An enigmatic real-life Sino-Japanese film star, Ri Koran, remains a cipher after three self-absorbed narrators fail to illuminate her, in the latest from Buruma (Journalism/Bard Coll.; Murder in Amsterdam, 2006, etc.).
Buruma has written nonfiction works on China, Japan and jihadism. He displays his erudition on all three topics in this novel. The narrators of the book’s three sections—a homosexual American censor, Vanoven, stationed in postwar Tokyo; Sato Daisuke, a talent agent/private eye in Japanese-occupied Manchuria; and a screenwriter (also surnamed Sato) who joins the ’70s-era Japanese Red Army movement—track Ri’s serpentine CV through the thick, sometimes opaque, scrim of their own preoccupations. Born Yamaguchi Yoshiko in Manchuria to a Japanese couple, Ri was educated in Chinese private schools. Gifted with soulful eyes and a soprano to match, Ri passes as Chinese and stars in the film China Nights. The movie—and Ri—come to symbolize Japan’s efforts, while invading China and installing a puppet empire in Manchuria, to couch its imperialistic agenda in pan-Asian peace platitudes. After World War II, Ri renounces her Chinese persona and seeks fame as a Hollywood and Tokyo movie actress. When her marriage and career in Tokyo fall apart, due to a U.S.-sanctioned regime change reinstating war criminals, Ri reinvents herself as a TV journalist and host of a housewife-targeted news show. She hires young Sato, former crewmember on pornographic pinku films turned TV news-writer turned Japanese student militant and Palestinian sympathizer. Old Sato’s section, mostly set in Manchuria, detracts most from the novel’s focus. His story lingers on his obsession with another Yoshiko, a cross-dressing siren whose treachery nets him a prison stay and torture. Vanoven, though an engaging confidant, fails to vivify Ri as a protagonist. Young Sato morphs into a Palestinian martyr/hero and Ri gets lost in the ensuing Kamikaze parallels.
Ri’s incessant networking question—is someone “knowable?”—applies mainly to herself in this absorbing but decidedly un-novelistic portrayal of cross-cultural adventurers.