Reviewed by Tina Liu
Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is like a Matryoshka doll: each skillfully crafted and gorgeously painted doll represents a different narrator from the novel. This reminds the reader that there is no doubt that the story each narrator tells could be a stunning piece of craftsmanship on its own; but the reader must keep in mind that a doll separate from the set is hollow, filled with nothing.
A True Novel is set in postwar Japan as a remake of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The novel focuses on three main narrators: the author, Yusuke Kato, and Fumiko Tsuchiya. All three have relationships with the protagonist Taro Azuma but do not know one another directly. Yusuke has the least intimate relationship with Taro but serves as a crucial link to Taro’s story. Taro was raised by his uncle’s family and often abused by his uncle's wife and two sons. Yoko's grandmother, the widow Mrs. Utagawa, could not stand to see this treatment so she took Taro under her wing. After she passed away, Tara moved to the U.S. in his late teens. The author presents the story of Taro’s time in the U.S. while Fumiko presents the story of when he was in Japan. Yusuke only met Taro twice, but is the one who listened to Fumiko’s narration and later seeks out the author and shares it with her. The reader soon learns that Taro grew up with Yoko from the Saegusa family, a family whose women are known for their Hirano faces (breathtaking looks). The Saegusa family is also the employer of Taro’s grandfather, a rickshaw driver and handyman. The gap in social status does not stop Yoko and Taro from becoming inseparable playmates and falling in love, but this gap foreshadows their devastating fate.
The novel begins with a first-person prologue written from the perspective of the author. She talks about her family’s move from Japan to Long Island and how the culture shock she experiences makes her more appreciative of Japanese traditions such as calligraphy. After her move she meets the protagonist, Taro, a Japanese immigrant trying to make his fortune in New York. Because the author felt lonely and friendless, she naturally found Taro intriguing because he was the only one from Japan close to her age. Taro is only a chauffeur when Mizumura first meets him, but he quickly moves up in society and eventually makes his fortune as an entrepreneur in the field of medical equipment.
Mizumura’s presence lasts for nearly a fifth of the 850-page novel. Mizumura takes such a large proportion of the novel for two reasons: to introduce the protagonist and to explain a form of Japanese literature, the I-novel:
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 … The work is necessarily assumed to be truthful about that individual’s life. Moreover, readers tend to favor works that have no beginning or ending, and are fragmentary, finding them true to life, as life also has no opening or closure as such and is nothing but an accumulation of fragmentary experiences.
This also explains Mizumura’s presence in the novel.
Juliet Winters’ skilled translation enables the language to flow naturally, presenting no barriers to this exciting journey into the heart of the Japanese culture, which is important because the novel is not only a devastating love story, but also a reflection of history and society through the lives of each narrator. There is the westernization of Japan, culture shock, class and race prejudice, etc. Although the narrations are fragmented, Mizumura is able to present a dimensional version of a story that endures through time because of how she chooses to present the obvious differences in western culture and eastern culture. Mizumura does not imply that these two cultures clash and fight. Nor does she claim that it is merely a case of choosing one or the other. The interaction of citizens from different cultures affects their cultures as well.
Near the end of the novel, Yusuke learns that Fumiko’s relationship with Taro was more intimate than she suggested in her narration, so he wonders: “Was he too naïve a listener or was Fumiko too discreet a narrator? He couldn’t be sure.” At this point, the reader has already completed the task of taking apart doll after doll, or narration after narration. Everything is neatly lined up when the reader suddenly feels no joy or closure. Mizumura creates a story that feels effortlessly real through different layers of narration that offer specific details on the cultural and historical background as well. But then she forces the reader to realize that the story, though finished, will never be complete. All the characters offer narratives in an emotional tone, but no matter how specifically they approach the story, they still present a version that is biased, fragmented, and distant. But because of this, the novel offers truth in the sense that in reality stories are passed on by spectators or close relations of the protagonist(s).