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Review: The Commoner

April 13, 2009

John Burnham Schwartz’s The Commoner, based on the lives of members of Japan’s Imperial family, could not have been written as non-fiction. Too much of the story of those closest to the Chrysanthemum Throne is hidden from public view. This does not, however, excuse the author from the need to research both the culture and the individuals.

Schwartz appears to have met this requirement. Unfortunately, in order to display his credentials, he has ventriloquized the characters—Haruko, narrator and eventual Empress, most of all. While I can accept her narrating some things she did not know as a girl, since the text acknowledges that she did not know them, sometimes this goes too far:

War broke out that summer in Korea, and by autumn there were signs that General MacArthur and our American occupiers were purging left-wing groups of Communists while nudging our country, so newly and uncertainly pacified, toward some form of controlled remilitarization.

There is no indication of where Haruko at last learned of these facts from which her school’s walls sheltered her. That she would note the purging of left-wing groups seems particularly unlikely. (Also, is there such a thing as a right-wing group of Communists?)

Far worse than this is the rather self-indulgent passage in which Haruko reflects on a foreign child:

A blond boy of about ten—he must have been the photographer’s son—in a striped T-shirt and blue jeans was roaming the crowd, seemingly unaware of his difference. With his pale unworried face, I imagined he must be from the American Middle West. And I remember thinking to myself that no prince could be so free.

Here we get American exceptionalism placed in the mouth of a Japanese woman. Not only that, but given what Haruko will later experience, it creates a subtle contrast between restrictive-Japanese and free-Americans (never mind that an American girl would not have felt so apparently free); Haruko is othered in her own story.

Less philosophically objectionable are the repeated parting scenes between Haruko and her father. At first, their brief and oblique discussions are touching, but after the third or fourth time, they just become maudlin. Rather than develop true empathy for his characters, Schwartz has attempted to rely on a cheap trick to steal tears from his readers’ eyes. This is especially problematic given that the text itself admits that one of these visits, occurring after Haruko’s marriage, is a break with precedent and that Schwartz fails to fully explain how Haruko’s husband convinces his mother to allow it when he can’t convince her of much else.

Ultimately, Schwartz respects neither his characters nor the real people on whom they are based. This allows him to conclude with a wholly unrealistic escape for Crown Princess Keiko. You can tell even the author sees this as unrealistic since he has his narrator told that it’s best for her not to know the details. This unrealistic happy ending thoroughly minimizes the continued suffering of the real Crown Princess. It also suggests a sort of paternalism, as if Schwartz seeks to “rescue” one of these women if only within the confines of narrative.

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