28 August 2010

Book Review: The China Lover by Ian Buruma

This perhaps is an example of why I persevere in reading a book up to the end even though at first, it looks or feels like I would not like it. Because for this one, I actually am glad that I read it and finished it. So what is this book about?

First, let me tell you that the title is misleading. This is not about China at all. This is more about Japan, and an actress living in the country.

Second, this is perhaps hinting at post-modernism, given the fact that there are three parts to the novel, and every part is narrated by a different narrator.

Third, this is a two-fold novel, narrating the fictional life of a real-life person, Yoshiko Otaka, and at the same time, narrating the psyche of the Japanese country as a whole, before, during, and after World War II.

So the novel begins in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where there exists a puppet state. The narrator is Sato Daisuke, who basically becomes the confidant of Ri Koran, a Japanese actress who went around in a Chinese name. Her acting career is developed here, when she starts making propaganda films. Then, the war continues and ends, and the second part begins, narrated by Sidney Venoven, a gay film critic, who also becomes Shirley Yamaguchi's (the former Ri Koran) confidant. This also deals with Shirley's Hollywood career, and her marriage with the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. The marriage ends, and Shirley marries a Japanese diplomat, allowing her to live in Burma. Then a few years later, the third part begins, and this is narrated by Sato Kenkichi, a member of the Japanese Red Army, who used to be a script writer, and once wrote the scripts for Shirley Yamaguchi's television show. This show required traveling to countries and visiting people, people who are rather sensitive, such as members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

So, one rather unfortunate thing in the book is that the context is too much. Buruma tackles so much material here, and the reader is actually overwhelmed with all these details. Having lived in Japan, I can somewhat confidently say that these details are well-researched and rather fairly accurate, but sometimes, these detract from the spirit of the novel by presenting all these details.

The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Shirley Yamaguchi, but the novel tackles a bigger issue here, and that is the issue relating to the Japanese collective psyche. I have lived in Japan as a foreigner, and I definitely can relate to the various points that Buruma has raised in the novel. Japan is a rather mystical and mysterious country, and somehow, all instances of this in the novel reminded me of my own personal opinions as well. The fact that Japanese people seem to think that foreigners will always be foreigners and never will be able to understand the Japanese culture, the fact that Japanese people seem to operate more on achieving collective peace and downplays personal opinion, the fact that Japanese people seem to prefer groupthink, and all these other points. It is definitely a book that allowed me to revisit a previous period of my life, and so I am glad that I have picked this up, and actually finished reading it.

5 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.

(Terraced Walls, from my Pisac Series)

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