Long the Imperial Way, by Hanama Tasaki, and Beyond Defeat, by Hans Werner Richter
Long The Imperial Way.
by Hanama Tasaki.
Houghton, Mifflin. 372 pp. $3.50.
by Hans Werner Richter.
Putnam’s. 320 pp. $3.00.
To say that these two books are weak novels, though true, is no illumination. To compare them, as their publishers in each case do, to All Quiet on the Western Front, does them more accurate violence by pointing to the area in which they should make their impact. For what such books could do for us at their best (once given that assent of pleasure which is our response to art) is break down the opaque category of “enemy” and let us see the people who, with varying degrees of pertinence, comprise the category. The soldier committed to war avoids this knowledge in order that he may function; but the civilian who abhors war needs the face above the uniform to bolster his position.
Long the Imperial Way follows Private Takeo Yamomoto of the Hamamoto infantry company of the Japanese army from his first campaign in Manchuria to the time of his homecoming three years later—a return blighted by the prospect of another mobilization, this time to fight against the Americans. It is, more than anything else, a history of the systematically brutal education of an imperial soldier, the process by which fanatics are made. Tasaki, who served in the Japanese army both in China and in the Pacific war, writes with the sureness of personal experience.
Beyond Defeat (surely there must be a better way to render Die Geschlagenen) is the story of Gühler, a German Socialist who is anti-Nazi but will not turn traitor to his country. It covers the time from his last battle near Cassino and capture by the Americans to VE Day in an American prison camp. Since Richter, a Communist later turned Socialist, was himself captured at Cassino, and spent two years in a prison camp in the US, it can be assumed that the novel is in some part at least autobiographical.
Each of these novels is an apologia. It is significant that Tasaki, who was educated in Honolulu and later at Oberlin College for a year, has chosen to write his book in English. Richter’s book, though written in German and a best seller in Germany, is certainly directed abroad, and perhaps its popularity at home is just that it makes out a not-guilty case for the average German. Tasaki shows us the grinding process by which a Japanese farmer is transformed into a machine for war. Richter drums on the scanty alternatives open to a German non-fascist unwilling to turn against his own people, and faced by a foe and finally conqueror who had no realization of the complexities of his situation.
The facts and the logic can in each case be questioned, but one does not quarrel profitably in this regard with a work of fiction. It is more fruitful to ask whether fiction can be so didactic, so directly purposeful, and still retain the peculiar life that, in the degree that it exists, makes its success. These novels speak poorly for the possibility.
A Striking defect of both these novels, and one that follows I think from this didacticism, is that the characters exist too exclusively in terms of the immediate situation and have no personal identity. As a result, not much importance can be attached to their destinies, which seem so inevitable, so without alternatives that one scarcely knows how to regret them. It is not sufficient to be told on the one hand that Takeo was a farmer before he was conscripted, or on the other that Gühler was some manner of intellectual; to tell is not to establish, and we conceive them only as a Japanese soldier and a German soldier whose lives antedate our view of them very little, and will surely not postdate that view at all.
It is so many years now since I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front that I can no longer judge its accomplishment. The intervening time has, if anything, made me think I overvalued the novel when I read it. But there are certain scenes in the Remarque book—the soldiers reading old newspapers and defecating in a sunny field; the swim across the river and the subsequent party—that stand out in my mind still, not more clearly in detail but more forcefully than anything in either of these two books I have just read. I would contend that Remarque had no purpose extrinsic to the novel when he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front.
There are things to be said for these two books, of course. The Tasaki novel is full of out-sights of, though rarely insights into, the life of the Japanese soldier, and does something at least to pierce our ignorance of the Orient, an area in which it becomes increasingly evident that our ignorance is catastrophic. And Beyond Defeat, though it overstates its case to the point where it is difficult to see who, aside from a handful of fanatics, were the real Nazis, and how so few people caused so much trouble, does at least reiterate that the great mass of the German people belonged neither to the Nazi party nor the underground, but to some middle ground where alliances were loose and largely silent and where the assessing of guilt is not simple.
Yet this is lame praise, so faint as to be damning. The novel will not act as an instrument to extrinsic ends unless it has performed its intrinsic function first. When this is forgotten, as it is constantly by our thesis novelists, the novel exacts its own vengeance, and the issue is without breath.