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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Naked Eye

Tawada Yoko

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Title: The Naked Eye
Author: Tawada Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: (German)
Availability: The Naked Eye - US
The Naked Eye - UK
The Naked Eye - Canada
The Naked Eye - India
L'œil nu - France
Das nackte Auge - Deutschland
  • German title: Das nackte Auge
  • Japanese title: 旅をする裸の眼
  • This book was written both in German and Japanese, but the English translation is based solely on the German version
  • Translated by Susan Bernofsky

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Our Assessment:

B+ : has an odd feel to it, but quite effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 21/7/2004 Karl-Heinz Ott

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Naked Eye is a young Vietnamese woman. An exemplary student at her high school in Ho Chi Minh City, she is selected to attend an International Youth Conference in what is then still East Berlin. Shortly after she arrives a well-meaning (or opportunistic) West German spirits her off to Bochum in West Germany without her knowledge, and after a while there she hops a train hoping to get to Moscow and home -- but finds herself in Paris instead, where she is taken in by a series of well-meaning folk. Oddly unambitious -- about resolving her situation, or doing much of anything with her life -- she spends much of her time at the movies, the cinema a place of escape for her. She becomes obsessed with the films of Catherine Deneuve, and the novel itself is structured around Deneuve's films: each chapter takes its title from one of her films, and the chapters themselves are then also colored by the film in question.
       The entire novel also has a detached feel to, more akin to watching a movie than reading a book. The narrator presents herself as a largely blank slate, allowing herself to be guided by those she encounters, much like an actress accepting direction. At one point she sees herself as: "an unimportant character playing a non-speaking role in a theater with no audience", and she doesn't rise much beyond that. She eventually does have an opportunity to play a role in a real theatrical production but, tellingly, is prevented from actually appearing in the play. And no matter how much she goes through, near the end she still finds:

I felt like I was playing a part in a movie with a plot unknown to me.
       She doesn't care about the real Catherine Deneuve, fascinated only by her on-screen incarnations, much as she adapts herself to her own different situations, her true self (whatever that might be) remaining largely a cipher. She constantly mentions names of those who look out for her, but has practically no identity of her own. When she is asked her name she gives a fake one: "I gave myself the name 'Thu Huong,' which I had never used before", for example; and when, late in her adventures, she assumes an identity, complete with official but stolen passport, it does not offer more of a hold: instead, she loses even more of herself, willing herself even: "to erase all the names I knew from my memory."
       When she first finds herself in this predicament -- stuck in Bochum -- she does protest to her kidnapper:
I screamed in Russian: "I want to go home, home, home !" In a foreign language it sounded like a lie.
       The loss of language she experiences is disruptive, and the foreign ones she is surrounded by are further alienating. When she is in Bochum she does her best to keep from giving in to the place and circumstances, resisting the best way she knows how:
I was doing my best not to learn this language. I was afraid it might fetter me to this place forever.
       Language is constantly an issue, from East Germany (where she also communicated in Russian), to France, where she keeps meaning to go to a language school but never manages. But even being able to speak Vietnamese with a countrywoman does not change her sense of displacement:
My stomach could no longer endure the language whose meaning I understood.
       To the end, language is a (often welcome) barrier, setting and holding her apart.
       Eventually her tight-wound fate unspools again, after a fashion, moving backwards as she seeks out previous stations and encounters those she had left behind earlier, but she finds it difficult to take definitive steps in any direction. Her life continues to shift with the abruptness of an actress moved from one film to the next -- effectively shown in the roles Deneuve plays from film to film. The narrator remains outside of history, too, barely aware of the seismic changes that have taken place: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall having been broken down.
       The Naked Eye's narrator is an odd and occasionally frustrating character, both in how she acts and in what she relates. There is an innocence to her, from her amusing bafflement at the lack of foodstalls on East Berlin's streets and the brief dining hours at restaurants ("The distribution of foodstuffs in this country seemed not to be functioning optimally") to her naïve reactions. Despite her repeatedly being what amounts to a kept woman, her account is also an oddly neutered one: things get complicated when one of her protectors wants to marry her, but there's little romance or sex in the novel, and she can hardly see herself as part of any relationship. She is passive, and an object, but doesn't seem like a victim: she seems almost entirely disembodied throughout, playing a role (again, like an actress) and then leaving it entirely behind as she takes up the next one.
       The Deneuve-films are her main anchor and reference point, and Tawada uses these well, both in the overt connections as well as the more subtle ones. The Naked Eye is a variation on the theme of cinematic obsession which gains from its odd premise (Vietnamese girl sent to East Berlin, etc.) and becomes something more. Tawada doesn't go for the obvious, much of the time, and while her protagonist's apparent passivity can be enervating she's shaped an intriguing fiction around the character. It's quite a fascinating exercise in language, loss, and identity (all the more so for having been essentially written by Tawada in two languages, German and Japanese).

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2009

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The Naked Eye: Reviews: Tawada Yoko: Other books by Tawada Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tawada Yoko (多和田葉子) was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany when she was 22. She writes in both Japanese and German.

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