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A True Novel
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B+ : expansive story and story-telling; winning, if ultimately perhaps too scattered
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The narrator recounting the central story in A True Novel warns:
"I'm afraid there'll be a lot of digressions."She isn't kidding -- but the reader, if s/he's made it this far (we're on page 307 here ...), likely would have similar words of reassurance for her. After all, it's already been a digressive ride, with this narrator, Fumiko Tsuchiya, already the third new perspective from which the narrative has been presented, and anyone who has gotten to this point is clearly willing to put up with being led on this very roundabout path.
The author -- the first of the novel's narrators, leading readers through a short Preface and a long Prologue -- reveals early on that this is to be a novel about a man named Taro Azuma, and he figures prominently, though still as a secondary figure, in much of the introductory section. But to say that story proper is a long way in coming is an understatement: it's only on page 425 that Fumiko gets to the point in her account where she can say:
That was the prelude to our having Taro involved in our lives.In her brief Preface, Mizumura describes how she came to write this novel, a story brought to her and recounted by a Japanese visitor (Yusuke Kato, we later learn) and with a man she had known in her childhood and: "whose life had taken on the status of legend among Japanese communities in New York" -- said Taro Azuma -- at its heart. But the Preface also notes that she soon found herself facing:
the difficulties inherent in writing a modern novel in Japanese based on the story I'd been given.Mizumura's solution is unusual -- and, yes, digressive. It is also, ultimately, effective -- even if how it all works is not immediately (or, indeed, for many hundreds of pages ...) clear. Nevertheless, while Mizumura takes the long and very circuitous route, her story-telling along the way is also consistently engaging, so while A True Novel long remains a somewhat puzzling read, she does good job in continuing to hold the reader's attention all along.
A True Novel is being marketed (and reviewed) as, as the American publisher has it in bold type: "A remaking of Emily Brontëís Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan". It makes the book sound derivative and seems almost desperate, as if the only way to make a foreign work of fiction palatable to English-speaking readers is to present it as simply an exotic variation on a reassuringly familiar work (Pride and Prejudice in the Pampas ! the Mongolian Bridget Jones ! etc.). Confusingly, too, then, the reader isn't quickly transported to postwar Japan but rather finds him/herself in ... 1960s Long Island, with the novel then rooted almost entirely in the United States for its first 150 or so pages (true, all in what is still the Prologue, but nevertheless ...).
At the end of the Prologue there is a brief section in which Mizumura describes the transformation 'From Story to Novel', and here she does acknowledge the debt to Brontëís work. She pointedly mentions neither the title nor the author's full name -- though she certainly isn't hiding the identity of what she describes as: "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.". She even goes on to admit:
What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.As the preceding 150-odd pages to that point have already made clear, that didn't quite work out. Foundational though Wuthering Heights might be in Mizumura's conception, she found herself going rather a different way -- certainly in her approach to the story but then also in the story itself. Here's where it gets interesting -- and where the title of the novel, 本格小説, or even the English A True Novel proves to be a more significant indicator than perhaps originally perceived.
Mizumura notes that she writes in a Japanese tradition of 'true novels' and 'I-novels', and it is in this tradition that A True Novel must be situated. As it turns out, A True Novel is a Japanese remaking of Wuthering Heights -- just not quite in the way that reductive description might suggest. Mizumura has fashioned something entirely novel -- new and different -- here, something in which outlines and shadows of Wuthering Heights can be perceived, but which is much more than just a 'based-on' novel. She has also fashioned a distinctively Japanese work, a modern novel rooted in Japanese literary tradition (and that -- as if to add to the challenge -- begins and long remains in an America locale).
In drawing back the curtain as to how she came to write the story she makes the core (technical) question -- "the difficulty of telling a real 'story just like a novel' in Japanese" -- explicit, yet the success of the novel lies largely in the doing, rather than showing. This is a novel of technique, and there's a reason (or several) for Mizumura's arguably ridiculously long Prologue. Describing her childhood on Long Island in the 1960s, she presents herself as a girl unwilling to assimilate, clinging to Japanese rather than embracing the American. Even in how she presents the girl she was, she is situating the author she becomes; so, too, the books she reads and refers to are old and/or classic ones, and she doesn't mention anything modern or American; the books the girl loses herself in are from the Contemporary Japanese Literature-series, which is contemporary only in name, since they were published: "almost two decades before the end of World War II".
