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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!
My previous Sunday Salon was all about reading challenges. There are of course the usual suspects — but also a desire to discover new horizons.
I stated I had room for just the one more… Well, I changed my mind. ;) If I’m going to get out of my comfort zone I shouldn’t just explore different genres but also new challenges! The result: I went totally overboard and joined almost all of the ones I contemplated — and the one I had forgotten to mention in the first place. ;)
This is my admission post for three of the reading challenges. Hop to the bottom of this post for my current read.
Eclectic Reader Challenge
With its obligation to read 12 books from different categories –several of which I would never pick by myself– The Eclectic Reader Challenge on Book’d Out is quite the dare for me. And worth a try! Here’s a list of the genres.
- Literary Fiction
- Crime/Mystery Fiction
On the shelf: This Body of Death (Elizabeth George)
- Romantic Fiction
On the shelf: Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)?
Possibly: Verwante stemmen / An Equal Music (Vikram Seth)?
- Historical Fiction ✔
Read: Dromen van China / The China Lover (Ian Buruma)
- Young Adult
On the shelf: The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
On the shelf: The WeeFree Men (Terry Pratchett)
- Science Fiction
On the shelf: Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
- Non Fiction
On the shelf: Met bonzend hart; brieven aan Hella S. Haasse / ‘Letters to Hella S. Haasse‘ (Willem Nijholt; memoir)
Wishlist: Out (Natsuo Kirino)
- Thriller /Suspense
On the shelf: The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)
- Your favourite genre
To some of these genres I already added a book but as you have learnt today: anything can change!
Historical Fiction Challenge
I don’t read many historical novels. One could possibly argue Bandoen-Bandung and Kandy from F. Springer belong to this genre, or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front. If not, then I haven’t read any historical fiction in 2011 and we’d have to go back to mid 2010 when I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a very enjoyable novel by David Mitchell.
High time for the Historical Fiction Challenge on Historical Tapestry! The easiest level seems to be tailor-made for me: ‘Out of My Comfortzone’ = 2 books. Looks doable as I’m currently reading a historical novel by Ian Buruma: The China Lover! That leaves eleven months to find another one.
My online bookgroup the Boekgrrls have Hella Haasse’s De heren van de thee (The Tea Lords) planned for March. But that’ll be a reread for me so I may need to find something else. I recently bought Mevrouw Couperus (Mrs Couperus), a novel about the spouse of the late 19th, early 20th Century author Louis Couperus, by Sophie Zijlstra. But there are also great reports out about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern?! :)
Nordic Challenge 2012
My sister-in-law recently moved to Denmark with her husband and kids. I’m not much familiar with Scandinavian authors yet so it’s good news that Zommie from Reading in the North decided to host another Nordic Challenge! I’d love to explore the Nordic countries in literature as well as in real life.
There seem to be no set levels so I will read at least one book, but hope to do better than that! I spotted a Danish novel on Mt. TBR: De vrouw en de aap (The Woman and the Ape) by Peter Høeg. And I may also try that new mystery writer my mother-in-law discovered, whatshisname… :)
Now don’t tell anyone because we haven’t really decided yet, but Mr Gnoe and I are considering doing a class about Scandinavian movies!
I have no idea if I’ll cope with all my challenges this year: January is halfway done and so far I still have to finish my first book! ;) But I won’t put too much weight on them. Reading should be fun, and so do challenges!
I just told you I still have to finish my first book of 2012: The China Lover by Ian Buruma. The author was born in the Netherlands and I’m reading the Dutch translation, Dromen van China, but was surprised to see it’d originally been written in English.
It’s a novel in three parts, all set in different time periods, having seperate main characters. Connecting these stories is Yamaguchi Yoshiko a.k.a. Ri Koran/Li Xianglan, a Manchurian born Japanese movie star. She’s never the narrator, always an admired ‘object’, but does get to have her say as she’s met in person by all three protagonists.
For me, part of the attraction of this book is that it shows how film is used (and experienced) in different ways through history.
I’ve been wanting to read it for ages (it has been gathering dust on my shelves) and I’m thankful to the Chinese Literature Challenge for finally getting me to pick it up. Even better: now I can add it to both my Historical Fiction and Eclectic Reader Challenge lists! I’m almost done reading so I’ll tell you more about it later!
Now that December has arrived and I had a good and hard look at my reading challenges, it seems like the right moment to add another on the brink of the new year… Am I crazy? I assure you I’m not. ;)
Loving Books’ Get Read-y for 2012 Challenge is meant to help me get the books read I already wanted to finish!
Here’s my TBR pile for the rest of the year…
XY, by Sandro Veronesi. It’s the December read for my online book group, the Boekgrrls. I’m currently halfway this intriguing novel — giving me lots to think about!
Kandy, by the recently deceased F. Springer. A friend is visiting her place of birth, Sri Lanka, starting December 9th. Would love to read this book while she’s there!
