The Japanese Wuthering Heights

One misty evening on the Japanese countryside, Yusuke Kato’s bicycle ran into trouble in front of an old run-down house owned by a reclusive middle-aged man named Taro Azuma. Despite Taro’s unwelcoming behavior, the house maid Fumiyo Tsuchiya managed to convive Yusuke to stay for the night. Yusuke was staying with his friend in Karuizawa and further encounters with Fumiyo were inevitable. During one of days, Fumiko introduced Yusuke to a set of three snotty sisters – Harue, Natsue, and Fuyue – who travelled from Tokyo to the countryside to scatter the ashes of Natsue’s daughter, Yoko. During their intercourse, the sisters alluded to a bleak and stormy relationship with Taro.

Fumiko then invited Yusuke again to Taro’s house to clear any misunderstanding. Fumiko told Yusuke the story of Taro Azuma and how his fate intertwined with that of the sisters who descended from the wealthy Saegusa clan, a family of snobbish landowners. The story begun in Tokyo, when the young Fumiko was hired to take care of Yoko, Natsue’s youngest child. Yoko was a social misfit in her generation and was kept closer to home compared to her cousins.

A little after Yoko started attending school, Roku, an old servant of Yoko’s paternal grandfather invited his nephew and his family to stay with him. Taro was initially introduced as the youngest son of the nephew. Taro was actually the illegitimate son of one of Roku’s nieces and was raised by his uncle’s family who constantly subjected him to abuse. He was also bullied at school, but Yoko showered him with kindness. With Taro directly working for Yoko’s step-grandmother Mrs. Utagawa in the Utagawa household, Yoko and Taro started developing fondness for each other. How would their story pan out? How will fate intercede?

The novel is accented by scenic black and white pictures.

Fast forward to 1998. Minae Mizumura was a writer with a budding career. She had just started lecturing at Stanford University when, one day, she was approached by someone who is a stranger to her – Yusuke. After Yusuke’s fateful encounter with Fumiko and Taro, he moved to the United States. When he heard about Mizumura’s presence in the vicinity, he approached her because he recalled Taro mentioning knowing Mizumura. Yusuke apprised Mizumura of Taro’s story which Mizumura decided to be the subject of her third novel, an endeavor she was struggling with before Yusuke approached her.

A True Novel was initially published as series in 2002, through the monthly literary journal Shinchio. The English translation, published in November 2013, divided the novel into two volumes. The novel work also featured a prologue where the novelist incorporates herself into the story. The reader meets her as herself, in suburban New York. She was a teenager living in the suburbs when she first met Taro who recently moved from Japan to start working as a chauffeur for one of her father’s associates. To her, he was an enigma she never quite got close to unveiling. Their paths inevitably diverged until the day Mizumura was approached by Yusuke.

In true Japanese fashion, Mizumura masked her literary delicacy with both familiar and distinct tastes that make it stand out amongst its contemporaries. The first layer of the narrative features the story of Taro Azuma, which was molded from the familiar fabric of a rags-to-riches story. But his story was by no means mundane. He grew up in horrible circumstances, constantly abused by his adoptive family; even his birth was shaded in gray. However, this never stopped him from chasing after success but once he did succeed, there was still a gaping hole in his heart, in his soul that was in need of fulfillment. The world of stature he yearned for, unfortunately, never made him forget that he was an outsider.

Once Yusuke indulges with the details of Taro’s life beyond the veneer that Mizumura first encountered, the story begun to take another shape. The second facet of the narrative that reveals itself was that of a romance story. The readers meet two star-crossed lovers. It is no typical romance story as the the dichotomy between the lovers was too stark. The depiction of the romance story takes inspiration from an English literary classic,  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is about the circle of love but whilst love endures, time flows and life is never placid. It continuously changes, shifts, transforms. The novel also explored other forms of true love, such as the young Mizumura’s longing for her nation of birth, the memories of which she holds dearly in her heart.

Simply captioned, “Cemetery”.

On the backdrop of Taro’s story, Mizumura painted a vivid picture of Japan and how it changed with time. Again, change was inevitable and while Taro’s story moves forward, Japan evolves. A true trademark of the Japanese novel, the novel captured the transition from traditional to modern, from Eastern philosophies to Western ones. Lines like “young people these days have become quite pleasant to look at”, “country children going to graduate school and studying abroad”, and “local people driving around in Mercedez Benz” underscore the change that was taking place.

A True Novel is a character-centric narrative, exhibiting the precision of Mizumura’s characterization. The voices of the main characters – Taro, Yoko, Fumiko – remained distinct. The stark dichotomies in their characteristics also propelled the story. Each character’s complexity gave the narrative a distinct texture, with each character being the antithesis of the other. Taro’s fiery and ambitious character was contrasted by Yoko’s timid and domestic nature. Taro was born in abject poverty while Yoko’s family was affluent. Taro’s enigmatic façade is opposite Yoko’s easy and open smile. Although Taro and Yoko’s characters were studied through the lenses of secondary characters, Fumiko and Yusuke, their literary constructed was thorough and impressionable.

