I came across A True Novel by Minae Mizumura by chance, and bought it on impulse purely based on the packaging. I had just sold some used books to Powell’s and was walking the aisles, looking for something to spend the store credit on. The 2013 translation of this Japanese novel, published by Other Press, caught my eye: two beautifully designed paperback volumes in a matching slipcover. Though it had already been out for two years, I hadn’t heard of it. I decided to take a chance. Having now read it (devoured it) I don’t understand why it wasn’t a bigger deal at the time of its release. It’s excellent, and scratches a similar itch to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; it digs deep into complicated personal relationships played out over many years, while at the same time revealing the changing sociopolitical climate and its impact on the characters’ lives.
A True Novel opens with a 165-page-long preface, which itself reads very much like a novel, establishing Mizumura’s connection to a man named Taro Azuma, who plays a central role in the action of the main part of the book. Toward the end of the preface, Mizumura presents two traditions of Japanese literature: the “I-novel” and the “true novel.”
About the I-novel, Mizumura writes:
In an “I-novel,” readers expect the writer to figure in the work in one way or another. Whether the work is in fact based on the writer’s life or is a contrivance is ultimately irrelevant. The author-protagonist of an “I-novel” is perceived as an actual, specific individual, one whose face may be publicly known in other media. The work is necessarily assumed to be truthful about that individual’s life.
The “true novel,” on the other hand, is not “true” in the sense of “based on actual events.” It is “true” in the sense of “pure” or “true to the traditional form of invented narrative.” In the preface, Mizumura writes that a true novel “must first and foremost be a work of fiction.” She claims that in this way her “true novel” deviates from the form, but it’s unclear whether that statement itself is to be taken as truth or fiction.
That’s one of the things that fascinated me as I read the book. That 165-page preface, ostensibly the author’s introduction to the novel, forms an I-novel. The author-protagonist of this preface/I-novel is Minae Mizumura. The biographical details of this protagonist Mizumura match those of the author Mizumura. But one gets the sense, particularly after her lengthy explanation of the two traditional forms of Japanese novel, that the I-novel of the preface is, at least in part, contrivance, which then throws into question her claim within the preface that the second, much longer part of the novel, is also true. Because what comes after that preface/I-novel is a very lengthy “true novel.”
This “true novel,” which per the form must be fiction is, per the narrator, a true story as recounted to her by a young man named Yusuke. The story comes to her by chance, it is like a gift and she’s compelled to write it. She can’t help but notice that it takes the shape of Wuthering Heights. How much are we to believed is true? Do we accept the narrator as the actual Minae Mizumura and read the preface as her direct, honest address to us? Or do we read the novel as beginning at page one? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are layers of potential truth and fiction within this book, Minae recounting her experiences with Taro and with Yusuke; Yususke recounting his experiences of Taro and Fumiko to Minae; Fumiko recounting her version of events to Yusuke. It’s all about layers of truth and storytelling. I don’t ever want to find out I’m meant to take it as one thing or another. I want it to be both. I want the possibility of both readings. And ultimately, after 854 pages it doesn’t feel important to know if the preface—the “I-novel”—is true, or if the “true novel” is true, or if they’re both fictions. The tension that’s created in the not-knowing is delicious.
Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.