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Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

A New Directions Book

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Copyright 2004 by Yoko Tawada


Copyright 2004, 2009 by konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke
Translation copyright 2009 by Susan Bernofsky
All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television review, no part of this book may be reproduced in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying
and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without
permission in writing from the Publisher.
An excerpt of The Naked Eye first appeared in the journal Two Lines.
Manufactured in the United States of America
New Directions Books are printed on acid-free paper.
First published as New Directions Paperbook (NDP1139) in 2009
Published simultaneously in Canada by Penguin Books Canada Limited
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tawada, Yoko, 1960[Das nackte Auge. English]
The Naked Eye / Yoko Tawada; translated from the German by Susan
Bernofsky.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-8112-1739-2 (pbk.: acid-free paper)
I. Bernofsky, Susan. II. Title.
PT2682.A87N3313 2009
895.635dc22
2009000610
New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin
by New Directions Publishing Corporation
80 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10011

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n eye on film, affixed to an unconscious body.


The eye sees nothing for the camera has already
robbed it of vision. The gaze of the nameless lens
licks the floor like a detective without grammar. A doll,
another doll, a stuffed animal, a vase, cacti, a television,
electrical cords, a basket, the corner of a sofa, a bit of rug,
tea-biscuit crumbs, sugar cubes, an old family photograph.
The photograph shows a girl looking up and to the side;
theres nothing there. The girls one eye grows larger and

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larger as the focus changes, more and more blurrednow


it resembles a speck on a sheet of paper. Who will be able
to guess, later on, that this speck was once an eye? The
camera slowly retreats. Beside an overturned sofa, a cabinet
is standing upside-down. It isnt possible to reconstruct a
story from this landscape of ruins.
In this film I saw you for the first time. One year before, I
was attending high school in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly
known as Saigon, which was often still referred to by this
name. In the eyes of the teachers, I was the pupil with
the iron blouse. My grades were unrivalled. That spring
our school received a letter from the German Democratic
Republic inviting us to send one student to an International
Youth Conference to be held in Berlin. The organizers were
hoping to hear an authentic report on the topic Vietnam
As a Victim of American Imperialism. The principal of
our school had good contacts in the GDR and had been
there himself. Hed told us several times about his visit to
Berlin and a certain Pergamon Museum. Pergamon
sounded like the name of a migratory bird, and it amused
us to picture the Berlin skies with this bird flapping around
in them. The teachers held a special meeting and ended up
choosing me. The essays I wrote were generally lucid, and I
also had the voice of a crane, which was why Id often been
chosen to speak at sports festivals or receptions for official

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visitors. Besides, I probably gave the impression of being


difficult to seduce.
It was my first time on an airplane. I was looking forward to the trip, and it never occurred to me that I might
be in any danger. But as the faces of my family and friends
whod brought me to the airport were slightly distorted with
fear, I began to feel concerned. Maybe there was something
theyd hidden from me so I wouldnt be scared. But what
could it be? I had no idea how the mechanism of an airplane functioned, but I was nonetheless convinced that my
airplane was in perfect working order. I had never before set
foot in such a large, hard, spotlessly clean vehicle. My older
brothers motorcycle, for example, was nothing but a rusty
ox full of dents and scratches. Who knew if it still had all
its screws. Compared to this motorcycle the Interflug airplane, which no doubt had Made in Germany stamped
on it somewhere, appeared to me completely trustworthy.
After I fastened my seatbelt and pulled it snug, I felt
a great sense of relief. From this point on, anything that
might happen would no longer be my responsibility. I drank
my ration of water and fell asleep. Now and then I felt the
cold window pressing against my left temple and woke up.
In Berlin I was met by two young men. At first I was a
bit surprised because they looked just like Americans. But
then they greeted me in Russian, which was reassuring.

The Naked Eye

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Welcome! How was your journey with our Interflug?


One of them took my suitcase from me. He appeared
to be rather horrified, no doubt because it was unexpectedly light. The other one was trying to insert his index
and middle fingers into the front pocket of his jeans, but
in reality there was no pocket. At the same time, he was
looking at the buttons of my white blouse. When our eyes
met, he grinned. In certain streets in Saigon there were illmannered youths who grinned like this. They wore jeans
manufactured in Thailand or the GDR and spent the whole
day observing the passers-by instead of going to work. I
wondered whether this man really was a Party member.
Our eyes met once more, and this time he smiled in a more
respectable way.
Berlin was an enormous trade show of old palaces. If a
sort of inflation exists that applies to ruins, it must look
something like this. Such magnificent buildings repeated
over and over ad nauseum look ostentatious and disconnected. Despite the grandeur of its architecture, though,
the city couldnt be prosperous, for there were no delicacies
anywhere on the streets: no stands selling noodle soup, no
fruit markets or coconut vendors. You couldnt smell any
food at all. My uncle had said to me before my departure:
Too bad you arent going to Hungary or Czechoslovakia.
Bulgaria would have been tasty, too. But Germany! At first
I was somewhat aggrieved to hear these words from my
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flippant uncle, yet perhaps he was right. The Hungarians


and Czechs, he explained, knew how to produce good peppers and were excellent cooks. And in Bulgaria you could
not only eat good cucumbers, tomatoes, and yoghurt, you
also had your choice of excellent hot and cold springs for
bathing. My uncle owned a fat, brown Czech motorcycle
that hed bought from the army and repaired himself. He
polished it regularly and was quite proud of it. My older
brother, however, would say disparagingly to his friends:
Just look! Its our uncles fat Czech Buddha! My uncle
in turn despised the old, tiny Honda moped my brother
had bought secondhand at the market. He thought it was
effeminate.
My talk was scheduled for the following day. I was then
invited to spend another five nights at the hotel. I had never
seen such a gigantic hotel. It was like a beehive with innumerable windowsfrom the outside you couldnt tell if the
windows were open or shut. I remembered a different uncle
whod studied agricultural technology here and then died
soon after returning home. Next to the hotel, an enormous
statue of an onion blossom rose into the air. The sphere
at its tip gleamed like the roof of a Thai temple. This
tower is forty-four meters higher than the Eiffel Tower,
said one of my young hosts. And the other added, laughing: But its root is short. Have you ever been to Paris?
I asked. Both of them shook their heads from side to side
The Naked Eye

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in unison. Then all three of us burst out laughing without


knowing why.
The woman working at the hotels reception desk
looked like the principal of a school. While giving me the
key she explained something in German which one of the
two men immediately translated into Russian for me. A
Russian rock band will be performing tonight at the hotel
restaurant. Free of charge. Perhaps youd like to go. He
pointed down the dim corridor where the restaurant was
apparently located. Then we arranged to meet the following
day. My chaperones wanted to pick me up at the hotel at
nine in the morning and bring me to the conference site. I
was hungry. As soon as the two of them had disappeared
through the hotels front door, I hurried to the restaurant.
It was still closed. Opening times 6:00 10:00 p.m. Even
a luxurious hotel restaurant here couldnt afford to serve
meals for more than four hours a day. The distribution of
foodstuffs in this country seemed not to be functioning
optimally. I went to my room, which looked tidy, swept,
mopped, and polished. It smelled of unfamiliar chemicals.
I took my manuscript out of my suitcase. Although I
had practiced with my Russian teacher every day for a week
reading my essay aloud, suddenly I couldnt remember a
single line of it. I read the whole thing aloud to myself once
through. In a foreign country, even my own handwriting
looked questionable.
s
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