Ian Buruma Essay - Critical Essays

Buruma, Ian


Ian Buruma 1951-

Dutch journalist, nonfiction writer, essayist, travel essayist, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Buruma's career through 2002.

A respected journalist and multilingual international traveler, Buruma has earned distinction as an incisive commentator on Asian popular culture and contemporary politics, particularly in Japan. Behind the Mask (1984), published as Japan's booming economy attracted renewed Western interest in Japanese society, was hailed as an insightful study of that nation's gender and cultural archetypes. Likewise, God's Dust (1989), in which Buruma challenged stereotypical views about Western influence on Eastern cultures, was praised for revealing the complexity of Asian self-identity and the impact of Western consumerism on the East. Buruma has also examined the impact of World War II on the national consciousness of Germany and Japan in The Wages of Guilt (1994), European attitudes toward Britain in Anglomania (1999), and the post-Tiananmen Square lives of Chinese dissidents and other South Asian radicals in Bad Elements (2001).

Biographical Information

Buruma was born in The Hague, Netherlands, to Sytze Leonard Buruma, a Dutch attorney, and Gwendolyn Margaret Schlesinger, a Briton whose parents were the children of German-Jewish refugees who immigrated to England in the late nineteenth century. Buruma's childhood in postwar Holland, where the Germans were still vilified as enemies, and his exposure to English culture through his grandparents is recounted in several of his works. Buruma's interest in Japan was piqued as a student when he saw a Japanese theater group performing in the Netherlands. After studying Chinese literature at Leiden University in Holland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Chinese in 1975, Buruma moved to Japan. He studied Japanese film, performed with a Japanese traveling theater troupe, and worked as a journalist and editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1983 to 1986. He married Sumie Tani in 1981. Buruma's interest in Japanese culture was reflected in the 1984 publication of Behind the Mask, which was published in Britain as A Japanese Mirror. After traveling extensively in several Asian countries, Buruma published God's Dust, essays based on observations made during his travels. Beginning in 1990, after relocating to London, Buruma worked as foreign editor for the news magazine The Spectator, though he resigned from the position the following year. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, the London Observer, and Asia.

Major Works

Buruma's work focuses primarily on Asia, exploring themes of duality and conflict both within Asian societies and between Eastern and Western culture. Much of his nonfiction was originally produced for publication in periodicals, and the style is journalistic rather than academic, characterized by first-hand observation, interviews, and personal anecdotes written in an engaging fashion. In Behind the Mask, Buruma examines recurring motifs in Japanese entertainment, focusing on a key paradox of Japanese society: the polite, proscribed, ritualistic daily life of the Japanese and the prevalence of extreme violence in Japanese popular books, film, and television. Six of the chapters focus on women, five focus on men, and two explore effeminate men and masculine women. According to Buruma, the mother figure—tragic and self-sacrificing—serves as the dominant female icon in Japanese film. Men are either infantilized by women or represented as hardened gangsters to be admired for their personification of Japanese manhood. Buruma contends that this paradox is influenced by Japan's native Shinto religion, which reveres the strong female mother, associated with the masses, and Buddhism, imported centuries ago by the Japanese upper class. God's Dust—based on Buruma's travels in Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan—examines Asia in transition. The conflict stems from the idea that the industrialized, urban West has corrupted the idealized, village-based society of the East. Buruma disputes this simplistic theory, while acknowledging that Western influence has spurred changes in Asia. He argues that the East often embraces aspects of the West while retaining fundamental elements of its native culture. Buruma also draws attention to several Asian dictators, including Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Ne Win of Burma, and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, whom Buruma interviewed with his wife, Imelda, and whose former home Buruma visits, noting the deposed Marcos' affinity for Western-style consumption. Playing the Game (1991) is Buruma's only published work of fiction. In this novel, Buruma's preoccupation with cross-cultural conflict is represented by Colonel Sir Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji. This character, based on real-life Indian prince Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji who was maharaja of Nawan̄agar from 1907 to 1933, became famous in England and British India as a world-class cricket player and flamboyant man about town. Popularly known as Ranji, he was a progressive ruler who developed seaports, railroads, and irrigation facilities in the city. The title refers both to the game of cricket and Ranji's effort to find acceptance in British society. Written primarily in epistolary form, Buruma reconstructs and reimagines Ranji through the persona of an unidentified narrator who is researching his life. The reader comes to know Ranji through a long letter written by him to his friend, the cricket player C. B. Fry, and through the narrator's encounters with friends and acquaintances.

