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The Tattoo Tells the Story : THE EIGHT CORNERS OF THE WORLD by Gordon Weaver (Chelsea Green: $19.95; 382 pp.)

July 09, 1989|Andrew Weinberger | Weinberger is a novelist who has spent a considerable time in Japan teaching and writing

"The Eight Corners of the World" is a Japanese picaresque littered with tragic events from the recent past. Its main character, a fabulously wealthy, self-assured, "go with the do flow" compulsive talker named Yoshinori Yamaguchi (imagine an obese Asian version of Jack Kerouac) is all alone and near death. His greatest pleasure now is recalling the irony of everything that has ever happened to him. And, maybe because he is Japanese and a world-renowned film maker, he chooses to confess these things not to a priest but to a tattoo artist, who in turn is doing his best to render them visually on his venerable client's backside. The narrative flows then, as it were, directly from the master's electric needle.

Real irony, however, lies elsewhere. Yamaguchi's claim to fame is not what he's done so much as the fact that he was there. Through pure happenstance (some would call it chutzpah) the author plops him down again and again into history's catbird seat.

He was there in 1935, a Tokyo teen-ager fresh out of Native Land Loving School, chosen for his brilliance in English to act as translator for the traveling team of aging American baseball celebs (including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and one Morris (Moe) Berg--a second-rate catcher for the Washington Senators and a first-rate spy for the United States). He was there to help Berg get extensive film footage of the Imperial Fleet and the Army headquarters on Ichigaya Heights. A moral chameleon, the next year he finds himself sent overseas to Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College on behalf of the kempei, the Japanese intelligence. There, as "Gooch," the lovable straight-A student, he is touched by every campus inanity of the day, and, to keep his tuition payments up to date, he regularly reports back to his superiors on topics like the battle readiness of the local R.O.T.C. unit. Soon the curtain rises on World War II and we see him again, this time under the code name of Lt. Benshi, riding high in a Zero, his movie camera happily whirring away as he documents the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. His unerring (and unfeeling) lens takes him next to Corregidor and, as luck would have it, on the Bataan Death March. Naturally, too, he is on hand (though not close enough to suffer) when the Enola Gay circles over Hiroshima and drops the Bomb.

All these episodes are meant to be comic, mind you, in the classical sense, as in: Place two incongruous characters together and they will rub against once another and produce gales of laughter. The problem is that there are no characters. There are caricatures, voice cartoons of famous people like Tojo and Babe Ruth and Hirohito, but the reader never comes to know them and hence can't possibly care what becomes of them. Then there is Yamaguchi himself, who is also less a character than a series of stereotypical doodles. Who is this guy? one asks throughout. He is a name. A mouth. A blur of platitudes and cliches. He is Student Yoshinori Yamaguchi, a.k.a. Gooch, a.k.a. Lt. Benshi, a.k.a. Foto Joe Yamaguch. He is someone who doesn't care who he is, an opportunist who has shrugged off the whole notion of identity and history and human values in order to advance. Shikata ga nai, he says, often enough so that we can't help but think of it as his motto-- shikata ga nai, "Nothing to be done."

Even the author seems to grow weary of Yamaguchi's sophistry now and then. "Oh, lieutenant," a medical student pleads as our hero roams through the still warm ruins of Hiroshima with his movie camera cranking away, "how is it you are able to witness all this, and not apologize, as I do, for not sharing this suffering? How is it that you do not throw away your camera and do what you can to assist?"

But there is another troubling aspect to this novel as well: Author Gordon Weaver lets Foto Joe speak in that crazy, singsong, nonsensical English that one used to see on packages of ramen and in instruction manuals for rice cookers and radios. While this succeeds in capturing the excruciatingly polite flavor of Japanese parlance, it also overwhelms the story itself. Often, "The Eight Corners of the World" degenerates into a book about language and how not to communicate, a puzzle palace of cute, slightly butchered slogans with a few Japanese words added for spice: "Can you dig it, folks? Justification reasons rationale therefore: life too short to bother self to distracted distraction with spheres of public flaps, reet? Say I: A man gots to tend to his knitting, hoe own row, get on with it, perform necessaries, make life for self amidst do flow despite flaps as rampant as reported in shimbun (newspapers) all round about, reet?"

In seeking to create a character larger than life, Weaver seems somehow to have exceeded even the bounds of his own story. The result is grotesque and inhuman, and you wind up wishing for someone to come along and just kill him and put the reader (at least) out of his misery.

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