In describing how Yusuke came to hear Fumiko's story Mizumura has him meet a group of sisters in 1995 who played a role in that story; one asks him whether he has read Hori Tatsuo's 1930s novella The Beautiful Village [美しい村], and, when he says he hasn't, notes:
I'm not surprised. The younger generation doesn't read novels like that anymore now, do they ?But young Mizumura did -- and, with A True Novel, she is even trying to write one which, in many ways, is 'like that'.
Literary tradition and appropriation are already hinted at long before Mizumura mentions the similarities she sees in the story she wants to tell and Wuthering Heights: she mentions, for example, as a young girl, being reminded of: "Takeo Arishima's A Certain Woman, a novel that reworked Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in a Japanese setting". A True Novel is full of such small scenes and observations that prefigure later revelations, with even a small task like changing a lightbulb coming back to haunt the story. With these subtle echoes she expands upon, and the echoes of Wuthering Heights she works into the novel -- such as Fumiko being modeled on and playing a similar role as Nelly Dean, or Yusuke seeing a girl in a doorway, much like Lockwood saw the ghostly apparition of Catherine at the beginning of Brontë's novel -- Mizumura shows considerable skill in her intricate construction.
The substantial Prologue introduces both the author and her subject, but it stands somewhat separate from the story-proper, the one Mizumura (says she) wants to tell (it is, of course, all of a piece). Here she describes her childhood and teen years on Long Island, brought there along with her sister and mother by her father when he was sent to set up and run the American branch of a Japanese optical instruments company. Japan was rapidly industrializing in the 1960s, but they largely feel this only at a distance. They are in a vanguard of a new Japanese business and working class abroad, but Mizumura does not so much chronicle the closer-to-home change of her father and his business as focus on the more extreme example of Azuma. (The American turmoil of the 1960s also gets rather short shrift here, with Mizumura's perspective remaining doggedly Japanese.)
When they arrive in the United States they hear of and meet Azuma, who works as a chauffeur for an American businessman. Only twenty or so at the time, he impresses Mizumura's father with his ambition and eagerness to learn, and soon Azuma is working for him as a camera repairman. Over the next few years, through hard work and great ambition he rises up to become a successful salesman, and eventually moves on, branching out and continuing to rise in the business world, amassing considerable wealth. Throughout, he remains something of an enigma, especially his personal life, Mizumura piecing together impressions from her encounters and what she heard about him while she is in her teens. Finally, he seems to simply disappear.
Azuma re-enters Mizumura's life decades later, in the (near-)present-day, when Yusuke shows up in Stanford, where she is teaching for a semester, and presents her with his story. He encountered Azuma more recently, back in Japan, and Yusuke's account fills in some of the present-day blanks about what became of him, but Yusuke's real gift is that he also brings Fumiko's story -- the heart of the novel, and the story behind the mysterious Azuma's childhood and youth, and what brought him to America. (Fumiko's story also extends to the near present-day, complementing Mizumura's account of the 1960s and 70s, and then filling in the rest up to the near present-day, when Yusuke appeared on the scene.)
Fumiko comes to Tokyo in her teens, and starts work at an American military base in 1951. In 1954 she comes to meet the three sisters of the Saegusa family, then in their young prime, and she becomes the maid for one of them, Natsue. Natsue is married to Takero Utagawa, a doctor -- though one more interested in research --, and the household also includes his only surviving relative, his stepmother, as well as his and Natsue's two daughters, Yuko and Yoko.