Buruma again addressed the differences between East and West in The Wages of Guilt, in which he compares the legacy of World War II in Germany and Japan. Both countries suffered defeat and committed atrocities during the war. However, in Japan, Buruma finds a markedly different national zeitgeist concerning the war than he found in Germany. He constructs his argument by traveling through both countries, interviewing public figures and private citizens, visiting memorials and museums devoted to the war, and studying the war through the film and literature of each country. Buruma finds a sense of great national guilt in Germany, whereas Japanese citizens, in contrast, express little or no remorse. Moreover, Buruma notes that the Japanese maintain a prevailing sense of victimhood as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Buruma ultimately proposes two key factors in these disparate responses: Germany's government was totally dismantled and its leaders tried for crimes against humanity, while Japan's emperor was allowed to continue his rule; and Germany's crimes during the Holocaust were much more horrific than Japan's acts of war. The Missionary and the Libertine (1996), a collection of essays—many of which previously appeared in the New York Review of Books—covers an eclectic variety of topics, including the Seoul Olympics, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Singaporean politics, anti-Japanese racism in Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun, and the work of Japanese authors Jun'ichuro Tanizaki and Mahoko Yoshimoto. Buruma posits that values currently considered Asian in nature are found in Western literature—and vice versa. The title of Buruma's volume refers to the yin and yang of sexual impulses, the prevalent stereotype of the repressed West and the dissolute East. Anglomania, published in Britain as Voltaire's Coconuts, examines the concept of Anglophilia—an affinity for England and English culture—as manifested by disparate representatives of Continental Europe. Buruma presents biographical sketches of famous Anglophiles who took refuge in England, notably Voltaire; the English title of Buruma's book alludes to Voltaire's notion that English democracy could be transplanted to revolutionary France, as coconuts could be cultivated in non-tropical climates. Along with his own meditations on the nature of Englishness and the German passion for Shakespeare, Buruma provides studies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Marx, Theodor Herzl, Giuseppe Mazzini, Pierre de Coubertin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and others. The narrative is interspersed with autobiographic recollections in which Buruma discusses his patriotic English grandparents and his own early Anglophilia, which he shared with other Dutch youths. In Bad Elements, Buruma examines the state of the democracy movement in China more than a decade after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Buruma's investigation, informed by interviews with exiled Chinese political activists and former student leaders, reveals the bitter infighting that persists among Chinese dissidents and juxtaposes the travails of agitators in China with their counterparts in Singapore, Taiwan, and Tibet.

Critical Reception

Buruma has received nearly unanimous praise for his astute, interesting studies of Asian culture and society. Critics have often noted his dual Dutch-British parentage, his facility with various languages, and his expansive knowledge of literature and history as distinguishing features of his unique personal perspective. His intimate understanding of the Far East, acquired through extensive first-hand engagements, has also earned him a reputation as an expert in Asian studies. Reviewers have praised Behind the Mask for providing a Western audience with an accurate portrait of the Japanese cultural psyche. God's Dust has been similarly appreciated for Buruma's insightful commentary on the intersection of Eastern and Western culture in Asia. In these works, as well as The Wages of Guilt, The Missionary and the Libertine, Anglomania, and Bad Elements, Buruma has earned respect for his intelligence, penetrating analysis, and engaging writing. Buruma's effort at fiction in Playing the Game, however, has received mixed reviews, with some critics lauding his historical re-creation and portrayal of cultural conflict and others finding the subject arcane, uninteresting, and unconvincing. Though a journalist rather than an academic, Buruma has been highly regarded for his significant contributions to the study of modern Asia. Reviewers have consistently commended Buruma's effort to dismantle Western misconceptions about the East, as well as his exploration of historical memory and the currents of national identity in both the East and West.

