When Chang-rae Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won five major literary awards, expectations were high for the next work by this new author. A Gesture Life, while very different from the previous book, does not disappoint the reader and offers a haunting tale of an old man trying to come to terms with the disappointments and tragedies he has experienced in a long life.
Franklin Hata appears to be a well-situated Asian American man living in a tranquil suburb of New York City. The townspeople know him and like him, and the sale of his medical supply store seems to have afforded him an easy retirement. The only apparent gadfly in his otherwise smooth life is the overeager real estate agent Liv Crawford, who wants to be the one to sell Hata’s well-kept, hugely desirable home in the best neighborhood of the town.
Yet it quickly becomes obvious that behind Hata’s tranquil, benevolent facade there lurk dark spots and tragedies. Told from the first-person view of the old protagonist, the story may remind a reader of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, The Remains of the Day (1989), which tells of an old English butler’s slow coming to terms with the fact that the lord whom he served so selflessly was in fact a Nazi sympathizer. Political guilt is mixed with personal loss, as Ishiguro’s butler is haunted by his forever unexpressed love for a fellow servant woman. Astonishingly, A Gesture Life offers a similar mix of evil politics, lost love, and a personal past that comes to haunt the aged narrator.
Lee takes his readers right into a deconstruction of the comfortable American label of “Asian American” when he shows, through the complex fate of his protagonist, how tenuous such a simplifying and reductionist category is, considering the history and political and military interactions of the Asian peoples themselves. Recuperating in the county hospital from smoke inhalation caused when a fire he started in his fireplace went out of control (because he overeagerly fed it with “decades-old files and papers and other expired and useless documents”), the narrator Hata takes the reader on a mental tour of his problematical past.
It turns out that Franklin Hata was born to the Ohs, an ethnic Korean family living in Japan before World War II. The Korean American Lee only hints at the fact that Japan considered Korea, which was Japan’s colony from 1905 until 1945, to be a land occupied by an inferior people. When his family gives the boy up for adoption to a prosperous Japanese family, he is given the Japanese name of Jiro Kurohata. Jiro identifies so closely with his adoptive parents and Japan that he never reveals his original name.
When World War II breaks out, Jiro serves as “a medical officer of the Imperial Forces” and ends up at a remote outpost in Burma. He strikes up a friendship with the mentally troubled Corporal Endo, who savors a collection of Dutch erotic pictures. As a lieutenant, Jiro lives in terror of the sadistic Captain Ono, who, among other instances of cruelty, uses a captured Burmese thief to perform a deadly medical experiment.
In 1944, a group of Korean “comfort women” is brought to Jiro’s unit. A Gesture Life recalls the historical fact of how the Japanese armed forces did indeed use Korean women to serve as sexual slaves for their troops in World War II, and coined this euphemistic yet insulting phrase for them.
While three young women bow to the inevitable and suffer first physical abuse and later only subsistence rations that leave them emaciated, two sisters rebel against their fate. Corporal Endo kills one of the sisters after she is raped by the camp commandant. For this Endo is beheaded, after being “charged not with murder, but with treasonous action against the corps.” As is announced at his execution, “He should be considered as guilty as any saboteur who had stolen or despoiled the camp’s armament or rations.” This verdict, which corresponds to what really happened in such cases in the Japanese army, highlights the utterly callous contempt the soldiers have for the Korean women who are...
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