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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999

Turn-of-the-century frolic shows nothing new under the sun

Staff writer

Postmodernism is a publisher's dream. Copy out "Don Quixote" verbatim and you get a cultural reinterpretation, joked Jorge Luis Borges; give an old book a new cover and you get a tribal reclamation, proclaim the editors of this Race in the Americas imprint.

The result -- doctoral theses aside -- is a new edition of Onoto Watanna's "Miss Nume of Japan." It is a pretty little fin-de-siecle romance about an American encounter with the Orient, filled of course with plenty of ugly racial stereotyping.

A lovely coquette, Cleo Ballard, amuses herself on the long voyage out to join her fiance, the U.S. consul in Kyoto, by flirting mischievously with Harvard-educated Orito Takashima.

She is tickled, but also touched by his sincerity. And this gives him reason to hope that, should he break off his childhood betrothal to the daughter of his father's dearest friend, Cleo will accept his proposal.

On her arrival in Japan, she quickly finds that her consul, the strapping Anglo-Saxon Arthur Sinclair, does not love her. He feels merely duty-bound to honor a rash proposal, made many moonlit nights before.

Sinclair has no time for the red-blooded white male's customary pleasures out east. He has been called on to extricate far too many entangled tourists for that. And yet one merrily chirruping, lightly treading lovely does catch his eye: Nume Watanabe, Takashima's betrothed.

Onoto Watanna was the Asian pen name of Winifred Eaton -- a Canadian of mixed English and Chinese parentage who had European guises besides. She was the first, and remains the best-selling, Asian American ever.

Although it must be of some personal significance that Watanna writes, here and in later novels, about interracial love affairs set in the Far East, I wouldn't go overboard. First, because this stuff was all the rage at the time. But also because Watanna's Japan, like her phony, Japanese-sounding pseudonym, is a fabrication hashed together from the wide-eyed reports of early Japanologists.

Skimming along in the wake of pioneers like Lafcadio Hearn, she gives us an elegant vision of high-minded patriarchs and craftily flirtatious, extremely desirable child-women.

Not that Watanna was peddling cliches exactly. For she was not only capitalizing on Western stereotypes of Asia, she was also creating them. Her chapter headings alone are worth a mention: "Japanese Pride," "A Barbarian Dinner," and the unbeatable "Those Queer Japanese!"

But where Watanna had no clear precedent, notably in dialogue, the results are disastrous.

There is never a trace of Japanese accent; Nume herself speaks a sort of blocked-nose baby talk: "We mus' be sure firs' thad my father will not killing me."

And yet, as I chuckled my way through this absurdity, I found myself absolutely gripped.

The imperturbable Sinclair falls head over heels for the ingenuous Nume, and she in turn declares, a bit confusingly, "Me? I lig' you."

But it is impossible. An American friend of Cleo, who Sinclair has farmed out to the seaside with some passing English tourists, warns Nume off. She ends the affair, and promptly falls into a perilous dead faint.

Cleo then returns to give Orito the bad news. She cannot love another (let alone the other). And so, with everyone's honor in tatters, Orito kills himself alongside the two bitterly disappointed fathers.

Cleo is stricken with terrible remorse and belatedly realizes her love for the hapless Orito. But Sinclair and Nume can't believe their luck. He gets to cast Cleo off with impunity; she is freed of all familial obligations. And they are swiftly wed.

In the end, Nume confronts Cleo, the woman responsible for the death of her entire family. But she bears her no grudge: "Sa-ay, I lig' you jus' lig' a -- a brudder -- no, lig' a mudder, with you." Now that is inscrutable.

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