A new cosmopolitan

Meet one of the world's top 100 'public intellectuals.'

By BEN NAPARSTEK
February 26, 2009 10:48
A new cosmopolitan

Ian Buruma 88 248. (photo credit: Eri Hotta )

 
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On a weeknight at the New Yorker Festival a fashionable young crowd has gathered to think about monsters. Or, rather, to watch Martin Amis, aging prince of literary chic, discuss the origins of evil with Ian Buruma. Amis slouches low inside his black leather jacket, growling provocations about the Koran in his nicotine-cured voice. Buruma sits straight-backed in suit and tie, speaking in BBC English about the alienation that led Muhammad Bouyeri, a second-generation Moroccan Dutchman, to slay journalist-provocateur Theo van Gogh in 2004. "But Ian," Amis breaks in, "don't you think that it is important that it's Islam?" "No," Buruma replies calmly. "I think it's incidental." Islamic fundamentalists, he argues, could just as well have chosen a secular ideology to justify bloodshed. Buruma has none of Amis's celebrity aura - his rumpled cool, irreverent wit or flamboyant speech. However, he matches Amis's stage presence. He provokes without polemicizing, convincing with erudition rather than style. In a further paradox, Buruma is standing in for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born anti-Islam crusader who collaborated with Van Gogh on the propaganda film Submission. Buruma, who is Anglo-Dutch by birth, criticized her dogmatic view in his 2006 book Murder in Amsterdam, a meticulously sober account of the decline of multiculturalism in his native Holland. Buruma's refusal to take extreme positions has earned him wide respect, if not exactly fame. Included last year in Foreign Policy/Prospect's list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals, he is a prolific author who focuses on history, reportage and cultural commentary on both Asia and Europe. The China Lover, recently published, is his second novel. But nuance doesn't sell and Buruma has never offered glib sound bites about the clash of civilizations or the return of history. Buruma identifies as a liberal who prizes freedom above equality while believing in modest wealth distribution. Of all democracies, in his opinion the United States best balances liberty and equality. According to writer David Rieff, a friend: "It's remarkable that he seems quite untouched by either the fanaticism of the Left or the Right in this time of dueling fanaticisms. He was able, on the one hand, not to fall victim to political correctness, but also not to be tempted by panic about Islam or neoconservative fantasies." When he won the coveted Erasmus Prize last year for his "contribution to culture in Europe," the Dutch jury praised him as a "new cosmopolitan." The annual laurel felt like a vindication to Buruma, after being attacked in the Dutch press for Murder in Amsterdam. "There was this rather provincial sense of envy of the person who left and comes back," he says, "a feeling of 'He might think he's a big shot in New York, but who is he to come here and tell us what Holland is like?'" The book revealed how Holland's postwar consensus on multiculturalism, liberal immigration policies and generous welfare services bred a culture of complacency and denial that made it powerless to engage with its new Muslim minority. Born in The Hague in 1951, Buruma grew up in a bilingual household where the British were seen as saviors. Buruma's mother, born in England to assimilated German Jewish immigrants, lost relatives in the Holocaust. His father, a lawyer and the son of a Dutch Mennonite minister, was forced to work in a German factory during the war. Buruma spent summer holidays with his maternal grandparents in England, which seemed like an idyll. In his 1999 book Voltaire's Coconuts: or Anglomania in Europe, Buruma reminisces about how "a visit to Holland by my grandparents felt like the arrival of messengers from a wider, more glamorous world." Buruma's mother dressed him like an English schoolboy in knee-length socks and long flannel shorts, making him stand out from his classmates. The boy would imitate her elegant handwriting, associating it with English refinement. The headmaster once reprimanded Buruma for drawing swastikas. "Every member of the older generation, it appeared, had been in the resistance," Buruma writes in The Wages of Guilt (1995), which compares German and Japanese memories of their military pasts. The book argues that Germans faced up to their wartime atrocities but the Japanese remain in denial. The Shoah didn't properly enter public consciousness until the late 1960s, Buruma says. He read about it for the first time in Harry Mulisch's 1963 report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. So, although he and his friends knew that one history teacher had been on the wrong side in the war, "that didn't really bother us very much because he was popular and rather a nice guy." Speaking two languages at home set Buruma apart from his peers in culturally homogeneous The Hague, which he recalls as a buttoned-up, snooty place that he "couldn't wait to get out of." The 1968 protests in Amsterdam felt remote, but, in any case, Buruma "was never terribly interested in going to demonstrations or being an activist." When Buruma was 20, his mother died of cancer. He had recently left the Netherlands for London, and says: "the excitement of living a life on my own in some ways helped me over it rather easily, possibly too easily." His father, who was taking care of Buruma's two younger sisters, was more deeply affected: "He didn't