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.

Lost and Found

By some miracle, a bookmark that I acquired in Taiwan in 1989 has remained in my possession, showing very little wear and tear, in spite of my indifference to it. I always thought it was cool – Its character style and the fact that it contains a quotation from Socrates are very evocative of Taiwan – but I never took any care of it. (After all, it’s just a bookmark.) Over the years, I occasionally employed it in its intended capacity, paying it no more mind than if it had been a shop receipt or piece of Kleenex, and then, the book read, I would leave it lying around for the next time. I don’t know how many places I’ve lived since 1989, but the bookmark survived them all.

Recently, while reading Jonathan Manthorpe’s Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, I remembered the bookmark and decided that it would complete my experience. Then, after enjoying both book and bookmark, I resolved to make the latter a mandatory accompaniment to my upcoming immersion in Taiwanese fiction. With my determination fixed, I sought for the bookmark, to make sure everything was prepared; but I could not locate it. It was on no dusty nightstand or bookshelf, where it always was, where all the other bookmarks were. I checked my office, my car, and even less likely places, in increasing despair.  I realized that it was an irreplaceable antique, of tremendous personal value, the central artifact of my youth. I felt bereft and aggrieved, like a man missing a limb. I slept very little.

The following morning, I dashed to my car and arrived at the library, well before opening. As soon as the door was unlocked, I charged inside and implored the young man at the circulation desk to search every cart where a book returned the previous day might be. Finding the Manthorpe on the fourth or fifth cart, I flipped through the pages and there found the object of my quest, preserved as though in amber. I returned home and, at the foot of my bed, wept tears of gratitude.

Here is what it says:

HELP WANTED

“The most promising successful people are not those who possess uncommon talent but are, rather, the ones who are most adept at exploiting every opportunity for self-development and discovery.”

— Su-ge-la-ti

1989 Campus Career Fair