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January 23, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Can we fictionalize the stories we hear about others and still remain true to ourselves as storytellers? This is the writer’s dilemma in A True Novel. Author Minae Mizumura details her struggle to write a novel about someone she knew and still leaves the essence of the story intact.
A True Novel was published in Japan in 2002 under the title A Real Novel and won that year’s Yomiuri Prize for Literature, the highest literary honor in Japan. It was translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter who also worked on A Lost Paradise.
Publisher: Other Press
Released: Nov. 12
Mizumura was born in Tokyo and came to America when she was 12. Growing up, she often read literature from both countries, and this formed the foundation of her novels. She has questioned the boundaries of Japanese literature, and she asserts that it can learn a lot from Western literature. A “true” novel has no beginning or ending just like the course of life.
In the prologue, which is about the author and her family, she describes the decision to structure her character’s stories or name the protagonist like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. At 161 pages, the prologue serves as a semi-autobiographical device within the book and echoes its multilayered narrative. Mizumura details her family’s history, its fast rise among the 1960s high society of New York and its even quicker decline. She is a lonely pre-teen growing up around her father’s office parties. But her imagination is fed by her obsession with novels, and in the secret corners of her mind, she can escape and be anyone. This is how she isolates herself.
She hears secondhand about Taro Azuma, the private chauffeur of the affluent Atwood family. To the fanciful Mizumura, Azuma is the epitome of the mysterious man who changes an atmosphere with his presence. Over the course of 30 years, Azuma goes from chauffeur to millionaire, thus astounding the Japanese and the Americans who know him. The likeness to Wuthering Heights begins when Yusuke (a Mr. Lockwood-like figure) finds his way to a strange house in the Japanese countryside.
The rest of the book is about Azuma’s meteoric rise, as told by Yusuke to Mizumura. The frame narrative confuses the reader but emphasizes the author’s dilemma. Mizumura questions her role as the storyteller, and she discusses Japanese interest in Western novels, which fuels her desire to base her book on Wuthering Heights. True, she writes Yusuke’s story about the Azuma he knew, but how can the reader be sure that she is not embellishing the details as writers tend to do? The trope of the “unreliable” narrator will delight literary enthusiasts.
A True Novel is lengthy, but it’s an easy read. Comparisons to its English counterpart aside, it is an all-encompassing tale of circumstances at the macro level affecting individuals at the micro level. Mizumura weaves the story of postwar Japan and its rise and subsequent demise of the middle class through the lenses of her characters.