find anybody like that again." As a student of Chinese at Leiden University, Buruma was neither a Maoist nor an aspiring Sinologist like his fellow students. He had little interest in going on a state-organized tour of Mao's China, or scrutinizing party texts and photographs for hints of subversions of state power. As he writes in Bad Elements, his 2001 book on Chinese dissident communities: "I was never a China watcher." Yet he became enamored of Japanese film and theater. With aspirations to direct movies, he went to Tokyo on a scholarship to study film in 1975. Buruma's film ambitions were encouraged by his maternal uncle, filmmaker John Schlesinger, best known for Midnight Cowboy. They were especially close because Schlesinger, who was gay, had no children. But there was some tension in their relationship: "He always talked about how his work was instinctual: it didn't come from ideas. He was very self-conscious and uncomfortable with people he called intellectual. He always saw me as an intellectual who was rationalizing, conceptualizing. I suppose I've always in a way wanted to be more like him." Though Buruma made a few documentary films, he eventually realized he lacked the patience for film and journalism took over. His first book, Behind the Mask, was published in 1983 and explored the Japanese underworld of transvestites, massage parlors and yakuza gangsters. His new novel, The China Lover, is based on the life of Japanese screen icon Ri Koran, and spans East and West. She launched her career in the late 1930s playing Chinese damsels in Japanese propaganda flicks aimed at generating sympathy for Japan's occupation of Manchuria. During the US occupation of Japan she acted in pro-Yankee films under the name Yoshiko Yamaguchi, before reinventing herself as a Hollywood actor, Shirley Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi kept transforming herself. For 18 years, she was a center-right Japanese politician. As a television journalist, she embraced the likes of Idi Amin, Kim Il-Sung and Yasser Arafat. "She felt she'd been on the wrong side during the war, so that after the war she had to be on the side of the underdog, and that meant having sympathy for Third World leaders," Buruma says. Given the extraordinary facts, why write her life as fiction? Buruma considered writing a nonfiction book until concluding that it wasn't simply Yamaguchi's story he wanted to tell: "What interested me more was how people fantasized about her and how that blended with all kinds of political and historical fantasies." Thus, he created the novel's three-part structure, each with a male narrator observing the actor from within a different historical setting: Japanese-occupied Manchuria, postwar Tokyo and 1970s Beirut. Buruma first met Yamaguchi in 1987 for Interview magazine, but her predictably polished answers made little impression. They have met twice since, but he "could have written the same book without ever having met her." When they last spoke by phone in 2001, two days after the New York terrorist attacks, Yamaguchi said: "Yes, it's a funny old world." Buruma left London for New York three years ago, hoping to transform himself. His marriage to Sumie - the Japanese mother of their 22-year-old daughter, Isabel - had collapsed, and the move also made sense because of his part-time teaching position at Bard College in upstate New York, where he holds the catch-all title professor of democracy, human rights and journalism. Last year, he married another Japanese woman, Eri Hotta, 20 years his junior. They met after he gave a talk at Oxford, where Eri was a doctoral student in international relations. The couple have a 16-month-old daughter, Josephine, and speak mostly Japanese at home. In his 1996 collection of essays The Missionary and the Libertine, Buruma explores the stereotype of liberated sexuality for which Westerners have traditionally looked to the Orient. He writes of how, aged 21, he first fell in love with a Japanese girl, the heroine of Francois Truffaut's 1970 film Bed and Board, played by Hiroko Berghauer. Asked what attracts him to Japanese women, Buruma smiles reticently and says he has always sought out what is different: "It's not so much anything specific to Japanese women." Does anything about Eri remain enigmatic? "No, but I didn't find Japan all that mysterious even when I first went there. I was fascinated, it was different, but not inscrutable." Living in New York also seemed natural given his relationship with The New York Review of Books, to which he's contributed regularly for more than two decades. Its legendary co-founder, Robert Silvers, 79, has edited the Review for 45 years, but word has it that he may name Buruma as his replacement. Would Buruma accept the post? "It hasn't been offered to me so I can't answer that question," he answers flatly. "It's not something I've ever discussed with Bob." Silvers enthuses about Buruma's prospects as an editor: "If I have to slump away from this job, I think Ian would be a marvelous editor," Silvers says. "He commands so many different cultures with extraordinary confidence. Just when you think he's an expert on Japan, he's writing a novel on India, or writing about modern English history, or Islam in Europe. Ian is at home anywhere, but he's also, more than anyone else I know, equally at home in Asia." The writer, a PhD student with the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, is working on a book entitled Obama's World: Conversations About American Foreign Policy, to be published by Scribe next year.

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