Principal Works

Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, Drifters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes (nonfiction) 1984; published in the United Kingdom as A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture

God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey (travel essays) 1989

Playing the Game (novel) 1991

The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (nonfiction) 1994

The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West (essays) 1996

Anglomania: A European Love Affair (nonfiction) 1999; published in the United Kingdom as Voltaire's Coconuts:...

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Justin Wintle (review date 17 February 1984)

SOURCE: Wintle, Justin. “A Pinch of Aji No Moto.” New Statesman 107, no. 2761 (17 February 1984): 23-4.

[In the following review, Wintle praises A Japanese Mirror, calling it an “engaging, at times disturbing read.”]

Much has been made of Japan's isolation. Western commentators, brought up in the meta-community of Christian states, are inevitably impressed by the long periods in Japan's history when, to all intents and purposes, the country had no contact with the outside world. And yet when contact has occurred the effects have been decisive, even traumatic. Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese and Americo-European culture have each had a critical and...

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Edward Seidensticker (review date 13-20 August 1984)

SOURCE: Seidensticker, Edward. “Japan Kink.” New Republic 191, nos. 7-8 (13-20 August 1984): 40-2.

[In the following review, Seidensticker compliments Buruma's commentary on Japanese culture in Behind the Mask.]

Ian Buruma has written a lively book [Behind the Mask] about what we may call the dirty side of Japan, more interesting to some of us than the pretty side that has been so much more widely publicized by the Japanese information services and by those of us who write about Japan. In his preface Buruma says that his book

is an attempt to draw a picture of the Japanese as they imagine themselves to be, and as they...

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Caroline Moorehead (review date 27 October 1989)

SOURCE: Moorehead, Caroline. “Asia's Crisis of Identity.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 73 (27 October 1989): 33.

[In the following review of God's Dust, Moorehead commends Buruma's anecdotal sketches but finds shortcomings in the book's “dense” scholarly passages and Buruma's failure to answer his own guiding questions.]

Do McDonald's hamburgers and Dynasty make the Thais less Thai and the Japanese less Japanese? This question, how a country becomes modern without losing its sense of identity and culture, fascinated Ian Buruma long before he sat down to write this book [God's Dust]. On his many travels round the east he had grown...

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Richard West (review date 11 November 1989)

SOURCE: West, Richard. “Cultural Confusion in the East.” Spectator 263, no. 8420 (11 November 1989): 54-5.

[In the following review, West compliments Buruma's writing in God's Dust, though he acknowledges that he disagrees with “almost all Mr Buruma's views and opinions.”]

Some four years ago, I read in the New York Review of Books an article on the Philippines of such originality and depth of understanding that I immediately wanted to know some more about its author, Ian Buruma. He turned out to be a young Dutch scholar of oriental languages who had already published what my informants called the best modern book on Japan, and now lived in Hong...

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J. L. Carr (review date 13 April 1991)

SOURCE: Carr, J. L. “Extra Coverage without Being Caught Out.” Spectator 266, no. 8492 (13 April 1991): 33-4.

[In the following review, Carr offers a positive assessment of Playing the Game.]

Colonel Sir Shri Ranjitsinhji, Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, Prince of the (Mysterious) East, English folk-hero with diamond tie-pin in I. Zingari tie, a pocketful of Cartier gold eggs and, under his belt, 3000 runs, (av. 87) and a salute of five double-centuries in the Indian-summer of '99. Not Sir Walter Scott, not even Sir Bulwer Lytton opened a novel with more lustrous a hero. Why, even my father had heard of him.

And Mr Buruma's narrator [in Playing the...

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Matthew Engel (review date 19 April 1991)

SOURCE: Engel, Matthew. “A Dandy at the Crease.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 147 (19 April 1991): 36.

