EPS Review #44 - Summer Reading

Despite having no commute while I spent the summer in NYC in the shadow of the WTC of fond memory, I did read a few things.

Murder at Mt. Fuji, by Shizuko Natuski, St Martin's 1984 ; The Obituary Arrives at Two, by Shizuko Natsuki

I think it was Amazon that described Ms Natsuki as the Agatha Christie of Japan. So, what was I thinking when I ordered these two books? I hate Agatha Christie, and Ms Natsuki has followed her tradition of tedious plots, stupid characters.and shallow psychology. Worth missing.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates, by Seicho Matsumoto, 1961/1989tr

A much better mystery, better atmosphere, and some unfussy haiku as well.

Harp of Burma, by Michio Takeyama, (1946)1966

A story of Japanese soldiers at the end of the war in Burma, and corporal Mizushima's harp. In the first part the soldiers are mostly on the run (no mention is made of Japanese killing anybody, just the other way around), and are saved by playing music. Then they are in prison camp, but Mizushima volunteers to help convince to surrender some troops holding out in a cave. The art of the story is keeping the readers and other prisoners in suspense about what becomes of Mizushima -- is he the monk they sometimes see wandering about, playing a harp? What bravery or cowardice has he been up to? Only in a letter at the end do we learn for sure of Mizushima's heroism at the cave, and his mission to bury every dead Japanese soldier in the country, and to give Buddhist rites for them all, as a true monk.

Matasaburo the Wind Imp, by Kenji Miyasawa, 1992(tr) Kodansha English Library

A score from Amazon Japan, which is pretty hard to navigate, and does not recognise you automatically (Amazon France does). A bunch of short stories meant to be dreamy and evocative, but I have pretty much forgotten them all, I am afraid.

The Swordswoman, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Tor 1982

An adequate sword fantasy by the interesting owner of Violet Books . The kinky insect queen is a nice touch.

In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson, 2001

Not as funny as some of his other books, because Bryson loves Australia and can't be as nasty as usual. Well, he manages to be nasty about the treatment of the aborigines, who used to be hunted for sport. But aside from that, he makes it sound like a place worth visiting, especially for the natural history. An unknown species of ant was discovered at a picnic, the world's oldest fossils were run across in some dry hills, only to be lost again in the vastness. Living descendants of those stromatolites can still be seen on the west coast. Apparently it is a pretty ok place for bookstores as well.

We Band of Angels, by Elizabeth Norman, 1999 Simon & Schuster

"The untold story of American nurses trapped on Bataan by the Japanese." Adventurous American girls posted to the Philippines were initially in a kind of romantic paradise. Inexplicably, nobody worried much when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, so they were almost unopposed when they arrived. The nurses had to operate in the jungle, and then some in the bunkers in Corregidor. They weren't too pleased with McArthur when he left. Eventually everyone still alive ended up in prison camps, where many starved. One nurse who got back to the US was asked to consult on a Hollywood movie So Proudly We Hail, which focussed on a doctor/nurse love affair, and even had a nurse suicide-bomb some Japanese with a grenade. Eunice Hatchitt told them that this contradicted reality, that they in fact had nursed wounded Japanese. She was ignored, and her comrades ended up hating her for the movie. Not the best-written book, but a good story.

The Sex Sphere, by Rudy Rucker, Ace 1983

Rudy Rucker is an interesting guy, to a computer geek anyway. This book was one of the hardest of his to find (at less than $50, but I grabbed a great lot on Ebay), and once again reflects his obsessions with multiple dimensions, infinities, and sex. Most people who have read any Rucker, have read the Software/Wetware series, which is okay, especially the later, weirder entries. I thought his retread of Poe, The Hollow Earth, was one of his best. As a kid I read Infinity and the Mind, which was excellent non-fiction gee-whiz math. The Sex Sphere was a bit on the embarrassing side, actually.

