book review: where europe begins

The second Yoko Tawada book I’ve read, Where Europe Begins, didn’t leave me with quite the same “Holy fuck! I can’t believe this thing exists!” feeling that I got from The Bridegroom Was a Dog. Natural really. There were expectations now. So there were some bits I didn’t like so much but others that were great. It’s another book of shortish pieces, some of them translated from Japanese, some from German. I couldn’t tell which was which just from reading them, which probably speaks to the good work of the translators.

The most important part of the book (for me) was the title story. It’s about the narrator travelling the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow. What got me about it was the admission of the narrator that parts of the story were written before she’d ever gone to Russia. “I like to have the story of a trip planned out so I can quote from it when I inevitably run out of words in the middle of my travels” (not an exact quote – grumble grumble returned my library book too soon – but that was the sentiment). And she also says that her diary was written long after the fact. Her notebooks just sat there mute during the travels. And the narrator doesn’t make the facile statement about not writing because she’s busy experiencing life or whatever; she can’t write on the train because the words all disappear. All words everywhere. For her. The story ends with her collapsed in a Moscow train station square while alphabets try to orient her, but she can’t deal with any of it. Because she’s in the centre of Europe.

Being disoriented and bewildered are common states for Tawada characters, which probably explains my attraction. I’ve been trying to read this W.G. Sebald book which has similar themes, but it drowns in detail of a more prosaic kind. His world is bewildering because of the most mundane bits of life which he treats as special, while Tawada is making the bizarre feel mundane.

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