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Sunday, May 19, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Repent of Western ways to see the light


By VICTORIA JAMES
Staff writer
A BURDEN OF FLOWERS, by Natsuki Ikezawa. Kodansha International, 2001, 239 pp., 2,400 yen (cloth)

A story of two Japanese siblings' rejection of Western values, one eloquent on the dangers of being "too Cartesian in your thinking, too tied up in Western rationalism," is hardly an obvious candidate for translation into English. Nonetheless, Natsuki Ikezawa's "Hana wo hakobu imoto" ("A Burden of Flowers") is Kodansha's most recent choice for publication in its grant-assisted Kan Yamaguchi series.

One wonders whether Kodansha's selection was motivated by the book's reputation -- in 2000 it scooped the prestigious Mainichi Prize -- rather than its suitability. Yet though Ikezawa's delineation of the Western mentalite is often simplistic, he is an astute observer of the shortcomings of set-in-its-ways Japan and champions a "third way" -- closer ties with Asia -- for his troubled country.

Ostensibly the story of a brother and sister caught up in a drug-trafficking drama set against the exotic backdrop of Bali, "A Burden of Flowers" is more bildungsroman than blockbuster, as Kaoru and Tetsuro work through (literal) trial and error toward a deeper sense of self. Ikezawa clearly intends the siblings' search for direction to mirror the identity crisis of their country itself. The options open to them -- stagnation at home, escape to the West, embracing the East -- are those now facing Japan.

Kaoru went westwards, to Paris. She leads the glamorous lifestyle of a trilingual TV-liaison, crisscrossing the globe on assignments, but her story kicks off with a farcical cautionary tale on the perils of Westernization. While in Paris, Kaoru is picked up by a Japanese Protestant minister who cruises the banlieus in a "baptism mobile." He wines her and dines her, then drives her to a deserted riverbank at midnight in order to . . . well, as it turns out, to save her soul.

Duly dunked in the Seine, Kaoru feels nothing. The Japanese girl, it later becomes clear, requires a Eastern "baptism" to achieve spiritual awakening. This comes in the form of satori (enlightenment) experienced while bathing in the sea in Bali; this time, Kaoru lifts her face from the water "a different person from the one I'd been that morning." As the book closes, she's repented of her European ways and has seen the light: "It's the Western way of seeing things that's out of place. On this side of the world, people . . . read the flow of things, not fighting their way against the current or speaking down to others." The final pages duly leave her in hippie heaven, having "found the real Bali" and, presumably, real peace.

Her brother's story is subtler and more satisfying. Tetsuro, nicknamed Tez, is a talented artist who has already made his peace with the East: He loves the "wet air" of Southeast Asia in general and a graceful Vietnamese woman, An, and her son, Tahn, in particular. Then trouble intervenes in the form of German Inge, with her disturbing talk of "pleasure beyond the phenomenal" and life slowed down to the point of immortality, lived in unchanging "stone time."

Inge's little secret, Tez is shocked to discover, is heroin. And with painful inevitability he, too, succumbs. Ikezawa oddly idealizes this young Japanese junkie, who shoots up his first hit in the hope of gleaning philosophical insight and only spirals into addiction out of guilt, after his drugged state one day prevents him from rescuing a drowning child. Traveling to Bali in a last-ditch attempt to kick the habit, Tez is instead framed by a police chief anxious for promotion. Charged with drug smuggling, he faces the death penalty and Kaoru must use all her resourcefulness to save her brother's life.

The plot is so secondary to the inner drama being played out that it's no spoiler to reveal that Tetsuro escapes execution, if not punishment. He's saved by a chance revelation of the chief's wrongdoings -- or is he? Kaoru pinpoints the change in her brother's fortunes to her own experience of satori, a moment in which, one acquaintance tells her, she "changed the course of events . . . pulled some kind of extra power out of that corner, turned the fight around."

Tetsuro's explanation isn't so simplistic. In the manner of a movie's "three years later" closing scene (and this book's colorful setting, sexy heroine and sensational plot seem opportunistically written with one eye to a film adaptation) the narrative concludes with a letter composed to Inge. Tetsuro, too, has come to reject the West. Describing Inge as "a witch sent from Europe to lure me away from my path as an artist," he also rails against "that moral superiority the appreciative West foists on the appreciated East."

Yet Tetsuro also understands that reconciliation with the East is no easy matter. He longs to revisit his Vietnamese lover and her son, but shame holds him back. Estrangement, too: "Maybe Tahn has forgotten me. I haven't written in so long." Indeed, the one letter Tetsuro has written in all this time is that to Inge herself, with whom he feels himself "locked in an endless struggle."

It is a satisfyingly subtle conclusion to Ikezawa's often heavy-hand take on Japan's future direction. Rekindling a relationship with the East, so long neglected, will require time, patience and humility. And Japan's dependency on the West may prove a habit hard to kick.



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