This is an excerpt from Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, published by Granta Books. Order your copy here.
I spent that afternoon lying on the sofa, hugging a cushion, watching TV with the volume turned down. Rain gives me a peaceful feeling. There’s a stepping-stone path out front leading to a small park, and I never get tired of listening to the patter of rain falling on stone blending with that soft squishy sound of water seeping into the ground.
It wasn’t the rain that kept me inside that day. I like strolling along by the canal, stopping for coffee or at a used record store on the way, or going down to the town square, working my way into the crowd around a hot dog stand to see if there’s anyone I know waiting for one of those garish red sausages on a bun. But that day I just wanted to relax, and avoid doing anything much. As I turned my head so I could look out at the gloomy Copenhagen sky, I felt the silver light beyond the clouds start to glow inside me.
Doing nothing is harder than you’d think. Usually when I can’t stand it anymore I escape to the internet, but that day just the thought of the blue screen put me off, the kind of light that drags everyone out onto a bright stage whether they want to be there or not. On that stage, blinded by spotlights, I’m a fake star. Ridiculous. Better to turn on the TV. I can lie on the sofa and watch the performers without feeling like they’re watching me. I flipped through comedies that weren’t the least bit funny, popular songs with an extremely limited vocabulary, ads plugging some kitchen utensil you’d use once or twice and then forget about. Then I came to one of those foodie shows, a tour of Danish restaurants.
Denmark is definitely the world’s easiest country to live in, probably because we’re not fussy about what we eat. You always find the Mafia and corrupt politicians in countries full of gourmets obsessed with food. We should admit that the reason we have clean politics and safe streets is that we don’t care about taste or stuff like that and quit making silly gourmet TV shows, but for some reason on that day there was a boring show called ‘In Search of Denmark’s Most Delicious Hot Dog’. I must have dozed off watching it because I didn’t even notice when the commercials were over and the next program started. When I opened my eyes I saw a panel of guests in the studio with a moderator who seemed very excited, going on and on. Gradually I realized that the panelists were all people whose countries no longer exist.
The first one, shown in close-up, was a German woman teaching political linguistics at the University of Copenhagen. The ‘German Democratic Republic’, where she was born and raised, was now extinct. That’s the country we used to call East Germany. Looking puzzled, the moderator asked her a question. ‘The two countries were united, so you can’t really say that either one disappeared, can you?’
‘You don’t understand. The country where I used to live is now gone.’
‘But can’t you say that West Germany is also gone? Why does only East Germany no longer exist?’
Taking a deep breath, the woman started shouting into the microphone, so loud the sound was breaking up. Thank god I had the volume turned down low.
‘After reunification, people’s lives in the West went on as usual, while ours in the East changed radically. Textbooks, prices, TV programs, working conditions, even our holidays – everything was adjusted to the West. We were suddenly like immigrants in our own country – where we’d been born and bred. Furthermore, historians in the East were told that the theories we had based our life’s work on were worthless; we were driven from our posts.’
This was much too heavy for relaxing to, but when I went to change the channel I couldn’t find the remote. I’d taken it with me when I went to the bathroom a while before; maybe I’d left it by the sink. Since I was little I’ve had this habit of taking the remote with me when I go to the toilet, to make sure my parents didn’t change the channel while I was away. Not so much because I wanted to see whatever was on as out of fear that my father would change the channel and my mother would get so mad at him she’d start smashing plates on the floor again. My mother wasn’t fussy about what she watched, she just couldn’t stand it when my father treated her as if she wasn’t even there. My parents got divorced when I was fifteen, and I’ve been living alone for years now, and still I’m taking the remote to the bathroom . . . kind of depressing, really.
Getting up off the sofa to go get it seemed like a lot of trouble, yet I was really getting fed up with this program. While I was still wondering whether I should change the channel a man from the former Yugoslavia, a woman from the former Soviet Union, and a few others came on and said their bit for the cameras.
I listened to them, getting more and more irritated. They sounded almost proud of coming from countries that didn’t exist anymore. As if that somehow made them special. We’re not living in the Kingdom of Denmark anymore, so couldn’t you say we’ve lost our country, too? Our ancestors had a sprawling kingdom that encompassed Greenland, but now we live in this one tiny country on the edge of Europe. That change didn’t happen in my lifetime, but couldn’t you say I’m the second generation of people who lost their country?
Actually, I’m sure our official loss of Greenland has something to do with my mother’s strange affliction. Otherwise, she wouldn’t always be going on about Eskimos as if they were her own children. Now she’s paying tuition for a young Eskimo guy who’s studying to be a doctor. I’m her own son, but when I want to go abroad and ask her for help with travel expenses she’ll turn away and say something like, ‘Sorry – don’t have any to spare right now.’
I suddenly remembered I’d promised my mother I’d go over to her place for dinner that night. Going out in the rain was too much trouble. I decided to text her and say I’d caught a cold. If I phoned her she’d immediately know I was lying.
