A True Novel
by Minae Mizumura
Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Other Press (2013 ), 880 pages
Minae Mizumura, author of A True Novel, can spin a mean yarn. A scholar of French literature and author of four novels, Mizumura is one of the most interesting writers working in the Japanese language today. It was something of a disappointment, then, upon reading her 2002 Yomiuri Prize-winning rehashing of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, to feel like Mizumura only settled down into storytelling mode around page 550.
No, that’s not a typo—if there’s one thing to be said for Mizumura’s novel (beautifully wrought into English by veteran translator Juliet Winters Carpenter), it’s that readers are getting their money’s worth.: a long prologue by the author herself, trying to convince the reader that the novel is a fictionalized account of a true story; then an account of the author’s knowledge of real-life (note: not-real-life) Taro Azuma, the novel’s Heathcliff; and finally, the fictionalized story of Taro and Yoko, using Catherine and Heathcliff’s ill-fated romance as a rough template. By the end, you, the reader, may feel like you’ve been treated to three books (and perhaps a short essay on literary theory) for the price of one.
Which is not necessarily a criticism. The subjects that concern Mizumura are fascinating, and she is in a unique position to explore them. Mizumura, an author who grew up straddling Eastern and Western cultures by virtue of her Japanese and American upbringing, picks at the supposed divide between hemispheres; and, as a scholar-novelist, she does this by picking at the divide between theory and storytelling. At one moment, she is interested in expounding on the history of the confessional Japanese “I-novel”; a couple hundred pages later, she has embodied Fumiko, the novel’s Nelly Dean narrator, and is laying the groundwork for a gripping love story. Make no mistake, Mizumura is quite capable of embodying each of the many roles she has assigned herself.
The problem arises, as it so often does, in putting it all together. While Mizumura used one British woman’s Gothic novel as a touchstone, it is another who comes to mind: Mary Shelley and her reanimated monster. The novel’s constituent parts, at times, feel overwhelming, and while echoes of certain themes and obsessions are recurrent, it was hard to string together a coherent literary experience.
To illustrate the problem more clearly, here are a sampling of excerpts from a short stretch of the prologue. Within a span of twenty pages, we find many different Mizumuras:
There is Mizumura, deft and lyrical storyteller: “At long last, Yusuke started to tell me his tale, beginning hesitantly but then going on as if unable to stop...With my sense of the solid reality around us dissolving, the yellowish glow from the small bulbs on the walls looked like will-o’-the-wisps, ghost fires. The wildness outside the little house now seemed distant, as if the power of nature couldn’t penetrate our world.”
A few pages later, we meet Mizumura the messenger, determined to fit class into the pages of her English-style novel, come hell or high water: “In the States, if you’ve made money for yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or Asian. Money means everything.”
Literary historian Mizumura makes an appearance shortly thereafter: “The term ‘true novel’ once played a crucial role in the development of modern Japanese literature. The period when Japan opened its doors to the West, beginning in 1868, coincided with what might be called the golden era of the Western novel.”
And finally, Minae Mizumura, navel-gazing postmodernist: “[S]omething I can only call a sense of the real—was slipping through my fingers. What was at stake wasn’t what is usually referred to as the problem of realism; rather, it was a problem with the ‘power of truth,’ which ultimately determines the worth of a novel. And I couldn’t ascribe it solely to my inadequacy as a writer.”
The problem isn’t with any one of these iterations of Mizumura, generally. As a lover of fiction, I am happy to be sucked into her drama of Gothic Japan. As a writer, I am interested in her theoretical views on fiction. As a translator of Japanese, it is interesting to listen to her expound on the incongruities of Japanese and European fiction. Only, listening to her try to sew it all together into a single literary vision gave me something akin to literary whiplash.
If pressed, I would say that Mizumura’s scholarly concerns acted as a weight, dragging down the more compelling storytelling aspects of her novel. The photographs of the story’s real-life settings, intended to highlight the tension between truth and fiction in storytelling, become cumbersome—the inevitable degradation in photo quality inherent in the mass publishing process didn’t help. Mizumura’s determination to introduce British themes of class into a Japanese literary form can feel forced (indeed, class is everywhere, sometimes making the privileged characters feel cartoonish, like stock villains in a morality tale).
