MKL Murphy - a neon mirage from the heart of the sandblasted Nevada wasteland, a panorama of crazed dictators, dreamy acrobats, the urban warlords of Hollywood, video game cults, sinister boatmen, rogue airshow pilots, feral tourists, minituarised landmarks, opium dens, pop art, nuclear war, architecture, music, money, the sixties, the nineties, the post-nineties… a story of limitless scope and spectacle

MKL Murphy, The Isle of Minimus, Repeater Books, 2016.

The Isle of Minimus is a neon mirage from the heart of the sandblasted Nevada wasteland, a panorama of crazed dictators, dreamy acrobats, the urban warlords of Hollywood, video game cults, sinister boatmen, rogue airshow pilots, feral tourists, minituarised landmarks, opium dens, pop art, nuclear war, architecture, music, money, the sixties, the nineties, the post-nineties… a story of limitless scope and spectacle.
Using repetition, paradox and association, the novel leaves conventional views of linearity behind as it  revisits the World’s Fair in Montreal 1967 and its antithesis, Las Vegas in  1999, by way of a confrontation in which a cast of dwarfs fight their way out of the now-never of capitalist ontology in an attempt to find a way back into history.

In a World where Miniature Paris Exists… The Little People are Taking Control…
Mid-1990s. Las Vegas. A gunshot rings out. Hercule Percepied wends through the diminutive sewer tunnels below Miniature Paris as police pursue him. A tightrope walker with even more accomplishments and outrageous stunts to his name than Charles Blodin, who crossed Niagara Falls on a wire, Hercule holds the narrative center of this sprawling, deeply satirical, Pynchon-esque debut novel. Hercule’s foil is Marcel X, a university professor whose political correctness would make the founders of microagressions.com blush. Marcel X is also the intellectual heavy behind a work stoppage the Little People have taken against the Paris Hotel and Casino. The striker’s physical protector and bodyguard is the tall (for a Little Person) Lucille Li. As popularity for the strike grows, people around the world begin to join in and Hercule is determined, Ayn Rand-style, to stop it dead.
Along the way, M.K.L. Murphy introduces us to the fictional Isle of Minimus, based in the English Channel—the sovreign nation of Little People, led by Lord Khazad, a Kaddhafi-type sensualist who basks in the seedy delights of Vegas. We also pay visit to the 1967 Montreal Expo and World’s Fair where miniature cities first got their start.
In the spirit of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, The Isle of Minimus is an ambitious, curious piece of fiction that seeks to redefine expectations of the novel form while making a statement about the “now-never” of capitalist hegemony. - watkinspublishing.com/watkinsusa/the-isle-of-minimus-by-mkl-murphy/

I was provided a copy of The Isle of Minimus in exchange for an honest review.
I’ll get this out of the way off the bat – MKL Murphy’s The Isle of Minimus is not an easy book to read. That doesn’t mean it’s without merit, but readers should be prepared for a novel without paragraph or even sentence breaks. It jumps constantly between characters, locations, and time periods, blending real-world people and places with invented ones, all treated with an odd sense of pseudo-affectionate contempt.
To the extent that the book has a narrative, it revolves mainly around a workers’ strike by a group of dwarfs who work at a Las Vegas resort attraction called “Mini-Paris.” Murphy invents bizarre dwarf culture that seems to be drawn somewhat from Tolkien-style fantasy depictions (their leader’s name is Lord Khazâd, and they consider beardlessness shameful), but it’s also applied to real Little People. I imagine that this ambiguity (and the resulting discomfort) was deliberate.
The dwarf confusion is just one of the ways that Murphy blends real pop cultural references with fictional ones – this is a world where the evil, goatee’d Mr. Spock is the real one, and Gene Roddenberry created a futuristic version of Baywatch. This blend of the real-fictional and the fictional-fictional make this feel like a real world just slightly removed from our own. A sizeable chunk of the book looks at a movie that was ostensibly filmed in Montreal during the World Fair ’67 called Soixante-Neuf, agent provocatif in which our central dwarf, Hercule, played a small role. I really enjoyed the Soixante-Neuf bits, the bizarre plot, wild exaggeration of James Bond tropes, and inclusion of as many actors from the ‘60s as possible made those sections a lot of fun. The fact that any of the narrative threads can feel continuous or tied together is frankly impressive, given that Murphy can drop one thing for 10 or 20 pages and then pick up again – without ever ending the sentence.
It’s also difficult to tell sometimes how much of the political and social commentary we’re meant to be agreeing with, and what’s meant to be overblown and laughable. Although some of it is clearly sarcastic: "everyone understood that there was no difference between having something and being something, that there was no alternative to consumerism except death". Despite the stream-of-consciousness style, Murphy’s language is careful and deliberate, so I sometimes found myself reading sections for the sake of the words themselves more than their intended meaning. The ending of the sentence is spectacularly bland, and casts an existential hue over the entire novel.
While the characters in the book are memorable, I can’t say I came out of it with affection for any of them, since no one is portrayed with much warmth. Lord Khazâd is particularly unpleasant, a racist and misogynist practical-dictator in the dwarfs’ homeland, the titular Isle of Minimus. Some of his misogyny spilled over into other parts of the book, and I didn’t especially enjoy reading about women who mostly idiots to be ogled. Lucille, the leader of the rebellious dwarfs (and member of the Cult of Mallrat, which sprung up around movie tie-in video game) has a bit more colour, personality, and competence than most of the other characters of any gender.
A lot of the unpleasantness is undoubtedly tied to particular characters’ points of view, but the stream-of-consciousness style makes it difficult to differentiate, and there were moments where this felt like a juvenile vanity project (such as the claim that Japan’s flag is due to a ceremony of deflowering virgins). The way the characters and places and times runs together can be disorienting, but it also leads to some incredibly striking surreal imagery, such as a man on stilts who finds and rescues people who have become trapped in cocoons. But this isn’t the kind of book to bring to the beach – if you’re not focused, it’s easy to become confused and overwhelmed. But then maybe that’s the point; it can be a bit challenging to follow the story, to the extent that there is a story, but if you go for the ride and let the words wash over you, the peculiar rhythm can be immersive and dream-like, and maybe that's enough. -

and they said God bless America the tears streaming down their cheeks like blood

Waly Salomão - From “THE TRUE STRUCTURE / OF NATURE,” to a “locked poem” to “jet turbines” and “scanners” to “Dr. Martens” shoes to a “sexualized mother / joyful mother” to “the burning of archives” to a “déjà vu sensation” to “gradual loss of hair” to “Narcissus,” to Valéry, Ashbery, and W. Stevens, and Sartre, they all sit together in the book to dig deep into many layers of our being in the world

Algaravias: Echo Chamber

Waly Salomão, Algaravias: Echo Chamber, Trans. by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016.


You can read the complete “Jet-lagged Poem” in Asymptote.
A few other poems from the book can also be found at The Brooklyn Rail.

The fifth and most critically acclaimed volume of poetry by Syrian-Brazilian poet Waly Salomão (1943-2003), Algaravias: Echo Chamber takes its title from an entangled history, referenced in an etymological epigraph: “From al-garb, the West; that language of the Arabs considered corrupted, little understood by the Spanish. Also a name of a plant, given that name for the messiness of its branches.” Its ruminations on passage, self-placement, virtual geography, human-electronic interaction, poetic consciousness, and mortality are inflected by Salomão’s dual heritage; they also confront the isolating nature of the dictatorship he lived through as well as the aggressively optimistic discourse of post-dictatorship “modernization” efforts: the torrential influx of mass media and multinational corporations, and the sterile, touristic, and militarized landscapes of modern space and spectacle.

The book starts with a word definition:
“Algarabia: from the Arabic al-garb, the West; algarabia, where the sun sets, occidental thing, people who live facing westward, language of the Arabs that lived facing westward: And as that language of the Arabs was considered a corrupted form of Arabic, little understood by the Spaniards, from here algarabia began figuratively to pass for something written or said in a way that one does not understand, and the clamor of various people who by all speaking at the same time, cannot be understood. – Others say that it came from alarabiya, the Arabic language. Algarabia is also the name of a plant, and it appears that it was given because of the messiness of its branches, alluding to the most coming meaning of the voice of algarabia (Academia Española).” (7)
This is significant; a good introduction to what comes next in Algaravias: Echo Chamber, Waly Salomão’s book that won Brazil’s highest literary prize, the Prêmio Jabuti. The poems in the collection might have a semblance of clamor and messiness but they actually form a modern complex whole. They thread together and mirror many aspects of our human experience, such as the human fate, knowledge, creation, language, place, time, displacement, belonging, etc. delving into what, in all this, is understood or, for one reason or another, misunderstood or not understood at all.
From “THE TRUE STRUCTURE / OF NATURE,” (9) to a “locked poem” (13) to “jet turbines” and “scanners” (21) to “Dr. Martens” shoes to a “sexualized mother / joyful mother” (33) to “the burning of archives” (39) to a “déjà vu sensation” (57) to “gradual loss of hair” (71) to “Narcissus,” (85) to Paul Valéry, John Ashbery, and Wallace Stevens, and Sartre, they all sit together in the book to dig deep into many layers of our being in the world.
Salomão (1943-2003) was born in Jequié, Bahia, Brazil to a Syrian immigrant father and a Brazilian mother. Translator Maryam Monalisa Gharavi was born in Iran and became an immigrant herself at the age of seven. In an interview with Mirene Arsanios, Gharavi speaks about her first encounter with Salomão’s work when she lived in Brazil as a student:
“I was instantly drawn to his poetry, and ended up tracing his footsteps all over the bookstores and public squares of Rio de Janeiro where he would give huge outdoor readings. Poetry quite literally stopped traffic at the time.
There was something vibrant in Salomão’s work that drew people in, even though he was also accused of writing too intellectually.”
It is with this intellectual composed voice that is meanwhile intimate and vulnerable that Salomão contemplates the natural and the unnatural world. He deals, in Gharavi’s words, with “a conjugated and multivalent reality.” And in the process, he reveals to us our distances and our ties, our achievements and our failures, our gains and our losses.
In the “Jet-Lagged Poem” (21-29), he writes,
“Writing is to avenge loss.
Although the material has dissolved completely,
like melted cheese.
Writing is to avenge?
From loss?
Notwithstanding? In good standing.”
Even though in Salomão’s world “all the full things tear each other to pieces / or are lacerated” (“Guarding the Hollow of Time” 75), “the days follow each other and settled is the intention / to convert all prohibited things and rust / into pieces of paradise. Or vice-versa” (“Open Letter to John Ashbery” 41). - Poupeh Missaghi

And all:
the same paste that the worms of entropy

amalgamate into a single compound.
But to stay, for what and where to,
if there is no remedy, syrup or elixir,
if the foot does not find ground to step on,
even in the do-it-all English footwear
of Dr. Martens,
(the feeling of having your foot stuck in jackfruit)
if traveling is the only way of being happy
and full?

