Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

Let me say right off the bat that I absolutely loved Yoko Tawada’s gloriously strange and perverse novella The Bridegroom Was A Dog. I have some specific thoughts on Bridegroom stored somewhere that I will post sometime in the future.

With that out of the way, I can now say that I got nothing out of Facing the Bridge. The three stories that make up the collection are meandering and gratingly abstract. Actually, that’s not exactly true. I quite liked “The Shadow Man” in spite of it’s jarringly abrupt ending that felt as if Tawada ended it simply because she ran out of steam with the narrative. It follows Amo, a young African boy who is kidnapped and brought to Europe and takes refuge in literature and eventually becomes a scholar. In a parallel story line centuries in the future Tamao is a foreign exchange student living in Europe and struggling to find any connection to his new surroundings. Their circumstances are vastly different, but the ways they are forced to manipulate their personalities in order to live in places where they are both physical and cultural outsiders is fascinating. But while Amo both ages and intellectually matures in his part of the narrative, Tamao drifts aimlessly and nothing much happens to him.

I can’t help wishing Tawada would have extended “The Shadow Man” instead of tirelessly rehashing the same ideas in the other two stories. “In Front of Trang Tien Bridge” and “Saint George and the Translator” are essentially the same story with the bare necessities slightly altered. “Trang Tien Bridge” follows Kazuko, a “professional traveler” who goes to Vietnam on a whim after receiving a letter from someone she briefly encountered years before. In Vietnam she goes to the required tourist spots and experiences the country with zero judgement because, in her mind, that is the duty of a tourist. She treats exploring the country as if it is just another type of droll nine-to-five job, and along the way she continually encounters James, a man who Kazuko thinks looks America but who says he is Japanese. James is as disaffected and dispassionate as Kazuko is, and together they make an exhausting pair.

“Saint George and the Translator” is narrated by a nameless translator who is translating a cryptic story about Saint George while anxiously awaiting the arrival of an acquaintance named George. Set on the Canary Islands, she procrastinates from her work by wandering around her surroundings and being antagonistic towards the locals. Everyone speaks in a disorienting cryptic language that doesn’t add anything to the story. One moment she talks about her translating work with reverence and the next informs us that her work is critically disrespected and that it doesn’t mean that much to her. We are stuck in her head for 60-odd pages and by the end I was reading it in the same detached trance that seemed to make up her entire existence. Not even the hallucinatory imagery at the climax could penetrate my cloud of indifference.

A surprising disappointment after reading Bridegroom Was A Dog, but I still look forward to reading Memoirs of a Polar Bear  and The Emissary (originally published in English in the U.K. with the title The Last Children of Tokyo), which sound as if they return to her more bizarre and Kafkaesque obsessions.

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