Last week I promised to share my thoughts on my first read of 2012: Dromen van China by Ian Buruma, or The China Lover (‘Dreaming of China‘) as it’s originally called. This edition is translated to Dutch by Eugène Dabekaussen & Tilly Maters.
I prefer the Dutch title to the English because more than anything, The China Lover seems to be a story about feeling at home in a place that isn’t — and may not even exist. I think all book lovers can relate to that?
It’s a historical novel in three parts, all set in different time periods, revolving around Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran/Li Xianglan: a beautiful, Manchurian-born Japanese screen star. She is not the main character of the book, but a centerpiece in the lives of three male protagonists. These men share another love: cinema, turning The China Lover also into a story about film.
Strangely enoug the book is not really about China but about the development of Japan and the country’s positioning in the world throughout the decades of the mid 20th century.
It starts in the 1930s with Sato Daisuke, a Japanese ‘information broker’ in Manchukuo. Manchukuo was an under ‘The Last Emperor’ Pu Yi established Japanese puppet state in Manchuria — really an aggressive occupation of Chinese territory. Daisuke falls in love with China (and its women) and believes in creating an ideal state through cinema as he feels more at home here than in the ‘straightjacket’ Japan.
Yoshiko Yamaguchi is his protege: by his hand she starts working as an actress & singer. The movies in Manchukuo are mere propaganda, meant to help give Manchukuo its shape and to sway the Chinese in favour of their Japanese occupiers. Therefore Yoshiko Yamaguchi must keep her Japanese nationality top secret and pretend to be Chinese under the stage name Ri Koran, or Li Xianglan.
The second part of the novel is set in post-war Tokyo. The story is told from the perspective of an American GI, Sidney (‘Sid’) Vanoven, who falls in love with Japan. He becomes a film reviewer and befriends Yoshiki Yamaguchi in that capacity. The starlet even goes to the US where she reinvents herself as Shirley Yamaguchi.
In this part the big screen is again used for propaganda, this time by the American occupiers: to impress democratic values on the Japanese people. Feudal samurai stories are no longer allowed. But cinema is also an escape from reality; not because of glamour, but by looking at folks in similar situations. There is no need to wallow in unhappiness when you can cry freely for the misery of fictional characters.
The book closes in the 1960s-1970s with Sato Kenkichi, a soldier of the Japanese Red Army fighting the Palestinian cause, imprisoned in Beirut. Starting out as a ‘pink’ (porn) movie assistant he later gets to work for a TV show with.. Yoshiko Yamaguchi as presenter. Even after their paths take different directions, Yoshiko still travels the world bringing news of oppressed peoples and their leaders. Film is used in this section as a medium for atonement, as well as propaganda.
All three men tell their story looking back from an uncertain time in the ‘present’. That their names are similar cannot be a coincidence and it probably means that this isn’t really about them, but about the growth of Japan as a nation. It can also explain why this book is called The China Lover, after its first protagonist: Sato Daisuke. He’s the one infatuated with China, and his surname, Daisuke, can even be translated as ‘favourite’ or ‘I love it’. At first I didn’t understand why this book would be called after him but now I understand that although the separate narrators are different (showing consecutive phases in Japan’s evolution), they are also the same.
Besides, he is not the only one who loves China above all places.. that also goes for Yoshiko Yamaguchi.
Embracing The China Lover?
So, did I love The China Lover?
I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story. Buruma takes his time explaining the setting of the first part (which was needed as the history of Manchukuo was completely unknown to me), introducing many characters — some of which have more than one name.* I’m not familiar with Chinese names and places and for the first time I understood a complaint I heard several times about David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’ve read quite some JLit and at the time I couldn’t accept that people had trouble keeping the Japanese characters and places apart… Now I can. ;)
But the most serious drawback of this section was that the narrator didn’t really sound Japanese or Asian to me.
* Just like Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Ri Koran, Li Xianglan, Shirley Yamaguchi and a literal translation of her Chinese name that I forgot. She’s even got more names that aren’t mentioned in the book!
So ‘the China part’ was giving me most trouble. But in the following pages I also felt at times that the author wanted to include everything into the story; even Idi Amin, Ghadaffi and Yasar Arafat got covered. Isn’t that a bit too much?
About the second part of the novel I like how you know immediately there’s an American speaking by the use of a military acronym in the first sentence (GOMIP = Geen Omgang Met Inlands Personeel). This character is probably closest to the author, who’s been an American in Asia for several years. That’s probably why the narrator of this section felt much more true.
In regard to the translation I was sometimes bothered when sentences were confusingly long and would have been better constructed in a different order. It may not be a major issue, but it disturbed my ‘flow’ and increased the already present flaw that the story was at times was hard to follow because of all the information to absorb. Next time I hope Buruma takes the trouble to narrate a story in Dutch himself. ;)
Considering my interests in Asia (specifically Japan), cinema, feminism and globalism, and the fact that the book is broad and quite entertaining, it seems strange I was not swept of my feet by it. So I guess reading another novel by Ian Buruma is not high on my priority list (though his book about the Theo van Gogh assassination piques my interest). But I came to learn new things about Asian and Western history and was triggered to look up facts about Manchukuo and Yoshiko Yamaguchi, now Yoshiko Ōtaka. Did you know she’ll turn 92 in 3 weeks?! During her active years she took up politics and was a member of parliament for 18 years.
What I am really excited about is the fact that my favourite movie director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, is said to be planning a feature film about the life of this many-faced woman. Now that’s something to look forward to!
The China Lover has been in my possession since its year of publication (2008) but I never got around to it, even though I stacked it on my readathon pile several times. Thanks to Chinoiseries’ Chinese Literature Challenge I finally picked it up!
I was surprised to find that a book with this title wasn’t really about China. Only the first section of the book is set in Manchuria, or Manchukuo at the time. It is an important section of the book but as I related above, I had a little trouble getting focussed with all the unfamiliar names, places, political and historical setting. I’m still not sure whether that (small) problem lies with me, or with the author. I have learnt something about a time and place I had no knowledge of whatsoever and feel wiser now. ;)
With this review I just managed to accomplish my goal for the Chinese Literature Challenge. Next time I’ll try to aim a little higher!
That I had started 2012 with a historic novel made it easier to enter the Historical Fiction Challenge on Historical Tapestry and Eclectic Reader Challenge on Book’d Out. It is not a genre I’m much used to, and being able to cross off one daunting book from the challenge list is always a good feeling.
As I mentioned with the Chinese Literature Challenge, I have learnt some interesting facts about historical people and places. I like that very much and look forward to reading more historical fiction. Although I wasn’t convinced that the first narrator was Asian, all the characters felt true to life — and alive. I could not differentiate between truth and fiction, which seems a good thing?
Now I’ve got one more historical novel to go for the ‘Out Of My Comfort Zone’ level in the Historical Fiction Challenge, and 11 more (other genres) as an Eclectic Reader…
To Be Continued!