures that makes you sit up and say 'Oh yeah, that’s totally going to happen' ... From this description, you’d probably imagine Tawada’s book to be a gloomy dystopic nightmare. Instead, it is charming, light, and unapologetically strange, with a distinct 'indie cinema' feel ... Tawada finds a way to make a story of old men trapped in unending life and children fated to die before their time joyful, comic, and—frankly—a huge comfort.
...an airily beautiful dystopian novella about mortality ... Tawada’s quirky style and ability to jump from realism to abstraction manages to both chastise humanity for the path we are taking towards destruction and look hopefully toward an unknown future. This may be a short read, but Tawada’s disciplined conservation of words makes it all the more powerful.
The Emissary is a contentedly minor work. It has a recessive, lunar beauty compared to the sunny ambition and inventiveness of its predecessors ... Tawada is a great disciple of Kafka’s; he 'predicted reality,' she is fond of saying. And while she shares certain of his preoccupations — with otherness and evoking animal life — hers is a more prosaic mission: She mirrors reality. Although her work is frequently described as strange — which it is, determinedly — there is always a stark social critique at its core ... It’s quite a premise, but remains just that. The book feints at a narrative and at wrestling with the issues it raises ... Tawada seems content to evoke mood, to polish her sentences to a high sheen. Her language has never been so arresting. But as Virginia Woolf wrote, novels are composed of paragraphs, not sentences. The Emissary is stalled there, at the level of a flickering brilliance that never kindles into more. From a writer with Tawada’s gifts, mere beauty can be a disappointment.