The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada
Translator: Susan Bernofsky
3 Stars - it's hard not to be curious about what will happen next
Publisher: New Directions
Reviewed by Drew Broussard
The Short Version:
On a state-sponsored trip to East Germany, a young Vietnamese woman is kidnapped and taken to the other side of the Wall. So begins a strange journey that will take her to Paris and through various iterations of life, as well as see her develop an obsession with the films of Catherine Deneuve. But the films may have more of an impact on real life than first meets the eye...
What is it about our favorite performers that make us want to dive into their lives - not necessarily their real lives (although those as well, more often than not) but the many lives they live throughout their careers? That's what really interests us about stars, I think: their ability to live different lives that all come back to the same starting point.
Thoughts of the performers I love most were on my mind while reading this novel, Tawada's ode to Catherine Deneuve and also to ideas of film and film-structure. In many ways, the novel operates on a somewhat-more-rational version of David Lynch's "dream logic": things happen and they aren't necessarily spurred one from the next but rather simply a series of occurrences all featuring the same cast of characters (or at least the same main character). How else to explain the resonances between our narrator (although she adopts a handful of false ones, she never tells us her real name) and the characters Deneuve plays? Tawada encourages this in the reader, even going so far as to name the chapter titles after some of Deneuve's films, often ones that our narrator watches during the chapter and often ones that echo our narrator's plot. It can't be a coincidence that, when The Hunger is mentioned, our narrator ends up making money by participating in medical studies, many of which require them to draw blood... right? Or are we simply drawing conclusions in the same way that you might think "yeah, I'm just like the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes" for reasons that are, in fact, not at all real?
There is a note at the beginning of this slim volume that explains the translation: this version is based entirely on the German manuscript. However, Tawada (who is bilingual) worked simultaneously in German and Japanese and, in fact, ended up with two separate manuscripts of the novel. Not only is this obviously a fascinating experiment (and it would be thrilling to see the ways in which the two translations into English might diverge) but it actually informs the storytelling, too. Our narrator is often at a literal loss for words because of language barriers (German, French, English, and Japanese are all, at some point, languages she is unable to fluently communicate in) but also the literal instability of shifting space and understanding. Having just started listening to SerialBox's The Witch Who Came in From the Cold before picking this up, I was keenly thinking about the Cold War and the two sides of the Iron Curtain... and there's something interesting to the way our narrator, unable to actually keep up with the news, is somewhat stuck in time even as the world moves forward. I am curious, from a structural point of view, which came first - the idea for the novel's overall arc or the changing language of composition. I don't know that it would change my experience of the novel at all but I'm just deeply fascinated.
It's funny, though - the book, even as I write about it, slips away to some extent. I'm more interested in seeking out the films of Ms. Deneuve (I realize that I've never seen a single one, except perhaps in passing or when I didn't realize - but I don't consciously know even The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) than I am of thinking about this story all that much more. There's something oddly episodic about the novel, fitting again into the idea of it having elements of dream logic, and the way each chunk of the novel sits slightly removed from the others and I struggled to stay fully engrossed throughout the reading process. I worry, sometimes, that this is often (although certainly not always) the case when I read translated novels: something about translation, especially into English, can deliver a detached tone to the proceedings, something cool and removed. This, I believe, is a failure of the English language more than it is the fault of any translator - but I wonder if this book has more heat to it read in either of the original vernacular. I don't suppose I'll ever know.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
An interesting introduction to the bilingual Tawada, whose body of work (at least that so far translated into English for New Directions) seems to all deal with a certain amount of flickering identity and strange liminal states. The episodic plot never allows us to really care for our narrator but at the same time, I think it's hard not to be curious about what will happen next. Yet interspersed with storytelling are sometimes whole recitations of plot of Catherine Deneuve films, except seen through the lens of someone who can't necessarily understand the entirety of the film because of barriers both linguistic and more broadly cultural. It's a strange little book, unlike anything else I've maybe ever read - but while I wouldn't say no to more Tawada, I'm not sure I'm rushing out to get another of her books. This one feels, in ways both good and bad, a little too much like a very long waking-dream.
Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble. He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.