Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky, The Naked Eye (New Directions, 2009)
Tawada’s novel is a distinguished contribution to the unique paranoid style of the new European novel. While Americans continue to write about identity in a world of mostly established meanings, Europeans are after much bigger game: the meaning of identity itself in a world bedeviled by simulacra and images, shoddy and glamorous. Can we escape the movies? Who are the characters we most want to play? How can we know that the characters on the screen are not really ourselves projected in our most conscious habitats, so that what we see is not a mirage but doubly real?
Anh is a high-schooler from Ho Chi Minh City sent to Berlin shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall to present a conference paper on the influence of imperialism on Vietnam. She emerges full-blown from the old world, wanting to be more communist than the Communists themselves. Her short life has been defined, as any good communist’s must, by sharp definitions of good versus evil, us against them, war contra peace, justice opposed to exploitation. But the Moscow she yearns to visit doesn’t exist—twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we know more than ever that it never did.
When Anh finds herself abducted to Bochum, a provincial West German town, her former identity is erased. After she moves from Bochum to Paris, the rest of the novel follows her “salvation” by various do-gooding individuals, whatever their own straitened circumstances, who want to rescue their image of the naïve Vietnamese refugee. Anh is stateless in the sense that most thinking persons are stateless today. In this frame of mind, her only stability is to obsessively and repetitively watch the movies of Catherine Deneuve.
Each of the thirteen chapters takes its title from a Deneuve movie, and seamlessly integrates the plot of the movie, the plot of Anh’s current circumstances, and the plot of world capitalism scheming to defeat world idealism. It is not merely that media images distort reality, or that it is difficult to feel emotions unmediated and without censorship, but that we have lost touch with the true history of dominance and individuality, and we have no clue where to begin to look to resuscitate ourselves.
In the chapter called “Belle de Jour,” Anh asks of Deneuve: “What does it mean to play a role? After all it is you doing the moaning and no other woman. Have you submitted to being whipped because you regretted having whipped a worker in Indochina?” Séverine, in the movie, was a bored housewife—or was she an accomplice in far greater crimes? We don’t know after repeated viewings of the movie, and to Anh’s credit, neither does she.
Anh always fails to stand up for herself, in the way that old-time feminists would want her to. Rather, she merges and fluctuates, blends in and survives, rather like a creature that takes on the color of her environment—only to remain finally distinct and vulnerable in the keenest sense. Deneuve is important because viewing her persona on screen allows Anh to connect the tawdriness of her own existence with the height of glamour—a glamour sullied, however, with a pervasive inwardness, an outgrowth of colonial guilt.
Anh must emerge out of her “quiet” self into full membership of a world newly declared to be without borders. Borders, however, have a way of reemerging at a moment’s notice, and any global future built on their easy evisceration would be foolhardy. The border between the individual viewer in the movie theater and the movie star onscreen can never fail. Anh learns, the hardest way possible, the difference between sympathy and condescension, and if there is no ideology to replace the one she has lost, at least she has begun to learn to master the death of the passionate image. She is, in the end, not the “pupil with the iron blouse” her teachers in Ho Chi Minh City thought at all—or perhaps, in the sense that most counts, she remains nothing but that young critic.