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From the little known world of 1940s Tokyo
on 2 February 2009
Andrew Miller has created a memorable interpretation of life in Japan as the encroaching climate of World War II changed the lives of his characters forever.
The story is focused on Yuji Tanako, a young man who has been fortunate enough to live on an allowance provided by his father, an eminent professor at the elite Imperial University in Tokyo. However, Yuji's father loses his tenure over mildly critical comments against the Emperor, and as the story opens, Yuji's allowance is scrapped.
Yuji has started to make a living as a writer, having published Electric Dragonfly, a book of poetry (in a nice touch, we see Yuji going round second hand book stalls to seek out his book and place it at the top of the pile). He works occasionally as a hack writer providing commercially-sponsored articles for magazines and newspapers. He also is a member of a literary circle led by a Frenchman, Monsieur Feneon, whose 19 year old daughter, Alissa, exerts her own charms on Yuji at a later stage of the book.
A main theme of the book is the gradual encroachment of the war on Yuji's life. Young men he knows have already been conscripted, and he has only avoided it because of a congenital chest problem which for now has disqualified him (as time progresses, the front-line demands more and more previously exempted men despite their medical problems which are not after all such a great concern).
Yuji has a rich inner life, and it is interesting to see where the author has populated his thoughts with a Japanese flavour, seemingly at odds with some of the European ideals found in the books which Yuji so admires. For example, the Japanese suspicion of the "foreign" has a tragic outcome when Alissa breaks in on Yuji's life: although he is able to achieve some adaptation to the idea of intimacy with a foreign woman, his Japanese sense of abhorrence at such relationships is never far beneath the surface.
The book is written in a sparse, almost Zen-like style. Some chapters are less than a page long and are word-pictures of short episodes. Andrew Miller has lived in Tokyo and describes himself as a "a haphazard Japanophile". Amazon has published some author's comments on the work, and it is evident that Miller went to great pains to get into the skin of the young Japanese poet. The "voice" of the book is convincingly Japanese and this is perhaps partly explained by Miller's willingness to seek advice where needed on all things Japanese.
In summary, the theme of the gradual dissolution of the artisitic life under the increasingly militaristic conditions of the early 1940s is worked out well in this fine and unusual novel. I am encouraged me to seek out this writer's earlier works.