While these thoughts were running through my head a close-up of an entirely different sort of face appeared on the TV, and I slid off the sofa for a closer look. There used to be a popular anime called The Cosmos Where Rain Never Falls and she reminded me of the heroine. Apparently from an archipelago somewhere between China and Polynesia, she’d come as a foreign student, planning to stay for just a year but then a couple of months before she was supposed to go home, her country disappeared. She hadn’t seen her family or friends since. Hearing that I swallowed hard, as if my mouth was full of lemon juice, but she just calmly went on talking. Her face was like the sky with the northern lights – bright yet dark. What really got to me, though, was the language she was speaking. I could understand it all right, but it wasn’t Danish. It was much crisper, more staccato. For the first few seconds I thought it might be Norwegian, but no. It sounded closer to Swedish, but definitely wasn’t that either. I was staring at the close-up of her mouth on the screen as if I wanted to kiss it, which was embarrassing, so I turned away for a minute, and when I looked back again I thought I saw a resemblance to that Icelandic singer Bjork when she was young. Could this woman be speaking some Icelandic language? She’d said she was from an island. Iceland is an island, too. But what about the geographical position? True, global warming is melting the arctic ice, making new oceanic currents, but you never hear anything about Iceland being swept all the way over toward China and Polynesia. So what language was she speaking anyway? The moderator must have been wondering the same thing. ‘Tell me,’ she asked, ‘what is this language you’re speaking so fluently?’
For the first time, the woman smiled. ‘homemade language,’ she said. ‘no place to return. in gothenburg studied, but couldn’t extend. so to trondheim went. one-year scholarship. spring, summer, autumn, winter quickly passed. what to do? trouble, but found job in odense. again moved. recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.’
‘Wouldn’t English work as well?’
‘english speaking migrants sometimes by force to america sent. frightening. illness have, so in country with undeveloped healthcare system cannot live.’
‘Do you want to stay in Denmark permanently?’
‘yes. hoping denmark afloat stays, not to bottom of sea sink.’ I’d planned to do nothing this Sunday afternoon, but now my heart was pattering like a small drum. I felt a rush, like a street performer when a crowd starts to gather. The name Hiruko, J. flashed across the bottom of the screen.
What a strange combination of sounds. Three vowels . . . Like Enrico in Italian, but that’s a man’s name, and wasn’t there a similar Hungarian name? Eniko, a woman’s name – maybe her country had historical connections to Hungary. Thoughts roamed the prairie of my mind like Huns on horseback.
‘What kind of work are you doing in Odense?’
‘storyteller at märchen center. stories from long ago to children tell.’
‘But you’re very young. We’d expect someone much older to be telling folktales.’
‘everything from yesterday disappears, then yesterday into long ago transforms.’
Breathing in several grammars, she was melding them together inside her body, and then exhaling them as sweet breath. Listening to those strange sentences, I stopped worrying about whether or not they were grammatically correct, and felt I was gliding through water. From now on, maybe solid grammar would be replaced by some new grammar, more liquid or air-like. I had to meet this woman. Not only meet her, but stay close to her if I could, and see where she went from here. I’d never felt this way before. Or called a TV station, either. I knew the station had a number you could call, but I’d never imagined using it myself.
‘Hello, I’m a graduate student studying linguistics at Copenhagen University, and I was wondering if it would be possible to meet the woman called Hiruko who is appearing on your program now,’ I said. ‘I’m researching immigrant languages, and I’d very much like her cooperation. For a national research project.’ The person on the other end didn’t sound the least bit suspicious: ‘When the program is over, we’ll ask her if she’s willing to meet you. Please tell me your name and the official title of your department at the university. You’ll have to wait until the program ends, so it will take a while, but we’ll call you back.’
I put down the receiver and went back to the TV to find that Part One with the panel of guests was over, and they were well into Part Two, with three specialists talking about vanished empires, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Yuan Dynasty. The first was a historian, the second a historical novelist, and the third a deep-sea archaeologist. I didn’t even know such a profession existed, but apparently he dives under water to examine the remains of villages that were submerged when a dam was built, or Pacific islands that have sunk into the sea. He said that sometimes when he’s diving he’ll hear a woman singing, or see a pale, headless corpse float up from the bottom.
‘But you mustn’t lose your cool, no matter what happens,’ he went on. ‘When you panic it messes up your breathing, so even if there’s no problem with the oxygen tank, you can’t breathe.’ The man had black hair, so shiny it looked wet, and red lips. Upset, perhaps, that this handsome explorer was hogging all the attention, the historian cleared his throat and, like a ship’s captain, took the helm and steered the conversation off in a completely different direction.
‘Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?’
The sort of ‘revival’ he was talking about reeked of old-fashioned nationalism, which was certainly worth thinking about, but knowing I’d probably be meeting Hiruko soon, I went to the mirror and ran my fingers through my messy hair, trying to make myself look more presentable. Then I went to the dresser, picked out a clean shirt and fresh trousers, and had just finished brushing my teeth when I saw that the moderator was now seated facing the camera, blinking with an ‘in conclusion’ sort of look, which I thought must mean the end and then the music started up again as the camera panned aimlessly above the studio like a bird. The names of everyone who had appeared on the program fell like raindrops from the top of the TV screen to disappear, sucked in at the bottom.
