Unbutton Your Cheongsam

liu china Unbutton Your CheongsamThe China Lover
By Ian Buruma
The Penguin Press, 394 pages, $26.95

The China Lover is a tough book to stay mad at. One of the most probing and ecumenical of our long-form journalists, Ian Buruma has had the good fortune to summon—or the better fortune to stumble upon—a truly fantastic subject for a novel, in this, his second work of fiction. Its scope encompasses nearly half the 20th century in a part of the world—Japan and East Asia more generally—that Mr. Buruma has for many years made less foreign with his steady, sensitive reporting and commentary. What a pity, then, that somewhere in the transition from nonfiction, his words begin to ring untrue. The China Lover is a would-be historical epic damned by faint prose.

At the center of the novel is a historical character who’s very real indeed: Variously known as Li Xianglan (in Mandarin), Ri Koran (in Japanese transliteration) and Shirley Yamaguchi (in Hollywood), Yoshiko Yamaguchi was one of the first stars of Asian cinema and pop; her career spanned from late-’30s propaganda films to postwar crossover appearances on Broadway to a Reagan-style rightist seat in Japan’s Parliament.

Born of Japanese parents in the puppet state Manchukuo, “Ri Koran” was sold to viewers as full-blooded Chinese, part of imperial Tokyo’s effort to paint over its ambitions and atrocities with the yellow-wash of Asian racial solidarity. Her spectacles for the Manchurian Motion Picture Association had such titles as Shanghai Nights and Honeymoon Express.

Could there be a setting more romantically redolent of wartime intrigue? Or, to requisition Tolstoy’s quip for non-household use, all battlefield victories are alike; every defeat and subsequent occupation has its own way of shaking out the collaborators from the resisters, of studding the terror and tragedy with moments of curious possibility.

A milieu such as this is perhaps most easily conjured through film (see Casablanca). Indeed, Mr. Buruma’s Manchukuo resembles Ang Lee’s lushly depraved Shanghai in last year’s Lust, Caution: the same cheongsam decadence; the same dazed, opium-smoke fatalism; the same incongruous cosmopolitanism stocked with Russian gangsters and Jewish refugees (to whom the Japanese, Axis unity aside, offered official protection). And, not least, the same nihilistic, wildly unfettered sex.

Our entree into Manchukuo is Sato Daisuke, a bureaucrat for “New Asian Culture” and, like the novel’s two other narrators, a fictional character dizzily swept into Yoshiko Yamaguchi’s orbit. All three narrators—each of whom is tasked with telling a third of the tale—shade into contrivance.

Mr. Buruma’s instinct for a great story is not in doubt; it’s just that his instinct is defeated by the tepidity and unreality of his storytelling.

 

HOW TO RE-CREATE A foreign language—not just the speaking, but the thinking; not just words, but a historical and cultural syntax—using the material of one’s own? Mr. Buruma is too serious a writer and thinker to resort to ad hoc exoticism of the literal-translation sort: The China Lover mercifully keeps the kowtowing and “losing face” and ostentatious expressions of filial piety to a minimum. But his alternative is a certain idiomatic laxity—a certain indifference altogether to the provenance and consequence of words—that can be just as jarring: Sato turns out to be the odd imperial propaganda officer who, when describing the utterly world-historical conditions around him, uses the baggy language of a business-class airport lounge.

“The poor, long-suffering people of Manchuria,” he tells us, “ate nothing but bitterness for hundreds of years.” And also: “Verily, Mukden was paradise for a young wolf on the loose. Since I was a fit young man, always well turned out, I had no reason to complain for lack of female attention.” A clownish performer’s “pièce de résistance … was the extraordinary honking fart, emitted by the pompous lord in a well-worn story called Snake Princess,” while “the man in charge of our propaganda in Manchukuo was an odd fellow, with a finger in many pies.” A Peking fixer sizes Sato up “like a shrewd peasant at a country market.”

Eating bitterness; well-turned-out wolves; pieces de résistance; fingers in pies and shrewd peasants at market. And verily, verily! The sloppy miscegenation of international cliché tips us off, I suspect, to the author’s lurking uncertainty about taking this material past the known facts—that is, into the realm of fiction. Thus the unfathomable lapses into wire copy: “Tientsen could not have been more different than Mukden,” Sato explains at the start of Chapter 4. “Shinkyo,” Chapter 6 begins, “was everything Tientsin was not.”

Sato is replaced as narrator first by Sidney Vanoven, a young gay cinéaste stationed in occupied Tokyo who becomes a Yoshiko confidante, and then, flashing forward to the 1970s, a Japanese writer working with the aged icon, now a television host, on a program investigating occupied Palestine. Surrounded by repressions always returning, Mr. Buruma’s narrators live in interesting times—and share at least one interesting friend—but they are themselves agents of opacity: ciphers, or at least three men who “speak” with one voice, their generically flowery reportage dotted, verily, with the occasional inexplicable turn of phrase.

 

ALL OF WHICH MAKES the sex passages—the anatomy passages, really—that much stranger, more surprising. In these passages (soft-core needles in the historical fiction haystack), Mr. Buruma finally begins to write, and—given the unsubtleties involved—risk.

“Every man has his weaknesses,” Sato explains early on. “Mine was young women, especially Chinese women. … Their erotic attraction was like Chinese poetry—refined, romantic, and elusive. There is something particularly alluring, too, about the Chinese body, which matches the Chinese mind in its subtlety and finesse: the long, elegant legs, the pert round bottom, the perfect breasts not too small, not too big….”

“Surrendering myself to them,” Sidney later muses of Japanese men (such as, incidentally, Sato), “worshipping their soft, hairless, adolescent skin, running my hand under their supple thighs, burying my nose in the delicate black tuff above their genitals, this, for me, is a way of sloughing off my adult self and finding my way back to a state of innocence, the natural state of the Japanese, but one that must be regained by us Westerners, corrupted by the knowledge of sin.”

The squirm-inducing Rococo repugnance of such lines is the point, of course: For Ian Buruma, the lives of Yoshiko Yamaguchi demonstrate that there’s always something carnal to the geopolitical. If The China Lover unfortunately lacks the clarity of purpose to uncouple each link in that chain, the questions it leaves unanswered—about history and memory, suffering and pleasure—are ones likely, for better or worse, to keep us occupied.

Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at jliu@observer.com.