Thursday 23 January 2014

'A True Novel' by Minae Mizumura (Review)

When I first heard about today's choice, I was intrigued and very keen to get a copy.  I'm always happy to find new-to-me female Japanese writers, and a nice long book based on a Victorian classic sounded like something I would enjoy, especially during January in Japan.  I'm happy to report that it definitely lived up to expectations - truly, a novel that reached great heights :)

Minae Mizumura's A True Novel (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is an 850-page reworking of the classic novel Wuthering Heights.  However, it's far from being a simple rewrite, being transplanted to Japan and progressing much more languidly than Brontë's tempestuous novel.

The prologue is told by a writer called Minae, a Japanese woman who has spent large parts of her life in the United States.  One day, a young Japanese man, Yusuke, approaches her, wanting to talk about a man that they've both encountered, Taro Azuma.  Azuma started off in the States as a chauffeur, a protégé of Minae's father, but eventually became a wealthy businessman before disappearing from the public eye.  Curious, Minae agrees to hear Yusuke's story - and it's a good one...

Burnt out by work the year before, Yusuke spent a week in the Karuizawa region, where he encountered Azuma and an elderly woman, Fumiko Tuschiya, at a small cottage.  She then spent several days telling the visitor a story, one about a man, a woman, two houses and a childhood love that extends beyond the grave.  For those obsessed with Victorian literature, it's a very familiar tale :)

A True Novel is a wonderful book.  It's a novel which compels the reader to take the time required to enjoy it; in fact, the writer (through Fumiko) makes sure that we are very clear as to what kind of tale this is going to be:
"I'm afraid there'll be a lot of digressions"
"That's all right."
"A lot.  Really a lot."
"No, it's okay."
The woman joined him on the porch and began.
p307 (Other Press, 2013)
Let me warn you now - she's most certainly not joking...

The reimagining of Wuthering Heights is a very clever idea, and for those who have read Brontë's novel, there are many instantly recognisable parallels.  The Heathcliff character is the brooding Taro, a moody outsider with an incomplete education and a dubious cultural heritage.  Even Minae recognises the clouds in his soul with her excellent comment:
"Why does he have to be so gloomy?' (p.57)
Yoko, the daughter of the family that helps Taro, fills the Cathy role, and she is every bit as headstrong, passionate and stubborn as her Victorian counterpart.

A True Novel is a much expanded version of Brontë's novel though, and much of that is because of Fumiko, the Nelly Dean of Mizumura's work.  In many ways, she is actually the main character here, and the story she tells Yusuke concerns herself just as much as it does the two star-crossed lovers.  We learn far more about her than we ever do about Nelly Dean, but there is something she has in common with the Victorian housekeeper - there is a lot more to her than meets the eye...

If A True Novel were simply a transplantation of Wuthering Heights into the Japanese countryside, then it would just be a superior form of fan-fiction, an entertaining curiosity.  However, there's a lot more to the novel than the Brontë factor.  One of the more interesting features of the book is its portrayal of the evolution of Japanese society after the Second World War.  As Fumiko progresses from farm girl to maid to successful working woman, we are shown a society recovering from the wartime disasters.  Mizumura describes the shift from post-war ruin to the economic boom, an event which showered money and Japanese ex-pats all over the world.  Later, we also see the bubble burst, an event which has serious consequences for several of the protagonists.

There's also a personal dimension to this social description.  In Minae's prologue (and post-script), the writer describes a woman caught between two worlds, one nostalgic for the country of her childhood.  She misses Japan, the books, the language, even the smell of the earth around her childhood home.  The irony is that when she returns, it's not her Japan any more; she is too Americanised, and Japan itself is unrecognisable from the country she left behind...

At the risk of outstaying my welcome, there's yet another aspect of the novel which has to be mentioned.  In addition to the Wuthering Heights parallels and the autobiographical side to the story, A True Novel is also an examination of J-Lit traditions.  In Japan, there is a strong culture of the 'I-Novel', a semi-autobiographical, confessional style of writing, and this is often contrasted with the imported European style of big, chunky novels told by an omniscient, impersonal narrator - in Japanese, a 'true novel'.  In this book, Mizumura (along with her alter-ego Minae) plays with the two different styles.  She says:
"What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese." (p.159)
In fact, she succeeds in combining the two forms - the prologue is an I-Novel, the rest is her attempt at a 'true novel'...

All of which simply means that it's a wonderful book, a great story with an excellent translation.  However, it's actually a beautiful object too - a two-volume box set with gorgeous covers and several black-and-white photos inside, depicting some of the settings for the novel.  When you consider how long this rambling review has been (and that I could have written a whole lot more), you'll realise what kind of book this is.  Perhaps some readers will find it a little slow, particularly in the middle of     Fumiko's extended story, but anyone schooled on Victorian blockbusters will know that there's nothing wrong with a story that takes its time :) 

A True Novel is a book which will appeal to readers of both of J-Lit and V-Lit, and if you love Wuthering Heights, it has that extra appealing dimension.  I'll leave you with one last quotation, this time from a scene where Yusuke (the Lockwood character...) is struggling to sleep in an unfamiliar bed:
"The night was warm, yet a chill ran through his body.  A ray of clear, bright moonlight shone at a sharp angle through the doorway.  In that clear light stood a girl wearing a summer kimono.  With her frizzy hair flaring out around her head, she stared up at Yusuke in the top bunk, her eyes wild, her tiny fist tightly clasping a round festival fan..." (pp205/6)
It's me, it's Yoko, I've come home - I'm so cold...