Weekly updates and mini reviews of two NBA-nominated novels by women in translation: Yōko Tawada’s The Emissary and Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental.
This week, I read all but one of the books I had wanted to check out: Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, which I’ll try to finish over the weekend. I read two books on the National Book Award in Fiction shortlist, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, and two on the NBA in Translated Literature shortlist, Yōko Tawada’s The Emissary and Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental.
So far, I definitely am liking the Translated Lit shortlist better than the Fiction shortlist. Neither The Great Believers nor Where the Dead Sit Talking have stuck with me, whereas I’m finding that I only appreciate The Emissary and Disoriental more as time passes. I would highly recommend Disoriental, which has turned out to be one of my favorite books of the year. While the story starts off shakily, it improves quickly, and the emotional payoff is huge.
(1) Short, strange, and whimsical, Yōko Tawada’s The Emissary tracks Mumei, a sickly child, and his great-grandfather Yoshiro as the pair wanders about post-apocalyptic Tokyo. An environmental catastrophe has left Japan with immortal elders and weak youths, and prompted the nation to sequester itself from the rest of the world. In delicate and ethereal prose, the author captures the loneliness of Mumei and Yoshiro’s daily routines, and describes the changes in their country’s customs since the time of ecological ruin. The serenity of the novella is occasionally punctured by flashes of trauma or fury. Readers searching for a well-structured story will be disappointed, but Tawada’s style is mesmerizing.
(2) A family saga intermixed with Iranian history, Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental follows Kimiâ Sadr as she recalls her experience of emigrating from Iran to France at the age of ten. The first half of the autobiographical novel examines Kimiâ’s childhood in Iran, focusing on her ambivalent relationship to her dissident parents and older sisters. The second takes place after the Sadrs have fled Iran for their safety, and it tracks Kimiâ’s coming of age in Europe, centering on her realization that she loves women. Both parts ricochet between past and present and view the lives of Kimiâ’s many relatives. Djavadi, a screenwriter, has a cinematic style: her debut novel is a stimulating montage of family lore, national politics, and personal history.