people walking on street near buildings

Scattered All Over the Earth (by Yōko Tawada [translated by Margaret Mitsutani])

In the not too distant future Japan has been submerged by the rising waters caused by the melting ice caps. Its population has been disbursed throughout the word and its language has all but been forgotten. Hiruko, who is a language teacher in Denmark, still remembers her language and she sets out on a quest to find another person who can speak her mother tongue. Along the way she gathers an unlikely group of fellow travellers, and she meets many strange characters before she finds what she is looking for.

When I read the synopsis for Scattered All Over the Earth I was instantly intrigued by the concept, and after reading quite a few Japanese authors over the last couple of years I thought Yoko Tawada might be an interesting author to try. Culture is interesting to me, and language is an important part of culture, so I thought the journey would be an interesting one. It also seemed from the synopsis I read that Tawada writes similarly to some of the other authors I have enjoyed, with less of an emphasis on plot and more on story or character.

Unfortunately when eschewing plot the author has to have characters who engage with the audience, and for me this is where the author failed. In general I think readers will get very different mileage from this book depending on whether they can associate with the characters or not. There’s little else going on. The writing is engaging and the locations are interesting, but if you can’t quite understand or sympathise with the characters a reader is on shaky ground, and this is where I found myself.

On the surface of it the characters are interesting, and immensely diverse. We have a mix of cultures and languages (of course) but we also have traditional values coexisting with very modern changes. In many ways Scattered All Over the Earth is an exaggerated macrocosm of the world in which we currently live. The problem I had with the characters wasn’t those things that made them different, but the things about them that made them the same – at least in my eyes –  which was epitomised by what I saw as their shallow affect.

As strange as this might seem, Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth too often reads like American Psycho to me. There is a lot of talk of pop-culture and culture in general, there are musings on the fate of the world, but I never got the impression anyone actually cared about the things they were talking about. There was no urgency in their journey, no emotion in their arguments. I was left with the impression that I was witnessing academics speaking about academic things. There was lots of theory, lots and lots of ideas floating around the book, but few emotional entanglements, and even those were fleeting and left little mark.

I have no doubt at all that I missed a great deal in this book, but what I have taken from it is that I don’t think Yoko Tawada’s work is for me. I think if you like books that hover around more literary or more esoteric arguments, writing that centres on ideas rather than people, then this might be something for you. Perhaps – in fact – it might be something I would enjoy a great deal more at some other point in my own life. Maybe I’ll read it again in a year or so and find it “clicks”, and wonder to myself why I never saw what made it so good before.

Books are like that sometimes for me. Ultimately I found Scattered All Over the Earth a disappointing experience, but not because Yoko Tawada is a bad writer, she certainly isn’t, but rather because of my own expectations based on the synopsis I read of the work. I wanted an emotional tale and instead felt that I read an extended hypothesis instead, and I guess that’s just not what I was looking for.

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