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The China Lover, By Ian Buruma

A Japanese diva on the set of history

Reading Ian Buruma's novel is like your first visit to a sushi shop with a knowledgeable friend. Everything is unfamiliar, some of it unpalatable, but your companion ensures you finish sated, delighted and feeling that bit more knowledgeable yourself. Buruma is – with respect to veteran critic Donald Ritchie – our foremost cultural analyst of Japan. His list of non-fiction publications is as long as an izakaya menu, and just as varied. His study of postwar Germany and Japan, Wages of Guilt, is perhaps the finest analysis yet of how trauma shapes a nation's psyche.

Into The China Lover, Buruma has poured his decades of thinking about Japan. It should be a sure-fire recipe for indigestion, but, miraculously, it isn't. The novel is not exactly straightforward, though. It is one woman's story, told by a trio of men. Or is it the story of a country, told through the three phases of a woman's life? Is it about history, cinema, or their common denominator: illusion?

The story traces the real-life career of a Manchurian-born Japanese movie star, known variously as Ri Koran, Shirley Yamaguchi and Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Her three incarnations act before very different backdrops: the colonial experiment of "New Asia" in the 1930s and 1940s, the post-war MacArthur administration, culminating in the student protests of 1960; and the armed resistance of the Japanese Red Army in Palestine in the 1970s.

But Yamaguchi merely guest-stars in her own biopic, for each section is narrated by a different man: a China-loving mentor, a restless American expat, and a pornographer-turned-terrorist. These voices occasionally sound too alike – like Buruma himself, intelligent and analytical. But their worlds rise up vividly: Shinkyo, the elegant capital of the puppet-state of Manchukuo, and post-war Tokyo, rising from its rubble. For a book so obsessed with cinema, The China Lover would make an episodic film. Scenes flash before us, while a Who's Who of famous faces appears in cameo (Truman Capote, Pu Yi, the Last Emperor) or off-stage (Charlie Chaplin, Yasser Arafat).

The China Lover is a clever book, and knows it. Motifs are woven through each section: a slap delivered by one character to another at a pivotal moment, the recurrent metaphor of the frog in the well. Though mannered, these touches give the story a certain ritualistic dignity, like the characteristic gestures of classic kabuki roles.

This is a book so deliberately Japanese it could only have been written by a Westerner. But Buruma has picked an extraordinary story and told it wonderfully well – as when he artfully, off-handedly, lets slip the fate of each narrator in the succeeding story-arc. At the heart of it, yet never quite centre-stage in her own story, is the captivating figure of Yamaguchi. Her impression lingers, an after-image on your retina after the movie has finished and the lights are still down.

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