I promised Elsje to buddy read Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes before the end of the year. Have to make good on my promise! This collection of short stories will also count for the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge and Japanese Literature Challenge #5.
Ian Buruma’s Dromen van China (The China Lover). The book I pledged to read for the Chinese Literature Challenge. Come on… I need to read just one book for this challenge. Host Chinoiseries cheered me on so I can’t let her down!
These three books are absolute MUSTS for me. Then there’s a few more I’d love to finish before the year is over. To begin with, these 3 are not enough for the 6 I need to accomplish my +11 in 2011 challenge, in which I try to read 11 more books than I did last year. Also, I’m currently 2 books short for the What’s in a name challenge #4. So, here’s what I’d further LIKE to read this month… (though I already know I will never manage to ;)
Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. I had wanted to join in the Japanese Literature Book Group read of October & November, but missed out. As the book is on my shelf (and ‘just’ 254 pages long) I may be able to submit a late contribution?!
The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins) for the JEWEL/STONE categorie in the What’s in a name challenge.
DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little for the SIZE categorie in the What’s in a name challenge, or Little Bee by Chris Cleeve which I borrowed from Elsje and should be returned to its lawful owner. But that would be a good one for next year’s CREEPY CRAWLIES as well.. ;)
Of course I may just cheat to get to my goal of 40 books in in the +11 challenge and pick up some shorties as the month comes to an end… Like the most recent Dutch publication of a Murakami novel: Slaap (Sleep). ;)
You can still sign-up for the Get Read-y for 2012 challenge!
The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, blogging about bookish things of the past week, visiting each others weblogs, and oh — reading books of course ;)
I love reading challenges. Not that I need any, but I like how they tend to shuffle my reading pile. Still, after feeling overwhelmed in 2010 I decided to be very careful with challenges in 2011. So I accepted only five! #goodgrrl :)
- Tanabata’s Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge
- Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge #5
- Chinoiseries’ Chinese Literature Challenge
- Beth Fish’s What’s in a name #4
- Margot’s first Foodie’s Reading Challenge
What’s the status now that December is around the corner? Am I getting stressed like last year? Do I feel accomplished? Need to get my act together and READ?
Completed 2011 reading challenges
Before I go any further I humbly bow my head and confess that even though I’ve read all the books I commited to for the following three challenges, I reviewed hardly any. 2011 has not been a great year of blogging for me. But as we’re talking reading challenges, I’ll consider my missions accomplished!
HARUKI MURAKAMI READING CHALLENGE
For the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge I chose level TORU (named after our dear friend from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the first Murakami novel I ever laid my hands on). That means reading 5 books by the master (here’s my admission post). So far I’ve read 6 (!) and I plan to read one more before the year has ended — ask Elsje if you don’t believe me. ;) If I live up to my promiss that collection of short stories will lift me to the level of Nakata (from Kafka on the Shore).
Hear the Wind Sing
1q84 Boek 1
1q84 Boek 2
1q84 Boek 3
And yes, the Dutch translation of 1Q84 was published in three seperate volumes, coming out in June 2010 and April 2011. Also, the title is deliberately written with a lower case ‘Q’ because it much resembles a ‘9’. I like that and have no idea why it should be different in the Japanese original and English version. Us Dutchies are pedantic. ;)
Last week Elsje and I went to a lecture about Haruki Murakami by translator Luc Van Haute in Leiden’s Sieboldhuis. He explained to us how the often stated opinion that Murakami’s novels are not typically Japanese is just plain wrong. It was fun — I have a huge reading list of Japanese authors to follow up ;) — and we also got to see the Hello Kitty exhibition and meet ennazussuzanne and Seraphine, who surprised us with the gift of an origami bookmark! Aw, that’ll come to good use when reading… JLit!
JAPANESE LITERATURE CHALLENGE #5
The fifth Japanese Literature Challenge only started in June and runs to February, but on October 1st I had already finished the 6 books I commited to. That day I turned over the last page of 1Q84 Book 3. As I still plan to read Sōseki’s Kokoro for the Japanese Literature Book Group (I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!), and Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes together with Elsje, I’ll probably up my level by the end of January 2012.
The Woman in the Dunes ~ Kobo Abe
Underground ~ Haruki Murakami
Thousand Cranes ~ Yasunari Kawabata
1q84 Boek 1 ~ Haruki Murakami
1q84 Boek 2 ~ Haruki Murakami
1q84 Boek 3 ~ Haruki Murakami
FOODIES READING CHALLENGE
In the Foodies reading Challenge I
cowardly safely labeled myself a NIBBLER, going for 1 to 3 books (admission post). So far I’ve read 5, and –YAY– even reviewed two!
I hope I can find the time and energy to write some more reviews!
But I’m not there yet. With only five weeks to go I need to finish two more challenges… Will I be able to do it???
CHINESE LITERATURE CHALLENGE
I was half a year late in joining the Chinese Literature Challenge and I full-heartedly use that as an excuse for why I haven’t reached my goal of 1 book yet. ;) Here’s what I plan to read. Cheer me on and maybe I’ll be able to cross of this challenge before the year has passed!
