Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma

My Charles Tuttle edition of Howard Hibbett's 1966 translation of Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma (1946) was in a box of books that Tony Hunt gave me when he moved a few years ago, I think. I had no idea what it was, but I put it in the Stack after reading J. G. Farrell's The Singapore Grip (1978), the last novel in Farrell's "Empire Trilogy." It occurred to me that this book was about Japanese soldiers fighting the British in Burma, and therefore in the same army that captures Singapore in 1939, the event at the center of The Singapore Grip. So I queued it up.

A charming and thoughtful book, written originally for children, by a Japanese specialist in German literature who publicly warned against the Nazis and who wrote this book in the countryside of occupied Japan, his Tokyo house having been destroyed in air raids. It is short, 132 pages organized around three sections, basically three overlapping stories. Captain Inoye, the young commanding officer, is a music teacher and choirmaster, and he develops the esprit de corps of his unit by teaching the men to sing. These soldiers are in dire circumstances, slogging through mountain jungle far from home punctuated by deadly combat skirmishes against usually superior British forces, culminating in their surrender after the surrender of Japan and their transport to a prisoner of war camp in Malaysia. In 1956 the director Kon Ichikawa had a popular hit with his film version The Burmese Harp.

Their music helps them in all sorts of ways, even at one point to avoid a major battle that would certainly have killed most of them. Above all they have high morale as the music has taught them to function as a group. A pivotal character is Private Mizushima, the company harpist and a wily and courageous infantryman who is already a hero when he sets off to try to help talk down another group of Japanese soldiers who are entrenched on a rocky peak and refuse to surrender. One appealing point here is the discussion of surrender, it's clear that most units surrendered when they were convinced that Japan had done so, and the infamous holdouts were much fewer in number.

The book also spends a good deal of time with Burmese Buddhism, a variant of the conservative Therevada tradition, and a community that is under great siege from the villainous generals who rule "Myanmar" today. This is intertwined with a discussion of moral obligation for Japanese soldiers, with a number of characters openly wondering if imperial Japan lost its spiritual bearings. An antiwar message delivered with modesty and charming color.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Nina Vida's Texicans

I was flattered when Nina Vida, the author of seven well-regarded novels, sent me a copy of The Texicans last year. Subsequently we became facebook friends and I added her blog to my blogroll. Now her revisionist Western, set in 1840s Texas, has finally made it through the Stack. Of course I don't know what to expect with submitted novels. Most of the books that get into the Stack are chosen by me, not the other way around. But I'm definitely open to suggestion, I add books that people mention to me, that are on lists of various kinds, that sound from a description like they might be up my alley and so on. That someone else thought that I might like a book is as rigorous a filter as any, really.

And I did like The Texicans. It is a didactic, revisionist Western that makes sure to keep the reader entertained, written for story, and wearing what is clearly a good deal of research lightly. She presents European settlers as such, not as homogenized American cowboys, and she does not shy away from either the negative aspects of the Europeans nor the violent circumstances they encounter, notably violent and sadistic Comanche Indians. The Texas Rangers have deteriorated, following the end of the Mexican-American War and Texas's annexation by the US, into paramilitary bands that lynch blacks, hunt Indians and persecute Mexicans: right-wing vigilantes. There are slave-holding settlers from the South, and well-to-do Mexicans as well as poor Mexicans live in the same communities, more or less, as the whites.

The protagonist, Joseph Kimmel, is Jewish, and a curious character. He is intensely moral, brave, hardworking. He is also something of a masochist and a pushover. Like many people with personal boundary problems, he doesn't really like people too much; they inevitably inflict pain, it seems. But once involved he is ferociously loyal. His sense of duty prevents him from following his own desires, especially his desire for Aurelia, a Mexican woman with traditional herbalist knowledge who has been cast to the winds by a cholera epidemic. He remains with Katrin, an Alsatian refugee who he initially marries to save from a Comanche chieftain.

A master at this sort of thing is Annie Proulx, another contemporary is Louis Erdrich. They are bounded on one hand by the new revisionist Westerns (the avatar is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, but the genre's purest expression is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), and on the other by the vibrant post-colonial North American woman's novel (For example Toni Morrison, one of the continent's greatest living writers, and Barbara Kingsolver, whose influence surpasses her fame).

Nina Vida's technique is very much to show rather than to tell, and the psychology of her characters comes to us only through their actions. All are virtuous, but none are entirely sympathetic. They are used to rough justice and suffering and don't expect much from one another. It is not a character-based novel, it is a story. Readers of historical novels, students of the West, and enthusiasts for the contemporary American novel will find much to admire.