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REVIEW of DECEMBER 6th by Martin Cruz Smith

December 6th –
A novel by Martin Cruz Smith
Review by Dean H. Ruetzler

It would seem, in the deluge of books that have come out about Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War, another book about Pearl Harbor, be it historical, analytical, or fictional, is the last thing the reading public needs. Sparked by the blockbuster movie"Pearl Harbor", fueled by the upsurge in patriotism in the United States post-9/11, the media fixation on theJapanese sneak attack, and the ensuing Pacific theatre war, that has accompanied those events has been very noticeable if not a veritable explosion. It has certainly been one of the topics "de jour" in the media recently. Martin Cruz Smith certainly took a chance by writing a novel about one of the medias’ recent fixations for dissection. He could easily have written "just another" Pearl Harbor" book", that would be lost among the masses that crowd current bookstore sales racks.

Fortunately, he wrote a very solid, at times exceptional book. "December 6" is a historical novel centering around an American, Harry Niles, raised in Japan, and his adventures which truly represent a lifetime of improbable experiences coming to a head, as the Japanese sneak attack approaches. Cruz Smith skillfully weaves a web of many different approaches to this novel into a complex, interesting, intriguing and carefully written, but not impossible to follow plot. This intricate and absorbing plot is the highlight of the book (but certainly not its only merit). Niles, in the book, is a man capable of doing many different things. His upbringing in Japan gives him the experiences, knowledge, and language skills to plunge deeper into Japanese society than many other foreigners get the opportunity. In the book he is well connected in business circles, courted by the military for his language skills and knowledge of his birthplace, the United States, and for good measure followed by the police, and "kempeitai"(Japanese World War Two equivalent of the SS or "thought police"). The seamier side of his upbringing, adds many twists to the plot as our hero is a con man par extraordinare, with an uncanny talent of being able to escape dangerous situations. Like a cat, he metaphorically always lands on his feet". He plays his skills for all their worth in his dealings. He has former schoolmates both helping him get access to the highest levels of Japanese war planning, and others literally chasing him with a samurai sword looking to lop off his head. He applies the same approach to his romantic life as he spends time with both his Japanese par amour who, it seems would rather die with him in a romantic double suicide, than lose him. In addition to that, is his ongoing affair with the wife of a British diplomat, with whom he plans to eventually flee Japan with. Throw in the dancer he lost his virginity to, and his escapades make his business and other schemes, double-crosses, and playing both sides look tame in comparison. Indeed Niles is a street-smart, skilled, slippery, wily character that lives a life of occassional riches, frequent romance, and almost always an adventure that we envy and abhor with equanimity.

The book is entertaining and stimulating on several levels, that can appeal to a wide-ranging audience. It also is reminiscent of some of the best recent writing about Japan. Captivating, suspenseful adventure with themes of spying, the underworld, or at least the shady area that resides next to it, and of course the exotic experience of being in Japan, the first world’s most enduring and baffling mystery. In this way, the book reminded me of Robert Whiting`s "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan". Whiting who is probably the best writer on Japan in the last twenty-five years, wrote an amazing book about Nicolas Zappetti, an American GI who stays in Japan, does all kinds of shady business, marries four times, and rubs elbows with Tokyo’s gangster, entertainment, and political elite (granted they are not separated by a noticeably large margin). In both "Tokyo Underworld" and "December Sixth", the lead character runs through an adventure that seems almost surreal in the way it unfolds into a complicated, but exciting, dangerous, at times, glamourous, at other times death defying experience.

Of course, Cruz Smith is a novelist, and Whiting is a journalist, so Zappetti is a true to life character, and Harry Niles is not, but they seem to lead a parallel existence in my mind, with the borderline of fact and fiction somewhat blurred. The historical aspects of this novel are first rate. Cruz Smith, the famous author of "Gorky Park"(among other novels), did his homework well. He is able to weave the impending invasion of Pearl Harbor and flashbacks of an incident occuring duringthe Nanking Massacre, in which Niles saves some Chinese lives that were about to be taken by a Lt.Ishigaki, a former Tokyo school "chum" of Niles. Naturally, Ishihara returns to Tokyo looking for "fiveheads" that Niles owes him, Niles having saved five Chinese lives from death by Ishigakis sword while in Nanking in late 1937. The history throughout this book is first rate, taking from Iris Chang`s "The NankingMassacre: World War Two`s Forgotten Holocaust", and other well known and more subtle nuances of history concerning Imperial Japan. For some reason, it reminded me of the film "Tora!Tora!Tora!", in its accurate, even-handed portrayal of the times (granted some, possibly many in Japan believe Nanking to be fiction, but the rest of the world has genrally accepted it as fact). The portrayal of Imperial Japan seems quite fair and absent of a noticeable bias. Indeed, with the main character an American raised in Japan and skilfully playing both sides for all they are worth throughout the novel, too much of a slant to one side or the other would have thrown the plot out of balance.

