Two Lines 23 Spotlight: “The Piper” by Yoko Tawada


This post comes to us from Sarah Coolidge, who works with Poetry Inside Out, a program of Two Lines Press’s parent organization, The Center for the Art of Translation. In addition, Sarah helps evaluate pieces for the Two Lines journal during our editorial meetings, and she’s our de facto photographer for Two Voices events.

“One day, a strange man came along playing a flute, and all the children danced after him, drooling, their eyes wide and round as chrysanthemums.”

When I was in fourth grade, I decided to learn to play the flute. We had to choose an instrument to learn, and I thought that because it was the smallest of the orchestral instruments it must be the easiest. That’s how child logic operates sometimes. Needless to say, I was mistaken.

Unable to achieve the rounded notes of my teacher (and some of the naturals in my class that I copied with mounting desperation), I produced instead several squeaky, high-pitched peeps that must have been quite painful to listen to. With each breath of air, blown roughly through the “O” shape of my unnaturally pursed lips, I mastered the art of squeaking. Unfortunately, there was no place for squeaking in the school orchestra. The next year I gave it up.

Today, when I hear the rounded notes of a flute I remember the remarkable (dare I say magical?) way that our teacher guided us through a song, directing and obstructing air in a dizzying flurry of the fingers. This brings me to one of my favorite pieces from the upcoming 23rd issue of Two Lines. Told through 44 unique vignettes, Yoko Tawada’s “The Piper” is unlike any other fairytale I’ve read. Translated by Margaret Mitsutani, the story—if you can really call it a single story—is a contemporary and sharp-edged transformation of the tale of the Pied Piper.

Popularized by the Brothers Grimm, the Pied Piper has since been retold in verse and prose by Goethe and Robert Browning. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who lived through the “terrible years” of Russian history, which included civil war and famine, borrowed the tale as an allegory for Bolshevik propaganda. Fairytales are beautiful for their ability to adapt to their surroundings; authors consistently modernize them, and we delight in their soothingly universal relevance.

Instead, Yoko Tawada dives into the shockingly personal details left out by most fairytales. After all, in fairytales we speak in general terms. The community is grouped into vague cloisters of townsfolk and people, and even the protagonists fade into unanimity, often going by their titles alone: prince, fairy, piper, etc. And yet each character, under the thumb of the omnipotent narrator, hides a unique perspective behind his or her silence.

In “The Piper,” these perspectives are unleashed. Secrets are voiced that we almost regret having heard. The story of a mass kidnapping takes a carnivalesque twist. A pair of traveling entertainers is likened to a pair of fleas; children are continuously compared to rats; and the Piper, with his feathered red hat and magical flute, pops up across centuries and cultures. Tawada goes so far as to ask us to consider the rats: are they really guilty of carrying disease, or are they mere scapegoats for human filth and folly?

Yoko Tawada clearly enjoys the uncomfortable mixture of the personal and the traditional. She decides to set several of the vignettes specifically in Hamelin (the setting of the original), though she tells the tale in her native Japanese. Tawada, who lives in Germany, once explained in an essay that, rather than choosing a single language to write in, she prefers to “find that poetical ravine that divides the two and tumble into it.” I find her metaphor oddly perverse, verging on violence; tumbling suggests lack of control and will, while ravine, with its steep sides and rushing water, implies the impossibility of escape.

The story of a vengeful ratcatcher with a magical pipe is perhaps no less perverse. Like many fairytales revisited in adulthood, the Pied Piper has disturbing undertones. Essentially a story of seduction—both rats and children are powerless before the dizzying music of the piper’s flute—the original tale avoids the subject of sexual seduction like the plague. In “The Piper,” however, the dangerously seductive nature of sexuality is thoroughly unraveled.

Tawada is amazingly talented at tapping into a diverse set of voices, including a gender-confused child and parents who admit to disliking and fearing their children. Nothing is off limits. And perhaps most importantly, Margaret Mitsutani enchants us with the seductive nature of the prose, leading us along like mesmerized children.

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