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In Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life, flashbacks are used to place "Doc" Hata's emotional travails in a certain context. Hata struggles with the realities of his existence, which includes estrangement from his adopted daughter Sunny. As with many escaped war criminals who successfully but secretly began new lives in distant places, Hata has settled in the fictional New York State town of Bedley Run. He has been a pillar of his community, "a living, breathing expression of what people here [in Bedley Run] wanted -- privacy and decorum and the quietude of hard-earned privilege." The recently-retired proprietor of a medical supply company, Hata's choice of profession is apparent as flashbacks provide the backstory to his life, which involved serving as a physician in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, among his responsibilities being the treatment of the Korean women pressed into service as prostitutes for the benefit of Japanese soldiers, known as comfort women.
The flashbacks serve to underline the parallels for Hata between his guilt over failing to protect "K," a comfort woman with whom he fell in love from being raped on a daily basis by soldiers, his failure to construct a relationship with Mary Burns, and his estrangement from Sunny. Hata, Korean-born but raised by adoptive Japanese parents, and Sunny, the mixed-race girl he would later adopt, have grown increasingly distant, and Sunny's maturation into womanhood is fraught with depressed thoughts about the emotionless life she has led with her father. Decrying her father's emotional distance and quiet, diligent existence, Sunny remarks, "you make a whole life out of gestures and politeness."
A Gesture Life begins in the 1990s, with Hata revisiting his old business and reflecting on his life in Bedley Run, as well as the one he had led in Japan. The first flashback involves his arrival in Bedley Run and his encounter with Mary, with whom he hoped to begin a romantic relationship, but at which he failed to his deep regret. This flashback serves to link Hata's regrets about Mary to his deeply repressed guilt about "K." The flashbacks further serve to illuminate the dissolution of his relationship with Sunny, revealing her checkered past, which included run-ins with the police -- an almost sacrilegious development for a former World War II era Japanese soldier. As the flashbacks continue, it is revealed that "K" killed a Japanese officer who tried to rape her and that she was subsequently killed herself after being systematically raped by dozens of Japanese soldiers -- but only after begging Hata to kill her and spare her any further dishonor and abuse. Hata, in his mind, not only failed to protect "K" from the horrors of repeated rapes, but also fails to help her end her misery before she is tragically killed anyway in a more brutal manner. Comparing his weaknesses as a young physician serving at the behest of a brutal regime to his emotionless and robotic existence in America, Hata finally laments,
"I feel I have not really been living anywhere or anytime, not for the future and not in the past and not at all of-the-moment, but rather in a lonely dream of an oblivion, the nothing-of-nothing drift from one pulse beat to the next, which is really the most bloodless marking-out, automatic and involuntary.”
His need to reflect on his past has rendered him incapable of living in the present.
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