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.

The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi (Audio)

Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case is an extremely clever mystery, populated with psychologically complex characters and convoluted plot lines.  But I found that the most interesting aspect of the book by far was its setting: occupied Japan.  A time when, suddenly, – after 8000 years of history, tradition and believing that their Emperor was a god – Japan became a democracy.  Poof! Just like that an entire society is transformed.  Traditions are set aside, American G.I.’s pop-up like dandelions, and Western clothes (not to mention: values) are adopted by all.   Kazuo Ishiguro explored this to a certain extent in his novel An Artist of the Floating World.  While less introspective and dramatic, Akimitsu Takagi’s recreation of post-WWII Tokyo is just as realistic.  This book was written in 1948, so it must have been all too easy for the author to reconstruct the Japan in which he lived.

The main protagonist of The Tattoo Murder Case is Kenzo Matsushita, a young doctor recently returned from the war in the Philippines.  He cuts a sad (and strangely familiar) figure – a veteran who has returned home alive, but with no direction.  He lives in the bachelor room at his elder brother’s home, is working on a thesis that has hit a dead-end and has no love life to speak of.    But he’s a likeable loser.  The book begins with Kenzo attending the annual meeting of an elite tattoo society as research towards his studies to become a forensic doctor.  There he meets a beautiful, dissolute young woman with a stunning full-body tattoo.  Inexplicably, she seduces him and they begin an affair.  Within a few chapters that woman is dead.  Her corpse dismembered.  It is Kenzo who discovers the remains – her head, lower arms and legs – in a room locked from the inside.  Her tattoo covered torso is nowhere to be found.

The reader is drawn, along with Kenzo, into the tragic history of the three cursed Nomura siblings – each tattooed by their gifted father in the Irezumi style.  At its foundation, The Tattoo Murder Case is a hard-boiled detective story (think Raymond Chandler or James Chandler)  with all the tropes of the genre.  But Takagi takes full advantage of his exotic locale and its rich history.  Kenzo partners with his elder brother, the famed Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, in order to solve the case.  They fail, with dire consequences to those around them.  As the body count multiplies, Kenzo asks an old schoolmate – a Holmesian genius named Kyosuke Kamizu – to take on the puzzle.

The Tattoo Murder Case was the first novel of the Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi, who went on to write several other books in the crime genre.  I haven’t read any of his other work, so perhaps he got better with age.  While I enjoyed this book in a general way, it’s disconcerting how Takagi threw in every stereotype that was available to him.

  • A locked room mystery.
  • A femme fatale who seeks the hero’s help, only to end up dead. (She’s even a gangster’s moll!)
  • A hardened Detective Chief Inspector (Kenzo’s brother)
  • The character of Kenzo Matsushita, who plays the bumbling Watson to his friend Kamizu’s Sherlock.

And let’s take a second to discuss Kyosuke Kamizu, who drops out of the sky seemingly just to solve the case.  The introduction of his character in Chapter 40 (-ish) felt like a hail Mary desperately thrown by the author in order to move the book to some kind of conclusion.  (Because, likeable or no, Kenzo sure as hell didn’t possess to facilities to solve the mystery).

What saves this book – and makes me want to explore more of Akimitsu Takagi’s writing – is that all the characters are remarkably well-developed.  The occupied Japan in which they live is described in vivid detail without being overdone.  And while the solution to the mystery strains the boundaries of believability –  it does not cross them.   All in all, it’s a killer (forgive the pun) combination that will leave most readers satisfied.  Or, at the very least, feeling they haven’t completely wasted 12 hours of their time.

The Tattoo Murder Case is available in audio from Iambik.com.  Unfortunately, the narrator isn’t the best – his voice would have been better suited to something set in the American mid-West than Tokyo, Japan.   I was also incredibly disappointed in his inability to create distinctive individual voices for the characters, which made it difficult to determine who was saying what in the early chapters.  But have you ever noticed how, with most audio books, your ear adjusts to the narrator’s voice?  The Tattoo Murder Case is no exception.  And while the narrator lacks inspiration, he does give a clear and well-modulated reading of the text.  That, and the low cost to download this book, allows me to cut him some slack.

The print edition is available through Soho Press.

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