Book Review: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.  

Book Review: Inheritance from Mother, by Minae Mizumura

Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.

The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:

As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.

She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.

The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.

Why?

That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.

She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)

Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.

Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.

(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.