Relatives of a helper Utagawa's father had, Roku, move in with him in the small neighboring house. A husband and wife, they come with three boys -- the youngest of whom is Taro Azuma. They are desperately poor, and pretty unpleasant -- and young Taro gets the worst treatment (in part also because, as it turns out, he is not their son but only a nephew). Eventually, the older Mrs. Utagawa takes pity on the boy, and since Yoko and he are the same age and are in the same class in school and seem to get along (Yoko being otherwise slightly neglected by the family, her mother and older sister Yuko spending more time with the rest of the Saegusa-clan) he comes to spend a lot of time in the household.
Yoko and Taro remain very close, but of course the story-book romance doesn't quite work out. Class issues are part of it in a rapidly changing Japan, and social mores also play a role. When Utagawa gets an academic appointment in Hokkaido, distance (and the attempts to cover it) also becomes an issue.
While Yoko and Taro's relationship is the central thread, Fumiko also chronicles the fortunes of the Saegusa clan, especially their summer-times in Karuizawa (which is where Yusuke came across all of them). A True Novel is a sort of large-scale family-novel, too, concentrated on the three sisters (Natsue, and her sisters Harue and Fuyue) as well as the Shigemitsu family, where the handsome son Noriyuki seemed destined to marry one of the three but died in the war, while his nephew, Masayuki -- who bears an uncanny resemblance to the eternally idolized Noriyuki -- naturally figures in what happens with the next generation. While Fumiko only loosely keeps track of the ups and downs of the families, there's enough here to give the novel quite a bit of a saga-quality.
As readers have known from the beginning, the Yoko-Taro romance hits a major roadblock when Taro is about twenty, and he heads off for America. Fumiko's story explains how it came to that -- and then also fills in the details of what happened in his absence. Fumiko also recounts what happened after Mizumura lost track of him in the United States, as Taro also resurfaces in Japan -- not settling down, but visiting frequently -- and he again figures in some of the characters' lives. Tensions about his role(s) -- which also include that of (generous) benefactor -- remain throughout, and while it is Yoko's relationship with him that drives much of the story, Fumiko's own very complicated but lasting ties are also significant.
In one conversation the young Mizumura had with Taro on Long Island she expresses her own eagerness to return to Japan, and she asks Taro whether he isn't also eager to go back to where they came from. He tells her:
Why should I go back ? There's nothing for me there.It suggests that, at age twenty, he had cut all his ties, emotional and real. As it turns out, things are a bit more complicated, as he eventually does find himself drawn back -- at least intermittently. Yet his relationship with Japan and the Japanese remains always, at best, ambiguous. He was an outsider as a child, and he remains one throughout his life. The Saegusa-sisters, as 'insider' as it gets, are the contrasting element of traditional Japan (even as that moves towards its own decline and collapse), and Taro's interaction with them remains uneasy. So too he sums up his contempt of the Japanese in general to Yusuke, late in the day, when pretty much all has been said and done:
"Shallow...," the man echoed, before saying simply, "They're beyond shallow. They're hollow -- nothing inside." He brought the champagne glass level with his eyes and studied the bubbles in it. "Like these bubbles ... barely there at all."A True Novel is a sweeping, sprawling novel of Japan in the second half of the twentieth century. Through her three different story-tellers -- Mizumura herself, Yusuke, and Fumiko -- and their experiences and observations she effectively chronicles the rapid social and economic changes the country has undergone, and the novel is of interest for that alone. It is also impressive in its narrative approach(es) and style -- a creative and engaging telling.
The characters of Taro and Yoko are slightly problematic: their stories are presented second-hand, via these observers (Mizumura, Yusuke, and Fumiko), whose narratives nest within each other (a significant portion of the novel is, after all, Mizumura's account of Yusuke's account of Fumiko's account ...), and both characters are often at a considerable distance from any of the narrators. They remain elusive figures -- and hence also their passion isn't quite as enthralling as it might be with characters who have been brought closer to the reader.
Still, this is an impressive, even grand work, and the sort of long novel that is a pleasure to slowly watch unfold -- a treat for fans of those big Russian-family novels, or an older generation of Japanese writers (so: more Tanizaki, less-to-none of the Murakamis). Not everyone will have the patience for this kind of thing, but it's certainly worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 November 2013
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Japanese author Mizumura Minae (水村 美苗) was born in 1951.
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