[In the following review, Engel criticizes Playing the Game, noting that Buruma is “far more of a journalist than he is a writer of imaginative fiction.”]

Consider this: a Rajput princeling, deprived of his rightful inheritance by palace intrigues, emerges into fin-de-siècle English society as the most graceful and exciting cricketer of his time. The stuff of fiction, perhaps? Except that the story is true, or trueish. Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji of Cambridge University, Sussex and England (later His Highness Shri Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Jam...

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Benny Green (review date 1 September 1991)

SOURCE: Green, Benny. “The Ponce of Players.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 September 1991): 3, 7.

[In the following review, Green offers a negative assessment of Playing the Game.]

Ian Buruma's Playing the Game, an epistolary biography masquerading as a novel; is a honeyed account of the life of that dazzling orchid in the English imperial garden, His Highness the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, Col. Shri Sir K. S. Ranjitsinhji. The English sporting public, dispensing with the Oriental flummery, dubbed him Ranji, and Ranji he has always remained.

Until he stepped onto the playing fields of Queen Victoria's last years, there had never been any...

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Elizabeth Beverly (review date 20 May 1994)

SOURCE: Beverly, Elizabeth. “A Tale of Two Peoples.” Commonweal 121, no. 10 (20 May 1994): 28, 30.

[In the following review, Beverly praises Buruma's intelligence and compelling interests in The Wages of Guilt, but finds flaws with Buruma's lack of focused analysis and reflection.]

Several years ago, Ian Buruma, a Dutch-born journalist and essayist living in England, with well-established ties to Japan, decided to learn more about Japanese memories of World War II, and the relation of these to a resurgence in Japanese nationalism. It appeared that many Japanese, embracing Hiroshima as a symbol, saw themselves most centrally as victims of Allied aggression,...

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Barry Gewen (review date 6-20 June 1994)

SOURCE: Gewen, Barry. “Different Wars, Different Crimes.” New Leader 77, no. 6 (6-20 June 1994): 6-8.

[In the following review, Gewen praises Buruma's subtle analysis of Germany and Japan's World War II legacy in The Wages of Guilt.]

[The Wages of Guilt] seems to be a book that the talented journalist Ian Buruma was destined to write. In the Introduction, entitled “The Enemies,” he explains how, as a boy growing up in the postwar Netherlands, he learned to view the people who had over-run his nation a few years earlier as the embodiment of evil. Germans had sent his father away to work in their factories; they had tortured and murdered many of his...

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William H. Gass (review date 24 June 1994)

SOURCE: Gass, William H. “Who Is to Blame?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 June 1994): 1, 8-9.

[In the following review, Gass offers a positive assessment of The Wages of Guilt.]

The shameful memory market, where Ian Buruma's remarkable book [The Wages of Guilt] takes us, has many stalls. Perhaps there has been in the whole of history no more murderous an age, no period more productive of pain—of death, dislocation and despair—than our own century. Our civilization has found new ways to go mad, contrived fresh methods of mass destruction, gone to wars as if wars were parties, and created several calamities to signal that it has outdone nature's most...

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John Grigg (review date 16 July 1994)

SOURCE: Grigg, John. “Fifty Years On, When Afar and Asunder.” Spectator 273, no. 8662 (16 July 1994): 31-2.

[In the following review, Grigg evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Wages of Guilt.]

The author of this interesting book [The Wages of Guilt] is of Anglo-Dutch parentage. He was educated in Holland in the 1950s, and was taught there to regard Germans (not just the Nazis) as enemies. In the 1970s and 1980s he spent much time ‘in or around Japan,’ and Japanese is one of his six languages. Fascinated by Japanese attitudes to the second world war, he was struck by the lingering influence of certain notions from 19th- and early 20th-century...

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Herbert P. Bix (review date 27 July 1994)

SOURCE: Bix, Herbert P. “How Japan and Germany Remember Their Military Pasts.” Christian Science Monitor (27 July 1994): 13.

