8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.

8 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, from Other Press.

To go against the grain of prologues and intros (more on that from This Hannah in a bit), here’s the beginning of her review:

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.

Like that little prologue? For the rest of the review, go here

15 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. Natsuo Kirino is best known for her award-winning 1997 novel Out, which brought her fame in Japan and a considerable readership in the wider world as well, and although The Goddess Chronicles is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries. It’s not so much the feeling of dangling after a cliff-hanger as it is an almost sick fascination with finding out how next the bitter suffering of women doomed to darkness would manifest.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment: The Goddess Chronicles is a feminist perspective on the story of Izanami and Izanaki as told, experienced, and then seen through by Namima, the younger sister of the celebrated Oracle of a poverty-stricken island community and the priestess of darkness before she meets an untimely demise and finds herself trapped in the regret-filled underworld with a vengeful goddess. Namima learns the story of Izanami’s love of and betrayal by her husband Izanaki, and witnesses the final moments of their epic struggle, while she herself must come to terms with her own bitterness and regret set off confusingly by her love and concern for her sister and daughter, who are caught in a trap of theistic rigidity that Namima herself died escaping.

Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.

I recalled Izanami’s words: ‘Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yang and yin. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its opposite, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.’

But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark yin and, yes, pollution. It might be presumptuous of me to suggest it, but what had happened to her was not unlike my own death. On Umihebi Island, I had been assigned the role of yin and was named ‘impure.’ I understood Izanami’s anger and bitterness.

The feminist aspect here is refreshing, especially coming from a country whose cultural policies and perceptions have oftentimes teetered on the edge of (and sometimes fallen into) misogyny. Kirino has touched on themes of misogyny in previous novels, including Grotesque and Real World, but it takes on a special kind of tortured poignancy here, where the female characters are simultaneously worshipped and denigrated: Namima, destined to be an important religious figure in her community but treated as an “impure” outsider, who will be required to commit suicide when her sister dies to preserve the balance of nature; Mahito’s mother, whose family’s entire future rides on her giving birth to a baby girl, who has no worth without it; and Izanami, who gave birth to the world and the gods and goddesses in it, who dies in childbirth and is then condemned by her own husband to live in hatred and bitterness in the underworld, killing when she was created to give life. The women in the novel have the tangible power, but they are influenced most strongly by their relationships to men, even to the point of destruction of other women or themselves. And be warned: if you’re looking for a truly satisfying, storybook ending, you’re out of luck. Kirino has a flawless way of injecting bitter reality into her mythic setting.

Something else that caught my attention about this book is its overall flow. I’m really picky about English translations of character languages, specifically how a translator decides to deal with the entanglement of specific kinds of wordplay with the nuances of the individual characters. I could write a book on the things I’ve seen translators do that make me want to hide my face in my hands and scream, but luckily I don’t have to, because translator Rebecca Copeland did everything right in what must have been a veritable minefield (so many gods and goddesses! so many symbolically important names! ah!) of choices. The explanations of names and places is carried off in such a way that none of the explanations of etymologies kicked me out of reading with a big, glaring, “HELLO I AM A TRANSLATION” sign flashing before my eyes. It’s rare that I find a translation from Japanese that leaves me as comfortable as this one, and I appreciate that immensely.

Kirino’s language and touch of reality is all that it takes to turn this book from the fairy tale it might have been into something which seems more like the biography of disillusioned women who find everything out the hard way. You will be repulsed by Izanami, or you will feel pity for her—you can do both. You will hate Izanaki, or you will mourn his losses yourself—is that so wrong? These characters are real enough, with life enough of their own, to transcend their mythical boundaries and become people about whom your opinions will shift and change as if you knew them personally. Like I said earlier, Kirino wants you to know that there are no clean edges in the world. How better to understand that than to experience it yourself?

This tale may be spun from my words but I speak for the goddess, the one who governs the Realm of the Dead. My words may be dyed red with anger; they may tremble in yearning after the living; but they are all, each and every one, spoken to express the sentiments of the goddess. As will become clear later, I am a priestess – a miko – and like the famous reciter of old Hieda no Are who entertains the goddess with ancient tale from the age of the gods, I too serve her with all my heart.

15 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino, from Grove Atlantic.

The interns have been getting marginally scandalous book assignments to review: Hannah had this one, with the nudie woman on the cover, while another of our interns is working on a review of a different book that is nudie/pornographic, kind of, in content. Or so I’ve heard. These students are possibly too patient with us. And we’re grateful.

Here’s the beginning of Hannah’s review:

If you have enough time, I’m going to recommend you sit down and read this one straight through. Natsuo Kirino is best known for her award-winning 1997 novel Out, which brought her fame in Japan and a considerable readership in the wider world as well, and although The Goddess Chronicles is not a mystery story, per se, I felt the same kind of insistent tug to read on that I get when reading mysteries. It’s not so much the feeling of dangling after a cliff-hanger as it is an almost sick fascination with finding out how next the bitter suffering of women doomed to darkness would manifest.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment: The Goddess Chronicles is a feminist perspective on the story of Izanami and Izanaki as told, experienced, and then seen through by Namima, the younger sister of the celebrated Oracle of a poverty-stricken island community and the priestess of darkness before she meets an untimely demise and finds herself trapped in the regret-filled underworld with a vengeful goddess. Namima learns the story of Izanami’s love of and betrayal by her husband Izanaki, and witnesses the final moments of their epic struggle, while she herself must come to terms with her own bitterness and regret set off confusingly by her love and concern for her sister and daughter, who are caught in a trap of theistic rigidity that Namima herself died escaping.

