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Outsider Captures Soul of Japanese : Books: Berkeley-born Ian Hideo Levy has done the unthinkable: written a serious novel in his second language and won prizes for it.

November 19, 1992|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While at Princeton, where he was an undergraduate and later a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies and an instructor and assistant professor of Japanese literature, he spent most of his free time in the Oriental Library, his head buried and mind lost in tome after tome. (Levy began his formal training in Japanese while a college student at Waseda University in Tokyo.)

He figures he has read hundreds of Japanese novels, thousands of short stories and poems. An accomplished translator, Levy won the American Book Award in 1982 for his work on the "Man'yoshu," one of the greatest works of Japanese poetry, which befuddles even many native speakers of Japanese.

Levy was at Stanford in 1987 when he learned that the Bundan had decided to evaluate his first novella in the Gunzo literary magazine. It was the Japanese literary world's most prestigious mark of recognition--and gave him the courage to quit Stanford.

Now, his sparsely furnished writing room is dominated by a large wooden table filled with wine bottles and juice cans. The tops are gray with ash and stubs of dozens of Philip Morris filter cigarettes. Here Levy reads or writes until 4 or 5 a.m. except for the two days a week he has to get up at 6 a.m. to teach a comparative culture class at Seitoku University.

He is negotiating a deal to translate his novel into English, although he is afraid much of the dialogue's nuances will be lost in translation.

He says writing in Japanese forces less idealization of the West and precludes Japanese readers from dismissing the work as, "Oh, just a foreigner." Those were flaws in Japan watchers he otherwise admires, such as Dutch journalist Karel Van Wolferen and James Fallows, he adds.

Levy is determined not to be used as a tool by either Japan or America in their political and cultural wars. He steadfastly refuses to reveal his own conclusions about his national identity, saying only that he regards himself as a "Japanese writer."

But if his writing is any clue, it is clear that Levy sees great heroism in the Japanese ethic of self-denial, of power through submission.

In the climactic final scene, Ben Isaac watches as three of his fellow waiters take raw eggs, deftly crack them open and slurp them up. He is challenged to do the same by one man who has relentlessly tormented him.

Isaac's first reaction is what Levy calls very American: "Smash it in his (expletive) face." But he realizes he would only lose by proving their point that a foreigner can't take it. So he swallows his ego, cracks the vile egg and eats it, albeit spilling most of it on his face.

He wins--by doing it the Japanese way. It is Isaac's rite of initiation, as "Star-Spangled Banner" is Levy's.

Researcher Chiaki Kitada contributed to this story.

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