WHAT’S IN A NAME CHALLENGE #4
The What’s in a name challenge is always one of my favourites. It’s a thrill to pick your next book just based on a random word in the title. Call me crazy. ;) Alas, this year I’m having trouble finishing: even though I read several more than one fitting titles for four of the six categories, two are still open!
Pinball, 1973 ~ Haruki Murakami
2666 ~ Roberto Bolaño
1q84 ~ Haruki Murakami
Travels in the Scriptorium ~ Paul Auster
I’ll Steal You Away ~ Niccolò Ammaniti
Model Flying ~ Marcel Möring
Poelie the Terrible ~ Frans Pointl
Crime School ~ Carol O’Connell
Categorie LIFE STAGE
Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America ~ Linda Furiya
Still hoping to get around to:
The Moonstone ~ Wilkie Collins
Vernon God Little ~ DBC Pierre
BTW you can always follow my progress on the special Challenge page on Graasland!
What’s new for 2012?
2012 is more than a month away but I have already lined up some reading plans. Wanna know what they are?
Of course I can’t resist participating in the new What’s in a name challenge. I must say that I never buy or borrow books specifically for this challenge — picking titles that are already on Mt TBR, or have been on my wishlist for quite some time, is part of the fun. So what are the categories for 2012 and which books fit the bill?
- A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title
Choosing from: Last Night in Twisted River, Sunset Park, Lunar Park, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms
- A book with something you’d see in the sky in the title
Choosing from: The Moonstone, Sunset Park, Lunar Park, A Ride in the Neon Sun, Noorderzon (sun), Dead Air, Star of the Sea
- A book with a creepy crawly in the title
Choosing from: Little Bee, Een tafel vol vlinders (‘A table loaded with butterflies‘)
- A book with a type of house in the title
Choosing from: The Graveyard Book, Black Box, Het huis op de plantage (‘House on the plantation‘)
- A book with something you’d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title
Choosing from: Dreaming Water, Water for Elephants, Met bonzend hart : brieven aan Hella S. Haasse (‘With a throbbing heart: letters to Hella S. Haasse‘) [open to suggestions]
- A book with a something you’d find on a calendar in the title
Choosing from: The Eigth Day, Silence in October, Nocturnes
Don’t you think I have a whole lot of books available just to pick from? :))
THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES GROUP READ
Let me state first that I haven’t commited to the following task yet. I’m only considering it! Caravana de Recuerdos hosts a Roberto Bolaño The Savage Detectives readalong in January. I have the book on my shelf — it was a recommendation by the great author Kazuo Ishiguro — and I guess now is as good as ever. Especially since I didn’t much appreciate Bolaño’s 2666, which I read together with Leeswammes & Co. earlier this year. I’d better say it’s now.. or never!
Are you making plans for 2012 yet?
Looking back on your accomplishments for 2011?
I’d love to know!
Today I’m on a hike in National Park De Hoge Veluwe with my fellow Wandelgrrls. Chinoiseries is among them and she put the screws to me with her Literary Blog Hop Giveaway rules… I’ve thought about joining the Chinese Literature Challenge she’s hosting ever since it started early February and now she finally got me to! So here’s a quick post about my –ahem– ‘list’.
Level of participation: Merchant (read 1-3 books from Chinese authors or about China).
- Dromen van China (The China Lover), Ian Buruma
I may add a second and third title in the future but I’m wary of creating ‘reading stress’ ;) Because I also joined the 5th Japanese Literature Challenge that started this month!
That’s not really much of a challenge because I’ll be reading several books by Japanese authors anyway. Currently on my night-stand: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. I haven’t read anything by him before and I’m impressed so far: a Story with a capital S. It’s the June read for the Japanese Book Group on In Spring it is the Dawn and I also plan on reading along Thousand Cranes, Kokoro and 1q84 (I-III). Then there’s my readalong of The Elephant Vanishes with Elsjelas coming up. Counting my recent review of All She Was Worth (Miyuki Miyabe) that makes… 6 books. And there are plenty more on my shelf that I’m dying to read! Of course the difficult part in my case is never the reading, but reviewing.
In case you haven’t noticed yet: there’s another Literary Giveaway Blog Hop going on at Leeswammes’, from June 25th-29th. There are over 70 participants! Although I joined the first hop around my birthday in February, I decided to let this one pass since it’s a busy weekend. Would have been fun to do another giveaway though, ’cause this time it’s Mr Gnoe’s B-day! ;)
Other bookish news
I started and finished reading Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun this week, nonfiction about a family living in New Orleans during Katrina — the June read for the Boekgrrls book group. I’m probably not going to review it on Graasland. You can always check out my notes on Goodreads! The one thing that I must add is that it was translated to Dutch by one of the Wandel-/Boekgrrls and she did a GREAT job! Kudos MaaikeB!