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“To Khabarovsk” & “To Zagreb” by Yoko Tawada

These two stories are both in the same collection entitled “Suspect on the Night Train”, which got the Tanizaki Prize. The protagonist goes to Paris, Khabarovsk, Zabreb, and Amsterdam by train. Tawada uses the second person singular throughout all the stories, which makes the readers feel like the protagonist in the story and travel together with the author. When it comes to Tawada, one of her major themes is “moving”: across the borders, cultures, and languages. You could enjoy every one of them in this fantastic book.


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In “To Khabarovsk”, the story begins with the description of the Lake Bikal, a rift in the middle of Siberia. “You”, on her way to the bathroom, suddenly gets dropped off the train, in the middle of nowhere. She desperately starts seeking the help. Luckily, she finds one house where a man seems to be cooking. He invites her in and lets her eat and take a hot bath. His face in the mirror looks that of a woman. In turn, she realizes she’s assuming hermaphroditic features, eventually even taking on some scales. It's a surreal and eerie story. What’s happening is sort of a reversed evolution, reverting to some primordial stages. The hot bath also reminds me of the baby being in the womb. It’s as if it tells me that we are at the end of the day the same organism if stripped of all the additions. Thinking about that, the first reference to the Lake Bikal, which divides the continent into the east and west, comes to assume some symbolic meaning.


In “To Zagreb”, “You” are heading for Zagreb in Yugoslavia from Italy. From a capitalist country to a socialist one, the protagonist being from the capitalist camp. The atmosphere changes gradually: “The air was filled with Slavic warmth and Siberian smells – winter, fur coats, straw, cigarettes, garlic.” “You” are still young, in her 20s, has passion for literature and travel despite having little money. There is some inexplicable comradeship among the same generations regardless of nationalities. She meets people on the tarin who try to smuggle jeans and coffee...


I just love Tawada’s prose, especially travel fiction, so gripping and inspiring.

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