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[591] The Gods of Heavenly Punishment – Jennifer Cody Epstein


” To build new kitchens and garages, roads and cars and business connections until the old, war-torn city was no longer visible—any more than the broken people who had scraped out their lives there in the days following the Surrender. That Japan—defeated Japan—was now part of an unspeakable past; one its inhabitants saw in nearly as mythical terms as the Emperor’s once-presumed ‘divinity.’ It was simply—before. ” (Part IX, Los Angeles, 1962)

Set against the Tokyo bombing in 1945 during the Second World War is The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, a story of three families, Japanese and American, whose lives interweave and connect for almost 30 years. Epstein chooses to narrate through different time fragments in third-person perspective. First there is Cameron Richards who stumbles into love, marries Lacy, and becomes a pilot. Yoshi Kobayashi grows up speaking three languages and playing piano, under the tutelage of her mother Hana, who carries herself in a way that defies the Japanese standard of beauty and decorum. Against her will she marries below herself, to Kenji, a builder who aids the Japanese army in Manchuria as the Japanese assembles its overwhelming army.

Grinning, Kenji said something appropriately dismissive while Anton tried to imagine how this tiny East/West wonder had come to be. Of course, Hana had confirmed for them the marriage was arranged. But why would it have been arranged with Kenji? The differences went well beyond Old Japan and New Japan. (Part II, Karuizawa, 1935)

Hana is by far the most intriguing and interesting character in the novel but, to my dismay, has been neglected in the end. Raised in London, fluent in French, she’s an intellectual, a cosmopolitan. She confides in with Anton Reynolds, the prominent architect who is in love with the Japanese culture, tradition, and aesthetics, that her life has started dying when she married. For about two years Anton and Hana carry on an affair—until America declares war on Japan and Anton is summoned by American military to help prepare the devastating fire bombing of Tokyo.

Yoshi had wished only that her whole life could be like this—that she could be a normal girl, going out with her almost-normal mother, doing things normal families did together. (Part VI, Tokyo, 1945)

The novel is told in linguistic snap shots and photography plays a crucial role of the plotline involving the architect’s gay son, Billy. He later becomes an Occupation officer in Tokyo and reunites with the grown-up Yoshi. Despite the full circle at the end when all these lives finally come together in a tidy bundle, there is a lot left unsaid—especially who has become of Yoshi’s parents. Hana is accused of being a spy and her father a war criminal. That said, as the book winds down, we discover how people overcome hardships they dealt with during the war. Redolent in this well-researched historical fiction is the invincible human resiliency.

378 pp. W. W. Norton. Adanced reading Copy. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[364] The Painter of Shanghai – Jennifer Cody Epstein

” Whether I like it or not, my skin will always tell the truth. And unlike my clothes, I can’t take it off. ” [32:368]

Set in the early 20th century years when China was plagued by political chasms, as new republic relinquished the age-old imperialism, as modernist thinking bombarded traditions, The Painter of Shanghai, based on a true story, tells the captivating story of one woman’s journey from a life of prostitution to the pantheon of post-Impressionist painter in Paris and Shanghai. Pan Yuliang was born Zhang Xiuqing in 1899, in Anhui Province. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by an opium-addicted uncle who sold her to a brothel, where she was re-named Yuliang (meaning “fine jade”), and pruned to be a prostitute, at the age of fourteen.

At the Hall no one cares if a flower has longevity or not. Certainly no one expects love or respect. [5:64]

Such is the life fate has dealt Yuliang. Escape is out of the question. The arrangement a flower (euphemism for prostitute) shall yearn for is the simplifying of life, sex, and expenses. Saving money to buy one’s freedom out of the brothel is the happy ending every pines for. An offer to become a concubine is still better than demotion, dictated by natural course of aging, to tangential position in the hall. Balancing the sad is the radiant—in the form os an authentic friendship between young Yuliang and her mentor, Jinling, the hall’s top girl, who constantly reminds her to disengage her mind and body from any pleasure of sexual act with clients.

But here’s a secret: you don’t have to let them into your head. Your thoughts are yours alone. You must just think of something else. [7:82]

A tendril of hope unfurls when a refined government inspector, who comes to fight corruption and exploitation of society’s vulnerable members, falls in love with her and takes her as his concubine. Unlike his arranged marriage to his first wife, Pan Zanhua’s union with Yuliang is everything he’s ever wanted in a marriage. It is, however, not without struggle because Yuliang’s childhood was stripped away with such brutal efficacy that her wounds, healed but not forgotten, have continued to fuel her distrust. As she begins to realize her talent as a painter, she also sees that her refusal to compromise with national spirit and standard of decency will cost her a life of safety.

You trust your instincts. You aren’t afraid to stand up for yourself. You don’t let paltry boundaries of custom or etiquette stand in the way of self-expression. [21:248]

If art compensates for what an artist has lost, then Pan Yuliang has certainly gained dignity and respect posthumously. In her bold works that feature nudity, neither is she tainted by shame nor fazed by political censorship. Her self-exile to France after a ruckus erupted at a solo show in Shanghai is an expression of love to her husband, to whom she is forever indebted. Her departure is meant to protect him from being purged, as the Communists settled on social realism as the ideal art form for the new nation. Western romanticism is deemed reactionary. Well-written and historically accurate, The Painter of Shanghai traces Pan’s life from early beginnings to her death in France in 1977, a life that brought her exposure to the West, with awards and accolades from schools of art in her homeland as well as in France and Italy, resulting in renown as a gifted artist who just happened to be a woman with a past. Her private and public pains testify Matisse’s saying that “another word for creativity is courage”, as Pan demonstrated that art makes life worth living. The book has such gravity in both writing and story that it is to be savored for years to come.

487 pp. Penguin UK Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]