Cruz Smith played the ambiguity of Niles true alliance throughout the book, is it Japan? TheUnited States? None of the above? Both? Read on, one may be guessing throughout the novel. It also in some other ways reminded me of Aurthur Goldens modern "classic" novel "Memoirs of a Geisha". Ostensibly, a book about "geisha", noted for descriptive eloquence, and I felt lacking in a captivating plot, will not be very similar to "December Six". Cruz’s novel is fuelled by a intriguingly complex, convoluted and captivating plot, its historical interest to the reader, and the unexpected twists and turns it takes in relating the story. It lacks the gentle, but vivid and flowery description of "Memoirs", that makes the reader marvel at its and "picture-perfect" elicitation. Conversely, the plot of "December 6" is what makes the book remarkable with its twists and turns, elements of suprise, even the grandiosity of what it is trying to tell. It always seemed to take another unexpected turn, or one that was subtly foreshadowed, it never took an obvious. Of course true to the country of this story’s origin, Japan, an unexpected ending, or a baffling turn of events is just around the corner, especially when you are sure you "Have it figured out!".

"Geisha", by contrast it seemed, would stumble on its plots development, and was better off "staying at home", and concentrating on its subtleties not its adventurism.

The next turn of events for Harry Niles in Tokyo? It really could be just about anything, and is inevitably anything but boring. Nonetheless, the two novels clicked for me in a way that fiction about Japan rarely can resonate in me. That is it elicits what I believe is the "plausible"Japan that exists in my mind after four years of living in the country, five years plus of language study, three jobs connected to Japan, the last two hinging on my ability in the language and understanding(to a certain extent, as all those familar with Japan and its ever "obscuring" and"baffling" culture, will attest to) of the culture. A"plausible" Japan, in fiction, is a simple concept. When I read the book, does it evoke images in my mind that ring true with the Japan I have experienced? Does it describe the Japan I have learned about only by being in the country? Does it have an "air" of being the Japan I have seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelled, marvelled and/or expressed my exasperation at? Is it the intangible Japan I am so familar with, that requires of the author, at times, extensive observation, analysis, dissection and testing of ones ability to take those points collected and relate them to the reader? In short, can the writer take Japan`s fine details and translate that minutiae into enjoyable writing?

Cruz Smith has succeeded as a translator of Japan for the reader. In the case of Golden's "Memoirs" one can see how it happened. Aurthur Golden has made a lifeswork of his connection to Japan. From college study to fluency in the native language to more than a decade of residency in the country, all signs lead to Golden`s ability to do just that. Golden even interviewed two geishas extensively for his effort, including Liz Dalby, the only foreigner to ever successfully venture into that hallowed ground of Japanese culture. Indeed Golden had much to use in his literary and cultural "bag of tricks" in writing about Japan, and his writing reflected that. This then begs the question how did Cruz Smith create a "plausible Japan" for December 6th? It is obvious how Golden created his. It less obvious how Cruz Smith did. Yes, Cruz Smith is in the upper echelon of writers publishing today. Cruz Smith’s efforts take him all over the world from Russia "Gorky Park" to Cuba"Havana Bay". Golden’s work is a reflection of single-minded effort at understanding a certain country, a rare gift for alliterative yet also straight-forward description, and years and years of one form of research or another. Martin Cruz Smith does not have such an extensive background with the country and culture in creating his novel.

True, December 6th, despite plenty of good reviews and a warm public reaction will not have the "classic" description tagged to it that "Memoirs of a Geisha" did. Still it should be considered on the short list of most notable Japan concerned fiction since James Clavell`s "Shoogun" and NBC Mini-Series, along with"Geisha" and Michael Crichtons "Rising Sun". Cruz Smiths methods for researching and writing this book should be the standard for the aspiring historical writer.

An image or two from December 6 stick out in my mind such as the pet beetle dropped on a table at a high class speaking engagement that engenders Niles to one of Japans business elite. Niles old school time "chum" Lt. Ishigami chasing after him meticulously in a calculated game of life and death(by decapitation) is woven into the fabric of Niles "cat-like" existence of "nine lives" exquisitely.

