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Book Title: Dromen van China|
The author of the book: Ian Buruma
City - Country: No data
Loaded: 1141 times
Reader ratings: 4.3
Date of issue: 2008
ISBN 13: 9789045006499
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 32.41 MB
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I found it hard to decide what to make of The China Lover. Largely because, I feel, it can't decide what to make of itself.
As a biographical novel of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, it is not a great success. The novel is written as three separate stories of three different lives: Sato Daisuke, a Japanese man in 1940s Manuchuria whose work for the government film studio allows him to promote Yoshiko's first career as Ri Koran; Sidney Vanoven, a gay American working in Japan in the 1950s whose work for the US military film censors brings him into contact with Yoshiko; and finally Sato Kenkichi, a young Japanese man in the 1970s who writes the scripts for Yoshiko's current affairs programmes.
We see Yoshiko through their eyes, and follow her story as they report it to us, filtered through their perceptions and encounters with her. This third-hand approach gives us very little insight into the real Yoshiko Yamaguchi. What we learn about her is likely little more than what you would find in a Wikipedia account of her career.
Insofar as Yoshiko interacts with these characters, any interaction has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Since these are fictional characters, none of these meetings and conversations actually took place. This is all the more disturbing since Buruma highlights certain character traits of Yoshiko through these interactions as if they are her real traits. The form of the work—melding as it does the real with the imaginary with no clear demarcation in between—compels a dangerous belief that the Yoshiko Yamaguchi Buruma presents here is the real Yoshiko. But, whether the picture he paints is an accurate representation of the real Yoshiko Yamaguchi, we cannot truly assess from these fictitious accounts. And bereft as we are of any internal guideposts to make this assessment, we can (and should) only conclude we cannot rely at all on this portrait: surely a fairly damning assessment of something that purports to be at least semi-biographical.
As a novel to be taken on its own merit, it is also not a great success. The three narrators are essentially mouthpieces for Buruma's account of Yoshiko Yamaguchi's life. You are not going to read this novel for insight into the lives of well-delineated characters. Indeed, you can barely tell these characters apart from the language he uses in these first-person narratives. Can you tell from these five extracts which of the three narrators is speaking? Bear in mind that these are three very different people: Older Japanese propagandist in 1940s Manchuria, young American gay censor in 1950s Tokyo, and young alienated Japanese man in 1970s Tokyo. Answers are at the bottom of this review.
Extract A: Confronted with people of flesh and blood, I was hopelessly tongue-tied, and around the age of five or six I developed a stammer. I imagined that everyone around me, apart from my mother, was a faker of some kind, a hypocrite, wearing a mask.
Extract B: They went through the scene several more times, the young man stooping to take her into his arms, and the girl closing her eyes in blissful anticipation, though always stopping short of actual contact. I was trying to think where I had seen her face before.
Extract C: I immediately recognised Kawamura as the older man at the film premiere. Something about him, the elegance of his tweed suit, the sheen on his silver hair, the way he discreetly sized me up though his large tortoiseshell glasses, made me feel a little shabby in his presence, as if I were wearing the wrong kind of shoes.
Extract D: I finally took Yoshiko round to meet Okuni. We went to see his latest play in the great yellow tent, pitched on a vacant spot beside the lily pond in Ueno. It was on one of those humid summer nights when the cicadas rasp and the fireflies set the pond alight. The tent was full, with no standing room left.
Extract E: I could no longer stand being around the movie set. I hated the whole enterprise with a passion. But it was my duty to be there. So I watched without really taking anything in.
Finally, as a political novel, there isn't enough heft to the themes of changing the world or the injustices of imperial domination. Each are touched on but, given the form used to raise these issues, only in the most superficial way.
Nevertheless, there are some impressively memorable scenes. Of these I'd like to mention three. One involves film buff Vanoven searching out old Japanese film classics only to be shown bonfires where the celluloid reels are being burnt under orders of the American military censorship office as offensive remnants of Japan's imperialist past; another involves a head scratching public display of square dancing put up by the head of the American military censorship office at the film premiere of Sounds of Spring as a means of inculcating good American values in the Japanese. Another particularly good one involves the staging of a modernist play, The Ri Koran Story, by a Japanese theatre troupe in occupied Palestine. This is how it goes:A slight afternoon breeze took the edge off the daytime heat when the play began inside the tent, which was packed with people of all ages, people who had never seen a play before, let alone a Japanese one. They seemed to enjoy the music, and the lighting effects. At least some of the words must have got through, and even if they didn't, the actors hammed it up so much that they made the Palestinians laugh anyway. They laughed and they laughed, more than I'd ever seen a Japanese audience laugh, as though these Arabs had been starved of laughter, and their natural joy came gushing back through a broken dam.
I didn't recognise much from the original Ri Koran Story. The play had been changed almost beyond recognition. Ri Koran went looking for the key to unlock her amnesia in a Palestinian refugee camp, instead of Asakusa. The evil puppetmaster, Amakasu, played by Shina Tora, wore an eyepatch, like Moshe Dayan's, and a star of David was pinned to his chest. When the evil puppetmaster is overthrown, the actors sing the Palestinian guerrilla anthem, with Ri in the middle, dressed as a Palestinian commando, brandishing a gun.
All went well until about halfway through the last act. No one who was there will ever forget it. Okuni couldn't have staged a more dramatic effect if he had tried. The stage went dark. A sinister blue spotlight was switched on to the tune of the Israeli anthem; Shina Tora, as Moshe Dayan, stepped onto the stage holding Ri as a puppet on his string. The arch enemy had entered the camp. First the children screamed, then they pelted poor Shina Tora with gravel and stones picked up from the ground. Yo, as Ri, tried her best to stay cool, but I could see panic in her eyes. Shina Tora ducked, while pulling evil faces at the audience, which agitated them even more. Near the edge of the stage was Abu Wahid, waving his big hairy arms, trying the calm people down, telling them it was just a play. But the crowd was far too excited for such niceties. They were ready to lynch the Jewish villain with the David star. This was the moment when Okuni showed his genius for improvisation. Standing behind Shina Tora, as one of his henchmen, he ordered the actors to duck behind the scenery. The stage went dark once more, and a minute or two later Yo reappeared, dressed as a Palestinian commando, holding the villain's star in one hard and a Kalashnikov in the other, while the cast sang the Palestinian anthem.
It was a master stroke. Every man, woman, and child in the tent joined in, some of them crying their hearts out.As good as these are, they don't, unfortunately, add up to a strong coherent novel. I enjoyed the reading of it well enough, but I can't say I'd really recommend it.
A: Young alienated Japanese man in 1970s Tokyo
B: Young gay American censor in 1950s Tokyo
C: Young gay American censor in 1950s Tokyo
D: Young alienated Japanese man in 1970s Tokyo
E: Older Japanese propagandist in 1940s Manchuria
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Read information about the authorIan Buruma is a British-Dutch writer and academic, much of whose work focuses on the culture of Asia, particularly that of 20th-century Japan, where he lived and worked for many years.
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