Potions and Paper Cranes: a bunch of bad things happen to a bunch of unlikeable people

Potions and Paper Cranes, Lan Fang, 2013

  • Indonesia, #21
  • Kindle edition, $10
  • Read August 2017
  • Rating: 2/5
  • Recommended for: an additional perspective on race and gender in World War II-era Indonesia (but only if you’ve already read everything else)

I don’t have very much to say about this book, except that I have read so many books about World War II—and specifically about the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II, and the attendant atrocities—that I’m adding some new tags to keep track of all of them (many of these books are from the Philippines and Malaysia, which I have yet to blog about; I also read Pachinko last month, which isn’t on my world literature list—Min Jin Lee mostly grew up in the US, which disqualifies her according to my criteria—but addresses the same theme). This book, while dwelling primarily on the horrors of the Japanese occupation and the lives of Chinese and Indonesian “comfort women” in Indonesia, also has some relatively sympathetic Japanese characters, which adds some complexity to the depiction (not as much as The Gift of Rain or When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, but more than Beauty Is a Wound or The Rice Mother, in which every Japanese character is pretty much a caricature of evil depravity). One of the primary characters, Matsumi, is a geisha, brought from Japan to entertain a few of the top brass in the Japanese army. She is disguised as a Chinese comfort woman (to avoid sullying Japan’s reputation abroad…the logic is complicated), and thus lives in a brothel and witnesses firsthand the horrors of sexual enslavement, though she herself is not subjected to them. She eventually falls in love with a poor Indonesian man, who is, incidentally, an irredeemable asshole (abusive to his wife and son, who he basically abandons when he becomes infatuated with Matsumi), a fact that the book seems to kind of recognize but not entirely, since we’re supposed to have some sympathy for him by the end. Actually, most of the characters in the book are fairly nasty and unsympathetic. It’s hard to say whether this is intentional. While I think stories with unlikable protagonists can be fantastic in the right hands, in this case it was very difficult to stay engaged with the story because not only did I not like the characters, I couldn’t find anything about them to identify with. I didn’t particularly care what happened to them, so there was nothing to impel me to keep reading.

Berkeley, 2019

However, the main point of this book is to illustrate the effects of World War II on Indonesian society. The fact of the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia has been an illuminating piece of knowledge from this reading project. As a student in the United States, I had many classes devoted to World War II in Europe, and at the age of 16 I could probably have listed most if not all of the countries occupied by Germany over the course of the war, but to read our high school textbooks you would have thought that Japan’s involvement began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We learned nothing about the Japanese invasion of Korea (in 1905), China (in 1930) or Southeast Asia (1940-41). Nor, it should be mentioned, were we taught about the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in the United States. And look, I’m a medievalist; I’ve never had a huge amount of interest in anything that happened after about 1300 AD. All the same, I went to a high school and college that prided themselves on their intellectual rigor and liberal philosophy. And yet until I started my survey of Southeast Asian literature I had only the vaguest idea of the Japanese involvement in World War II, and little or no inkling of the number of countries outside of Europe that were occupied or used as theaters of war. Judging by the sheer number of books that grapple with the subject, the war has left deep and lasting scars on many parts of Southeast Asia, and it is symptomatic of the deep Western biases in American culture that our education system largely ignores the entire Eastern hemisphere in our analysis of World War II.

Dublin, 2008

2 thoughts on “Potions and Paper Cranes: a bunch of bad things happen to a bunch of unlikeable people

  1. Too bad this book wasn’t better. You’re definitely right that growing up in the U.S. we learned less about Asia in WWII than Europe. Not just in school. As a kid I definitely read a lot of books set in England during WWII.

    I just got Pachinko out of the library, but I haven’t read it yet. What did you think of it?


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