Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Where Europe Begins - Yoko Tawada

Bringing together pieces written in both German and Japanese, Where Europe Begins has two translators, Susan Bernofsky, (translating from the German), and Yumi Selden, (translating from the Japanese), the book has three parts, The Bath and The Guest being the two longest and the middle part, Where Europe Begins is composed of smaller pieces. The pieces are linked not in plot, although all the narratives are given from the perspective of someone living in a country and language not of their own, (usually here the country is Germany), or as in Where Europe Begins the narrator is travelling via the Trans-Siberian train into Europe. Tawada's writing through keeping an eye on minuscule observations, (amoebas floating on the lens of the eye), questions perceptions of identity, it's tempting to also include perceptions of nationality, but the perspectives are usually from a point of view that remains slightly indifferent to national stereotypes, the narratives are focused on language, and also by turns interpretation and meaning. Another aspect depicted in the book is that of the initial incomprehension when faced with a new language, the narrators stare at the letters and characters of the alphabet before the decoding procedure begins, Tawada's characters seem to be caught not only between nations but also languages, in a sense they sometimes appear to exist in a language-less state, caught in transition, a linguistic limbo.

In the piece The Guest another theme that lies low in the texts of the previous pieces comes more to the fore, that of the motives of authorship, something hinted to also is the motives of the reader. Here the story seems to be set on campus, or within a student community, the protagonist is a writer who hears a voice, which is interpreted as the voice of the novel the writer is writing, which at first is heard through a series of cassettes played on a tape recorder. The narrator places a classified advert in which she's searching for a book, in the advert she poses as an old woman and that this old woman was willing to pay one hundred marks for a book that had value neither for a passionate lover of literature nor a book collector might have seemed unusual. Comparing her advert with others she surmises book 'The novel didn't interest me. I wanted to own the book in order to lock the voice from the tape behind the bars of the printed letters'. She gets a reply from a man called Simon who has a copy of the book although he's not willing to sell it to her, but he's willing to stay with her as long as it takes her to read it. The prose constantly toys with the readers expectations and will sometimes revise or back pedal with what has gone before. It's difficult to conclude the story without thinking as to the identity of the guest in the story, is it Simon?, the voice?, the narrator?, the novel?, or the narrator's enigmatic neighbour Z?.

At the start of The Bath the narrator observes how much of the human body is made up of water, hence the constantly changing appearance of her face, in the mornings she checks her reflection in a mirror against a photograph of herself hanging next to it, then applies her make up ensuring her appearance is the same, treating the application of her make up to the same degree as of a painter painting a picture. This acute warping of a daily activity soon develops into more surreal-ness in this story, involving an episode where the narrator is a translator at a dinner party, her tongue is bitten off by the sole she eats, she passes out and comes around in a house of a woman who promises that if she returns she'll return her tongue. Tawada's prose is a fascinating journey into language and identity which additionally poses many questions about the author/reader relationship.

Where Europe Begins at New Directions

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