The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Every time I read a Yoko Tawada title, I almost want to go finish my almost-ABD PhD (in post-war German and Japanese literatures). Sadly, I recently got the news that my advisor/mentor passed away, so going back would be impossible without him; even though I didn’t see him enough after I left, I was always comforted knowing he was there in that Ivory Tower … as my husband said when I shared the news, “well, now he’s everywhere in the ether around you, and you can talk to him anytime.” I suppose having ongoing chats about Tawada with him makes me miss him less – she certainly provides plenty to talk about …
The Naked Eye is Tawada’s first novel available in English; Tawada writes in both Japanese (her native language) and German (her adopted tongue) and has won top literary prizes in both languages. The book’s translator notes about Naked, “She started the novel in German, but then parts of the story began occurring to her in Japanese, and so she continued writing sections of the book now in one language, now in the other, later translating in both directions until she arrived sumltaneously at two complete manuscripts.”
Language always looms large in Tawada’s works, and this one is no different. The young protagonist in Naked both struggles with language and resists learning the words that surround her. She is a Vietnamese high school student who arrives in East Berlin to deliver a paper at an international conference. Already she is linguistically and culturally displaced. She meets a West German university student, inadvertently gets drunk with him the first night of her visit, and wakes up virtually his prisoner in his far away hometown. Stripped of language, culture, and family, she remains trapped with him until she just walks out one day, gets on a passing train hoping to get to Moscow from where she might finally return home, but ends up in Paris, culturally and linguistically displaced yet again. Befriended by a series of strangers, she spends over a decade in limbo – watching Catherine Deneuve films over and over again – losing more and more of her identity along the way.
That’s the basic story of what happens. Or so it seems. But really, Tawada’s novel has a whole other dimension that is mind-boggling in its cleverness – and I’m sure my PhD-deprived brain is too untrained at this late stage to have understood it all, but what a fantastic challenge to just try! Every chapter is the name of a Catherine Deneuve film – and every chapter shares elements with their respective film’s plots. To our non-French speaking Vietnamese illegal immigrant, Catherine Deneuve, in her various celluloid incarnations, becomes both her obsession and her teacher. Even as she does not speak the film’s language, she watches the films multiple times, gaining new understanding with each repetitive viewing. With each screening, Catherine the actress becomes more real and her filmic world that much more understandable, while the young Vietnamese girl literally fades further and further.