Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book Review: Tokyo


I am a confirmed addict of popular fiction. I generally buy my paperbacks at one of the two twirling racks of books that the bookstore in the underground passageway of the Kamiyacho station has, which limits my purchases to around 30-40 titles.
This time, I had a similar selection at Munich airport's duty-free gift shop (you have to show your passport to buy a Mars bar!), where I purchased Tokyo, by Mo Hayder (which is also known under the U.S. title of The Devil of Nanking).
Let me first say that I am one of those nitpicky people who find a lot of western writing, especially mass fiction writing, about Tokyo to be rather foolish, and often getting the details wrong, or worse. A good example of the 'worse' category would be Clavell's Gaijin, which takes certain historical facts, like the existence of certain rules or laws, and jumps to the (wrong) conclusion that people were actually following them. Clavell also manage's to get some details simply wrong. (If you want to know which, write me when I am at home, where I have the book.) It seems like for a long time more authors got it wrong than right.
Hayder doesn't get it wrong. The place she describes really exists and it is really Tokyo. It is, to be sure, a subset of the varied and textured place that is Tokyo, but the subset is described accurately. She also doesn't get any details wrong, save one: She describes a desert as 'a mochi' when what she is really describing is a daifuku, which is made of mochi, but is not called a mochi. (This gives you some idea of how nitpicky I am.) This is a minor, and certainly in no ways fatal mistake. And it is materially unimportant to the story.
I am also an East Asian Studies Major, with a history focus, which actually increased my enjoyment of the story and of Hayder's narrative architecture: There are parallel first-person narratives by Grey, a young Englishwoman in modern Tokyo (1992), and Shi Chongming, a young lecturer in 1937 Nanking, China. Both characters also interact in modern Tokyo, but the stories are very internal in nature, and their interaction seems mostly designed to focus this internal narrative, and to move the story forward.
Hayder is a good story teller, but the main mystery of the story is somewhat anti-climatic, mostly because she leads us fairly early on to suspect the very worst, and it turns out that the worst was in the past, or at least mostly in the past. That doesn't make it less bad, but changes it's immediacy.
If you are not familiar with the Nanking massacre, also called the Nanking Rape, you will probably be shocked by some of Hayder's descriptions of that atrocity. Her descriptions are accurate, and Hayder really is able to very capably elicit the full horror of the thing through the narrative of Shi Chongming.
One thing that I found interesting is how Grey's fascination of the Nanking massacre, where somewhere between a couple hundred and 400,000 people died, depending on who is doing the reporting (the Japanese tend to be at the low end , and the Chinese on the high end), colours her view of modern Japan. I have been here for awhile, was familiar with this subject through my history studies, but never somehow connected modern Japan with those atrocities committed in the Emperor's name in the very recent past. I am apparently not alone in this lack of consideration, as most Japanese are less familiar with this incident than I am, and manage to seperate the past crimes of their fathers and grandfathers with the current reality.
The fact is though, that the Chinese rage and fury about this ability to do what people in all places and in all times have done, which is to consciously put the past out of their minds, and look forward, something that the Chinese themselves have done with cultural revolution, Tianamen Square, and any number of atrocities, is mis-placed. What they should be mad about is the way that their government has manipulated the very real grief, of the very grievously injured, damaged, survivors for political purposes. I won't condone the moron revisionists in Japan. Period.
I give this book four smileys out of five. It tells a compelling story, two compelling stories in fact, gets Tokyo right, get it's history right, and causes one to ask some interesting questions about how we relate to this country, this culture, and it's past. ☻☻☻☻☺

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