David wrote his own review of "Harp", two years later:

In honor of Erich's recent visit to Paris during which all manner of friandises were consumed and a steady edge of intoxication was maintained pretty much all the way through, I am contributing two for possible summer reading pleasure. One of them, the Harp, Erich reviewed shortly after 9/11, maybe he was somewhere halfway through at the time. I picked it up at the time of a trip to Burma in 2000, carried it all around end to end. Never read it, but my copy is steeped in the beauty and suffering of Myanmar, just like the harp itself. Finally did this year. Erich covers the plot, so I'll cover a few other aspects. You'll certainly notice the professional historian's eye at work, but I hope it won't be boring. All best, David

Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama (1946), 1966.

This book was the biggest hit of 1946 in Japan. Takeyama got some literary prize after making tons of money for the magazine serialization. Then it was immediately published in book form, an instant bestseller. Its topic, the final days of Japan's war abroad, Japanese POWs and their return to Japan, was not history yet, although the US and British had already repatriated close to 2 million men, ballpark figure. The Russians, on the other hand, had returned few of the half-million prisoners they had captured during the Blitzkrieg overrun of the bled-down Japanese garrisons of Manchuria and Korea. Inside they were shipped to a small Gulag archipelago to work in mines and construction sites, while Japanese printing presses run by Japanese Communists pumped out a steady stream of propaganda drivel, the only thing Japanese soldiers and officers were allowed to read. In 1946, as the Cold War got going, the Americans made important propaganda capital against the Russians out of the POW issue and destroyed the Japanese Communist Party by mobilizing public indignation at the Party's complicity in the POW's becoming hostages to Stalin's great power aspirations. He wanted a say in Japan's future, just like he got in Germany, with the results we all know well. When Stalin asked for about a third of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Truman just said no.

In short, in 1946 everyone cared about POWs, because almost every family had one, and here was a beautiful little book depicting a bloodless war leading to the brotherhood of men (within the Japanese army unit that sings together) and the spiritual transformation of a sensitive musician into an internationalist monk. Beats the hell out of selling rags in bombed out cities or being asked by her inlaws-to-be, if you could ask your daughter to submit to a Geiger counter test to prove she hadn't been anywhere near H and N on K(aku)-day.

There were a couple of lines I really liked:

"Sunlight filtered down into the forest through the green foliage, and even the breeze seemed to have a greenish tint."

"Most of the worshipers were women who were praying to be reincarnated as men."

"The treetops shivered in its wake. All the birds had flown away; there was not a twitter. I did see a pair of giant lizards about two feet long. Their jaws locked around each other, and they seemed to be dead."

But for the Japanese reader, there was no more powerful image than the white box, containing a flawless ruby, offered by the Japanese-lieutenant-gone-monk to the spirits of the British war-dead. For in 1946, every day still brought orphans back to Japan, bearing the ashes of their parents and family in little white boxes on necklaces, hung on their chests.

Erich rightfully points out the self-serving nature of depicting Japanese troops as singing, not killing; carrying harps, instead of rifles. There is also an American aspect to the production of those false image. In 1946, General Douglas MacArthur, the American "Emperor of Japan," sequestered a small group of his civil affairs and legal advisors in an Occupation-administered building under orders to draft a new Japanese constitution in a couple of weeks. He had a few desiderata on the politico-military side, but the rest was left up to the group. The only woman got equal rights for women in, the amendment we still can't get into the US constitution. Land was thoroughly redistributed. The Emperor's new, well-endowed figure-head position was confirmed. And the state's right to make war was renounced. No army with aggressive capability could be maintained. After translation and some serious political tousling, most of it made it into the present Japanese "peace" constitution. It is also in the spirit of this conjuncture that the Harp must be read. In 1946, SCAP (Supreme Commander Allied Powers) had a full censorship apparatus up and running. The very palatable pacifistic message the Harp provides would certainly have fit the needs of the occupation forces for acceptance of the new, American-inspired consitution and a peaceful occupation, something we could well wish for Iraq.

It certainly got me thinking: would it be a bad thing for the world to encourage the formation of an international corps of monks devoted to tasks leading to a better world? Talented, dedicated, disinterested people are just not easy to come by, so you'd have to make it attractive by some combination of status and privilege. Even if the monastery can only tackle such tasks as proper respect for any and every nations' dead, that too is a significant small start in convincing world public opinion of the need to provide better care for the living. Of course, it would have to be voluntary, but that would solve the motivation issue, keeping costs down. And if people dropped out, so what? Even if they only put in a year doing good, maybe that is good enough. The hard part is coming up with proper global missions.