Writing is to avenge loss.
Although the material has all melted,
like melted cheese.

Writing is to avenge?
Of loss?
Notwithstanding? In good standing.


Emily Abendroth tells us that society effectively criminalizes some of our most basic characteristics—our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger—and feeds them back to us as dangerous behaviors and/or unsustainable demands

Emily Abendroth, ]EXCLOSURES[, Ahsahta, 2014.

Exclosures 1-8

There are militarized zones that ] Exclosures [ tracks, between our lived lives and the exclusionary logics that we are required to contain them within. Emily Abendroth tells us that society effectively criminalizes some of our most basic characteristics—our youth, our old age, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor’s appointment, our hunger—and feeds them back to us as dangerous behaviors and/or unsustainable demands. But ] Exclosures [ also seeks to map something else—something variously wobbly, tender, obdurate, and ecstatic—the ever-innovating struggle to resist, reject, and arrest such logics.

“Sometimes there is a book you love so much you become frightened for the world. ] Exclosures [ is that for me. In a language invaded by false choice, infrastructured by ‘behavioral soundtracks,’ and occupied by dementia-inducing ‘privileges,’ Emily Abendroth implicates us in a relentless, marbled argument for her own hyper-communicable liberation. Here, oysters and otters come out of their word-shells and are exposed, alongside us, in a politics unsheltered from the fluids of Life. In bodies’ inchoate clamors, in their tangled historical idioms, there is still, Exclosures claims, the unmistakable pulse of possible justice. Improbable, yes, like much joy. This is writing that comes from many years of poly-barrage at the worst walls of our statesvilles, a decades-long voluntary encumbrance in the ‘best smidgens of radical hope.’ In such a project, all the camp-tools can ally-up—concept, lyric, document, narrative, luminous rhetoric, bureaucratese—no one’s unwelcome, all animals can come in and go out when they choose.”—Chris Nagler

“This book is so complicated in its juxtapositions. So inclusive in its explorations. So modest in its grandness. Really, I could go on and on. Emily Abendroth might say it is about the prison industrial complex. About various sorts of closures. But as she knows, once one starts on something as multidimensional as the prison industrial complex, one has to go wide and deep. And this book is both and more too, more as in meaningful, as in made.” —Juliana Spahr

What possibilities can poetics make in a world structured by logics that contain or constrain the human spirit? Abendroth’s debut charts some “improbable” options in a text that manages to sustain its beauty while directly facing this indifference. Hers is a world where a daughter’s “cagey lack of fidelity before all the boundaries/ that she’s been given is the best smidgen of radical hope/ we’ve got to our lot.” These boundaries are the boundaries of such broad-reaching powers as the prison-industrial complex and state, yet it becomes possible to weaken them with language, as even in placing words together: “There’s no combination we can forge that isn’t mutually contagious.” The poems, with their rich internal rhymes, read like sly escapes from Abendroth’s own structural play—brackets, multiple choice lists, and quoted text that make the book a hybrid affair. That she comes close to using her lyric powers to upset those boundaries makes our own personal projects of liberation seem livened again. She ends with an extended poetic statement in essay form, and though it is insightful, its real success is pointing readers back into the poems proper. Abendroth’s final poem concludes, “We went to the water as if it were an usher/ Let us make it one/ Let us gushing”—we should take heed and dive in. - Publishers Weekly

pixel“‘You been to the peas?’ the old lady said, and Clara leaned over to pass them to me.
pixelI had been to the peas. I had been to the chicken, several times, to the peas in a
pixelsauce, the potatoes in a sauce, the onions in a sauce, to the coffee, and the butter-
pixelyellow ice cream. It left a waxy coating of fat on the roof of my mouth.”

pixelIt left all that.

pixelBut lying in tatters on two orthogonal continua were the further nuances
pixelthe trance-inducing vacillations between knowledge formation
pixeland its feasible maintenance. The chancy tensions and concessions
pixelcompounding what any single person was bound to be open to hearing
pixelon a given evening and which, if any, variously creamy dishes
pixelthey could be convinced to willingly veer off “to visit” in what proportions.

In his orbiting photographic novel The Home Place, Nebraska author Wright Morris describes one of his notoriously resilient rural protagonists with the words: “He ain’t a farmer who thinks what he plants ain’t liable to die.”

pixelWe ain’t that either. We tainted and we pain-bent and we clear on it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Leaving aside the leanings that we nonetheless experienced 
towards fear-induced triage, towards the collaging together of wildly 
diverse materials into cursory-onto-bursting equivalencies.

The strange reasoning by which we forced ourselves to imagine: 
pixela “fair match” for the color “nutria”
pixela “fair match” for “an absent care-giver”
pixela “fair match” for “lone air strikes, conducted via drone”

pixelINTERVIEWER: What are the people fighting with?
pixelRESPONDENT: They have fecal matter.
pixelThey’re burning sewage to try to keep the U.N.
pixelout of their neighborhood—to stall the violence
pixelbeing perpetrated against them?

pixel“You been to the biscuits?” she reeled.
pixel“You been to Soliel?”

The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Emily Abendroth


Minae Mizumura - A smart, literate reimagining of Wuthering Heights, moved from the Yorkshire moors to seagirt Honshu, Japan, by way of Long Island.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter Other Press (November 2013) reviewed by Caroline Bleeke

Minae Mizumura, A True Novel, Trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Other Press, 2013.

A remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan
A True Novel begins in New York in the 1960s, where we meet Taro, a relentlessly ambitious Japanese immigrant trying to make his fortune. Flashbacks and multilayered stories reveal his life: an impoverished upbringing as an orphan, his eventual rise to wealth and success—despite racial and class prejudice—and an obsession with a girl from an affluent family that has haunted him all his life. A True Novel then widens into an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class.

The winner of Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Literature Prize, Mizumura has written a beautiful novel, with love at its core, that reveals, above all, the power of storytelling.

“Resisting Woman - Reading Soseki’s Gubijinso,” revised, PDF. Originally published in Studies in Modern Japanese Literature - Essays and Translations in Honor of Edwin McClellan, edited by Dennis Washburn and Alan Tansman, The University of Michigan, 1997, in English.
“Renunciation,” PDF, The Lesson of Paul de Man, edited by P. Brooks, S. Felman, and J. S. Miller, Yale French Studies, No. 69, Yale University Press, 1985, in English.
“Why I Write What I Write,” revised, PDF, International Writing Program, Iowa University, 2003, in English.
“On Translation,” revised, PDF, panel at the Iowa City Public Library, International Writing Program, Iowa University, 2003, in English.
“Authoring Shishosetsu from left to right,” revised, PDF. Originally published in The New Historicism and Japanese Literary Studies, edited by Eiji Sekine, Proceedings of the Midwest Association for Japanese Literary Studies, Vol. 4, The University of Michigan, 1998, in English.
“Finishing the Unfinished Soseki,” revised, PDF, Cornell University, 1989, in English.

Excerpt from A True Novel:
A miracle happened to me two years ago.
It was when I was staying in Palo Alto in northern California, writing my third novel, or, more precisely, trying to write it. I lacked confidence, and progress was slow. Then, out of the blue, I was made a gift of a story, “a story just like a novel.” What is more, the story was meant for me alone. It concerned a man whom I knew, or rather whom my family knew, in New York at one time. This was no ordinary man. Leaving Japan with nothing, he arrived in the United States and made a fortune there, literally realizing the American dream. His life had taken on the status of legend among Japanese communities in New York—yet no one knew that he’d had another life back in Japan, one marked by the poverty-stricken period that followed World War II. The tale of that life would almost certainly have disappeared, lost in the stream of time, if a young Japanese man who happened to hear it had not then crossed the Pacific and hand-delivered it to me in Palo Alto, like a precious offering. Of course, the preciousness of his offering was something the young man never knew. As far as he could tell, he merely traveled on his own initiative, sought me out of his own accord, then went away when he’d told the story he wanted to tell. Yet I felt as if some invisible power had arranged to bring this messenger to me.
He took all night to tell me the story. Outside, the heaviest rainstorm in California for decades raged, trapping us in the house. The angry power of nature must have affected my nerves: when he had finished, I was in shock. It felt uncanny that I should have known someone who had lived such a life—and that, by a strange series of coincidences, his tale should have been delivered to me, and me alone.

