Here’s something different: shifting Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Japan with the audacity of calling it “a true novel.” But wait a moment—as my mother-in-law used to say—you don’t really mean that, do you? Well, I don’t, but Minae Mizumura does, so let me explain. Mizumura sets up an elaborate façade: the story we eventually read is purported to be what literally happened to a man called Taro Azuma, whose life in many ways parallels Brontë’s Heathcliff. There are also suggestions at the beginning of the novel that Japanese readers do not like first-person narratives, so it is necessary to create an observer/witness who can relate Azuma’s story, though in fact two people narrate the story, one of them being Minae Mizumura herself, the author of A True Novel and an accomplished Japanese novelist.
The 165 page “Prologue”—narrated by Minae when she is still quite young—begins in New York City. It’s a few years after the end of World War II and Minae’s father has been sent to the United States to manage the American branch of a Japanese optical company. An American businessman who is one of her father’s friends has hired a Japanese male, named Azuma, be his chauffeur. He is described as a young man with no high school education and no family ties. It isn’t long before Minae’s father employs Azuma at his optics factory and not much longer before he’s been moved up to sales, visiting doctors’ offices and getting them interested in the company’s innovate new product: the endoscope. Two facts are important here. First, Azuma said he wanted to improve his English. Next thing we know he has memorized an entire English phrase book. Second, it isn’t long before Azuma is the most successful salesman for the company, making an enormous salary from commissions.
The American doctors Azuma calls on assume that he is a doctor himself because he’s so knowledgeable about the product. Not only has Azuma’s English become so polished but, soon, he is associating with the doctors themselves, picking up their social graces and professional contacts. When the medical company tries to reduce his commission (because he is so successful), Azuma forms his own company. Within a few more years, Azuma is described as “the most successful Japanese businessman in America.” Everyone in the Japanese community is in awe of him. Minae returns to Japan with her family after her father retires, though she, too, has been infatuated by Azuma and met him on numerous occasions during the years her family lived in the United States. More years pass. Minae Mizumura publishes two novels, and then Azuma apparently disappears.
At the end of the prologue when Minae has returned to the United States, a young man named Yusuke (also Japanese) contacts her seeking information about Taro Azuma. He’s attempting to unravel the mystery of Azuma’s disappearance, and he tells Minae the “true story” of Azuma’s early life, which she decides to use as material for her next novel—hence, “a true novel,” based on actual fact and not imagination. And her reason for this? Azuma’s story “recalled the translated Western novels I had encountered as a girl, especially one that never failed to make a disturbing impression on me every time I read it: a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the Englishwoman E. B. Indeed, it was only my intimate acquaintance with this book that made me recognize that Taro’s tale had the makings of a novel.” So there you have it, at least the pretext for “a true novel.”
It is, thus, from Yusuke’s perspective that we learn about Taro’s early years—before he went to the United States. The second narrator is a woman named Fumiko (ten years Taro’s elder, and the equivalent of Ellen Dean, the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights) who relates the more recent events, after Azuma’s so-called disappearance. And the ploy to get all this started? One night when Yusuke is bicycling in a remote area of Japan, his bicycle breaks down in the midst of a storm. He stops at a mountain cottage, welcomed by the housekeeper and a surly man. The cottage appears to be more traditional than modern. Yusuke notices a computer and a copy of The Economist, perplexing him by their odd juxtaposition with the rest of the setting. He spends the night, avoiding the troubled man, yet in the middle of the night he hears the moaning of a young woman, and when he describes what happened to his host, the man runs off in search of the apparition. The surly man, of course, is Taro Azuma, as you have already figured out.
There are Gothic overtones introduced almost immediately, especially the isolated cottage. Fumiko worked for the upper class family that owned the property, and years ago observed the arrival of their relatives, who were less-well-off. They moved into a near-by hovel where they lived for years. With them was a feral boy of no relation (but said to be Chinese), exploited and overworked by the others. And because of the sympathy of the matriarch of the family Fumiko worked for, that boy (Azuma) became the close companion of one of the matriarch’s granddaughters, Yoko (the equivalent of Catherine in Brontë’s novel). To the consternation of both families, the two of them fall in love. Yet, Azuma is treated as if he is a servant, not worthy of Yoko. When it is obvious that he will not be able to marry Yoko, he departs for America, becoming immensely successful down through the years, beginning with the job as a chauffeur.
Are the parallels between the two novels convincing? I’d say yes, particularly the replicated characters and romanticism of Brontë’s masterpiece. That noted, I’m not so certain that the 876 page story will grip Western readers as much as Asian ones. There are quite a few lengthy digressions that add little to the main story. Some of the other anomalies of A True Novel (such as a series of photos of traditional buildings in the country) appear to be little more than superfluous. You may want to read A True Novel out a sense of curiosity, especially if you are a Brontë fan. For most of us, lengthy novels present us with a major trade-off. Should I read two, or three, shorter novels or read the much longer one instead? You’ll have to answer that question yourself.
Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif, the translators, should be commended.
Minae Mizumura: A True Novel
Trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Ann Sherif
Other Press, 2 Vols., 876 pp., boxed sex, $25.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.