Celebrated Japanese author Minae Mizumura’s third work of fiction, the coyly titled A True Novel, is vast, and we’re not just talking about the hefty page count—though it IS quite a brick, at nearly 900 pages, and has been broken into two volumes. But what’s really enormous is the span of the story, in both time and territory, not to mention the ever-shifting gradations of the socioeconomic class system of modern Japan. Mizumura covers a lot of ground here. The 165-page prologue is your first clue.
That prologue—really more of a frame—explains how this novel came to be. It’s told in the first person by a writer named Minae Mizumura, and its job is to introduce us to the novel’s centerpiece, a mysterious man called Taro Azuma. At first we see only glimpses of Taro. Minae meets him in the '60s, when she’s a little girl and he’s a 20-something private chauffer for an American who does business with her father. An encounter many years later with a young Japanese man, Yusuke, brings back Minae’s memories of that time—as well as a ready-made story for the author’s next book. Or at least that’s the conceit of the prologue; it’s hard to tell how much if any of the framing story is “true” (much of it bears more than a passing resemblance to the author’s own upbringing) and it doesn’t really matter, anyway.
In addition to introducing the central character, novel’s prologue also ushers in one of the main themes of the novel: stored memories, secrets hidden within stories, accessible only from particular locations and usually painful to dredge up. Minae, the narrator, struggles with telling Taro’s story because it means opening up the locked “magic chest” inside her that contains her memories of Japan and all her complicated feelings about having left that country for the United States. In one way or another, everyone in the novel shares this struggle.
Minae’s prologue eventually gives way to another framework: the story she hears from Yusuke, who recounts the story he heard from Fumiko, a maid who knew Taro from childhood. It’s a love story, partly modeled on Wuthering Heights, with a troubling twist in the final pages that casts an unsettling light on everything before it. But the stories around that love story are what really fascinate. The novel—which was serialized upon its original publication in Japan, and has been ably translated by Julie Winters Carpenter—encompasses generations and continents, and Mizumura’s unfussy prose draws clear pictures of the various shifting cultural patterns and behaviors. During the decades covered here, Japan’s economic situation changes, classes merge and trade places and Western style goes in and out of fashion. In the end, it’s no surprise that the great love at the story’s center fights to survive, given all that’s going on around it.