The story-within-a-story-within-a-story at the heart of this novel features a doomed, Wuthering Heights romance set in postwar Japan, with the 20th-century Heathcliff riding the Japanese-American economic wave. Concentric narratives connect and transform into a critical appraisal of commercial expansion and cultural decline. Narrator-novelist Minae begins by recalling her younger days as the daughter of a Japanese businessman on Long Island, where she meets 20-something Taro Azuma, then a chauffeur for an American. It’s the 1960s, a time of opportunity. Years later, Minae meets Japanese émigré Yusuke who describes his encounter in the states with Azuma, now a wealthy man in mysterious seclusion. Yusuke also relates the life story of Fumiko, Azuma’s friend. In a flashback to Japan, we see 17-year-old war orphan Fumiko working as a maid for a woman whose family, in 1956, takes the orphaned boy Azuma under its wing as part servant, part protégé. Azuma grows up hopelessly devoted to Yoko, the illness-prone daughter of Fumiko’s employer. Yoko in turn loves but rejects Azuma, propelling him to America and prosperity, then back to Japan and to her. The Japanese tradition of burning fires for the dead suits the ghostly Brontë-esque finale, but far more notable are Minae’s edgy insights into class distinctions, trans-Pacific cultures, and modernization’s spiritual void. A transparent translation and the author’s stylistic clarity smooth navigation between storylines. Photographs create the sense of browsing through an album—a nearly 900-page album encompassing two continents and several decades. —Publishers Weekly

A smart, literate reimagining of Wuthering Heights, moved from the Yorkshire moors to seagirt Honshu, Japan, by way of Long Island.
The Heathcliff of the piece—less a tracing of Emily Brontë’s novel than an homage, for Mizumura brings plenty that is absolutely her own to this aching story—is an absolute outsider named Taro Azuma who appears in the novelist’s life (for Mizumura writes herself into the story, whence its title) as a supremely shadowy figure even as she herself is living in “three separate worlds,” somewhere between Japan and the United States, between childhood and adulthood. The trope of insider/outsider is important to Brontë’s original and no less so to Mizumura’s; Taro becomes phenomenally wealthy and successful, but he can never quite completely attain his Catherine. But then, no one in Mizumura’s fictional world seems content or absolutely at home; this is postwar Japan in a time of economic boom (“There used to be nothing but mulberry bushes,” says one character. “And now, all of a sudden, we have a huge elevated highway running through it”), but a pall of death and shame still hangs over the land. Mizumura’s novel within a novel, with its layerings of wealth, class and star-crossed love (“how could she possibly see someone like Taro except behind her parents’ back?”), has all the inevitability of its Georgian predecessor. Structurally, it’s as clever as Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84; and if it has echoes of classical Japanese literature (“A longing to visit Nagano again left him restless”), it owes as much in some ways to The Great Gatsby as it does to Brontë.
Whatever its inspirations, and whatever use it makes of them, Mizumura’s book is an elegant construction, fully creating and inhabiting its fictional—its truly fictional—world. —Kirkus

“[A] fascinating example of a cross-cultural adaptation…A True Novel suggests that it isn’t only writers who are influenced by timeless novels but also the forces of history itself.” —Wall Street Journal

“Ambitious…[A True Novel raises] questions about where the line between fiction and remembrance lies.” —Los Angeles Times

“Mizumura meets her literary challenge with impressive sophistication and irresistible emotional power.” —Booklist (Starred Review)

“Imaginatively sets Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan… the narrative is colloquial, loose-limbed, and finely detailed; it’s anything but a slavish imitation of the original.” —Library Journal

“A mind-bending saga…[A True Novel] encompasses generations and continents, and Mizumura’s unfussy prose draws clear pictures of various shifting cultural patterns and behaviors.” —Bookpage
“[Deftly translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter…[A True Novel] is also an ambitious social critique.” Times Literary Supplement

“A True Novel” is a riveting tale of doomed lovers set against the backdrop of postwar Japan, with characters familiar to a Western audience: a rags-to-riches antihero, a tempestuous heroine who dies too young, a loyal housekeeper who tells their story. So how does the Gothic excess of “Wuthering Heights” translate to a culture better known for emotional restraint, even repression?
That is the larger concern of the novel, by the Japanese writer Minae Mizumura, who in adapting Emily Brontë’s classic has composed a fascinating meditation on cultural borrowing and the dislocation of modernity. Thankfully, Mizumura’s ambitious literary and cultural preoccupations do not overwhelm the sheer force of her narrative or the beauty of her writing (in an evocative translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter).
The novel opens on Long Island, where one of the narrators — a stand-in for Mizumura, the daughter of a corporate executive sent to New York — introduces Taro Azuma, the story’s Heathcliff. Taro is a chauffeur for a rich American but is befriended by the narrator’s father. His mysterious origins, his brooding drive to succeed and his meteoric rise to wealth make him the talk of the expatriate community. The story then shifts to Japan, where Yusuke, a young man lost in the woods of a Japanese summer resort, encounters Fumiko, whose own life has been entwined with Taro’s. Fumiko tells of Taro’s abusive childhood and his obsession with Yoko, the novel’s Catherine, who cannot overcome their class differences despite her passionate love for him.
The lovers’ tribulations unfold on a broad canvas — Japan as it recovers from the devastation of World War II and hurtles toward its economic miracle. Fumiko grows up in a Japan that most modern readers would not recognize: poor, rural, circumscribed, yet with its own haunting beauty.
“I heard the high note of the horn in the chill morning air as the tofu seller passed through the neighborhood,” Mizumura writes, in her role as narrator. “I saw my grandmother in her smock crouched outside the kitchen as she fanned life into the coals in the clay stove, the white smoke rising into the twilight sky.”
When Fumiko moves to Tokyo to make her way, she ends up enmeshed in the intimate stories of two households that reflect Japan’s own postwar journey: the aristocratic Shigemitsus, on the decline, and the up-and-coming Saegusas, who profit from Japan’s march to wealth. The Saegusa sisters — Yoko’s mother and aunts — hold the stage with the novel’s larger-than-life lovers. Attractive, vivacious and elegant, they are at times riven with jealousy, regret and vindictiveness. They also serve as the story’s Greek chorus, bemoaning a Japan that has traded refinement for materialism.
Binding the characters together is Fumiko, who moves, as Japan does, from poverty to middle-class stability. Yet she, like all the characters, is more than an arche­type. Her own emotional life is a poignant thread transcending the limits of the Nelly Dean character she is based on, infusing the narrative with tart observations and lingering sadness.
“A True Novel” makes tangible the pain and the legacy of loss. It is a book of many love triangles, in addition to the one that plays out in plain sight. Indeed, its psychological acuteness, fully realized characters and historical sweep push it out of the realm of pastiche and into something far more alluring and memorable.
Mizumura’s great accomplishment is to weave a love story through a serious exploration of themes central to Japan’s political and literary life: the burden of influence from the West and the struggle to retain a Japanese identity. As narrator, she notes that as a girl she resisted learning English even though she was living in New York, and immersed herself instead in Japanese literary classics. And in a digression that is one of the few moments when the novel loses its narrative drive, she notes that Japanese writers have long struggled to balance a Japanese literary tradition of the autobiographical novel with the Western ideal of inventing a fictional world outside one’s own life.
Yet Mizumura has triumphed in taking a quintessential Western Gothic and making it wholly Japanese. Japan has its own traditions of ghost stories, doomed love and the nobility of despair. The violence that looms beneath surface restraint is a motif running through such varied contemporary works as manga or films like “In the Realm of the Senses.” In a way, Mizumura answers one of the philosophical questions she poses in “A True Novel”: At least between its pages, Western tradition does not eradicate Japanese literary sensibility. She has drawn on the West for inspiration but created something indelibly, irresistibly, Japan’s own. -
If you’re one of those people who habitually skim the prologue to a book, Minae Mizumura’s _A True Novel_—her third novel and the winner of the Yomiuri Literature Prize in Japan in 2002—might not appear to be for you. That is to say, the prologue takes up at least a third of the first volume of the book, and it’s pretty important for understanding the circumstances in which the story that makes up this “true novel” takes place, in addition to sorting out what, exactly, a “true novel” is. Luckily for you, O prologue skippers of the world, there is nothing dry or uninteresting about the first 165 pages of this book, which introduces the protagonist, Taro Azuma, as Mizumura knew him when she lived in America during her teens. In fact, if you were somehow unaware of the name of the author when you came into the reading the book, you might not realize that the entire thing wasn’t a fictional account from an outsider to establish what happened during the gaps in the main story. I actually forgot a couple of times that I was reading a prologue at all.
The main function of the prologue here is to both set up the circumstances which led to this novel being written, and to sort out for the reader what exactly a “true novel” is. On the outside, it seems like it might be an oxymoron: because a novel is fictional, it surely can’t be “true,” right? Or maybe the title refers more to the fact that the novel is an example of the “true” form that a novel should take. It turns out that in this case, “true” is a combination of the story’s basis in reality and its following in the pattern of Western classics: authentic, “true” novels. Mizumura takes a few pages to explain the history of the “true” and “I-novels” and it makes no sense fragmented, so all I’m going to say is read the damn prologue, or else flounder in confusion. Your choice.
What I can excerpt is a bit on Mizumura’s thought process as she considered making a novel out of the story told to her by Yusuke Kato about a man Mizumura knew as a teenager:
It was when I finally began to write about Taro Azuma that I came up against an obstacle I had not foreseen. What I had taken to be a gift from heaven was, I gradually found out, not all that simple. The further I progressed, the more insistent that problem became: how to take “a story just like a novel” and turn it into a novel in Japanese.
. . .
The story I was told on that stormy night was merely one of many love stories already told a thousand times. Why turn it into yet another novel? There was only one answer I could think of: it recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: 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… What I set out to do was thus close to rewriting a Western novel in Japanese.
So here we finally come up against the thing that the back cover of this book does not want anyone to forget: this novel is “a remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, set in postwar Japan.” I’m hesitant to agree with that statement entirely. While the plot of the story does seem to mimic, in some places, that of Wuthering Heights, with all the main characters represented (the outsider, the housekeeper, the poor abused boy, the rich girl he loves, etc.), the fact that the story is real kind of discounts it, in my mind at least, from being a “re-making” of anything—in addition to many obvious changes, including “new” characters, who shift the progression of the plot away from Brontë’s classic. Mizumura herself states that, although the story seemed to fit that pattern to begin with, as she was writing she saw it take its own, unique shape. But perhaps I’m just splitting hairs. At any rate, I was pleased to discover that I enjoyed A True Novel immensely (much more than I enjoyed Wuthering Heights, in point of fact). I accredit the gap in my enjoyment between the two books to several things, but in particular that, whereas Wuthering Heights is a romance novel, and pretty much only that, A True Novel is the story of so much more—family rivalry, economic turmoil, loss, and the growing modernization of a country coming into the 20th century at full throttle.
And really, all comparisons to Wuthering Heights aside, the stark sense of reality in this book informed both by the genuineness of the general plot and the expertly-done character development plants the story—and the characters in it—firmly on the ground. No one would ever be tricked into believing this is a biography or a non-fiction book, but the skill with which Mizumura fleshes out people who she’s only ever “met” through second and third hand accounts is staggering and wonderful. Everything is cleanly situated in space and time, localized to the latter half of the 20th century in Japan and giving the reader a view into the ever-shifting lives of the “better families” who were forced to make adjustments in their every-day lives due to post-war policies, but held on fiercely to the societal prejudices that allowed them to maintain their social, if not their monetary, superiority. With the added black-and-white photographs illustrating various places and things mentioned in the text, you’ll never lose touch with where or when the story is, and you’ll begin to absorb the feeling of the mourning in which the older generations are for the cultural past swept away in the current of modernity.
The plot is triple-layered: the outside is the story of Yusuke Kato’s brief interactions with the Saegusa family, Taro Azuma, and Fumiko Tsuchiya one summer week when he was vacationing with a friend. The next layer is Fumiko’s retelling—to Yuksue—of the things she witnessed during her acquaintance with the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, Utagawa, and Azuma families. The innermost layer of the plot is the history of the Saegusa, Shigemitsu, and Utagawa families, as told by the Shigemitsu’s maid to Fumiko when Fumiko was in the Utagawa family’s service. Each layer of the plot is nested inside the other to create a fully expanded story, from before the beginning to after the end. Each of the narrators brings a part of the story into being, although not necessarily in order, to create a fully satisfying novel that entirely lacks the tug of lethargy that is always a risk in books this long. Every word is important here, every page brings something new, something that the reader is eager to know, and that makes this novel an easy read, despite its length. Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif have created a translation that is smooth, evocative, and modern, while maintaining the air of affectation that surrounds the central families.
So, for those of you who slept through Brit. Lit. II (don’t worry, I don’t know who you are—I was half-asleep, myself), hate romance novels, or are just generally afraid of long books, fear not. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is reader-friendly, engaging, and, while similar in places to Wuthering Heights, far longer, much more interesting, and (I’ll argue, to the distress of English literature teachers everywhere) more important in the conclusions (or lack there of) it ultimately draws. A True Novel is a simultaneously expansive and private insight into the struggle between traditional Japanese values and incoming Western conventions, monetary wealth and spiritual value, and status and love—a work of literature not to be missed. - Hannah Vose

