Reviews / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Sushi with Heathcliff: Minae Mizumura's A True Novel

by Sarah Bower


Minae Mizumura (author), Juliet Carpenter (translator), A True Novel, Other Press, 2013. 854 pgs.

Juliet Carpenter's lucid and sympathetic translation of Minae Mizumura's A True Novel was published in 2013 and has just been awarded the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award's Grand Prize in Fiction. It was also a runner up for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. It came to my attention when I heard Mizumura in conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides at the 2014 Tokyo International Literary Festival. Eugenides' most recent novel is entitled The Marriage Plot and both works arise out of their authors' engagement with nineteenth century Romanticism, in both senses of the word.

A True Novel is, on one level, a retelling of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights for a twenty-first century Japanese audience. "Cathy" (Yoko) is the spoilt baby of a large, upper-class family. "Heathcliff" (Taro) is the poor kid of uncertain parentage, taken under the wing of the family matriarch to protect him from bullying at home, who goes to America and makes his fortune. Yet already, even within the novel's acknowledged Western framework, complications arise. Taro is bullied by his stepmother and two elder stepbrothers. So perhaps he is Cinderella, and old Mrs. Utagawa, the respectable widow who is rumoured once to have been a geisha, is his fairy godmother. As with Brontë's novel, there is more than a little of Beauty and the Beast here also, but this, too, is complicated and subverted by Mizumura, for Taro, with his striking, not-quite-Japanese looks, is the beauty and spoilt Yoko, with her frizzy hair and skinny form, is, if not bestial, pretty beastly at times. Then again, when Taro buys an old estate on Long Island and attempts to entice Yoko to join him there, I felt haunted by the shade of Jay Gatsby.

Wuthering Heights is itself a complex, multi-layered narrative, in which Lockwood's rental of Thrushcross Grange (formerly the Linton house) provides a framing narrative within which Nelly Dean recounts the entwined histories of the Earnshaws and their neighbours, the Lintons, to the Grange's new tenant. Mizumura's novel, however, is even more complicated.

Firstly, she adds a further layer of narrative by introducing the author of the novel (Minae) to the story, as well as the core actors and the tellers of their tale. Much of the first volume of A True Novel is taken up with an (auto)biographical account of Minae's childhood on Long Island. The daughter of Japanese emigre parents, she is drawn to the mysterious young man who comes to work for her father's company as a camera repairman by a shared sense of not belonging. There is an emotional and erotic charge to their stuttering friendship which never really goes away, even after the young Taro has graduated from repairing cameras to being a multi-millionaire venture capitalist, and the young Minae has gone to study in Paris and has published her first novel. Though they never meet again, she remembers clearly the time her mother asked Taro to change a lightbulb in her bedroom. This scene lies at the heart of a connexion she continues to feel—and, we realise, he does too—and which leads her to tell readers that the story of Taro and Yoko came to her as "a gift" rather than being something she imagined or excavated for herself. She further reinforces the reader's sense of reading a true story by the inclusion of photographs and a map of the town where the main events of the story take place. The giver of this gift is Yusuke, a young literary magazine editor, who, having heard the story of Taro and Yoko from Taro's housekeeper, Fumiko, seeks out the author as someone with whom he might share the burden of what he has been told.

In a scholarly digression about a quarter of the way through the book, Mizumura explains why she has used this device. The Japanese, she tells us, appearing to speak to a Western audience even though she wrote her novel in Japanese, value the literary tradition of the "I-novel," a form closely related to the diary, in which the novelist seeks after the truth of her own life in her fiction. Without this element, Mizumura tells us, she did not feel she could write a "true novel" about Taro and Yoko, or Yusuke and Fumiko. So she embeds her narrative within the framework of her own "real" encounters with Taro at the same time as her digression on the nature of modern Japanese fiction makes it perfectly clear that these encounters are yet another literary device. The photos, too, are generic—images, for example, of houses "like" the ones in which the story takes place but not of the actual houses themselves.

While there is a sustained fascination in Mizumura's storytelling throughout the novel, it really gets going about a third of the way through with the introduction of Fumiko, long-time maid, housekeeper and friend to the Saegusa and Shigemitsu families at the heart of which the strange, doomed relationship between Yoko and Taro unfolds. Fumiko is the "Nelly Dean" figure in A True Novel but is developed and exploited way beyond anything Brontë does with her housekeeper. Fumiko is an equivocal figure, not well-educated but bright, ostensibly self-effacing but quietly ambitious, a shrewd observer not just of the families she works for but also of postwar Japanese society in a wider sense. Her narrative charts not just a love story but the changing relationship between Japan and the Western world in the postwar era and the decay of old social rigidities in the face of the economic boom of the 1960s and the stagnation of the 1990s. The rise in Taro's fortunes, opposed to the dwindling influence of the old families, is a metaphor for the social change on a grand scale that swept through Japan after 1945. Fumiko herself begins her career working as a maid for an American officer in the Occupation forces and ends it, by means never entirely clear, as a woman of property.

Perhaps she is coy about her advancement out of personal modesty and her acute awareness of class. As she narrates the tragedy of Yoko and Taro, you quickly realise that this story could not happen in modern America or the UK, where class distinctions became fluid and in many ways non-existent after the Second World War. It is the unthinkability of a marriage between the scion of an old and distinguished family and the bastard great nephew of a rickshaw-puller, however wealthy and successful, that places insurmountable barriers between the lovers.

Perhaps, though, Fumiko's unreliability as a narrator springs from another source entirely. Mizumura exhibits terrific skill in her manipulation of information in this novel. Her characters focus on facts. They talk about money, property, railway timetables, the states of roads, the qualities of restaurants. Yet the reader is always acutely and uncomfortably aware of the repressed emotions simmering beneath the surface.

In true Romantic style, Mizumura directs much of the passion in her story into the landscape and the weather. The novel is dominated by rain, snow, oppressive heat, high winds and vicious cold. The weather is always extreme. Travel is always difficult. The volcanic Mount Asama is a constant presence in Fumiko's memory and therefore in the novel. It is torrential rain that delays Yusuke on a recreational bike ride and causes him to seek shelter with Fumiko. Torrential rain again cocoons the author and Yusuke through the long night during which he brings her the gift of the story. Yoko's fragile health is continuously threatened by cold weather. During Taro and Yoko's final encounter, "The madder-red sun glowed in the western sky as though loath to yield its shortening life" and the darkness is "rising as if from the ground." We are at summer's end, winter is coming, in the hearts of the doomed hero as much as in the world around him.

A True Novel is that rare achievement—a good read as well as a serious work of literature with much to say about its times and itself as a work of art, both passionate and coolly analytical. Juliet Carpenter's translation is lucid and readable, yet manages to convey with great sensitivity the subtleties of this story in which nearly everything of real importance remains unsaid. Somehow, while translating a novel which overtly acknowledges its debt to one of the greatest novels written in the English language, she manages to keep its Japanese voice intact.

A True Novel will haunt me for a long time. And Taro Azuma has definitely found his way on to my list of favourite literary heartthrobs!

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