The China Lover By Ian Buruma

The China Lover by Ian Burama

By Vanora Bennett

THERE IS a Japanese saying about a frog in a well, who thinks that he's happy where he is because he has no idea what he's missing in the world outside. That smug parochialism is something that the characters in Ian Buruma's The China Lover will go to great lengths to avoid. They yearn to escape their wells and to experience the wider world - politically, artistically, imaginatively and erotically.

Sometimes they succeed - just as Japan succeeded, for a while, in expanding into Asia, before the Second World War destroyed its imperial dreams and laid waste its cities. This ambitious novel - whose backdrop is the painful development of Japan from the ruins of that imperialist past, through uneasy dependency on its American conqueror, to modern wealth -centres on one woman's true story.

The endlessly charming Yamaguchi Yoshiko, with her hauntingly beautiful eyes - not quite Japanese but with "something of the Silk Road" about them - lives to the full her dream of seeing the world. But then she is better able than most to forget the past and shrug off its consequences. Her amnesia is her greatest blessing. It allows her to shift from Chinese movie star in occupied Manchuria before the war to Japanese politician a generation later, transforming herself along the way into a Japanese film star, a Hollywood actress, an architect's wife, a diplomat's wife, and a foreign correspondent. She always appears absorbed in her latest role, yet achieves this only by managing to somehow remain unaware of the ugliness and violence around her, however close it comes - and forgetting, or denying, her .friends, even those who've saved her life.

Yamaguchi is never presented as an opportunist. She appears vulnerable - a fragile, airbrushed image. Instead it is the men trying to manipulate her who can seem cynical. Buruma's three male narrators, each telling a different part of her story, have the opportunity to manipulate, since they share a belief in the power of film. Now that the modern mind has been colonised by movies, they think, the men who manipulate the celluloid images are also the ones who can manipulate our beliefs. This gives them a sense of power whose erotic charge sends them out hunting for sexual conquests, but one by one the narrators are engulfed by a reality they can't edit. Their creation, or idol, Yamaguchi, outlasts them all.

Buruma's writing is wonderful, especially when describing the sleazy glamour of Japanese-ruled Manchuria, the setting for the first part of the book. The casual racism, misplaced idealism, brutality and beauty - and the war moving ever closer - are utterly convincing. Erudite cultural comment and spare, elegant writing characterise the second episode, Yamaguchi's move to Japan, obser ved by an American cineaste in the ruins of postwar Tokyo.
The novel isn't without flaws. I would have given a lot for a glimpse inside the soul of Yamaguchi: an attempt to show what she thinks and worries about, away from the cameras. But it never comes; she remains a mysterious flicker of light on a wall.

Yet that almost doesn't matter. The panorama of history and culture might, at times, dwarf character and plot. But it is so beautifully executed that the reader is sweptalong - like a frog, grateful to be let out of his well.

The China Lover by Ian Buruma Atlantic

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