Feed on

According to a book review on Words Without Borders, Yoko Tawada’s novel The Emissary is greatly inspired by Kenzaburo Oe’s Nobel Prize winning A Personal Matter. A Personal Matter is a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who has to come to terms with the birth of his mentally disabled son. Published in 1964, the novel follows a Japanese man named Bird who wonders about taking a hypothetical trip to Africa and discovers that his newborn son was born with a brain hernia – two things that are similar to plot points in The Emissary. If they baby survived for a few days, he would receive brain surgery, but would never be a healthy child; Bird refers to the child as a “monster baby” and does not want him to ruin his plan to travel.

While The Emissary is a dystopian novel – obviously fictitious – it is easy to see from this summary how the two novels are related. “In Tawada’s novel,” writes Andrew Hungate on Words Without Borders, “the unfortunate infant of Oe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins.” In The Emissary, readers see what it is like for the elderly to raise children they know will never be healthy; they also see what it is like for the children. It is often worse for the adults watching the children suffer than for the children themselves. When Mumei had a coughing fit he looked up at Yoshiro and asked in surprise, “Great-grandpa, are you all right?” Mumei “didn’t seem to know what ‘suffering’ meant; he simply coughed when food wouldn’t go down, or vomited it back up. Of course he felt pain, but it was pure pain, unaccompanied by any ‘Why am I the only one who has to suffer like this?’ sort of lamentations that Yoshiro knew so well” (33). Though the main character in A Personal Matter, was negatively affected by his son’s condition in a selfish way, in both novels we can see that those who aren’t actually the ones in pain often “suffer” more than those who are.

There are also similarities between the novels when it comes to the topic of travel. When Mumei has the opportunity to leave Japan, he wants to go but hesitates when he thinks of what will become of his great-grandfather. “Mumei’s resolve began to waver. Through the years, they had grown even closer than before. Fragments, scenes from that time he was supposed to have skipped over now came back to him. The Silver-Headed League, for instance. What would become of the Silver-Headed League if he were to leave?” (132). This situation is the opposite of that in A Personal Matter. Here, the sickly child is afraid to leave the healthy adult because he is concerned about what his great-grandfather will do without him. It is interesting to see how Tawada flips Oe’s ideas from a story of resentment due to illness to one of love and companionship.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.