No fairy tale for a mere commoner
John Burnham Schwartz's new novel imagines the lives of Japanese royals
(Page 2 of 2)
The privations of World War II are summed up by a trip to Haruko's bakery, famous for its kasutera (a snack cake). "When the ovens were going at full strength, the entire neighborhood smelled like warm sponge cake. Outside the shop, the line of customers would start forming early and keep growing until day's end."Skip to next paragraph
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After the war made even powdered eggs a rarity, the bakery was forced to switch to whale-ham sandwiches.
"And it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the sound of air-raid sirens ... caused but minor distress compared with the fishy, metallic taste of whale ham on the tongue. The smell of freshly baked kasutera, which had sustained us as a people was suddenly gone ... and from that moment forward the street gave off the faint putrid whiff of a marine graveyard."
There are times when a reader wishes Schwartz would have gone into more detail. It's implied that Haruko is able to give her daughter – who as an adult makes the reverse journey from her mother, going from princess to commoner – a stable childhood, but we only get a glimpse of it.
And Haruko's childhood friend Miko, a runner who laughingly calls herself "a squid on a stick," is limited to brief appearances.
While "The Commoner" is a compassionate portrayal, the life it portrays is a stifled, unhappy one. And since Schwartz hues closely to the few facts known about the Empress Michiko, who met her husband on a tennis court and is rumored to have lost her voice for months during the 1960s, readers may have an uncomfortable feeling of eavesdropping where they clearly aren't wanted.
The question of the ethics of artistic appropriation is a complicated one, and one that all writers (and readers) need to sort out for themselves. The trend of mixing history with fiction can make for fascinating, intellectually rich reading, and Schwartz's delicately rendered novel is nowhere near Kitty Kelley or Andrew Morton territory.
"The Commoner" is more in line with Mark Helprin's "Freddy and Fredericka," which offered a through-the-looking-glass version of the lives of Prince Charles and Princess Diana – although Schwartz is far gentler with his alterna-royals. And certainly, writers strip mine the lives of their less-illustrious friends and relatives all the time – the general reader is just blissfully unaware.
But when the life being appropriated is still being lived, one is reminded of Joan Didion's unequivocal statement in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": "That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.