Author: Minae Mizumura
Photographer: Toyota Horiguchi
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
U.S. publisher: Other Press
Released: November 2013
Original release: 2001
Awards: Yomiuri Prize for Literature
So far, only two works by Minae Mizumura have been translated into English. The first was the Yomiuri Prize-winning A True Novel. Originally published in Japan in 2002, A True Novel was selected for translation as part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project. The novel was ultimately released by Other Press in 2013 with an English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Other Press’ edition of A True Novel is a lovely two-volume box set retaining the black-and-white images taken by Kyoto-based photographer Toyota Horiguchi scattered throughout the pages. Mizumura’s second work to be translated, her treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English, was published in early 2015. It was the release of The Fall of Language in the Age of English that reminded me that A True Novel had been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time. My excuse was that I wanted to make sure that I had the time to devote to the novel that it deserved—A True Novel is a massive work well over eight hundred pages in length.
Taro Azuma immigrated to New York from Japan in the 1960s, finding a position as a personal chauffeur. Not much was known about the enigmatic young man and he was reluctant to talk about his past, but he did very well for himself in America, eventually becoming an extremely successful, wealthy, and respected businessman. It’s only after he made a name and a fortune for himself that he began to return to Japan on occasion. Growing up Taro was an orphan raised in a poor and abusive household. His fate was changed when he was taken in as a helper by the well-off Utagawa family, becoming remarkably close with their youngest daughter Yoko. But as time passed, the differences between Taro and Yoko’s social classes became more pronounced and more problematic for the Saegusas—Yoko’s high-society relatives—especially after a series of “indiscretions.” This was what prompted Taro to initially leave the country, but his destiny had already become intrinsically connected to those of Yoko and her family.
In part, A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Mizumura moving the setting of the story from nineteenth-century England to postwar Japan. While someone who has read Wuthering Heights will be able to appreciate the parallels between the two narratives, A True Novel stands completely on its own as a separate work. It’s been a long while since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, but I must say I think I actually prefer A True Novel. The structure of the novel has several layers that build upon one another. The story opens with an autobiographically-influenced prologue long enough to be its own novel which outlines Mizumura’s life growing up in America and her impression of Taro when she meets him there. A True Novel continues with a young editor named Yuske Kato relating to Mizumura his later encounter with Taro in Japan and the story told to him by Fumiko Tsuchiya who at one point in her life was a maid to the Utagawas. It is these two stories that Mizumura weaves together to form the main narrative of A True Novel.
Each of the three nested stories—Mizumura’s, Yusuke’s, and Fumiko’s—draws the reader closer and closer to the heart of A True Novel. The work is tragically romantic, Yoko and Taro born into circumstances where their love for each other is all but impossible to realize, their hopes for happiness dashed by the expectations of society and matters of privilege and class. The characters and their relationships in A True Novel are marvelously complex with love and hate, redemption and revenge all playing a role. At times they can actually be infuriating, but that’s part of the reason A True Novel is so compelling and engaging—the characters are believably flawed individuals navigating (not always successfully) a world that is inherently unfair. A True Novel is a tremendous work, the story tracing decades of family history and drama and the dynamics of complicated and shifting relationships. The novel may be lengthy, but it never felt overly long. If anything, while I was immensely satisfied I was still sad to see it end. A True Novel may very well be one of the best works of literature that I’ve read.