A True Novel
If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.
The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.
What I can excerpt is a bit on Mizumura’s thought process as she considered making a novel out of the story told to her by Yusuke Kato about a man Mizumura knew as a teenager:
It was when I finally began to write about Taro Azuma that I came up against an obstacle I had not foreseen. What I had taken to be a gift from heaven was, I gradually found out, not all that simple. The further I progressed, the more insistent that problem became: how to take “a story just like a novel” and turn it into a novel in Japanese.
. . .
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, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the English-woman E.B… What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.
So here we finally come up against the thing that the back cover of this book does not want anyone to forget: this novel is “a remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan.” I’m hesitant to agree with that statement entirely. While the plot of the story does seem to mimic, in some places, that of Wuthering Heights, with all the main characters represented (the outsider, the housekeeper, the poor abused boy, the rich girl he loves, etc.), the fact that the story is real kind of discounts it, in my mind at least, from being a “re-making” of anything—in addition to many obvious changes, including “new” characters, who shift the progression of the plot away from Brontë’s classic. Mizumura herself states that, although the story seemed to fit that pattern to begin with, as she was writing she saw it take its own, unique shape. But perhaps I’m just splitting hairs. At any rate, I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed A True Novel immensely (much more than I enjoyed Wuthering Heights, in point of fact). I accredit the gap in my enjoyment between the two books to several things, but in particular that, whereas Wuthering Heights is a romance novel, and pretty much only that, A True Novel is the story of so much more—family rivalry, economic turmoil, loss, and the growing modernization of a country coming into the 20th century at full throttle.
And really, all comparisons to Wuthering Heights aside, the stark sense of reality in this book informed both by the genuineness of the general plot and the expertly-done character development plants the story—and the characters in it—firmly on the ground. No one would ever be tricked into believing this is a biography or a non-fiction book, but the skill with which Mizumura fleshes out people who she’s only ever “met” through second and third hand accounts is staggering and wonderful. Everything is cleanly situated in space and time, localized to the latter half of the 20th century in Japan and giving the reader a view into the ever-shifting lives of the “better families” who were forced to make adjustments in their every-day lives due to post-war policies, but held on fiercely to the societal prejudices that allowed them to maintain their social, if not their monetary, superiority. With the added black-and-white photographs illustrating various places and things mentioned in the text, you’ll never lose touch with where or when the story is, and you’ll begin to absorb the feeling of the mourning in which the older generations are for the cultural past swept away in the current of modernity.
The plot is triple-layered: the outside is the story of Yusuke Kato’s brief interactions with the Saegusa family, Taro Azuma, and Fumiko Tsuchiya one summer week when he was vacationing with a friend. The next layer is Fumiko’s retelling—to Yuksue—of the things she witnessed during her acquaintance with the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, Utagawa, and Azuma families. The innermost layer of the plot is the history of the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, and Utagawa families, as told by the Shigemitsu’s maid to Fumiko when Fumiko was in the Utagawa family’s service. Each layer of the plot is nested inside the other to create a fully expanded story, from before the beginning to after the end. Each of the narrators brings a part of the story into being, although not necessarily in order, to create a fully satisfying novel that entirely lacks the tug of lethargy that is always a risk in books this long. Every word is important here, every page brings something new, something that the reader is eager to know, and that makes this novel an easy read, despite its length. Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif have created a translation that is smooth, evocative, and modern, while maintaining the air of affectation that surrounds the central families.
So, for those of you who slept through Brit. Lit. II (don’t worry, I don’t know who you are—I was half-asleep, myself), hate romance novels, or are just generally afraid of long books, fear not. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is reader-friendly, engaging, and, while similar in places to Wuthering Heights, far longer, much more interesting, and (I’ll argue, to the distress of English literature teachers everywhere) more important in the conclusions (or lack there of) it ultimately draws. A True Novel is a simultaneously expansive and private insight into the struggle between traditional Japanese values and incoming Western conventions, monetary wealth and spiritual value, and status and love—a work of literature not to be missed.