Books I read this week: January week 4

true novel

This week I read part of a couple of books (I may be giving up on Cold for the time being) and dove into A True Novel by Minae Mizumura. It’s marketed as “Wuthering Heights set in post-war Japan”, and while that is an element of the book, it’s also so much bigger than that.

The book begins with the Author describing her childhood and adolescence, and her intermittent interactions with a young man named Taro Azuma.  She is a Japanese-American living with her family in Long Island, missing Japan. He is reputedly of mixed blood, living in America and working as a private chauffeur. She is intrigued that anyone would choose to leave Japan to be a servant in America, and then continues to be intrigued as he works his way up the ladder, eventually becoming very rich and disappearing from public life. Years later, when she is a professor and novelist, a young man approaches her and tells her of his recent time in Nagano, Japan, where he met and heard the story of the rest of Taro Azuma’s life. The Author is struck by how the story is “like a novel” and decides to use it as the basis for a “true novel”.

A slight digression. In Japanese literary tradition (which I don’t know a ton about and need to delve into- everything I know I learned from this book) there are two approaches to fiction. I will quote from the book:

For them, and perhaps for other non-Western writers, the type of novels written in nineteenth-century Europe , ones where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life, came to represent the ideal.

Some still claimed that, as difficult as it had proved in the past, Japanese novelists should continue to aim for what they staunchly believed was the ideal, a fictional world created by an impersonal author- a transcendent “subject”. Others thought that novelists should basically adhere to writing truthfully about themselves, because being true to oneself, and ultimately , to life, is what ought to embody the highest aim in literature. Some went further and asserted that such writing was the very soul of Japanese literature, where the diary has been an esteemed literary genre for over at thousand years.

The controversy led to the emergence of two terms for two different approaches to fiction, one normative, and the other descriptive: the “true novel” and the “I-novel”.

This is important, because the Author (and I keep referring to her that way because her “identity” is fluid; she is called Minae Mizumura and shares a history with the real life Minae Mizumura, but how much of the rest of it is true?) wants to write a “true novel” about Taro Azuma, but one of the main components of a “true novel” is that it be fiction.Within the premise of the book, A True Novel, Taro’s story is not fiction.  So while the first half of the first volume reads like an I-novel with Minae as the narrator (but with events that are possibly NOT true), the rest is a true (accurate, true to historical events) novel.

Does that even make any sense? There’s so many “true”s running around there. Basically, the whole thing becomes a delicious play on words. It doesn’t really matter what part actually happened, or if none of it did, but her delving into the whole idea of how we present fiction is fascinating.

Anyway. Mizumura feels that Taro’s story echoes the story of Wuthering Heights, and decides to frame it within that context. Instead of an orphan growing up as a servant in a huge house on the moors, Taro is a child of indeterminate parentage and abusive guardians who is taken in by a Japanese grandmother who also cares for her step-granddaughter. Taro and Yoko (the granddaughter) become obsessively connected and grow up together. As they get older, it becomes clear to him that the rest of the extended family only sees him as a servant, and as an inappropriate companion for Yoko. Taro knows that the only way he can possibly ever be with Yoko is to make a lot of money, so he leaves for America- where we saw him at the beginning of the story. When he comes back, he and Yoko have changed, and though they still love each other she gets married to a rich man who adores her. Things get super dramatic after that, with crying and illness and death threats and all sorts of things. 🙂

Taro’s story is being told through two lenses. Yusuke, the young man who seeks out the Author, traveled to Nagano and through a series of events met Fumiko, who works for Taro and has known him almost his whole life. Over the course of a few rainy nights, she tells Yusuke the story of Taro and Yoko, and of her role in it. This is the story that Yusuke is telling the Author. As things go on, he gets additional information from other sources, so we hear that too, as well as his thoughts about it all.

I haven’t read Wuthering Heights (I keep typing it Withering Heights) for a long time, so I need to go back and reread it to check on some of the parallels. From what I remember, Taro and Yoko’s relationship has similarities to Catherine and Heathcliff (the whole, I love you!, I hate you!), as does the framework of the story and general haunting. But the rest of the scope of the novel feels far wider and less angsty than Wuthering Heights. A True Novel is the story of a big family over about seventy years of big cultural change in Japan. How the characters react to those changes as well as to each other’s actions is a huge element of the story. Taro’s character development and some of the events after he returns to Tokyo after Yoko is married have more in common with The Great Gatsby than Wuthering Heights- so much that I would love to see a version of Gatsby set in the same time period in Japan. Isn’t it fascinating how those themes transcend place and time? There are always people being judged for their social standing, there are always people falling in love, there are always careless people who irreparably harm those around them.

The stories (all of them- Fumiko’s, Taro’s, Yusuke’s, everyone else’s) are fascinating, and completely engrossing. It’s one of those books where you come away feeling like a part of what you read- like you were witness to seventy years of a family’s history. I highly recommend it. It’s accessible to someone with only a little knowledge of Japan, and there are even photographs included of interesting elements of Japanese life that might not be familiar.

That’s it for this week. I’ve also been reading Hands Free Mama by Rachel Macy Stafford, but I will post about that next week, once I’m done.

What are you reading this week?

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