Ariel Starling is a writer and student of literature in Paris.
Written largely as a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the obvious image at hand for A True Novel’s structure is that of the Russian matryoshka doll. But perhaps a better metaphor would be an origami crane, for reasons as aesthetic as cultural. Beginning with the premise of one mysterious character, Mizumura folds her narrative in intricate and occasionally surprising ways, carefully turning over her material and examining it at all angles, to produce an ornate, singular, and solidly three-dimensional structure.
In her prologue (which, by the way, contains what is probably the best piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read), Mizumura outlines her intent in A True Novel to execute a sprawling epic in the tradition of western classics—what in Japanese is called honkaku shosetsu, loosely translated as ‘true novel’. This form is presented in contrast to shishosetsu, or ‘I-novel’, the more traditionally Japanese novelistic form of autobiographical narrative. To this end, she employs none other than Wuthering Heights, reimagining Brontë’s classic in postwar Japan.
However, A True Novel is much more than a recasting of Wuthering Heights—and much more than simply the formula of the western novel told in Japanese. I would argue that the meat of what makes A True Novel so exceptional is contained in its prologue. At nearly 200 pages, the prologue could well satisfy as a novella in itself. Though it begins as a more or less traditional prologue about Mizumura’s decision to write the book, it quickly becomes a metafictive account of the narrator’s relationship with Taro Azuma.
Though Mizumura (or presumably her fictional alter-ego) was never close with Azuma by any means, she meets him in New York as an adolescent girl through her father’s network of Japanese businessmen living in America. He first enters the story as the reticent yet highly-motivated private chauffeur of an American acquaintance, but we learn along with Mizumura through hearsay of his meteoric rise to powerful multi-millionaire. This branch of the narrative not only establishes the charisma of Taro Azuma, but follows the rise of Japan as a global economic power and analyzes the ideas of the American Dream and self-made man as things impossible in the rigid social order of Japan. While the young Mizumura longs for her homeland, Azuma states that there is nothing for him in Japan, and that he has no interest in returning. This friction between East and West as Mizumura resists assimilation and the English language—even as she devours western classics in Japanese translation—is only the first of many tensions of opposites which Mizumura handles deftly in A True Novel. Another tension is structural: while Mizumura sets out to write a honkaku shosetsu, by placing the autobiographical prologue as the first frame of the narrative, the “large” western honkaku shosetsu is contained in the “small” Japanese shishosetsu.
This framing occurs when, as a visiting instructor at an American university, Mizumura is visited by a stranger from Japan. On a dark and stormy night, he tells her how he came to know Taro Azuma. Mizumura is struck by the resemblance of Azuma’s life story to Wuthering Heights and feels compelled to write it down—and thus the honkaku shosetsu component of A True Novel is born.
While the central love story between the impoverished Azuma and well-to-do Yoko is undeniably powerful, it is this intricacy of structure that propels A True Novel from being a good book to a great one. Azuma and Yoko’s relationship is placed firmly in its historical context, and Mizumura uses their relationship to illuminate generations of Japanese history and carefully examine the westernization of Japan and the downfall of the Japanese aristocracy. All the while, this westernization is turned on its head in her original form of containing a western honkaku shosetsu in an eastern shishosetsu, effectively “Japanizing” western literary tradition.
All told, A True Novel is a masterful work of contemporary Japanese fiction, which fully deserves a place on the global stage of world literature—as well as the Best Translated Book Award.
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .
The narrative history of. . .
Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .
I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .
Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .
On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm. . .