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

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

reviewed by Caroline Bleeke

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.

Oiwake Station courtesy of Other Press

Oiwake Station
courtesy of Other Press

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.

Canal in Oiwake courtesy of Other Press

Canal in Oiwake
courtesy of Other Press

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 is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf. She lives in Brooklyn.

 

* Japanese was long labeled a language isolate, too, but it has recently been linked to the Ryukyuan languages, leading to the formation of the Japonic language family.