In a letter from 1796, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of the University of Berlin, wrote that “All translation seems to me simply an attempt to solve an impossible task. Every translator is doomed to be done in by one of two stumbling blocks: he will either stay too close to the original, at the cost of taste and the language of his nation, or he will adhere too closely to the characteristics peculiar to his nation, at the cost of the original. The medium between the two is not only difficult, but downright impossible.” Based on Mr. Humboldt’s criteria, then, A True Novel by Minae Mizumura has a lot of reasons to fail.
A True Novel is not just a translation in the literal, linguistic sense. It’s a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in mid-20th century Japan and America, which in itself is a massive accomplishment of translation. Wuthering Heights, the estate, is morphed into the summer homes of the wealthy elite in Japan. The book’s Heathcliff, Taro Azuma, comes from post-war Manchuria instead of being an adopted gypsy child. Even the book’s prologue echoes eerily with the preface Charlotte Brontë added to Wuthering Heights after Emily’s death. In it, Charlotte writes that the “immature but very real powers revealed in ‘Wuthering Heights’ were scarcely recognized” and laments the general lack of reception she and her sisters received early in their careers. Mizumura-as-narrator echoes the same concern in her opening to A True Novel, in which she describes “the strong desire to hear a resounding voice from on high telling one that one was indeed destined to write.”
Don’t assume that being inspired by Wuthering Heights limits Mizumura’s work in any way. Mizumura’s greatest act of translation sorcery is to drag Wuthering Heights’ basic plotline into the modern, or to be more accurate, postmodern literature scene. Just as Wuthering Heights is framed by the housekeeper telling the story to the narrator, A True Novel is built layer by layer and then slowly peeled back in the process of Mizumura’s storytelling, echoing other iconic postmodern texts—I was frequently reminded of Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. While not every layer holds up against the others in terms of how much they seem to benefit the story, the style forces the reader to interrogate the purpose of each piece of information, not just to the narrative, but to the character relating that narrative. Slowly, piece by chronologically-out-of-place piece, a picture emerges of a wealthy Japanese family straddling the past, which gives them their status, and the future of post-World War II Japan. Taro bursts into their lives and holds every character’s attention, but the family has its own share of vibrant personalities, especially Natsue, Harue, and Fuyue. Each of these three sisters, named after the seasons, has her own reaction to Taro and the events of the novel. They’re an imposing and intimidating trio, terrifying to characters and readers alike but also full of mystique; their scenes are filled with pulse-quickening excitement, especially when the three are together. Fumiko, though, is the one who steals the stage. Sometimes narrator, sometimes object of narration, Fumiko is the housekeeper who moves far beyond the near-forgettable Nelly Dean of Wuthering Heights. Fumiko’s arc surprises us, right up to the very last page.
Minae Mizumura
Minae Mizumura
Mizumura herself is a character within the novel, and there’s never any indication as to how much of her character is based on her real life. (You can find out more from the interviews on her site, but I’d recommend saving them until after you finish the book.) As we follow her story and enter the world of A True Novel, we’re left to wonder who is going to “play” the memorable cast of Wuthering Heights. I found myself convinced that one character was going to be Catherine, only to have my mind changed twice fifty pages later.
I reread Wuthering Heights shortly before A True Novel. Brontë’s work absolutely adds an additional level of engagement with the text. Rereading Heights was not a completely positive experience—I found myself put off by the lack of sympathetic characters. But that lack seems to allow Brontë to create these incredibly potent scenes between characters, scenes that pulse with torrents of emotion. Mizumura chooses a different route: we sympathize with several of her characters, but they remain just out of our reach, unknowable due to the limited and unreliable layers of narration. This keeps the emotional flare-ups believable and just as evocative as the collisions between Brontë’s characters. Early on, we see a description of Taro dancing: “All I knew was that my body was in his arms, being whirled around the floor at a frightening speed. His own body was tight with pent-up emotion; it felt almost as if he was punishing me.” Like Wuthering Heights, the reserved, formal world around the characters serves to enhance every character’s outburst. Mizumura uses this to her full advantage, creating masterful depictions of love in myriad forms and combinations. A True Novel challenges what we know about relationships and happiness, blurring the lines between romance and obsession, between tolerance and resignation.
The book is an intimidating 854 pages but is worth every word, and it’s distributed between two volumes in the same style as its original Japanese counterpart. Interspersed throughout the text are black and white photographs depicting the Japanese scenery of the novel. A True Novel’s English translation was brought to America by the now defunct Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP), a Japanese government-backed venture to encourage the translation of Japanese literature. The project was cancelled in 2012 (although works in progress like A True Novel are continuing until completed) on the theory that private industry should be responsible for such endeavors, which is a depressing thought. The book won Mizumura the prestigious Yomiuri Prize at the time of its original publication in 2002, and Mizumura has taught at several universities in the United States, but the translation to English took eleven years and government funds, which have already been defunded. It’s heartbreaking to think that the next work equal to A True Novel might not make it to America. In an interview, Mizumura says she didn’t expect the novel to be translated at all, which is surprising since this book is practically made for translation—with its foreign source of inspiration, the omnipresent influence of America in the postwar-Japan setting, the photographic aids, and the other types of translation that went into its creation. A True Novel is a masterpiece that breaks down all kinds of barriers, one that deserves to transcend the borders between languages and nations as well.
- Graham Oliver

Language has its own law of propagation and the predominance of English can only continue for the centuries to come. . . I write to prevent the world from succumbing to the tyranny of English.
—Minae Mizumura, “Why I Write What I Write”

