A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

A True Novel SlipcaseA True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.*  Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition.  Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.

The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting –  getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge.  But the differences are significant.  Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone.  And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.

The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character.  Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track.  And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced).  All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.

There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity.  A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality.  Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism.  For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes –

“My great miseries in this world have been  Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy

“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote.  It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth…  “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.

Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel.  And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original.  The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line.  Their connections to the past  is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.

 Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.

“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.

In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology.  The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground.  Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.

I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”

One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs.  Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”.  All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant.  The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author.  His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example.  Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.

Toyota Horiguchi's black & white cover photos.
Toyota Horiguchi’s black & white cover photos.

A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list.  I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist.  Should it win… well…  it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works.  It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for  March 11th to see how it plays out.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051203 6

*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains.  They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.

Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella)

Accabadora is about adoption.  It’s also a coming of age story and a mother-daughter drama.  It’s about choices, consequences and secrets… about being allowed to die with dignity… about the collision between the old and the new.   Accabadora is about a lot of things, most of which don’t have much in common with each other.  And while, overall, Michela Murgia has put out a well-written novel (winning multiple awards) for me the plot became increasingly uneven the more I read.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, leaving me with mixed feelings.  On one hand – life is uneven, messy and essentially just a string of random events.  On the other – novels are edited objects, we expect an author to perform a certain amount of curating in order in creating a narrative.

Bonaria Urrai is a seamstress in a small village on the island of Sardinia.  She was once betrothed, but her fiance died in World War II.  She never married.  When the book opens she adopts Maria, the youngest daughter of a crass, indifferent woman.  Maria becomes a “soul-child”.  In the local form of open-adoption, her mother gives Maria to Bonaria Urrai to raise as her own child.  What she, Maria’s biological mother, gets in return is unclear – money, status, a daughter of means to support her in her own age or simply one less mouth to feed.  Regardless, there is no shame attached to anyone involved in the transaction.  In every way that matters Maria becomes Bonaria’s daughter.  And yet she retains her connection to her birth mother and sisters.

Bonaria Urrai also has a second life, one which she keeps a secret from Maria.   Accabadora derives from a Spanish word that means “to finish or complete” (from the book’s glossary).  Bonaria is an angel of death, helping her neighbors to die after receiving their and their family’s consent.  Like Maria’s adoption it is common knowledge.  Everyone in the village knows the role this woman plays, and revere her for it… except, inexplicably in my opinion, Maria.  How she finds out and reacts is the climactic moment of the story.

Maria leaves Sardinia and travels to Genoa to become the nanny to a rich family.  This amounts to not much more than a strange interlude with little connection to the overall narrative.  It ends when she loses her job and is (a bit too conveniently) summoned home to care for the dying Bonaria.

Most of the events I’ve described above are found on the back cover.  So I haven’t given much away.  Michela Murgia has written a plot- and character- driven novel, very different from what I’ve been reading lately.  She has no post-modern, experimental agenda.  Her “literary realism” approach make her characters’ motivations and choices important.  To sell the plot they must be defined and believable.  They were neither, and as a result I had a hard time buying in.

The prose is an entirely different matter.  Each paragraph is carefully composed.  For example, when Maria first begins to understand her adoptive mother’s secret Murgia allows the girl’s thought processes to unfold slowly while she prepares supper.

As she cut the onion into thin slices, Maria mulled obsessively over this difference, arranging the ingredients for supper with the same hypnotic slowness with which she was trying to order her thoughts.  Andría’s words had been as crazy as the light in his eyes as he was saying them, and they had made no sense to Maria, though when set against certain memories they began to take on some sort of meaning.  As she cut the tomato into pieces, she could see again the figure of the old dressmaker huddled by the fire that same morning, fully dressed and with her hair done as if she had just come home, or already knew that she would soon need to go out.  Maria had long ago stopped pondering the mysterious nocturnal expeditions of  her elderly adoptive mother, but now these suppressed memories came back to hit her like the elastic of a catapult, prompting the thought that Bonaria Urrai might have something serious to hide.  It was the first time such a thought had ever struck Maria, and she did not know how to cope with this suspicion which fitted so badly with the confidence she felt in the woman who had taken her to be her daughter.  Bonaria could not possibly have lied to her, because there are things you should do and things you should not do, she reminded herself as she dropped the rest of the finally chopped vegetables into the sizzling oil.  The wooden spoon evoked fragrances and memories among the browning onions and, as she slowly stirred them, Maria opened herself to both, and remembered an afternoon from many years before, only a few months after she had first become soul-daughter to Tzia Bonaria.