I waited for about twenty minutes, wondering if my request had been pigeonholed, but one of the nice things about living in a small country is that you’re rarely ignored. Another few minutes and the phone rang.
‘Hello,’ said the voice on the other end, ‘this is the television station you were kind enough to call this afternoon. Ms J says she’d like to meet you. If you’ll come to the studio right away, she’ll see you in the lobby.’ It was a different person this time, a man with a rather high voice, telling me just what I wanted to hear. I grabbed my raincoat with the advertising slogan ULTRA-LIGHT, WRINKLE-FREE, COMPLETELY WATER PROOF YET LETS YOUR SKIN BREATHE printed in big letters on the back in place of a logo, pulled on my waterproof cycling slacks, stuck my feet in my waterproof sneakers, and jumped on my bicycle.
I wasn’t exactly lying when I said I was a graduate student in the linguistics department. For the past two years I’ve been involved in a three-year project to help young immigrants learn about Danish life through computer games, getting research funds and living expenses from the government. Though I don’t think this sort of research is exactly meaningless, my conscience bothers me so much I sometimes get toothaches, or pains in my back. It would be okay if I was really into computer games, but, while secretly despising them, I made myself sound like a sympathetic spokesman for youth culture when I filled out the project’s application forms. ‘Computer games’ became my ticket to an easy, healthy lifestyle sponging off the government, knowing all the while how many young people get hooked on computer games and end up losing their jobs, getting fat on a diet of fast food, or start suffering from insomnia or diabetes. You can say you want a classless society, but once you’ve boarded a big, safe ship, it’s hard to screw up the courage to switch to a dinghy. If things went on this way I’d get lazier and more depressed by the year, and maybe wind up sick like my mother. Before that happened, I wanted to take a year off and travel through Africa or India – some place with lots of languages to study. I didn’t have much money saved up, but in most of the world the cost of living is so unbelievably low that with some careful planning I’d probably be able to manage a long trip. I might get by for six months or so just on my savings. And I was hoping to wheedle a little money out of my mother. But the moment I saw Hiruko’s face, I lost all interest in that trip I’d been planning. The key to my puzzle was in this puzzling young woman. I’d never once called a TV station, or had the courage to set out to meet someone out of the blue. Suddenly I was so bold it seemed my whole personality had changed. I passed through the security check at the broadcast studio entrance and gave my name to the receptionist in the lobby, who told me to wait in the visitor’s corner. I was absentmindedly watching the stream of people go by when I saw a face I thought I recognized. That thin old man in the bow tie, smiling like someone who enjoys setting intellectual traps: that’s Lars von Trier, I thought, but just at that moment a women I assumed was Hiruko was coming from the opposite direction. She had an odd way of sliding across the floor, not lifting her feet at all.
When she looked up at me she stopped dead, as if her weight was centered in her belly.
‘How do you do?’ I said. ‘My name is Knut, and I’m studying linguistics.’
‘name feeling of intimacy gives.’
‘Actually it’s an old man’s name. My great-grandfather was apparently a wonderful person, so my mother just had to name me after him.’
‘great-grandfather also linguist?’
‘No, he was a leftist Arctic explorer.’
‘among arctic explorers also leftists and rightists exist. linguist knud knudsen also your ancestor?’
‘Unfortunately, no. I was really surprised when I saw you on TV today. That was a live broadcast, wasn’t it?’
‘yes. in your country live program without incident. your country fearless when guest suddenly sounds antidemocratic. your country with such incident naturally can deal.’
Hiruko was sometimes hard to follow, but when I stopped to think, it seemed like maybe that was because I just wasn’t very bright. Not that I think I’m particularly stupid, but after I smoke pot, I’ll suddenly go all foggy in the head for days afterward. Like there’s this idea right in front of me but my brain’s too sluggish to grasp it – that sort of frustration. I couldn’t tell whether the strangeness I felt listening to Hiruko was because of the dope or thanks to this entirely new kind of grammar she was using. But any sort of distance between us was purely due to language – on a personal level, I felt as if I’d known her since we were children.
‘Are you living in Copenhagen?’
‘no. in odense. but today single room reserved, so at wristwatch looking unnecessary.’
‘Well then, can I take you to dinner? As a budding linguist, there are lots of things I want to talk to you about.’
‘to most people linguist not interesting job. to me linguist equals diamond.’ Hearing her say that made me so happy my heart did a back flip.
‘What kind of food do you like?’ I asked her. ‘How about Finnish home cooking – sushi, for instance.’
‘sushi not finnish.’
‘Are you sure? I always thought it was Finnish. There’s a sign in the Helsinki Airport that says ‘Welcome to the Country of the Three Wonderful S’s’.’
‘Sauna, Sibelius, Sushi.’
‘not sushi, sisu. sushi entirely not finnish. i alone say, no one will believe.’
‘Well, I believe you,’ I assured her. ‘Shall we go? Do you have an umbrella?’
Image © RA Stone