Dandies in dissolving times

A new collection of essays celebrates genius in exile and culture in the midst of squalor. The Missionary and the Libertine by Ian Buruma Faber, pounds 16.99

The reason Ian Buruma is worth reading about the East is that he has strong and definite tastes. He is as far removed as possible from the average travel writer, flitting from place to place, armour-plated with irony and condescension. Buruma does not flit: he spent years and years in Japan, more years based in Hong Kong. And in a new collection of essays, this writer, whose chief failing till now has been an air of rather chilly superiority, allows us to come closer than in any of his previous work to his humanity.

He does this by showing us what he likes. Roughly half the essays in The Missionary and the Libertine are about people, and several of them are about the writers and film directors Buruma admires. It is a connoisseur's list: the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki; Satyajit Ray, the Bengali film director; Nirad Chaudhuri, the Indian historian, now resident in Oxford; V S Naipaul; and a largely forgotten turn-of-the-century Dutch novelist called Louis Couperus.

Through his meditations on the works of these men, Buruma allows us to see what it is, emotionally and intellectually, that has drawn and held him to the East. Certain key words emerge over and over again: decadence, dandyism, patrician, elitism, deracine. All Buruma's heroes emerge from, and are beneficiaries of, literary cultures of immense wealth and sophistication. But none can escape the curse (or ambiguous blessing) of living in these interesting times, when all such cultures are in dissolution.

Tanizaki, Ray and the rest achieve greatness by neither succumbing to vulgarity nor scurrying back into their libraries and slamming the door, but by fashioning their works in full sight and knowledge of the modern world and the absurdity of their position in it. The result is Buruma's favourite word, "dandyism". Of Ray and his background, he writes, "Calcutta somehow managed to wear its decadence with a certain amount of grace; the anomaly of high culture in the midst of squalor is a kind of dandyism."

It is tempting to see Buruma's veneration of these figures as a way of meditating on his own work and potential, a quest for masters. If, in Howard Jacobson's formulation, the rootless Jew is the prototype of every modern hero, someone like Naipaul is the type of the modern heroic writer: freighted with culture, but spiritually always on the road. By his own long sojourns abroad, his marriage to a Japanese, and an education divided between Holland and Japan, Buruma has rendered himself deracine, too: hence his sympathy for those who have taken that condition and produced greatness from it. But part of the problem with deracination is to know who exactly you are writing for. If, like Naipaul, you are obsessional and serious enough, by writing for yourself alone you write for the world. Buruma's case, however, is rather different.

Part of the time - writing for example about the "suicidal dandy" Yukio Mishima, or the relationship between political radicalism and pornography in the work of another oriental dandy, the film director Nagisa Oshima - he is writing, one feels, for his own pleasure, and one shares in it. But for half of this book - long pieces on the Seoul Olympics, on the Phillipines or on Singapore - he is writing about subjects that, interesting in a journalistic sense, do not engage him at so deep a level.

It is in these very competent pieces that one senses the absence of an audience with whom Buruma has a relationship. Most were written for the New York Review of Books; but Buruma has never lived in the United States, and has no political engagement with it. He is not, like Naipaul, strenuously talking to himself; nor, like say Christopher Hitchens, is he firing off polemics, trying to change people's minds.

Buruma tries to compensate for this lack by a tone of dry, sometimes supercilious authority - which is a pity, because, as this book shows, there is a warm, beating heart in there. One would like him to follow its urgings more often.

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