Accabadora is filled with wonderful and delicate moments like this; writing that creates a setting and context that make sense; scenes you can step into.  But these moments are hostage to a needlessly convoluted and (if I’m being completely honest) overly theatrical plot.   I type my criticisms with trepidation.  Accabadora won seven awards, including Italy’s Premio Campiello.   No small achievement for Michela Murgia’s freshman novel, one that makes it impossible to dismiss her as an author.  The fact remains there is a lot of promise in these first pages.  She bears watching.

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press, Berkeley (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 61902 050 4

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Me, You by Erri De Luca (translated from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert)

Sea of Memory by Erri De Luca was originally published in 1999 (in English) by the independent publisher Ecco Press.  It was re-released this month by Other Press as Me, You.  (Note: it seems to be the same translation – from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert).

Me, You begins as a 1950’s coming of age/summer love story.  It is narrated by a 16-year old boy staying with his uncle in Naples. WWII is still a fresh memory. The narrator, whose real name we’re never told, is on the cusp of adulthood and curious about the war. His curiosity draws him to Nicola, a former soldier turned fisherman, who patiently answers his questions.

From the start it is apparent that this boy is uninterested in young people his own age. Instead he spends his time as part of the circle of young adults who congregate around his older cousin, Danielle. Through them he meets Caia – an orphan girl, beautiful, mature and mysterious.  Unsurprisingly, he falls in love. Not a teen’s hormonal-fueled passion, but a chivalric and romantic love. As he learns more of Caia’s history, her Jewish heritage and the fate of her family, the recent past becomes intertwined with our narrator’s present.

There’s nothing typical about De Luca’s unnamed narrator (I have this overwhelming urge just to call him Bob to make this easier). His actions and thoughts are out of sync with a typical 16-year old boy.  He seems too serious, too old for his years.  And as this small novel – a novella really – progresses his behavior becomes increasingly strange and erratic.  His interactions with Caia become awkward (apparent to the reader, if not to the characters). 

This is because Me, You contains a plot twist.  Someone from Caia’s past wanders into the narrative in an unexpected way.  And as that person reveals himself the dialogue (in my opinion) becomes a tad overwrought.  The couples’ exchanges take on an unnatural intensity.  They’re too formal.  And while the prose is beautiful – particularly in the descriptive passages – it is also densely lyrical bordering on claustrophobic.

I thought about that evening on land with Daniele and Caia not wishing to turn around and look at the island.  On the sea I did not feel distance.  A third of a moon rose, losing its red rind on the pavement of still water.  A powerful smell of bait filled the air now that we were stopped.  With my fist I splashed the baskets with water.  The wood of the oars fit snugly into the palm of the hand, legs placed one in front, one behind, to support the body’s push on the oars: and so there I was conforming to custom, to the métier, to the hour of the night; there was a place for me in that vastness of the sea, a place to put feet and hands and do what was needed.  Caia was solid ground, eternal woman in a century that held me by the throat out of love and rage, but not out there, not on the sea.  There, I was in the commingled nights of the earth’s numberless summers, I was a coeval of the planet, one of its wakeful species.

Me, You progresses from a coming of age/summer love story into a ghost story.  In many ways the author’s style suits this transition, but left me with mixed feelings.  On one hand the book grows heavy as the narrative progresses until, in its final pages, it becomes almost unwieldy.  Is that a bad thing?  The last scene is a trap, our narrator left without an escape or options.  Does the lyrical density I’ve already mentioned, the feeling of claustrophobia, highlight this?  De Luca’s prose really is beautiful… but that dialogue!!  I could go back and forth, pros vs. cons, all day long.

As you can see, I’m caught on the fence about this one.

Publisher:  New York, Other Press (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 479 5

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