As a girl, Minae Mizumura first encountered Wuthering Heights in Japanese translation; every time she read it, the story “never failed to make a disturbing impression.” In her gorgeous and transporting A True Novel, published in Japanese in 2002 and now translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Mizumura reimagines Emily Brontë’s novel in postwar Japan, weaving a two-volume tapestry of class upheaval, immigrant striving, and forbidden love. In so doing, Mizumura interrogates the dichotomies of romanticism and postmodernism, East and West, creation and appropriation. The result is at once literary homage and departure.
Born in Japan but raised in America from the age of twelve, Mizumura spent her adolescence yearning for her homeland, fighting against assimilation. She devoured the Japanese novels her parents brought across the ocean but kept English at a distance. As she grew up, becoming a novelist herself, she continued to ally herself with her first language. Even now, Mizumura self-identifies as “a novelist writing modern Japanese literature in the Japanese language.”
But while this linguistic circumscription bespeaks a sort of conservatism, Mizumura’s novels, on the contrary, seem intent on challenging borders and boundaries of all sorts. Her debut novel, Light and Darkness Continued (1990), was a postmodern engagement with Natsume Soseki’s seminal work. Standing in for Soseki, considered to be a master of modern Japanese literature, Mizumura completed his unfinished book, writing the missing ending. Her largely autobiographical second novel, Shishosetsu from Left to Right (1995), scattered English phrases throughout the Japanese, a syntactical structure rendering the novel untranslatable in English, as it would be impossible to capture its bilingual nature. In her defiant essay “Authoring Shishosetsu from Left to Right,” Mizumura writes,
The irreducible materiality of language—the untranslatablity of language—is that which prevents the world from ultimately making sense only in English. Imagine a world in which the cream of all societies, the most well-educated and the most prosperous, expressed themselves exclusively in English. Not only would humanity be less rich in variation, it would also be less subtle, less articulate, and less capable of checking the tyranny of one Logos. Perhaps I am being megalomaniacal again, but I would certainly be happy if, on top of all the intrinsic pleasures involved in writing in Japanese, to write in Japanese today meant working to save humanity from succumbing to that horrid fate.
The “tyranny of English” is intrinsically tied to the “tyranny of one Logos,” one way of thinking. Her decision to write in Japanese is not just aesthetic but political, as if homogeneity were an authoritarian threat.
Yet Mizumura realizes, in that same essay, the costs of this linguistic protest, the “unhappy knowledge” that in choosing Japanese she must limit her own ambition. She is clearly haunted by this trade-off, knowing she has little chance of becoming a writer “whose work, both in the original and in translation, will reach so far into the distance that she will, in the end, be read by millions of her true readers, some of whom will, in turn, create their own works which will engage in a direct dialogue with her, thus sending her words still further into time and space.” Her avowal of the “untranslatability of language” clashes with her own latent desire to be translated, to reach others across time and space. At the heart of Mizumura’s anxiety is loneliness.
This loneliness of language calls to mind Bernardo Atxaga, one of the few writers today working in Basque. In The Accordionist’s Son, he interweaves the fate of this language isolate, unrelated to any other,* with that of the memories of old men: “The names they gave to different sorts of apples—espuru, gezeta, domentxa—or to butterflies—inguma, txoleta, mitxirrika—were fast disappearing: they fell like snowflakes and melted when they touched the new ground of the present.” In “How to Plagiarize,” a story from his collection Obabakoak, Atxaga imagines the Basque literary landscape as a barren island, the only hope for which is the act of plagiarism:
In my view, plagiarism has many advantages over the labor of creation. It is much easier to carry out and less hard work. You can finish twenty works of plagiarism in the time it takes to produce one creative work. And because the qualities of the original serve as a guide and an aid, you often get very fine results, which is not always the case with creative texts. The idea that it is theft is most unfortunate, since it deprives us of the best tool we have to give life to the island.
Atxaga’s tongue-in-cheek story destabilizes our definition of plagiarism: “we writers don’t create anything new, we’re all continually writing the same stories. As people often say, all the good stories have been written already, and if a story hasn’t been written, it’s a sign that it isn’t any good.” Is any story fully exempt from the charge of plagiarism? Is any translation?
Because of Carpenter’s lucid translation, which makes Mizumura’s writing at last accessible to readers of English, A True Novel will likely be Mizumura’s most widely read work to date. This is ironic, considering Mizumura’s earlier stance on translation, but in this novel, her position seems to have shifted. In her autobiographical prologue, which comprises nearly 200 pages of the novel’s 850, she identifies “the desire to emulate” as “the basis of all art,” defending her decision to rewrite a Western classic in her own language as a literary endeavor with a long history. A True Novel, she explains, takes its title from a debate over ideal literature, which began with the opening of Japan to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. Proponents of shishosetsu, or “I-novels,” advocated for the autobiographical tradition that had long characterized Japanese literature. Conversely, proponents of honkaku shosetsu, or “true novels,” privileged sweeping, socially aware Western novels, believing them to be more imaginatively and morally challenging. These critics advocated the translation of Western classics into Japanese, hence the edition of Wuthering Heights Mizumura first encountered as a girl. In an unwitting nod to Atxaga’s “How to Plagiarize,” Mizumura recognizes that, were it not for this infusion of outside literature, the Japanese literary scene would be far less robust and diverse.
A True Novel begins as an apparent shishosetsu, narrated by a woman who shares Mizumura’s name and life story. At the prologue’s end, Minae is desperately searching for novelistic inspiration when she receives a visitor, a stranger from Japan. The young man, Yusuke, carries an extraordinary tale about a figure from Minae’s past, a mercurial, ruthlessly striving man named Taro. As a child in the preceding pages of the prologue, Minae had witnessed Taro’s transformation from immigrant chauffeur to business mogul, a meteoric rise that had elicited both her repulsion and desire. Yusuke and Minae share a long dinner and, as the night grows stormy, go back to her house, where he tells her the rest of Taro’s story. Her immediate response is that it reminds her of Wuthering Heights and, as such, could be the perfect honkaku shosetsu. But she cautions us that it diverges from that form in one crucial way: it is fact rather than fiction.
Can we believe her, though? Are Yusuke and Taro actually real, or are they imaginative figments that have infiltrated her autobiography? This melding of reality and invention is wonderfully captured in the English translation of Mizumura’s title. What does it mean for a novel to be true, for the truth to be novelistic? Perhaps Mizumura is playing a postmodern trick on us, taking Brontë’s Nelly Dean narrative frame one step further. Regardless, she carves a new literary form out of the shishosetsu and honkaku shosetsu traditions, as she translates or plagiarizes or reinvents Wuthering Heights in her native tongue. 
Wuthering Heights is a loaded model for an author concerned with issues of transmittal, given Brontë’s own immersion in them. Her framing narrator, Lockwood, first meets Catherine Earnshaw in the pages of her diary, drawn in by a depiction of the family servant: “I was greatly amused to behold an excellent caricature of my friend Joseph, rudely, yet powerfully sketched. An immediate interest kindled within me for the unknown Catherine, and I began forthwith to decipher her faded hieroglyphics.” It is this kindled interest, along with his terrifying nightmare of young Cathy knocking on the window, that leads Lockwood to ask Nelly Dean about the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights; her long night of storytelling, in turn, becomes the novel itself. Despite all of these layers of narrative framing, the central love story is arguably the most emotionally visceral, devastatingly beautiful one ever written.
In A True Novel, when Yusuke finishes telling of Taro and the woman he loved, Yoko, Minae feels an almost religious imperative to write it down. She describes her encounter with Yusuke as “a miracle . . . as if some invisible power had arranged to bring this messenger to me.” The story is divine revelation, and it must be told. Minae, then, joins Yusuke in a line of storytellers, “going on as if unable to stop.” Yusuke’s story was originally told to him by a woman in Japan, Fumiko, on another stormy night, which she in turn distantly witnessed, as a servant in Yoko’s family. The central love story, then, is far removed from us. Like Cathy and Heathcliff’s, it has been translated over and over, and, if we are reading in English, Carpenter’s translation from the Japanese adds yet another level.
In its sweeping narrative ambition, weaving multiple plots and covering decades of Japanese history; in its dissection of cultural and societal transformation; and in its ravaging emotional devastation, A True Novel establishes itself as a work of art unconstrained by its predecessor. On a basic level, Mizumura adheres to Brontë’s narrative: Fumiko, the novel’s longest-serving narrator, details for us the intimacy between Yoko and Taro, socially beneath her but a kindred spirit. As the lonely girl and orphan boy grow older, their friendship transforms into a forbidden, overpowering passion, dooming them like their nineteenth-century predecessors. But in its final chapters, A True Novel delivers fresh, wrenching plot twists, and Fumiko proves far less reliable and impartial than Nelly. Furthermore, intertwined with the romance between Taro and Yoko is a much larger narrative about post-war Japan, the shifting power structures that enabled economic recovery. As the nobility falls and the middle class rises, Mizumura’s characters display mixed feelings. There is at once a powerful sense of opportunity and a plaintive regret for the loss of traditional values, the spread of uniformity. Near the novel’s end, Taro compares the new character of the country to champagne bubbles, “hollow . . . barely there at all.” The richness and range of the novel’s social dimension seems closer in spirit to George Eliot than to Brontë.
In a further departure, Mizumura scatters black-and-white photographs throughout her pages, inspired by moments in the text: the gnarls of an aged tree, a lookout point, shadows on the roof of a villa. Like Mizumura’s prose, these photos are spare, lovely, and haunting. Yet they are always atmospheric rather than descriptive, never showing specific characters: roads and train stations are eerily empty; a perfectly set, candlelit table lacks diners or any evidence of a meal. The closest we get to a populated scene is a graveyard. The purpose of these images is not illustration. Why are they included, then? Regardless of the language in which we are reading, the images are constant. They convey tone, a novelistic element that is difficult to replicate linguistically. With these photos, Mizumura challenges yet another dichotomy, that of image and text, commenting, once again, on the nature of translatability.  
In the century and a half since it was first published, Wuthering Heights has been adapted by countless filmmakers and screenwriters, librettists and graphic novelists. Kate Bush’s haunting song, “Wuthering Heights,” inspired by Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of Heathcliff, has in turn drawn a raft of imitations and allusions. Brontë is clearly one of those authors who reach across time and space, although in life she could not have been more isolated, out on the remote Yorkshire moors where she spent most of her brief life. As steeped as her novel is in the landscape and customs of nineteenth-century northern England, it transcends such specifics: like Cathy’s immortal love for Heathcliff, the novel’s emotional power “resembles the eternal rocks beneath.”
A True Novel, too, proves to be a testament to the universal power of storytelling. Indeed, in her essay “On Translation,” Mizumura describes the book as “a tribute to the possibility of translation as a movement that had always enriched and shall continue to enrich world literature.” Her notion of “untranslatability” has been replaced by a movement of world unity.
At the end of the prologue, Minae describes her night with Yusuke:
I listened with the stillness of deep sleep. The present disappeared. The place where we were disappeared. Even Yusuke and I disappeared. With my sense of the solid reality around us dissolving, the yellowish glow from the small bulbs on the walls looked like will-o’-the-wisps, ghost fires. The wildness outside the little house now seemed distant, as if the power of nature couldn’t penetrate our world.
Through the night, as wind and rain pummel the house, Minae enters a different reality. This is the enchantment of narrative: the exchange of one world for another, light bulbs for ghost fires. This is the promise of every novel, and Mizumura’s keeps it. - Caroline Bleeke