Finally, the tension of placing an English novel, with its familiar themes and characters, into a Japanese literary form, born of the Japanese language, loses a lot of its kick when faithfully rendered back into English. The challenge of transposing an English story into Japanese is of primary interest to Mizumura (“The story I was told on that stormy night was merely one of many love stories already told a thousand times. Why turn it into yet another novel? There was only one answer I could think of: it recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl.”), and she talks about some of the translational difficulties at length:
In their first encounters with Western thought, Japanese people tried to grasp the concept of a ‘subject’—a concept that has become increasingly important in the modern West. Yet in Japanese there exists no grammatical equivalent to, for example, the English word ‘I’… All this render the notion of the abstract and transcendent ‘subject’ difficult to conceive of in Japanese. And that may be one of the reasons why Japanese readers continue to look for an actual, specific individual in a story rather than perceive the story as the work of a writer’s imagination.
As a translator, this can’t help but pique my interest. As a reader, however, there is no opportunity to watch this project play out. The subtle distinction between languages is paved over by Carpenter’s elegant translation. The benefits of a good translation are manifold: it ensures a smooth and enjoyable reading experience and an accurate peek into the author’s original work, but reading Carpenter’s final product also nullifies the tension of the process. Since that tension is at the core of this novel, this is a bigger loss than we are accustomed to accepting in translated works.
There are other places, however, where Mizumura’s academic concerns are quite interesting. It should be noted here that Mizumura keeps things accessible. Readers familiar with Japanese history and literature may feel inclined to skip over the more basic explanatory sections, but for many readers, the long prologue can serve as a primer on Japanese history and literature, an introduction to Mizumura’s academic concerns, and the points of her biography these concerns stemmed from, all in one text.
Where these concerns really take flight is when Mizumura abandons the scholarship and flashes her considerable storytelling chops. Mizumura’s own life story, growing up in America yet longing for Japan, demonstrates the dual nature of the cultural divide between East and West. At times it can appear imaginary, or perhaps more accurately man-made as culture must necessarily be; for instance, when a rich Japanese woman is treated like a servant on a trip to visit American friends, resulting from a simple change of context. And yet this divide often looms large in the minds of individual characters confronted with the culture gulf, or worse, forced to straddle it. As Mizumura’s novel marches from the early postwar period to the 1990s, the cultures move closer together; perceptions change, Japan grows into a wealthy global power, and yet the preoccupations with the West persist. Mizumura’s prologue, much of which draws on facts from her own life, demonstrates this tension with a supreme deftness and intelligence that permeate the better parts of the book.
The story picks up again, as mentioned above, somewhere around page 500. By then, the narrator, Fumiko, has performed the incredibly laborious task of transposing Brontë’s story into a Japanese setting. Here, finally, Mizumura the storyteller re-emerges, and the tale of Yoko and Taro, the former an inheritor of rising wealth and reputation, the latter an abused orphan who flees to America to make his fortune, takes over until the end of the book. Mizumura makes the story her own, abandoning Brontë’s Gothic tropes, her Satanic Heathcliff and haunted estates, for a simpler story of a love that will not die under the weight of a society trying to kill it. Somehow, in the thicket of this yarn, Mizumura manages to do what the best storytellers are capable of: she addresses every one of her thematic obsessions—the tensions between fiction and reality, between East and West, between Japanese history and American influence—at a depth that the postmodern hijinks that color earlier sections of the book are unable to reach.
A True Novel is a hard book to recommend to a general audience. At nearly 900 pages, reading it is a project; which is not to say that it isn’t a page-turner. The book is well written, well translated, and the story flies by without much trouble. Rather, it is a book I would recommend to readers who would rather wade through an inspired mess than something tidier, safer, and less surprising. It is a book written with considerable intelligence, exploring themes that are rarely addressed in literature. It is. I happen to be one of those readers—and so I am happy to hereby recommend it to you.
Japan, Fiction, Translation