[In the following review, Bix summarizes Buruma's historical perspective in The Wages of Guilt and objects to Buruma's criticism of the Nuremberg and Tokyo war trials.]

In 1990, when George Bush opted for war in the Persian Gulf, the governments of Japan and newly unified Germany were criticized in the United States for hiding behind their peace constitutions and providing money but not troops for the allied effort.

The new economic superpowers (so the argument went) had drawn the wrong lessons from their past...

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Glyn Ford (review date 19 August 1994)

SOURCE: Ford, Glyn. “Unfinished Business.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 316 (19 August 1994): 39-40.

[In the following excerpt, Ford compliments Buruma's central argument in The Wages of Guilt.]

After all but half a century of hegemonic rule, Japan is in a state of rapid flux. The old Liberal Democratic Party, Jiminto—in power since the war apart from a Socialist interlude in 1947-48—is no more. A conjuncture of corruption, the end of the cold war and the passage of time has seen an edifice crumble. After two brief opposition administrations of Socialists, LDP dissidents and the rest, we currently have a Tony Benn-style prime minister kept in power...

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Nader Mousavizadeh (review date 19 June 1995)

SOURCE: Mousavizadeh, Nader. “States of Denial.” New Republic 212, no. 25 (19 June 1995): 40-3.

[In the following review, Mousavizadeh praises The Wages of Guilt, though he expresses reservations over Buruma's ironic tone and detached approach to Nazi atrocities.]

For the Germans and the Japanese of the generations after the Second World War, the memories of war and defeat have been internalized as burdens of identity. But they have not been internalized in the same way. And this difference has had as much to do with how the world has projected that burden as with how those societies themselves have sought to cope with it. For the world, as well as for the...

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Martin Vander Weyer (review date 20 April 1996)

SOURCE: Weyer, Martin Vander. “Japan Looking Sexy.” Spectator 276, no. 8753 (20 April 1996): 36.

[In the following review of The Missionary and the Libertine, Weyer lauds Buruma's insight and intelligence but concludes that his journalistic essays lack the depth and reflection of his books.]

The last time I bumped into Ian Buruma was at the Tory Party conference in Blackpool, where he was composing an anthropological sketch of the faithful for the benefit of Guardian readers. The first time I came across his name was in the mid-1980s when I was about to move to Tokyo: A Japanese Mirror, his guide to the modern Japanese psyche as revealed by...

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Stephen Howe (review date 17 May 1996)

SOURCE: Howe, Stephen. “Never the Twain?” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 403 (17 May 1996): 39-40.

[In the following excerpt, Howe evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Missionary and the Libertine.]

The idea of a fundamental difference between “east” and “west,” Europe and Asia, has been one of the most constantly renewed clichés of world history. It is at least as old as the Greek-Persian wars of 2,500 years ago, and as new as the febrile US debates about the “clash of civilisations,” the supposed economic threat from East Asia and the political one from Islam.

It has never been clear where Europe ends and Asia starts,...

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Daniel Britten (review date 19 March 1999)

SOURCE: Britten, Daniel. “To England, with Love.” New Statesman 129, no. 4428 (19 March 1999): 45-6.

[In the following review, Britten compliments Buruma's appealing writing in Voltaire's Coconuts, but finds the book lacking in serious analysis.]

Why, asks Ian Buruma in [Voltaire's Coconuts,] his study of Anglophilia in Europe, has Britain “managed to achieve its peculiar equilibrium, based on a combination of social stability and inequality, of freedom and dull conformity, tolerance and provincial smugness, civility and greed”? The question presupposes that Britain actually achieved such a state of civility, since there have been and still are...

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Niall Ferguson (review date 17 May 1999)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Niall. “Happy Is England.” New Republic 220, no. 4400 (17 May 1999): 48-50.

[In the following review, Ferguson praises Anglomania, though notes minor shortcomings in Buruma's failure to address Scottish Anglophilia.]

