East and West by Gerald Green (Donald I. Fine: $18.95; 483 pp.)
God, how we hated the “Japs.” No one born after World War II can really understand the wave of hatred and revulsion that swept over the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They had seemed like such an innocuous people on the pages of National Geographic. Kimonos and cherry blossoms. Who knew? Few Americans had even seen a real Japanese person.
Thousands of young men went off to fight and die against an enemy of whose culture they knew next to nothing. Most Japanese understood little more about Americans. Ignorance makes it much easier to hate.
The central characters in Gerald Green’s new novel, “East and West,” find it difficult to hate. They know just a little too much. And in the end, the knowledge they do possess makes it possible for love to survive and even flourish.
Green’s tale relives World War II through the eyes of a Japanese family. At the outset, the Tambas live in traditional middle-class circumstances in Tokyo. The parents are frozen in time. It’s the children who represent the rapidly modernizing Japan of 1941, each probing new worlds in their own way.
Four separate voices narrate: Masao, the eldest son and an Army officer closely allied with the militarist faction, is already a national hero for his exploits in the Japanese invasion of China. Kenji, (called “Master Cold Rice” because he is always second in line to Masao, his older brother) is a scholar who has studied in the United States and returns to complete his graduate work at UCLA. Yuriko, the daughter, is pretty and headstrong, rebellious against the customs that dictate her marriage to an unloving, and unlovable, naval officer. Julie Varnum falls in love with Kenji at UCLA and marries him against the wishes of her Quaker family. After Pearl Harbor, she follows him to the Manzanar detention camp and then, when he is deported, to Tokyo.
The war presses in on their entwined lives, and each suffers the horrors of it: Masao as a soldier going to defeat, Kenji playing a dangerous role as a peacenik, Yuriko struggling to break free from suffocating tradition, and Julie fighting to survive and keep love alive in an alien and oppressive culture.
Along the way, however, Green’s four-track narration begins to wear thin. The voices tend to lose their individuality, and we become aware of the wizard busily pulling strings behind the curtain. Lest we miss the point, Julie Tamba finally says, “In a way, I thought, the House of Tamba was a miniature of what had happened to all of Japan.” Indeed.
But Green is a fine storyteller, and his skill carries the reader over the thin spots. The descriptions of the American firebombing of Tokyo make the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem anticlimactic.
If this story has the cinematic feel of a television movie script, it should be no surprise. This is miniseries stuff. Green adapted two of his earlier novels, “The Last Angry Man,” and “Holocaust,” for the small screen, and perhaps he’s learned to save a step or two in that inevitable process. It’s certainly no reason not to read the novel. If you don’t, after all, how will you ever know which you liked better--the book or the movie?