REVIEW of DECEMBER
6th by Martin Cruz Smith
A novel by Martin Cruz Smith
Review by Dean H. Ruetzler
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 worlds 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 Tokyos 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". Cruzs 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 storys 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 Smiths efforts take him all over the world from Russia
"Gorky Park" to Cuba"Havana Bay". Goldens
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
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 Japans 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
© Dean H. Ruetzler May 2003
Nishine, Iwate, JAPAN and Vermont,USA
all rights reserved