Everything in this novel is about opposites—life and death, love and hate, good and evil, yin and yang—but nothing is black and white. The Goddess Chronicles is proof positive that nothing in life (or death) has clean edges, no matter how hard we may try to impose them.

20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

The Misters tend to think like this, taking a roundabout approach to get to a strikingly obvious (if not entirely realistic) conclusion, in so few words from Tavares that the simplicity of the writing adds punch to the simplicity of the thought. Mister (Paul) Valéry, for instance, another denizen of the neighborhood, wears a black shoe on the right foot and a white shoe on his left foot. Upon being told that his shoes are “switched” he puts a white shoe on his right foot and a black shoe on his left foot. When he is told again that his shoes are switched, he determines that this must be wrong, since if it was incorrect the first time and he reversed it, it must now be correct, since the inverse is the opposite of the wrong original, making it right. With this in mind, he no longer worries about whether his shoes are on the correct feet—so long as they are the opposite of their inverse, they’re fine.

Now, it took me as many almost as many words to explain that chapter (“The Shoes”) as it took Tavares to write it. That is the beauty of his writing, Roopanjali Roy’s translation, and of this book itself: the simplicity of the ideas mirrored in the simplicity of the writing. The style seems like it belongs in a book for children (it reminded me pretty strongly of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth), its language simple and straight to the point, creating an entertaining counterpoint to the absurdity of the content. In his introduction, Philip Graham mentions that his eleven year old daughter and her class in school loved Tavares’ writing: “I was mightily impressed by how even young children could be moved by Tavares’ writing, even though they certainly didn’t have a clue who Juarroz,Valéry, or the others might be.”

This is where I get a little uneasy. Based on everything else mentioned above, I want to say that I loved the book—and I did like it a lot—but I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to because, like Graham’s daughter, Hannah, I didn’t have a grasp on who the models for the Misters really were. And unlike those children, while I found the stories were enjoyable, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing glaringly obvious references to the Misters’ philosophical views or prevalent themes in their works, which kept me slightly uncomfortable for the duration of the book. That being said, the pathological need to know ALL OF THE BACKGROUND!!!! before I go into reading something is a long-standing personal hang-up of mine, and perhaps because of that this book wasn’t the best way to introduce me to Tavares’ writing. I wish that I could have enjoyed it the way that those children did, but I was nagged the entire time by that feeling of missing something, and I’m sad to say that it diminished my potential enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I went into this book expecting the wrong things, but that’s not to say that I was disappointed. On the contrary, the project that Tavares underwent in creating the stories and the characters in The Neighborhood is staggering both in terms of its inception and its execution; the entire project had thirty-nine total inhabitants squished into Caiano’s map by the time that this translated collection went to press, all famous figures repurposed by Tavares’ clever hand. The short stories are enjoyable in their absurdity and profundity, simultaneously provoking smiles and making the reader think, “That’s ridiculo– wait, uh, actually . . . that kind of makes sense. I think.” Perhaps for people like me who need to know everything going in, this book is not ideal, but for someone who’s familiar with Italo Calvino, Paul Valéry, Roberto Juarroz, Robert Walser, Karl Kraus, or Henri Michaux and can appreciate the homages to them (or a reader who is able and content to just take the stories as they are) The Neighborhood is a delightful collection from one of Portugal’s most striking modern literary talents.

20 June 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Hannah Vose on The Neighborhood by Gonçalo Tavares, from Texas Tech University Press.

Hannah is one of our Open Letter interns this summer (and a recent student of Chad’s), and in addition to helping copy edit manuscripts, keeping the mail situation in check, reading submissions, and patiently ducking as we test the new darts for the office dartboard, she’ll also be contributing to the Three Percent reviews during her stay with us.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

I went into this book expecting the wrong things; I thought I had picked up a novel with, y’know, plot, but the 280 pages of Gonçalo Tavares’ The Neighborhood are filled with vignettes—“chapters” ranging from tiny to small, with concise titles and little-to-no binding between them—sorted by each of six characters: the “Misters’” Valéry, Calvino, Juarroz, Kraus, Walser and Henri, each of them taking their names from one of Tavares’ literary idols. These six men live in a neighborhood outlined in one of many minimalist illustrations by Rachel Caiano, where their entertaining and sometimes outright absurd, but always thought-provoking ponderings on life and the subsequent actions that they take as a result of them create a village where philosophical bendiness can make anything true.

Tavares’ Misters have a way of taking the absurd and making it plausible, taking the patently obvious and making it absurd, and taking the unobserved and making it noteworthy by leaps and bounds of logic which are simultaneously puzzling and simple. Take, for instance, a chapter on Mister Henri (named for Henri Michaux), a man who by Tavares’ description must have sacrificed his liver long ago on the altar of his beloved absinthe, “The Garden Bench”:

Mister Henri was in the garden standing before his favorite bench, where a woman was seated, playing the violin.

Mister Henri interrupted the violinist and said, “Antonio Stradivarius was the most famous violin maker of all time. One could say that he was the architect of violins. He experimented with several kinds of violins until he decided upon the size and shape of the Stradivarius violin. I could have been a great violinist, but I never knew how to play the violin. However, alcohol existed well before the violin. Well before violinists existed, there existed people who were artistically inspired by alcohol. Therefore, please get off that bench with your violin. Because that bench is mine,” said Mister Henri.

For the rest of the review, go here.

....
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