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from the June 2017 issue

“Inheritance from Mother” by Minae Mizumura

Reviewed by Michelle Kyoko Crowson

Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother is a literature lover’s novel and a translator’s novel. The narrative is split into two parts, with a total of 66 short chapters. Chapter 1, “The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake,” opens with a conversation between sisters Mitsuki and Natsuki, who speculate about how much money they can get back from Golden, the barely-used assisted living home where their mother once lived. The frank conversation upends some of the most common stereotypes about the Japanese as ritualistic and indirect collectivists who put family above self. But the social pressure to present oneself as such is implied in the response from Mitsuki, the protagonist, when she lowers her voice even in the privacy of her own home to whisper the sum they hope to collect. That number also marks the novel as a translation, because it’s footnoted with both a US Dollar approximation and a general guideline for US-Japan currency conversion. The layered emphasis on linguistic and monetary conversation adds extra weight to the scandalous nature of the conversation––death and translation are always accompanied by concrete losses and gains. To add to that, Noriko (the mother in question) was a difficult women, and her relationship with both daughters is so strained that Mitsuki recalls how, when Noriko was first rushed to the ER, Mitsuki sat in the waiting room, thinking:

Mother is dying.
My mother is dying.
Finally she’s going to die.

In fact, Noriko didn’t die that night, but Mitsuki is seized with the thought, and the words become a dark, persistent refrain in her life, a shameful wish she can only share with her younger sister Natsuki. The sisters are close despite, or perhaps because of, the resentments between them, stoked by Noriko’s lifelong tendecy to play favorites.

Early in life, Natsuki was the favorite because she was more beautiful, and Noriko trained her to become a pianist, to marry into status and wealth. That preferential attention shapes Natsuki long after she falls out of favor––when the sisters convene for their frequent commiserating phone calls, Natsuki retreats to her soundproof piano room, out of earshot of her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, the long-neglected Mitsuki bears the burden of Noriko’s attention late in life, taking on the lion’s share of hospital visits in spite of her own poor health. 

What both sisters inherit equally is their mother’s cultured sensibility and a love of the finer things in life, from French lace curtains and opera visits, to their respective artistic training: Natsuki in piano and German, Mitsuki in singing and French. As readers, we are immersed in Mitsuki’s cosmopolitan sensibilities and her meditation on life through art. Every major personal event in her life is contextualized by different artistic depictions. In the opening chapter, even as Mitsuki talks with her sister about their mother’s death, she thinks: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, Mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.” As a young woman, years before her mother’s death, Mitsuki went to Paris to study chanson. There she met Tetsuo, her future husband, a boursier––a graduate student on scholarship from the French government––who lived in a cheap, shabby apartment on his meager funds. He struck her as La Boheme’s Rodolfo in the flickering French candlelight of their engagement night, as an artistic soul living in charming poverty. She saw him as a kindred soul who would be her storybook hero as they romantically pursued a life of art and culture together. But when they moved back to Japan, Tetsuo’s materialistic side became apparent, as he became more and more preoccupied with the thought of owning a sleek, large condo downtown, rather than their homey but less fashionable apartment. Worse, on the same day that Noriko is rushed to the hospital, Mitsuki discovers that Tetsuo is cheating on her with a younger woman (again), and these twin blows send her into a tailspin, forcing her to come to terms with a life long on responsibility and short on happiness. 

Several times throughout the narrative, Mitsuki declares herself someone who “wouldn’t make a good heroine in a novel.” A middle-aged woman about to slide into old age, Mitsuki has an unenviable life: her husband is preparing to leave her for a woman who calls Mitsuki “pathetic,” and she is saddled with a mother whose deteriorating body forces her to "fluently speak words like 'Dysphasia' and 'nasogastric tube." Meanwhile, her husband’s social ambitions require that she reject passion projects––like translating a new Japanese edition of Madame Bovary––in favor of working as a freelancer and adjunct professor, teaching English during the day and translating French patents at night. These thankless, boring jobs exacerbate her lifelong physical frailty. Yet until the double shock of that day, Mitsuki does not allow herself to recognize that her life is caught in “sticky meshes of woe.” Once that page is turned, she must decide if and how she can extract herself. 

Part of what makes this novel so striking is its narrator's self-awareness, a quality that may not appeal to everyone. But for readers fascinated by the entanglements of language, society, and the way we create stories of ourselves, this book is a must read. It is also a novel acutely aware of its contemporary context, and the narrative gestures toward pressing issues, such as Japan’s aging problem, the cultural-linguistic hegemony of the West, and the double bind of women expected to act both as familial caretakers and productive workers. 

Constant references to foreign literature aside, this is a novel deeply rooted in Japan. While Mitsuki regrets not re-translating Madame Bovary’s Emma, and Natsuki fantasizes about the pleasures of a “a room of one’s own,” the sisters’ very existence is contingent upon their grandmother’s conviction that she, a former geisha, is the heroine of Japan’s first newspaper novel, The Golden Demon. At one point, Mitsuki views the crisis point in her life as the frenetic pitch in a play by Noh master Zeami. 

The tightly woven literary self-awareness and the emotionally heavy themes are shot through with surprising humor, like the moment when Mitsuki buys her fashionable mother emergency clothes for her hospital stay, selecting sturdy pajamas for “solid citizens” that fairly shout, “Hello, underwear here, at your service!” 

Mitsuki’s incisive observations and cosmopolitan sense are mirrored in the author’s other works, an aesthetic sense rooted in her distinctive biography. A Yale graduate and former faculty member of the Iowa International Writing Program, Mizumura is a respected French literature scholar, and this is her third collaboration with translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, who translated Mizumura’s English debut, A True Novel (2002), and the thought-provoking essay collection The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2015). That past relationship is evident in the deftness of Inheritance, which offers little gifts made possible by an English translation—like the fact that Carpenter is translating Mizumura translating Camus’ The Stranger when Mitsuki recalls that famous French line, “Aujoud’hui, maman est morte," and renders it as "Today, Mother died." 

These nerdy delights add to the novel’s overall literariness. And like Mizumura’s other works, Inheritance is just as interested in exploring form as well as content. The novel’s two parts are so distinct that, stylistically, they almost feel like standalone novellas––except that the narratives are so deeply entwined they end up looking like eerie, inverse silhouettes. Meanwhile each chapter is short and punchy, a reflection of its original context as a serial novel, published weekly in the Yomiuri Newspaper. A dying genre of fiction, the newspaper novel is largely read by middle-aged women, and Mizumura’s story elucidates the nuanced complexity of being a woman of a certain age in Japanese society. The female mind-body is on full view, with all its desires and disappointments, vitality and indignity. Mizumura’s insights edge on brutality, but in the best way possible, demonstrating that a middle-aged woman is more than capable of being our novel’s protagonist.

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