“Pardon me for asking,” says an elderly lady called Kaoru (a unisexual Japanese name meaning “perfume” or “fragrance”) to the protagonist, Mitsuki Katsura, and another hotel guest, “but has either of you come here to commit suicide?”
By the time readers get to this part of Minae Mizumura’s novel, they should have become quite well-acquainted with the psychological complexity of modern Japanese culture, which sometimes reverts back shockingly to an era when Kaoru’s question would not have raised very many eyebrows.
Like many contemporary novels of diverse national origin, Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother deals with the relationship between an adult in the late middle age who has to cope with an ageing parent. But this is the Japanese version; therefore it contains paradoxical and sometimes puzzling (for Western readers) cultural situations. We often read about selfless and self-sacrificing Japanese mothers looked after in their old age by selfless and self-sacrificing daughters who accord themselves resignedly to the conventions of custom, but here the daughter vacillates between waiting for her mother to just damn well die (for which she feels guilty) and leave her some money. “There must have been a time,” she reflects, “when her death would have been a terrible blow.” Now, devotedly serving her mother’s often unreasonable demands and whims, Mitsuki dreams of her eventual freedom. Oh, wait—she also has to deal with a cheating husband who has run off to Paris with his much younger girlfriend, and a wealthy sister with whom she has an ambiguous relationship, and who does little to help with their mother’s care. Much of the plot is presented in flashback, in which we learn about Mitsuki’s own past, her mother’s romances, her father’s lonely death and their family background.
“This novel,” she notes, is “an homage to the dying tradition of serial novels.”
Mizumura’s interesting technique to deal with all these plots and sub-plots is to purposely set the book up rather like a 19th-century serial novel in a magazine or journal, the kind written by Dickens, Thackeray or Gaskell. “This novel,” she notes, is “an homage to the dying tradition of serial novels,” and tells us that this is in fact what it is, as it appeared in the Yomiuri Shinbun from 2010 to 2011. This serial technique allows her to slowly and realistically develop her characters, and as we get to know them personally we also see them as symbols of a Japanese society still caught between its long-established traditions (Confucian filial obligations, family structure) and ideas learned from contact with Western culture (self-realization, the unreality of romance, the desire to break out of the old ways).
Mitsuki must come to terms with her mother as she is, dump the cheating husband and find out who she really is; at her age people would think it’s a bit late, but to survive she must do these things, or she will be absorbed into the ways of the past. What Mitsuki inherits from her mother isn’t just money, but a divided and fractured view of the world, and no coping mechanism to help her deal with it; neither her philandering husband nor her emotionally inadequate sister is of any use to her, but paradoxically when she faces this, Mitsuki finds a way to discover who she is and, at the end of the book, she looks at the cherry blossoms as they come out and says to herself, “I’m happy,” and at the same time “begged forgiveness of no-one in particular.” She has got beyond Japanese self-shaming and looks forward now to a real life of her own, financed, perhaps rather ironically, by the inheritance from mother.
Mizumura knows her western literature well, and readers can’t fail to see shades of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina.
Mizumura knows her western literature well, and readers can’t fail to see shades of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (which is actually mentioned) or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where a female protagonist breaks free of convention. In the case of both women in these books the result is suicide; Emma ingests arsenic and Anna throws herself under a train. Mitsuki does neither, although Kaoru’s question in the hotel raises the possibility. Mitsuki, unlike the other two, doesn’t take a lover, and is perhaps more akin to Nora in Ibsen’s Doll’s House, although the door she slams at the end of the book is metaphorical rather than actual.
However, another book, this one Japanese (and not well-known in the west), plays a significant part in Mizumura’s narrative. This is The Golden Demon (1893) by Ozaki Koyo, which even has a chapter named after it, and, like Mizumura’s novel, was serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun. “Seldom did a novel change a human life in so tragicomical a fashion,” the narrator comments about Koyo’s book, and Mitsuki’s grandmother was one person whose life was changed as she subsumed herself in O-Miya, the female protagonist, and begins to think that this romantic novel was actually about her. Her daughter, Mitsuki’s mother, grew up in a world which was half romantic fantasy and half rather seamy reality, all of which need not be revisited here, but which of course has an impact on how Noriko, Mitsuki’s mother, led her life.
Unlike Koyo’s book, however, Inheritance from Mother is not the least sentimental. I ended up wishing that there were an English translation of The Golden Demon, as it would have provided a key to some of the problems presented by Mizumura. Another Japanese novel given a chapter-heading is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which was serialized from 1943 to 1948 and which tells the story of a prominent family in decline. The four sisters meet together regularly, and try to sort out suitable marriages for each other, although one of them eventually elopes. Here, “having a Makioka sisters’ day” meant “Mitsuki, [her sister] Natsuki, and their mother would go on an outing dressed in elegant kimono.” To do this, Natsuki says “will seem like a totally middle-aged fashion statement.” Mitsuki replies, “Of course it will,” adding “Who cares? We are totally middle-aged, and then some.” It’s a kind of funny epiphany.
Mizumura gives us a beautiful novel full of compassion and love.
Like many Victorian serial novels, this one has its longueurs, but on the whole Minae Mizumura manages the complex plot beautifully. For anyone involved in a difficult mother-daughter relationship this novel will echo deeply and profoundly, and for readers who are interested in looking at the emotional impact cultural clashes between east and west may have on families it offers a sometimes disturbing view, although humor is never far from the surface.
Mitsuki tries to be both a traditional caregiver dutifully following her Confucian obligations to her ageing mother but at the same time having to think about herself, a modern dilemma, on the road to middle-age with no real signposts to tell her which way to go. As far as her husband Tetsuo is concerned, she decides she will not play the patient, long-suffering Japanese wife and eventually arranges to divorce him.
Inheritance from Mother is also, as are many serial novels, a family saga spanning three generations, and a Bildungsroman for an older woman. Mizumura handles the various layers of her story with ease and grace; her style is straightforward and direct even as she tackles difficult issues such as dealing with a dying parent and the desires of a middle-aged woman. Mitsuki must first discover who she is before she can branch out and find new love; unlike Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina she doesn’t hook up with unsuitable men, and even when she meets the widowed Mr Matsubara at the hotel, what readers expect simply doesn’t happen.
Mizumura gives us a beautiful novel full of compassion and love which examines commonplace issues and complex characters in a new light, written in a combination of everyday and poetic language, and which may well show some readers a way to cope with the important issues which it raises without shouting and pontificating. It will also help kill a few stereotypes.