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December 6 (2003)

December 6 (2003)

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3.78 of 5 Votes: 1
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0671775928 (ISBN13: 9780671775926)
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About book December 6 (2003)

This is half way between 4 and 5, actually. This hard cover was on a remainder table for $5 when the original Canadian price was $41 and the US price was $26 in 2002. I'm only saying that book prices are determined by some sort of voodoo. The date referred to in the title and backed by the Japanese flag is the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that may live in infamy but had a lot behind it - the Japanese invasion of Manchuria for its resources, the taking of Nanking, and the embargo put on all industrial products by the Western powers. The story is told through the life of Harry Niles, the son of Southern Baptist missionaries but who was brought up in the Asakusa section of Tokyo among dance halls, cinemas, shinto shrines, where he ws taught to pick pockets, worship the emperor, respect elders, be polite in a very Japanese way and ignore his parents. Rather than attending the American school in the Methodist enclave he attends the local Japanese school and grows up understanding Japanese attitudes and manners much more than he does American ones. His parents are always off traveling and preaching on street corners, something the Japanese find rude. What is worse is that his father cannot get his mind around the Japanese language so his mother, who has a basic comprehension, has to translate for him. This means that she stands next to him (instead of behind) and speaks in a moderate pitch rather than the high pitch a Japanese woman would use when speaking to men. Harry understands how bad all this is but his parents wouldn't listen to him even if he felt like explaining, which he doesn't.This lack of comprehension between the two cultures plays out all through the book, which actually begins in 1922. Harry himself knows that he is neither one thing nor the other and ultimately is acceptable to neither. His fate is wrapped up with the Folies dancers, an artist and the boys of the "gang" he belonged to in school. Through them we meet the navy, the army, the geishas, and the shopkeepers of the area and watch the atmosphere of Tokyo change through the thirties until we're swiftly closing in on the famous date (which is December 7th in Japan). The details, the smells, colours, music, tastes of a crowded city are all here and I would like to believe Smith got it right just because it is so vivid.

Avoid the Kingston Pierce synopsis above if you're allergic to spoilers. I'm afraid that if you read it, you'll find very little left to discover in this slight book. Cruz Smith's protagonist here (Harry Niles) is a Japanese-raised gaijin gambler, but he thinks, reacts, and speaks with the voice of Arkady Renko, Cruz Smith's Gorky Park series detective. (I somehow suspect that this is Cruz Smith's own voice.)The author unspools the plot and main character cleverly by interposing flashbacks with Harry's present plight... how to get out of xenophobic Tokyo before the US and Japan go to war. But then the title already tells you all you need to know, Harry's looking for an exit on the very eve of Pearl Harbor and with all the flashbacks, "24" this ain't.The atmosphere is well-drawn and the backstage information offered about access to oil predetermining the outcome of the war in the Pacific is intriguing, even if you might be left to wonder whether this represents more 20/20 hindsight than insight. Alas, Cruz Smith has to keep the smoke and mirrors going because ultimately if Niles cannot find a way out of Tokyo alive -- and this conflict is but an early blind that Cruz Smith quickly abandons -- our intrepid hero, like the book itself, simply has no place to go.

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In a unique approach to December 6, the day of infamy when the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor, Martin Cruz Smith examines that day through the eyes of the ex-pat Harry Niles. Harry is an inveterate conman, always ready for the fast scam, a card game, playing every angle. Virtually abandoned by his missionary parents, Harry grew up on the Japanese streets and in a Japanese brothel..His friends from the neighborhood have become a naval pilot, a sumo wrestler, an army sergeant. Through flashbacks on this fateful day, we find an interesting and charismatic hero in Harry Niles. Cruz Smith poses the question, "why would the Japanese undertake so foolhardy a mission as the invasion of Pearl Harbor?" A very intriguing look into Japanese culture through the eyes of an American, raised as a Japanese.

I've admired Smith's work in Gorky Park and one or two other Soviet-era mystery/thriller novels before, but it took me months to really get into this book--that is, to begin reading in earnest. Once I did, however, it was an amazing read. If the setting is authentic for pre-war Japan, and you could fool me, then December 6 becomes a history and culture lesson as well. Smith doesn't skimp on curiosity-slaking details. But even without these, the story is fraught with intricate twists and unexpected turns. The main character Harry Niles is an intriguing personality--the wayward son of gaijin missionaries, who is a lover of Japan and Japanese ways, speaks Japanese as well as a native (having grown up on the rough streets of Asakusa), and is adept in moving across linguistic and cultural lines. Harry's native girlfriend Michiko is a communist. Together, they run Harry's nightclub, a center for intrigue, gambling, Western dancing, and other morally ambiguous activities. The novel is beautifully written in Smith's flawless prose style. Well worth the price and the reading time. I'll be reading more Martin Cruz Smith soon.

The hero is not very likable at first. He's cheating on his lover with another man's wife, and he plans to escape Tokyo with her on the eve of World War IIHarry is an American missionary's son who grew up in Japan among other urchins and street people. He is almost more Japanese than the Japanese...but not quite. He's still a foreigner to them.After being sent back to the States for a couple of years, he returned and has managed to make a living by his understanding of the Japanese culture. In December 1941, he realizes Japan is about to go to war. And, due to some misdirection on Harry's part, he thinks Hawaii will get the hit. Harry, you see, has denied that US oil supplies are being shifted to Hawaii for a big push in the Pacific; he knows the Japanese believe he is lying.He's working like crazy to get out of the country on the same plane with the wife of the English ambassador; their plan is to flee together and live happily ever after.Harry's Japanese mistress stands in the way at first. Then, as he pacifies her, other problems crop up. Like a man who thinks Harry owes him. A man sworn to collect Harry's head.It's all very oriental, very convoluted and very confusing. I kept reading till I got to the end.Good read.

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