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I discovered Minae Mizumura’sA True Novel‘ through this article about giant translated novels that make a mockery of subway reading. When Bellezza suggested a readalong of Mizumura’s book, me and a few others jumped in.

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This book at 862 pages is the longest book that I have read this year. It is also the longest book that I have read on my Kindle. So this is a new experience for me. I realized while I was reading that the pages were flying and the only reason I think this happened was because I was reading a digital copy of the book. I would never be able to read a paper book this fast. I don’t know why we read things faster on a screen when compared to paper.

A True Novel is multi-layered. In the first part of the novel, the author herself is the narrator. There is a preface in the beginning where the author describes how she was inspired to write the book and the story behind it. It makes us think that the story is based on real events. The next  part of the book talks about the narrator’s (that is, the author’s) own life and her experiences while growing up in America and later after she moved to Japan as an adult. Weaved into her story is the story of Taro Azuma, who is a mysterious figure, who works as a chauffeur for a friend of the narrator’s father. No one knows about his past life in Japan, but he works hard and so everyone likes him. In this part of the book the narrator talks about how Azuma comes in and goes out of her life and how she hears news about him through others. Then later, the narrator meets a person called Yusuke, who tells her about Azuma’s life in Japan, before he came to America.

The second part of the book, which comprises most of the book, is the story that the narrator hears from this new person Yusuke. In this part, a woman called Fumiko, whom Yusuke meets in Japan, tells the story of Taro Azuma. This story is also structured like the first part, in the sense, Fumiko tells the story of her life and she weaves in the story of Taro Azuma into it. Through her we hear about how Azuma started his life and how his circumstances changed when he met the family that Fumiko worked for and about the great love of his life, Yoko.

In the final part of the book, which is small and runs for only a few pages, one more narrator Fuyue tells Yusuke more things about Taro Azuma, things we didn’t suspect.

The story then unwinds and we move out from the innermost story arc to the next outer one to the outermost one where the author-narrator finally shares her thoughts.

I liked this circular narration of the story, moving from one narrator in the outer circle to another narrator in the inner circle. It make me think of classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions which have a similar structure. No one writes like that anymore and so that made me happy.

One more thought I wanted to share on the narrators was this. It is hard to tell whether the three narrators are reliable or not. For example, is this a true story, as the author-narrator Minae Mizumura says? Or is this a literary device that the novelist adopts – like Somerset Maugham did by making an appearance in some of his novels? Did Fumiko tell the whole truth? Or did she suppress some parts of it, as Fuyue, the third narrator says in the end? Or is Fuyue lying or misinformed? These are interesting topics of conversation.

I also loved the central story, which is the story of Taro Azuma and Yoko. It is tempting to call it a love story and that is probably how it will be known. But love is such a catch-all term and these days it is used mostly to refer to love of the romantic variety. Ancient Greek had four different words for love – Eros, Philia, Storge and Agape. Today, love is generally used in the sense of ‘Eros‘. But the love between Taro and Yoko is complex and deep – it is the way one would feel towards one’s soulmate. It has elements of all the four Greek words, but it also has facets which is hard to describe in words. Taro is from a very poor family and Yoko is from a rich family and the love they feel towards each other, an impossible love in post World War II, class-conscious Japan is beautifully described in the middle part of the book. We also see how Japan, a country with a traditional culture and lots of poverty became the industrialized powerhouse it is today and how the lives of our novel’s characters change significantly because of the overall change that the country goes through.

A True Novel‘ has been compared to Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and when we read the book it is easy for us to see why. It is tempting to assume that Taro is the Japanese Heathcliff and Yoko is the Japanese Catherine Earnshaw, but the similarities end after a while. Beyond the brooding, Taro is unique in his own way and so is Yoko. Though there are other similarities in the story – I won’t write about them here because I want you to discover them yourself, if you choose to read the book – and though Minae Mizumura might have been inspired by the Heathcliff-Catherine legend, I would like to see the book as a classic in its own right, a story which tells us how the lives of a few families across different social strata underwent big changes over the past few decades when Japan herself went through significant changes, economically and culturally.

Mizumura’s writes in vintage, spare, Japanese prose. There is no word wasted. The pages fly as a result. I still can’t believe that I read 862 pages in a week! I loved the places where Mizumura takes a digression from the main story and shares her thoughts on other topics – like how one becomes a novelist, about the different kinds of Japanese novels and about the differences between Japanese and English as literary languages. Those were some of my favourite parts of the book.

So, what are my final thoughts on the book? I loved ‘A True Novel‘. After having a bad reading year, I am glad I ended it with a chunkster that I loved. I am also happy that I have now read a giant-translated-novel-that-makes-a-mockery-of-subway-reading 🙂 Yay! I am also happy that I read a Japanese literary work after a long time. I can’t wait to read more of Mizumura’s work, especially her nonfiction book ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘, which I think is an important book for our times.

I don’t think I have done justice to Mizumura’s book in my brief review. If you love Japanese literature and chunksters, this book is for you.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Let’s say in ten years’ time I have written numerous novels and am doing quite well for myself. I doubt if the day will ever come, but let’s just suppose that it does. Would I then be satisfied? No, I don’t think so. Most likely, I would still want to know if it was my mission on earth to become a novelist. However prosaic a writer’s work or person may be, a writer is also an artist, and every artist must ask himself whether he was born to do what he does, rather than whether he can live by doing it. Behind the question is a perennial—indeed obsessive—need to believe that in some mysterious way one is destined to be an artist. A novelist is particularly prone to this concern. To become a painter, a dancer, or a musician, two things are necessary: an apparent gift and hard training. In contrast, nothing seems easier than becoming a writer. Anyone can string a few sentences together and turn out a novel practically overnight. Who becomes a novelist and who does not seems almost arbitrary. Hence the strong desire to hear a resounding voice from on high telling one that one was indeed destined to write.

I remembered a time when I often encountered new people in unfamiliar places and spent hours with them. Who it was or where the place was did not matter; what mattered was that those hours cut off from routine could be as intoxicating, as blissful, as time spent drifting on the surface of a deep sea. But after I reached my mid-thirties, this happened less, and I began to feel that new encounters were often just repetitions of old ones. I hadn’t experienced meeting a stranger as a pleasure for a very long time.

…one of the many ways in which it (Japanese) differs from European languages is in how the personal pronouns—I, you, we, he, she, and they—function. In its European counterparts, these pronouns are the pillars of the language and are essential in constructing a sentence, even if they are only indicated by the inflections of verbs. This isn’t so in Japanese. Here, the personal pronouns are elusive, constantly shifting, often absent, and function like any nouns. This becomes most problematic when it comes to the use of the personal pronoun “I.” In their first encounters with Western thought, Japanese people tried to grasp the concept of a “subject”—a concept that has become increasingly important in the modern West. Yet in Japanese there exists no grammatical equivalent to, for example, the English word “I.” There is no grammatical “I” that can be used by anybody—which ultimately means no grammatical “I” that can speak as a “subject” independent of its context. In fact, there is no single word for “I” in Japanese but a variety of “I’s,” depending on who the speaker is and whom he is speaking to—a linguistic feature perhaps unimaginable to those who only know European languages. All this renders the notion of the abstract and transcendent “subject” difficult to conceive of in Japanese. And that may be one of the reasons why Japanese readers continue to look for an actual, specific individual in a story rather than perceive the story as the work of a writer’s imagination.

Have you read Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel‘? What do you think about it?

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