I came across A True Novel by Minae Mizumura by chance, and bought it on impulse purely based on the packaging.
I had just sold some used books to Powell’s and was walking the aisles, looking for something to spend the store credit on. The 2013 translation of this Japanese novel, published by Other Press, caught my eye: two beautifully designed paperback volumes in a matching slipcover. Though it had already been out for two years, I hadn’t heard of it. I decided to take a chance. Having now read it (devoured it) I don’t understand why it wasn’t a bigger deal at the time of its release. It’s excellent, and scratches a similar itch to  Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; it digs deep into complicated personal relationships played out over many years, while at the same time revealing the changing sociopolitical climate and its impact on the characters’ lives.
A True Novel opens with a 165-page-long preface, which itself reads very much like a novel, establishing Mizumura’s connection to a man named Taro Azuma, who plays a central role in the action of the main part of the book. Toward the end of the preface, Mizumura presents two traditions of Japanese literature: the “I-novel” and the “true novel.”
About the I-novel, Mizumura writes:
In an “I-novel,” readers expect the writer to figure in the work in one way or another. Whether the work is in fact based on the writer’s life or is a contrivance is ultimately irrelevant. The author-protagonist of an “I-novel” is perceived as an actual, specific individual, one whose face may be publicly known in other media. The work is necessarily assumed to be truthful about that individual’s life.
The “true novel,” on the other hand, is not “true” in the sense of “based on actual events.” It is “true” in the sense of “pure” or “true to the traditional form of invented narrative.” In the preface, Mizumura writes that a true novel “must first and foremost be a work of fiction.” She claims that in this way her “true novel” deviates from the form, but it’s unclear whether that statement itself is to be taken as truth or fiction.
That’s one of the things that fascinated me as I read the book. That 165-page preface, ostensibly the author’s introduction to the novel, forms an I-novel. The author-protagonist of this preface/I-novel is Minae Mizumura. The biographical details of this protagonist Mizumura match those of the author Mizumura. But one gets the sense, particularly after her lengthy explanation of the two traditional forms of Japanese novel, that the I-novel of the preface is, at least in part, contrivance, which then throws into question her claim within the preface that the second, much longer part of the novel, is also true. Because what comes after that preface/I-novel is a very lengthy “true novel.”
This “true novel,” which per the form must be fiction is, per the narrator, a true story as recounted to her by a young man named Yusuke. The story comes to her by chance, it is like a gift and she’s compelled to write it. She can’t help but notice that it takes the shape of Wuthering Heights. How much are we to believed is true? Do we accept the narrator as the actual Minae Mizumura and read the preface as her direct, honest address to us? Or do we read the novel as beginning at page one? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are layers of potential truth and fiction within this book, Minae recounting her experiences with Taro and with Yusuke; Yususke recounting his experiences of Taro and Fumiko to Minae; Fumiko recounting her version of events to Yusuke. It’s all about layers of truth and storytelling. I don’t ever want to find out I’m meant to take it as one thing or another. I want it to be both. I want the possibility of both readings. And ultimately, after 854 pages it doesn’t feel important to know if the preface—the “I-novel”—is true, or if the “true novel” is true, or if they’re both fictions. The tension that’s created in the not-knowing is delicious. - Cari Luna      
In America, we are deeply familiar with the emigrant novelist and his travails. He comes here from different places around the world, at different ages, and in different historical eras, but the trajectory of his life — and consequently the trajectory of his fiction — is more or less the same. He may be divided between the old world of his parents and the new one that sparkles and sprawls outside his home. He may bemoan the loss of the man he once was, who did not survive the journey from the homeland. He may find his adopted country ridiculous or grotesque, making every attempt at assimilation a smudge on his soul. Either way, he finds a resolution to his conflicted self in writing — specifically, writing in English, the language of his hosts, so that they might better understand him and his foreignness. Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps America’s most famous emigrant writer, went so far as to switch from Russian to English in the middle of his career, whereby he proceeded to show the native speakers a thing or two.
Rare is the budding emigrant writer who rejects both America and its language, ensconcing herself in her room to devour books in her mother tongue. Rarer still that she emerges from the crucible of the American experience as a novelist devoted to expanding our notion of Japanese literature, of all things. That is the strange case of Minae Mizumura.
“The moment one learns English, complications set in,” Felipe Alfau declared in the opening sentence of his emigrant classic Chromos, an allusion to the complete change in outlook that can occur when you begin thinking in another language. For Mizumura, the situation has been the opposite. In her attempt to showcase and preserve the unique subtleties of the Japanese language — and by extension to “prevent the world from succumbing to the tyranny of English,” as she writes in her essay “Why I Write What I Write” — she has experienced no end of complications, including one most fatal for a writer: anonymity.
In fact, Mizumura has seemingly gone out of her way to remain a virtual unknown in the country that her family moved to in the 1960s, when Mizumura was twelve years old. “I turned my back to America,” she writes in “Why I Write What I Write.” She continues, “I read and read and dreamed of the day when I would finally go back to Japan and start living a full life — not a shadow of life as I did in the States.” Her first novel, Light and Darkness Continued (1990), completes the Japanese novel Light and Darkness, which was left unfinished when the writer Natsume Soseki died in 1916. Soseki may be a household name in Japan — his face for a long time graced the 1,000-yen note — but his completed novels are not widely read in the West, let alone his unfinished ones. Mizumura’s second novel, Shishosetsu from Left to Right (or alternately, An I-Novel from Left to Right) (1995), is a kunstlerroman based on Mizumura’s life that is liberally salted with English sentences and phrases, the point of which is to make it untranslatable in English, since English readers (and only English readers) would not know which passages are meant to be in English and which in Japanese. “I hoped to make readers truly see that the Japanese is a language that is different from the English, different from any Western language, and furthermore, different from any language in the world,” Mizumura writes in her essay “Authoring Shishosetsu from Left to Right.” Needless to say, neither book has been picked up by an American publisher.
This has led Mizumura to the “unhappy knowledge” that she sacrificed an audience beyond Japan’s narrow shores when she decided to stick with Japanese. As she asserts in “Authoring Shishosetsu from Left to Right,” writing in an isolated language like Japanese “ultimately means that you may toil till death in an effort to create great works of literature but you are not likely to have even the slightest chance of becoming a truly major writer — that is, a writer whose work, both in the original and in translation, will reach so far into the distance that she will, in the end, be read by millions of her true readers, some of whom will, in turn, create their own works which will engage in a direct dialogue with her, thus sending her words still further into time and space.”
If it isn’t obvious already, Mizumura does not lack for ambition. And she has made a bid for greatness with her third novel, A True Novel (2002), which was translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter in a gorgeous edition published by Other Press in 2013. It boasts what to many ears will sound like a blockbuster premise: a retelling of Wuthering Heights set in post-war Japan.
However, Mizumura has hardly sold out to the demands of the global publishing industry. She makes things difficult for the casual reader, beginning her multigenerational saga with a nearly 200-page prologue set in America that ends with an essay on where A True Novel sits in the Japanese literary tradition. As the narrator, a stand-in for Mizumura, explains, there are two distinct strains of the Japanese novel: the so-called I-novel, which preceded Japan’s opening up to the West in the latter half of the 19th century, and the true novel, which coincided with that era and was heavily influenced by Western literature. The I-novel was quasi-autobiographical, fragmentary, almost like a diary, while the true novel was “a fictional world created by an impersonal author — a transcendent ‘subject.’” The craze for the true novel went beyond mere translation, resulting in Japanese authors rewriting popular Western books, like Wuthering Heights, with Japanese characters and settings.
A True Novel is a hybrid of these two strains, taking advantage of and building upon Wuthering Heights’ own innovative use of a narrative within a narrative. For an art that prizes writers who bend and break the rules, it is amazing how tightly Mizumura allows tradition to bind her writing. The narrator even insists that she “legitimately inherited” the right to retell Wuthering Heights, as if it would be unconscionable to do so without a Japanese precedent. And out of these historical wrappings, this chrysalis of inheritance, a form quite new and lovely pokes its head, one that has implications for all authors in the non-English-speaking world.
The book has idiosyncratic charms that may grate the American reader. If the easygoing style of Haruki Murakami, Mizumura’s wildly popular contemporary, goes down as easily as a bowl of instant noodles, her prose, particularly in the prologue, can carry the sour edge of pickled plums or the bitter whiff of fermented soy beans. The narrator can be fussy and pedantic. Her infrequent flashes of humor are of the grim variety. She also seems incapable of forgiving America for the crime of being, well, not her homeland, a common sentiment among emigrants. “The heap of red meat they served on an enormous platter to two small women was a clear reminder that I was back in America,” she sniffs at one point.
But once the book moves to Japan, where the story of two doomed lovers separated by class and race really begins, the prose is unflaggingly elegant, spare, and understated; in other words, it is in keeping with the exquisite refinement that characterizes much of Japanese art. She also draws on Japan’s deep well of ghost and horror stories to suffuse her tale with what amounts to a Japanese equivalent of Bronte’s gothic atmosphere. Here is Mizumura’s rendition of Mr. Lockwood (Yusuke) being confronted by the ghost of Catherine (Yoko):
A gust of wind blew the shed door open.
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 on the top bunk, her eyes wild, her tiny fist tightly clasping a round festival fan. The sounds of the “Tokyo Ballad” floated in from afar. Yusuke propped himself on his elbows, holding his breath, looking down at her. In a frenzied voice she shouted something at him, then fled away, her long sleeves fluttering in the air.
The door stood open, moonlight flowing in.
But if Wuthering Heights is Mizumura’s principal inspiration, there are several canonical Western works that are alluded to as well, including The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, Macbeth, Great Expectations, and In Search of Lost Time. Proust seems particularly influential, with the narrator saying she is drawn to this story precisely because it would allow her “to set free a time in the past that had been locked away inside me for so long.” This results in numerous scenes that wonderfully evoke a Japan that no longer exists, supplanted by the sleek modern state that grew out of the post-war era:
Those winter evenings when, after dinner, she and I headed over to my grandparents’ place are still fresh in my memory. My mother held my hand, and in her other hand she carried a pole with a lantern dangling at the end of it as we made our way down the hard, frozen lane, shivering.
My mother was always tense and silent as we trudged along. Only when there was trouble could a bride go back to her former home. When we finally got there, she’d blow out the lantern and nervously, her shoulders hunched forward, slip into the side entrance of the house, which was floored with packed earth like ours.
“Good evening to you,” my mother called out. That was the way people in those parts greeted each other at that hour.
“Oh! Good evening to you too,” O-Hatsu said cheerfully as she appeared at the entrance.
Dirt floors, tofu sellers, clay stoves, paper lanterns, night-soil pits, thatched roofs — all come to life like the Japanese playthings Proust once famously wrote about, those twisted bits of paper that magically expand into the shapes of houses and flowers once they are dipped in water.
This complex blending of Japanese and Western elements, which ranges beyond literature to touch on architecture, fashion, cuisine, technology, and more, can be dizzying, particularly when the narrative goes beyond the Wuthering Heights template to track the economic rise of Japan in the 1960s and the stagnation that followed the collapse of the real estate market in the 1980s. This is mirrored in the story arcs of Taro Azuma, the book’s Heathcliff, who cuts a Jay Gatsby-like figure in America, and Fumiko, who reprises the character of Nelly Dean, but unlike her predecessor goes on to transcend her lowly station. This is a purely Japanese story sprouting almost literally out of a Western one, which suggests that the purpose of this ceaseless weaving is to underscore the impossibility of divorcing contemporary Japan from the West, particularly America. The two countries first came together in the 1850s, when Admiral Perry forced open Japan’s ports, and then catastrophically in World War II, which remains the defining moment of modern Japanese history.
But what does this mean for Japanese literature? Mizumura has a peculiar tic that might offer a clue. There are several instances in which the narrator swoops down to helpfully explain some aspect of Japanese culture or history that would be obvious to a Japanese reader — very curious for a novel first published in Japan. “In modern history,” Mizumura tells us at one point, “Japan was one of the few countries in Asia that never fell to Western rule.” This would be like Jonathan Franzen pointing out to his readers that George Washington was America’s first president.
Another example:
[S]he also responded to the year-end appeals for donations to charity by NHK, the national broadcasting service; and she regularly contributed to Doctors Without Borders.
Unless the translator is taking great liberties, this sentence has it backwards. It’s superfluous to define NHK for a Japanese audience, but not so with Doctors Without Borders, which is not nearly as well known.
But of course, Mizumura’s audience isn’t entirely Japanese. Writing in Japanese is her extremely roundabout way of addressing the global community where millions of her true readers potentially reside and where determinations of literary greatness are made — a community that is dominated by the West.
This raises some uncomfortable questions about what constitutes a true Japanese novel. As Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, says of the problem with African fiction:
The English novel is written in the first place by English people for English people. This is what makes it the English novel. The Russian novel is written by Russians for Russians. But the African novel is not written by Africans for Africans. African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them. Whether they like it or not, they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their readers. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to his investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students. It is too much for one person, it can’t be done, not at the deepest level. That, it seems to me, is the root of your problem. Having to perform your Africanness at the same time as you write.
This is meant to be unduly harsh. But it captures the conundrum of non-English-speaking writers working in an art form that remains Western-centric. It is particularly a problem for writers from countries that share a history with Western countries, as Japan does with America. (America, of course, does not see itself as sharing its history with anyone.)
Paradoxically, for a writer who has prided herself on her untranslatability, who has oriented her whole career around defying the empire of “one Logos,” Mizumura turns this otherwise unfortunate dynamic on its head. In her essay “On Translation,” Mizumura says A True Novel seeks to raise “the possibility of translation as the very condition of modern Japanese literature.” In “Authoring Shishosetsu from Left to Right,” she expands on this notion, arguing that the drive for “universal signification,” through the imperfect process of translation, is what reinforces the “intrinsic and inalienable logic of the Japanese language.”
The Japanese writer, in other words, is not a mere interpreter, an inferior facsimile of the Western one. But she is defined by him, and he by her, locked as they are in an eternal struggle of contrasts. And that is a very Japanese concept indeed. -

