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[107] Sword and Blossom – Peter Pagnamenta & Momoko Williams

sword.jpgTears well up in my eyes and trickle down my face as I was about 30 pages to the end of this memoir.

If Author and Masa have to blame fate for tricking them, they might as well thank fate for allowing them to meet at the first place. Spanning over half a century, the memoir follows their enduring attempts to make a life together and chronicles inevitable social prejudices and snobbery they have encountered.

It began when a smoldering quarrel between Japan and Russia over their competing interests in the territory of their weaker neighbors, China and Korea, has flared up around the turn of the century in 1900 and might soon turn to war. That the Japanese appreciate the aesthetics of gardening lends a chance for the British officer to meet the young Masa Suzuki at the Tokyo Officer’s Club for peach blossom viewing. He is smitten immediately and continues to seek her out. That Masa has carried the stigma of divorce (from a pre-arranged marriage that favors the family’s fortune), and that Arthur has spent years stationing in isolated posts in India and South Africa help expedite their relationship. By the time they settle down in Shinjuku, in 1907, he is emotionally engaged with Masa and Japan. Overcoming periods of separation help their relationship move to new stage. For her part, Maza is being regarded as a person in her own right, for the first time in her life, by a man who wants to know her views and respect her opinion. She acts with Arthur in a way that Japanese men and women might find shockingly forward.

After the saddest and tensest parting in 1911, Arthur leaves for Europe to enlist into a battalion that escalates into what becomes of the Great War.  When frequent military movements put Authur out of touch with Masa, she for first time, despite her patience, begins to worry about how she will manage with a Western looking child as she stands out in the streets of Tokyo where conformity to the traditional values matter.

More than a love story, Sword and Blossom, which is made possible by the 800 some letters of correspondence between Aurthur and Masa, delineates one of the most political unstable and belligerent era of the 20th century. As both individuals strive to maintain contact and sustain the hope of reuniting with one another, their petty but intimate exchanges also reveal details of daily life during the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and the destructive earthquake that leveled half of Tokyo in 1923. Registered in between their words are poignant scenes of starvation, deaths, pestilence, and prospect of yet another war, as the Japanese launches a full attack on China on the eve of World War II. This book provides a very touching and private view of two individuals from completely different background and culture and their relationship against the backdrop of historic events.

8 Responses

  1. This sounds really interesting. I think I also read about it on someone else’s blog a few months back, and it sounded good then, too. So now I must put it on my list! Thanks 🙂

  2. Enjoyed the review – just cannot put any more books on my reading list at the moment… As it is I’m probably occupied for the next three years! Enjoy your travels and I admire your stamina for these very thorough reviews even whilst on the road!

  3. gentle reader:
    I read about the book from Danielle’s blog a few months ago, had it at home for a while. It’s a great read. 🙂

    seachanges:
    I’m not leaving San Francisco until Nov 28. The flight goes to Hong Kong where I have a layover and continue on to Kuala Lumpur. I will bring my laptop with me. 🙂

  4. I am recommending this book for my bookclub.

  5. I really liked this one too and was fascinated by all the history of Japan at that time. My only quibble with it (not a fault of the book) is that I was bothered a lot by the way Arthur behaved towards his children.
    Oh and glad to hear you’ll be blogging when you are on vacation 🙂

  6. I was another thumb’s up on this one! I agree with Iliana that Arthur had flaws, but culture and time period have more influence in reality than in fiction. A fictionalized account would probably have had Arthur more sympathetic in his relationship with his son.

  7. Isabel:
    I’m sure there will be so much room for discussion. 🙂

    Iliana:
    Hmmm….I think Arthur was torn between his not being able to return (due to serious injury) and the fear of facing his children. Sometimes what one can do is beyond his will and control especially when you live in the midst of war.

  8. jenclair:
    Ditto! It’s a moving and heart-breaking tale. It brings me to tears!

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