Harp of Burma is 132 pages long. A day at the beach.

David included this review of Half a Life by V. S. Naipaul (2001)

The Vintage International paperback version has old-fashioned wire-rim classes on the cover, tinted an uneven green, not like sunglasses, but as if someone spray-painted transparent green on them. You'll have to go 200 of the 211 pages to find out what that is all about.

"Ana had prepared me for this kind of aggression; it would have been hard for me otherwise. And quite late I saw that, apart from his wife and the cabinet of ornaments, he had another treasure on the verandah: a big green-tinted bottle with a living snake, on an oilcloth-covered table just beside his chair. The snake was greenish. When the man tormented it or teased it the snake, tightly imprisoned though it was, lashed out with frightening abrupt wide-mouthed rage against the side of the bottle, which was already discoloured with some kind of mucus from the snake's mouth. The man was pleased with the effect the snake had on me. He began to talk to me in Portuguese. For the first time he looked at me. He said: "It's a spitting cobra. They can blind you from fifteen feet. They aim for shiny things. They will aim for your watch or your glasses or your eyes. If you don't wash it off fast with sugar and water you are in trouble."

Well, there it is. The Nobel committee knows something. The man can write, but mostly he's got terrible stuff to tell us. It's a pseudo-autobiographical sketch from a different piece of the great Indian diaspora than Naipaul himself belongs to. This book's hero has a trajectory out of India to London, colonial Mozambique's transition to independence and finally Berlin. And don't forget that's just half a life.

It traces the funky, often nasty, mating of multiple hierarchies: Indian caste system adapted to diaspora conditions, imperialist/colonizer/colonized, racial rankings. The only hope seems to be to mix it up so thoroughly that no one can figure out anymore where you belong. There lies freedom or at least advantage. Of course, you have to row hard to make sure unrankable doesn't get labeled as untouchable.

The book qualifies as evil, sometimes painful, wittery. Naipul is unrelentingly ironic:

I said, " I am boycotting the university." "How will you get a job? Who will give you money? Go and do the exams." "I haven't studied. I can't learn those notes now. It is too late." "They will pass you. You know those people."

Willy was living in the college as in a daze. The learning he was being given was like the food he was eating, without savour. The two were inseparable in his mind. And just as he ate without pleasure, so, with a kind of blindness, he did what the lecturers and tutors asked of him.

Her talk was about how to arrange a dinner party and how to deal with the problem of bores. Bores had to be put with other bores, the hostess said; fire had to be fought with fire. Willie's script wrote itself.

But there are also occasional flashes of beauty, human insight, even intimations of sagacity. The man also clearly knows the ups and downs of the writing life.

"...the huts with straight neat lines and roofs of a long fine grass that seemed at times to catch the sun and then shone like long, well-brushed hair. Very big grey rocks, cone-shaped, some the size of hills, rose abruptly out of the earth, each rock cone isolated, a landmark on its own... Willie thought, "I don't know where I am. I don't think I can pick my way back. I don't ever want this view to become familiar. I must not unpack. I must never behave as though I am staying." He stayed for eighteen years."

"The stories seemed to be just waiting for him; he was surprised he hadn't seen them before; and he wrote fast for three or four weeks. The writing then began to lead him to difficult things, things he couldn't face, and he stopped."

"A little while later the proofs came. He worked on them like a man going through the rites and formalities connected with a stillbirth."

Naipaul knows maybe better than anyone how to describe the kinds of events that serve as landmarks on a lifecourse, both the big events and the sudden, almost invisible, enlightenments. But there is not enough room in the margin, so you'll all have to go buy the book, if it sounds like something you'd like. Caveat emptor: could give the middle-aged pause, at least for a few moments.

For a moment, it might be a good book to assign for a class on racism, colonialism or diaspora, but what would 20 year olds know or care about half a life?

Happy summer readings!