The Barnes & Noble Review
No one is better than Martin Cruz Smith (Rose, Red Square, Gorky Park) at evoking the sights, sounds, and peculiar textures of lives lived in extraordinary times and places. With December 6, Smith moves from the contemporary Cuban setting of his previous novel, Havana Bay, to Tokyo City in 1945, giving us a suspenseful, minutely detailed account of the days preceding -- and immediately following -- the attack on Pearl Harbor.
His vehicle for this hypnotic ride is gambler, con man, and suspected collaborator Harry Niles, who grew up on the streets of Tokyo and is, in many respects, more Japanese than American. Harry runs a popular expatriate bar called The Happy Paris and juggles romantic relationships with the wife of the British ambassador and a tempestuous former geisha named Michiko. Like many of his fellow Americans, he's convinced that war is imminent and is determined to catch the last flight out of Japan before hostilities commence. His plans for escape face many obstacles, including the obsessive scrutiny of two zealous agents from Tokyo's "Thought Police" and a crazed modern samurai with a long-standing grudge against Harry that can only be satisfied by bloodshed. All of this is complicated by Harry's penchant for high-stakes gambling and by his own peculiar ethical code -- a code that leads him into a dangerous shell game with Japanese Naval Intelligence and causes him to risk his life protecting friends, lovers, and even strangers.
Like all really good fiction, December 6 works on a number of levels: as a thriller; as a multilayered portrait of a complex, contradictory figure; as a meditation on Japanese culture, character, and beliefs; and as a cogent historical analysis of Japan's decision to initiate a war it could not possibly win. The result is a striking, absolutely authentic novel that illuminates one of the critical moments of the 20th century and confirms Smith's position among the most stylish and intelligent American storytellers. Bill Sheehan
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Letter from Tokyo
JAPAN APPEARS CALM AT BRINK OF WAR
British Protest "Defeatist Speech" by American
By Al DeGeorge
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
TOKYO, DEC. 5 While last-minute negotiations to avert war between the United States and Japan approached their deadline in Washington, the average citizen of Tokyo basked in unusually pleasant December weather. This month is traditionally given to New Year's preparations and 1941 is no exception. Residents are sprucing up their houses, restuffing quilts and setting out new tatamis, the grass mats that cover the floor of every Japanese home. When Tokyoites meet, they discuss not matters of state but how, despite food rationing, to secure the oranges and lobsters that no New Year's celebration would be complete without. Even decorative pine boughs are in short supply, since the American embargo on oil has put most civilian trucks on blocks. One way or another, residents find ingenious solutions to problems caused by the embargo's sweeping ban on everything from steel and rubber to aviation fuel. In the case of oil, most taxis now run on charcoal burned by a stove in the trunk. Cars may not have the old oomph, but passengers in Tokyo have learned to be patient.
In a country where the emperor is worshiped, there is no doubt about Japan's position in the negotiations, that Japan has fairly won China and deserves to have the embargo lifted. The American position, that Japan must withdraw its troops first, is considered hypocritical or misguided. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson are regarded here as unfriendly, but the Japanese people have great faith in President Franklin Roosevelt as a more sympathetic ear. A Ginza noodle vendor gave his appraisal of the high-level stalemate: "It is the same with all negotiations. At the last moment, resolution!"
In fact, one of the most anticipated events is the release of the censor's list of new films from Hollywood. There is no embargo on American movies. They fill the theaters, and stars like Bette Davis and Cary Grant grace the covers of fan magazines here. The older generation may sit still for Kabuki, but the younger set is wild for the silver screen.
The only frayed nerves visible showed in a speech delivered today at the Chrysanthemum Club, the meeting place for Tokyo's banking and industrial elite. American businessman Harry Niles declared that Japan had just as much right to interfere in China as America did to "send the marines into Mexico or Cuba." Niles described the American embargo as an effort to "starve the hardworking people of Japan." He also attacked Great Britain for "sucking the life's blood of half the world and calling it a Christian duty."
British Embassy First Secretary Sir Arnold Beechum said that Niles's words were "out-and-out defeatist. The French and the Danes fell through the treasonous activities of collaborationists just like Niles. We are seriously considering a protest to the American embassy over the activities of their national." The American embassy refused to comment, although one official suggested that Niles had stood outside embassy control for a long time. The official, who preferred anonymity, said the club's choice of Niles as its speaker was telling. "It's a strong suggestion of Japanese impatience with the talks in Washington, an ominous indication, I'm afraid."
Otherwise, the city went about its business in its usual brisk fashion, squirreling away treats for the New Year, perhaps lighting an extra stick of incense to pray with, but apparently confident that no final rupture will break Japan's amiable relationship with the United States.
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