To say that Minae Mizumura's A True Novel is a remake of Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan is not inaccurate, but this only begins to crack open the book. Like the Emily Brontë classic, Mizumura's novel follows an impoverished boy who is haunted by his impossible love for a wealthy but wild girl, and who tries to heal himself by amassing a suspect fortune. But while Brontë wrote at a time when the novel was still a relatively new art form—young enough to be shimmering invention—Mizumura is writing in the dying light. This book, oddly compelling in its confluence of intellect and emotion, is her attempt to deal with the loose ends.
Born in Tokyo, Mizumura grew up in Great Neck, New York, and studied French at Yale. Her essay "Renunciation," on Paul de Man, published soon after the literary critic's death, is considered one of the first comprehensive treatments of de Man's writing. It was adapted from an oral examination presented in place of one she had originally prepared for professor de Man before his death. In "Renunciation," Mizumura, looking at the frequency and sudden disappearance of the word renunciation in de Man, concludes that he had, at the halfway point in his life's work, renounced the possibility of renunciation.
In Mizumura's subsequent, ambitious career, the idea of renunciation would take on new forms through her interest in rejecting, advancing, or otherwise artificially determining the course of language and culture. In Light and Darkness Continued (1990), Mizumura's first novel, she had her fearless way with modern master Natsume Soseki's Light and Darkness, an unfinished classic whose intentions have long been the subject of debate in Japan. (Soseki, for his part, had gone to London in 1900 to study English literature and became an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.) Mizumura's second novel, An I-Novel From Left to Right (1995), was, by her accounting, the earliest instance of Japanese literature, with English intrusions, being printed as a horizontal text. A nonfiction book, The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English (2008), argued that written Japanese should be preserved against the onslaught of English, an act she has been devoted to. From these bare facts, Mizumura begins to take shape as a writer for whom renunciation is immensely meaningful, giving almost physical dimension to writing through one's choices on the page. (In "Renunciation," she wrote, "If a death of a writer makes a difference in the way we read him, one manifestation of such a difference may be the sudden urge we feel toward grasping what we read as having its own history.")
In A True Novel (2002), Mizumura's first book to be translated into English (by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif), schoolgirl Minae, blasé and blurry in '60s Long Island, finds her way into the life of tragic, rags-to-riches Japanese immigrant Taro Azuma through overheard, mesmerizingly foreign terms like breakfast nook, private chauffeur, and freighter. Minae grows up to become a writer, and she is handed, once again, the story of Taro on a dark and stormy night. An inkling of the plot, "a story just like a novel," can be pieced together through further trails of words like rickshaw man, traitor, Sunday dinner, and rhubarb, which Mizumura often sets off in quotes or italics to denote the change in the air when a strange concept, a new direction, surface. Her sensory, outsider's fanaticism with the experience of language makes A True Novel a book-as-book that self-consciously calls up the sum of books read. Certain readers, nostalgic for Brontë's source material, will abruptly remember the patterns of the room in which they first saw the words moor and Heathcliff, the claimless boy whose single, overpowering name dooms him to be more of an idea than a man. Mizumura invokes Wuthering Heights, but a half-dozen other novels could reasonably be brought up instead: Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby.
What kind of story is this, anyway? Mizumura's Minae comes of age on Anna Karenina as reworked into Arishima's A Certain Woman. Three sisters debate whether their life is more like Chekhov's The Three Sisters (itself a loose take on the Brontë girls) or The Cherry Orchard. Mizumura's slow, dreamlike book world asks ancient questions (is it "impossible for a really good person to get rich"?) and counters Brontë with some progressive, briefly blissful, answers.
But there's another novel in A True Novel: one about the history of the modern novel in Japan. Its Japanese title, Honkaku Shosetsu, derives from the "true novel" that came to be seen as the ideal type in Japan after 1868, when the country was opened to the West—the complete fictional worlds of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dickens, Brontë. Against the honkaku shosetsu was the shi-shosetsu, or autobiographical "I-novel," perhaps a more purely Japanese form in a land where the diary had been a respected genre for a thousand years. By the 1920s, critics were claiming that no successful honkaku shosetsu had been written in Japanese, opening a new round of challenge. Mizumura gives various linguistic theories to explain the form's problematic practice in Japan while stating that the controversy is no longer relevant—by acquiring a "history," the novel has been broken.
Yet Mizumura's lack of ease with the true novel is, for her, troubling enough to become its own narrative. (This is compounded by the fact that her true novel is based on actual lives and events that happened to match the Brontë bones, unlike the strictly fictional space of the somewhat confusingly named honkasu shosetsu.) Was the author trying to do too much with too little, or was she taking the I-novel way out—and doing too little with too much? It probably doesn't matter. Brontë's teeth-grinding, outrageous characters have not much to do with Mizumura's—who are, of course, unhappy in their own way. But the passive-aggressive, generative heart of storytelling hasn't changed since Brontë's Mr Lockwood entered his own obsession with the thought: "I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself." - Phyllis Fong