In the midst of this Wuthering Heights-esque story is an entirely different character, both detached and attached to the story at the same time – a semi-fictional version of the author herself. Her presence at the start of the narrative is an allusion to the I-Novel, a literary genre within the vast annals of Japanese literature. I-Novels are rooted in elements and events in the author’s life. In contrast, Mizumura endeavored to write a “true novel”, a tale grounded or was inspired by a “true story”. Mizumura spent a couple of pages of the novel to contrast the “true novel” and I-novel”. This overture into the process of writing the novel provided an interesting backstory to an already complex narrative.

The doubts Mizumura experienced whilst writing her novel also echo our own doubts. “My doubts about my “calling” has been allayed, only to be replaced by the difficulties inherent in writing a modern novel in Japanese based on the story I’d been given.” We are daunted when things don’t go the way we want them to or what we are molding is shaping up to what we envisioned. “As I went on writing, I felt daunted, afraid that this novel was something I shouldn’t be writing after all, and half-convinced that the attempt would fail. But once the novel started to take shape, I came to realize none of this mattered; that what I would leave behind was only a small boat on a vast ocean of literature. And with this realization, I reached a point where I felt at ease with my work.”

For nearly half of the 800-plus pages, Mizumura concerned with setting up the pieces. In the 160-page long prologue she elucidated on the process, the First Volume was primarily concerned with the backstories of the characters and setting up for the actual “true novel” that was portrayed in the Second Volume. Most might find the slow burn a strenuous exercise or might find it even off-putting. It was the sheer strength of Mizumura’s writing that held it all together.

Mizumura captured Taro’s story with her evocative writing. Her descriptive text was crisp and on point and she captured the atmosphere with precision. She also writes powerfully, capturing the imagination with every emotional crest. From the onset, A True Novel was a story that is unputdownable. Mizumura’s enthralling writing held the reader’s interest and attention from the start until the revelatory ending. To further render the “true novel” some credibility, the novel was accentuated with pictures, some were scenic while some were generic scenes but all served to transport the readers to the Japanese countryside.

The narrative revolved mainly around the modern Heathcliff, Taro Azuma’s story but by extension, Mizumura explored the very nature and process of novel writing. It was also a subtle homage to Japan that explores various elements of Japanese life and social structure. The narrative was beautifully written; it was lush and vibrant, and the characters, impressionable. Brimming with beautiful imagery and intricate details, A True Novel is no conventional story. Despite the allusions and comparisons, it is more than just a simple retelling of Wuthering Heights. It can hold its own.

Rating

84%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Wow. What did I just read? When I picked up Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel during the 2018 Big Bad Wolf Sale, I had no iota on what it was about. What had initially piqued my interest were its length and its title. So what about it being a true novel? Is it akin to the “Great American Novel” debate? Apparently not, or maybe on some levels it was. Mizumura took me to a different journey and while the lengthy prologue dampened my spirits, it made me understand the direction with which Mizumura steered Taro’s story. It was equally heartbreaking and breathtaking. Mizumura’s writing was atmospheric and powerful. The narrative, despite some repetitive motions, was distinct. It is a rare literary piece that one encounters only once in a while.

Book Specs

Author: Minae Mizumura
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publisher: Other Press LLC
Publishing Date: 2013
Number of Pages: 854
Genre: Romance Fiction, Domestic Fiction

Synopsis

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.

About the Author

Minae Mizumura was born in 1951 in Tokyo, Japan to a middle-class family.

When she was twelve-years-old, her family moved to Long Island, New York. At a young age, she was exposed to literature, reading and re-reading European literature during her childhood. While attending high school in America, she started reading modern Japanese literature. She studied studio art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She also studied French at Sorbonne in Paris. At Yale University, she studied French literature. She further pursued French literature during her graduate studies at the Yale Graduate School.

In 1990, she published her first novel Zoku Meian (Light and Darkness Continued) which was a sequel to Natsume Sōseki’s unfinished classic. Her second novel Tegami, Shiori wo Soete (Letters with Bookmarks Attached) was published in 1998. Her most popular work, A True Novel, was published in Japanese in 2002 and in English in 2013. She has also published a couple of nonfiction books, and was a coauthor of a compilation of epistolary essays. Her works were also published in prestigious publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian Huffpost, and The New York Review of Books.

Apart from being a writer and book critic, Mizumura has also taught at schools like Princeton University, University of Michigan, and Stanford University. She has also served as a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. For her works, she was the recipient for a bevy of literary awards such as the 1991 Agency for Cultural Affairs New Artist Award, the 996 Noma New Artist Award, and the 2002 Yomiuri Prize for Literature for A True Novel.

Mizumura currently resides in Tokyo, Japan.