The American Anglophile is a recognizable type. It is usually the Harris tweed jacket that gives him away, or the Savile Row suit. Instead of neat buttons on either side, his shirts have those odd cutaway collars that the English favor. His accent may be more Ivy League than Oxbridge, but every now and then he throws in telling Anglicisms, such as Gatsby's “old sport.” Come to think of it, Fitzgerald's character is the...

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John Lukacs (review date 6 June 1999)

SOURCE: Lukacs, John. “The Cult of John Bull.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 June 1999): 2.

[In the following review of Anglomania, Lukacs lauds Buruma's “erudition” and “illuminating” biographical sketches, but asserts that the work represents “a tasty introduction to a vast and profound topic” rather than a definitive history or incisive summary of Anglophilia.]

Anglomania is a book about a truly remarkable—and now historic—phenomenon, which lasted for 200 years or more, and which was a deep seated element in international relations. The accepted use of the term “international relations” is, alas, false: for it deals with the...

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Albert Hobson (review date January 2000)

SOURCE: Hobson, Albert. “How Europeans See England.” Contemporary Review 276, no. 1608 (January 2000): 48-9.

[In the following review, Hobson argues that Buruma offers a compelling analysis of English culture in Voltaire's Coconuts, calling the work “worth-while and stimulating.”]

I opened this book [Voltaire's Coconuts] with a sinking heart. The title is fashionably silly, in the manner of Flaubert's Parrot, while the subtitle suggests a thesis imperfectly converted into a book. I was, however, delighted to discover that it is urbane, middleweight intellectual fun, which told me a great deal I did not know and ought to have done. It is one...

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Timothy Tung (review date November-December 2001)

SOURCE: Tung, Timothy. “In Search of an Archetype.” New Leader 84, no. 6 (November-December 2001): 23-5.

[In the following review, Tung offers a positive assessment of Bad Elements.]

The title of Ian Buruma's new book [Bad Elements] is intriguing. Surely he is aware that “bad elements” (buliangfenzi) is a Chinese Communist term applied to all kinds of social malcontents, from political dissidents to common criminals. But his subtitle suggests a broad range of Chinese “rebels” both inside and outside China. Are we then to equate the politically disfranchised in Singapore and Taiwan with those silenced in China or exiled in the West who command...

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Colin Thubron (review date 18 May 2002)

SOURCE: Thubron, Colin. “A Complicated People.” Spectator 288, no. 9067 (18 May 2002): 41-2.

[In the following positive review, Thubron compliments Bad Elements as “a wise and imaginative work.”]

The Chinese dissident, by contrast to the Russian, has generally been a remote figure—there is no Solzhenitsyn, no Sakharov or Pasternak—and the atrocious penal labour camps which scatter the Chinese landmass are still less known than the Gulag.

Ian Buruma's Bad Elements helps make amends. The political and cultural questions which rage through it are vested in characterful men and women with shocking pasts and largely unheroic...

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Richard Gott (review date 10 June 2002)

SOURCE: Gott, Richard. “Foreign Affairs Lite, with Added Buruma.” New Statesman 131, no. 4591 (10 June 2002): 48-9.

[In the following review, Gott comments that Buruma's prose in Bad Elements is “bland” and less engaging that his previous works.]

The New York art world revives itself periodically by promoting the work of artists from distant locations, from Korea, say, or Japan. These are people who have gone to live in the United States and are familiar with its art practice, yet retain something of the “otherness” of their country of origin. Their work often receives critical acclaim for its “originality.”

Ian Buruma is a...

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Further Reading


Adil, Alev. “The Yellow Man's Burden.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4856 (26 April 1996): 36.

Adil offers a positive assessment of The Missionary and the Libertine, though notes that Buruma's commentary on culture is more rewarding than his commentary on politics.

Ascherson, Neal. “Put Out More Flags.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 9 (20 May 1999): 12, 14.

Ascherson praises Anglomania, though notes that Buruma does not adequately distinguish between “English” and “British” traits.

Banville, John. “Winners.” New York Review of Books 38, no....

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