A translator of Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, documentary filmmaker, writer and academic summarizes and assesses his peripatetic life.
Beginning with his departure from Tucson, Ariz., to enter Harvard University in the late 1950s and ending with his ascent last year of Takao Mountain, Nathan (Japanese Cultural Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose, 2004, etc.) is not always a likable narrator. He can be charming and self-deprecating: He tells delightful stories about his failures in Hollywood, including some humiliating encounters with producer Irwin Allen and an ominous one with O.J. Simpson, whose “savage power under tenuous control” Nathan noted. He can also, perhaps intentionally, reveal a porcine profile. He writes about his pricey homes, his large salaries and royalties for various projects (including commercials for AT&T), his youthful boorishness in Japanese bars, his situational ethics and his inappropriate relationships with young female students early in his career. He charts the courses of two marriages and describes the difficulties of long separations from his wife and children mandated by his various professional projects. Nathan also reveals an ego in need of trimming. He felt insufficiently celebrated at Oe’s Nobel ceremony; he faults an associate for the financial failure of a film business; he delights in quoting flattering letters and comments, especially from celebrities; he wonders if translation is an art, too. Despite all these disagreeable qualities, his memoir contains numerous pleasurable passages. The accounts of his ongoing struggles to understand the Japanese, his amusing description of a softball game with Saul Bellow (who comes off as even more boorish than Nathan) and his misery and self-flagellation after the dissolution of his first marriage reveal a capacious heart and mind concealed beneath a carapace of crassness and self-regard.
Elicits smiles for the author’s self-awareness—and winces for his lack of it.