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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The China Lover": a fascinating look at a woman caught between two countries at war

Ian Buruma explores the curious career of international singer and film star Shirley Yamaguchi from three sharply differing points of view, in his new novel, "The China Lover."

Seattle Times book critic

"The China Lover"

by Ian Buruma

Penguin Press, 394 pp., $26.95

Her name was Ri Koran. Or Li Xianglan. Or Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Or Shirley Yamaguchi. She was Chinese, or Japanese, or (briefly) Japanese American. She was an international singer, film star, Broadway performer, journalist, diplomat.

She was also, at times, suspected of being a traitor to her country — only which country?

The remarkable life of this legendary figure, now in her late 80s, is the focus of "The China Lover," the new historical novel by Anglo-Dutch cultural critic Ian Buruma ("Anglophilia," "Murder in Amsterdam"). This is Buruma's second foray into fiction, following his 1991 novel "Playing the Game," and his skill in handling startling shifts in perspective and addressing touchy or even malignant aspects of nationalism and "exoticism" suggest it shouldn't be his last.

"The China Lover" is divided into three novella-length sections, each with its own male narrator. All are problematic personalities with ties to Yoshiko Yamaguchi (her birth name — although "Ri Koran" was the name that made her famous).

First up is Sato Daisuke, a womanizing impresario running his own "Special Services Bureau for New Asian Culture" in 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Yoshiko, a young teen of Japanese parentage born and raised in Manchuria, is Sato's discovery ("Her command of languages and grasp of different national styles was extraordinary," he notes after seeing her sing) and he adopts a protective, hands-off attitude toward her.

Sato is a true believer in the power of Japan to liberate China from the influence of "Western riffraff," although he admits this sometimes requires harsh measures. Still, the ultimate goal, he tells his confused young charge, is "a peaceful world in which all the races would be treated as equals."

Impressionable Yoshiko meekly goes along with his agenda. Given the Chinese name Li Xianglan ("Ri Koran" in Japanese), she sings of "China Nights" (her signature tune) and performs in propaganda films suggesting that the Japanese are only trying to cure China's "serious ills." China lover that she is ("I've never even been to Japan"), it's not long before she's uncomfortable with her role, especially when her bosses insist on concealing her Japanese identity. When the Japanese occupation of China collapses at the end of World War II, both she and Sato flee to Tokyo for their lives.

Fast-forward to postwar Tokyo, where Sidney Vanoven, a young gay Japanophile from Ohio working for the American Civil Censorship Detachment, finds total sexual liberation in the form of young Japanese men ("I fraternized, and fraternized, and fraternized"). He also watches lots of postwar Japanese films, including early masterpieces by Akira Kurosawa, and sends them back to the editing room if there's too much "feudalism" in them.

Inevitably he comes across the screen legend of Ri Koran, and then the actress herself in the flesh — who, postwar, is going strictly by Yoshiko Yamaguchi and is intent on making movies that will heal all the problems in the world. Sidney finds this adorable: "I have learned to live without illusions myself, but cherish them in others."

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Sidney sees Yoshiko through her attempts to break into Hollywood and onto the Broadway stage as "Shirley Yamaguchi." He's also witness to her volatile marriage to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi — a Japanophile who's disgusted by the corrupting effect of American culture on post-war Japan (note to Seattleites: Noguchi's statue "Black Sun" stands across from the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park).

The third panel in Buruma's triptych is narrated by a survivor of the Japanese Red Army, responsible for a lethal attack on Israel's main airport in 1972. His connection to Yoshiko is perhaps best left as a surprise for the reader.

So, what do we have here? Japan in China. The U.S. in Japan. Political factions of every possible shade, from militarist far-right to terrorist far-left. Two China lovers (Yoshiko and Sato). Two Japan lovers (Sidney and Isamu). One Palestine lover (the narrator of section three, who finds Japan as confining as Sidney does Ohio).

There are layers upon layers here. Buruma doesn't force the connections between them, but he does, implicitly, ask questions. How far is it possible to lose yourself in someone else's culture? How delusional do you have to be to think you know what's best for the country your army is occupying? If "exotic" countries enchant you and you find your own country intolerable, what does that say about you and your country?

Buruma's narrators offer extreme answers. But undercutting them all is Yoshiko: naive, strangely upbeat, thinking the best of everyone she meets — even Idi Amin! — and aiming for a message of harmony and peace in all she does.

In "The China Lover," Buruma has captured the mutable contradictions of her life and made from them a kaleidoscope through which to see a giant swathe of 20th-century history from angles you've never viewed it before. It's a dizzying, dazzling experience.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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