Here’s something different: shifting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Japan with the audacity of calling it “a true novel.”  But wait a moment—as my mother-in-law used to say—you don’t really mean that, do you?  Well, I don’t, but Minae Mizumura does, so let me explain.  Mizumura sets up an elaborate façade: the story we eventually read is purported to be what literally happened to a man called Taro Azuma, whose life in many ways parallels Brontë’s Heathcliff.  There are also suggestions at the beginning of the novel that Japanese readers do not like first-person narratives, so it is necessary to create an observer/witness who can relate Azuma’s story, though in fact two people narrate the story, one of them being Minae Mizumura herself, the author of A True Novel and an accomplished Japanese novelist.
The 165 page “Prologue”—narrated by Minae when she is still quite young—begins in New York City.  It’s a few years after the end of World War II and Minae’s father has been sent to the United States to manage the American branch of a Japanese optical company.  An American businessman who is one of her father’s friends has hired a Japanese male, named Azuma, be his chauffeur.  He is described as a young man with no high school education and no family ties.  It isn’t long before Minae’s father employs Azuma at his optics factory and not much longer before he’s been moved up to sales, visiting doctors’ offices and getting them interested in the company’s innovate new product: the endoscope.  Two facts are important here.  First, Azuma said he wanted to improve his English.  Next thing we know he has memorized an entire English phrase book. Second, it isn’t long before Azuma is the most successful salesman for the company, making an enormous salary from commissions.
The American doctors Azuma calls on assume that he is a doctor himself because he’s so knowledgeable about the product.  Not only has Azuma’s English become so polished but, soon, he is associating with the doctors themselves, picking up their social graces and professional contacts.  When the medical company tries to reduce his commission (because he is so successful), Azuma forms his own company.  Within a few more years, Azuma is described as “the most successful Japanese businessman in America.”  Everyone in the Japanese community is in awe of him.  Minae returns to Japan with her family after her father retires, though she, too, has been infatuated by Azuma and met him on numerous occasions during the years her family lived in the United States.  More years pass.  Minae Mizumura publishes two novels, and then Azuma apparently disappears.
At the end of the prologue when Minae has returned to the United States, a young man named Yusuke (also Japanese) contacts her seeking information about Taro Azuma.  He’s attempting to unravel the mystery of Azuma’s disappearance, and he tells Minae the “true story” of Azuma’s early life, which she decides to use as material for her next novel—hence, “a true novel,” based on actual fact and not imagination.  And her reason for this?  Azuma’s story “recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the Englishwoman E. B.  Indeed, it was only my intimate acquaintance with this book that made me recognize that Taro’s tale had the makings of a novel.”  So there you have it, at least the pretext for “a true novel.”
It is, thus, from Yusuke’s perspective that we learn about Taro’s early years—before he went to the United States. The second narrator is a woman named Fumiko (ten years Taro’s elder, and the equivalent of Ellen Dean, the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights) who relates the more recent events, after Azuma’s so-called disappearance.  And the ploy to get all this started?  One night when Yusuke is bicycling in a remote area of Japan, his bicycle breaks down in the midst of a storm. He stops at a mountain cottage, welcomed by the housekeeper and a surly man.  The cottage appears to be more traditional than modern. Yusuke notices a computer and a copy of The Economist, perplexing him by their odd juxtaposition with the rest of the setting.  He spends the night, avoiding the troubled man, yet in the middle of the night he hears the moaning of a young woman, and when he describes what happened to his host, the man runs off in search of the apparition.  The surly man, of course, is Taro Azuma, as you have already figured out.
There are Gothic overtones introduced almost immediately, especially the isolated cottage.  Fumiko worked for the upper class family that owned the property, and years ago observed the arrival of their relatives, who were less-well-off.  They moved into a near-by hovel where they lived for years.  With them was a feral boy of no relation (but said to be Chinese), exploited and overworked by the others.  And because of the sympathy of the matriarch of the family Fumiko worked for, that boy (Azuma) became the close companion of one of the matriarch’s granddaughters, Yoko (the equivalent of Catherine in Brontë’s novel).  To the consternation of both families, the two of them fall in love.  Yet, Azuma is treated as if he is a servant, not worthy of Yoko.  When it is obvious that he will not be able to marry Yoko, he departs for America, becoming immensely successful down through the years, beginning with the job as a chauffeur.
Are the parallels between the two novels convincing?  I’d say yes, particularly the replicated characters and romanticism of Brontë’s masterpiece.  That noted, I’m not so certain that the 876 page story will grip Western readers as much as Asian ones. There are quite a few lengthy digressions that add little to the main story.  Some of the other anomalies of A True Novel (such as a series of photos of traditional buildings in the country) appear to be little more than superfluous.  You may want to read A True Novel out a sense of curiosity, especially if you are a Brontë fan.  For most of us, lengthy novels present us with a major trade-off.  Should I read two, or three, shorter novels or read the much longer one instead?  You’ll have to answer that question yourself.
Juliet Winters Carpenter and  Ann Sherif, the translators, should be commended. -

If you have heard of Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel at all, it’s likely for one of two reasons: Either because it has been loosely inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Mizumura makes a reference in the beginning of the novel to “the desire to emulate being the basis of all art”) or because of its unusual structure. A True Novel is a “nested” novel which, over its 855 pages, unpeels like a giant onion.
There never seems to be a clearly delineated point in this narrative—which centers on a grimly self-made Japanese man, the handsome and Heathcliffian, Taro Azuma—when the story actually “starts”, in the way one expects a traditional novel to begin. In fact, the novel commences with a 165-page prologue by a fictionalized version of the author, who positions the story she is about to tell as “true” and introduces the reader to Taro during the period when she knew him, as a chauffeur working in the US in the ‘60s.
The story of Taro’s life before and after this period is recounted to her by a literary editor named Yusuke Kato, who in turn was told the story after an accidental meeting with Fumiko Tsuchiya, an impoverished woman who became the maid and nanny of the Japanese family that took Taro in when he himself was a bedraggled and bullied little boy. The accident occurs during a rainstorm, when Yusuke crashes his bicycle on his way to the Japanese vacation destination, Karuizawa, to meet a friend, and instead ends up spending the night at the run-down cabin outside of Karuizawa that Fumiko shares with Taro in their latter years.
The story that follows, narrated by Fumiko through the filter of Yusuke’s memory, centers on Fumiko, Taro, and Yoko, the Cathy-like young woman with whom Taro grows up, loves, is rejected by, and, after her marriage to someone else, has an affair with. Fumiko’s own relationship with the younger Taro is somewhat ambiguous through most of the story, and while reading those portions of the narrative indirectly narrated by Fumiko, one would do well to bear in mind that, in Japanese novels just as in Western ones, the narrator is not always to be entirely trusted.
The story of these three characters is itself nested inside an extensive family chronicle tracing the history of the relatively wealthy Saegusa family, of which Yoko is a member and which took Taro in as a sort of ward and servant, and the more-aristocratic Shigemitsu family, which Yoko marries into. And this family chronicle, in turn, rests inside a still-larger narrative of post-war Japan (and to a lesser extent, the post-war US) and, in particular, the class divisions that caused Taro to become first impoverished, and then driven, wealthy and, ultimately, embittered.
The ultra-long prologue is highly artificial in structure, contriving as it does to allow the “Minae Mizumura” character, who has no strong connection with Taro, to encounter him or hear about him numerous times before she finally meets Yusuke, who is her entrée to the stories of Taro when he was young, before she knew him in the US, and also when he and Fumiko are old. 
And yet Yusuke’s own “prologue”, telling of his bicycle accident and his meeting with Fumiko and Taro in the cabin, takes another 135 pages, before Fumiko begins the actual story with the words, “I’m afraid there’ll be a lot of digressions.” So many, in fact, that Taro as a child, hollow-eyed with hunger, isn’t properly introduced to the reader until page 430; it could be argued that this, in fact, past the point where most other novels end, is when the novel really “begins”.
If this sounds like a criticism, it’s not. It’s fascinating to watch the structure of this novel calmly unpeel itself, and to reflect upon the patience with which Mizumura reveals the truth about the interrelationship among Yoko, Fumiko and Taro. Taro himself, though inspired by Heathcliff, is a fascinating and enigmatic character in his own right, and his journeys between America and Japan, and between one family and another, draws a compelling portrait of how Japan worked itself out of poverty in the post-war period into glittering prosperity, and subsequently into a kind of aimless and directionless funk in the present day.
The writing, like that in so many Japanese novels, is clear and straightforward (the translation is by Juliet Winters Carpenter), though not without its moments of sensuality, as in this description of Karuizawa:
Wind and fog, pine and birch, horned beetles and stag beetles, slowly rotting windowsills and dirty stucco walls, stairs that creaked with every step, the smell of wood burning in the fireplace, the clink of delicate china teacups on saucers, the laughter of a bevy of lovely women – to Yoko, Karuizawa was a place where these were familiar, established things.
Something of the flavor of the story, and of Taro’s and Yoko’s complex social and romantic relationship, is conveyed by another passage (in Fumiko’s telling), when as children they have a fight and Yoko demands that Taro apologize:
In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology. The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground. Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon. I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path…
The difficult path that these two children end up following after this moment – accompanied, at crucial points of the narrative, by Fumiko – is the simple story that this deeply engrossing and sophisticated novel tells in such a memorable and unusual form. - Michael Antman

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! - Sarah Bower

The narrator recounting the central story in A True Novel warns: 
     "I'm afraid there'll be a lot of digressions."
     "That's all right."
     "A lot. Really a lot."
     "No. It's okay."
       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 Brontë’s 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 Brontë’s 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

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  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English

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