For the first one hundred and forty-seven pages, the book has been a mixture of Niles daily life, from speaking to the elite of the country to somewhat less elite dealings of his business and love life. That is interspersed with flashbacks to Niles childhood in Japan, playing "samurai" with his Japanese friends on the streets of Tokyo, raising "hell" at the American embassy, much to the consternation of his missionary parents, and Niles outsmarting Ishikgaki in Nanking to save a few Chinese lives. It is all setting the reader up for something. ... ‘The army talks about the incomparable Japanese character. Well you can tell a lot about character and intelligence just by how a man approaches a woman. A Japanese goes up to a woman and demands `Give me a lay.’ even a prostitute would say no. An American shows up with flowers and presents and gets what he wants. So much for moral superiority, and so much for results. The army can have Yamato spirit, give me oil."

Part of a very well written paragraph that addresses many issues that confront the visitor to Japan. Sexism on the part of many, belief in the "Yamato" superiority, or at least behavior that suggests that in a fair amount. Also, the incredulity, and yet at the same time seen in contrast, an incredible pragmatism towards that belief in many Japanese, quite often as a result of exposure to other countries. Within a page or two the reader discovers the gentleman is none other than Admiral Yamamoto, the Ivy league-educated mastermind of Pearl Harbor, whom history has somewhat resurrected and repudiated as perhaps pre-war Japans loudest and most vociferous critic of the invasion of Pearl Harbor and the opening of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.

In Yamamoto, we can also see the strength and depth of the "Japanese Way". In many observations I have had over the years, a Japanese person with a fair amount of "internationalisation" and "understanding beyond the Japan-only sphere", may still see themselves as unable to influence or change the majority belief, and consequently will not make large moves against the majority. I place this purely as opinion, and ask the reader to not take it as more than that. Nonetheless the majority-centered, conformity-prone aspect of Japanese psyche is formidable. One does not jump in to confrontation with it easily. Little wonder Japanese doctor Masao Miyamoto, who lived in the United States for fifteen years, and then worked at high levels in the Japanese medical bureaucracy called his book on t hose experiences "Straight Jacket Society". Little wonder his position in the bureaucracy dropped considerably for publishing those views (often critical).

Cruz Smith seems to understand the obsession with "Japaneseness" that many Japanese have, and the much more humanistic and pragmatic viewpoint taken by the many of the Japanese with experience outside the sphere of the island nation, and even a few who have not. There is no better example of this than Admiral Yamamoto. Knowing that nothing short of a total victory would be enough to stop the United states in the long run, he masterminded the Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Of the opinion that "Japanese Spirit" and isolationism would probably not cause the United States to back away from Japanese military aggression, he pleaded with the rest of the Japanese leadership not to expand aggression, as the pages of history now note. One man, or a few do not change the Japanese system, and despite the knowledge that it would probably lead to Japan’s eventual defeat, he nonetheless led the Japanese navy into the Pacific war.

...Given Japans level of isolation, and then its sudden emergence in the ensuing century and a half as a major economic, military, colonial, and cultural power, the spotlight on it is so much bigger. Martin Cruz Smith has written a very good book, one of the years best in the opinion of many a critic and reviewer. There are literally thousands of reviews out there that will tell you just that, in so many words, and more. However, only a few of those reviews will have been written by Americans living in Japan. I can say that Cruz Smith has really hit the bulls-eye in "December 6". He has captured the good, the bad, the vague, and the strange, that a person in the cultural vacuum between Japan and the United States will experience. The Japanese proclivity to revel in the stratification of "Yamato Damashii" and "Shidoo Minzoku"("The Guiding Race"), or at least the affectation of it, as Cruz Smith hypothesises, is a noticeable part of any foreigners experience in Japan.

December 6 is a book that is full of Cruz Smith`s adroit handling of Japan, its history, society, and somewhat baffling, sometimes misunderstood relationship with the outside world, and even within itself. If you want more, a look at history, society, government, and international relations and one of the most interesting times and places they can offer you, then you have an excellent book, quite possibly one of the best ‘Historical novels’ you will read. Enjoy the book, no matter what way you choose to interpret what you read, it will not disappoint you.

© Dean H. Ruetzler May 2003
rudean77@yahoo.com
Nishine, Iwate, JAPAN and Vermont,USA

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