Objective subjects

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

On a weeknight at the 2007 New Yorker Festival a fashionable young crowd has gathered to think about monsters. Or, rather, to watch Martin Amis, ageing 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 Mohammed 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' celebrity aura - his rumpled cool, irreverent wit or flamboyant speech. However, he matches Amis' stage presence. He provokes without polemicising, 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, criticised her dogmatic view in his 2006 book Murder in Amsterdam, a meticulous account of the decline of multiculturalism in his native Netherlands.

Buruma's refusal to take extreme positions has earned him wide respect, if not exactly fame. Included last year in Foreign Policy/Prospect magazines' list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals, he is a prolific author who focuses on history, reportage and cultural commentary on Asia and Europe. The China Lover (2008) is his second novel. But nuance doesn't sell and Buruma has never offered glib sound bites about the clash of civilisations or the return of history.

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 duelling fanaticisms. He was able, on the one hand, not to fall victim to political correctness, but also not to be tempted by panic about either Islam or neo-conservative fantasies.'

When Buruma 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 must have 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 the Netherlands' post-war consensus on multiculturalism, liberal immigration policies and generous welfare services has 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 saviours. Buruma's mother, born in England to 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'.

His 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 (1994), 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 (Holocaust) 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 homogenous The Hague, which he recalls as a buttoned-up, snooty place he 'couldn't wait to get out of'. The 1968 protests in Amsterdam felt remote, but 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, he recalls, 'the excitement of living a life on my own in some ways helped me over it rather easily, possibly too easily'.

As a student of Chinese at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Buruma was neither a Maoist nor an aspiring Sinologist like his fellow students. He had little interest in going on a state-organised tour of Mao's China, or scrutinising 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 enamoured of Japanese film and theatre. With aspirations of directing movies he went to Tokyo on a scholarship to study film in 1975. Buruma's 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,' Buruma says. 'He was very self-conscious and uncomfortable with people he called intellectual. He always saw me as an intellectual who was rationalising, conceptualising. I suppose I've always in a way wanted to be more like him.'

Buruma made a few documentaries but eventually realised 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 parlours and the yakuza.

The China Lover is based on the life of Japanese screen icon Ri Koran, also known as the actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi and the Hollywood actress Shirley Yamaguchi. Then, for 18 years, she was a centre-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 non-fiction book until concluding that it wasn't simply Yamaguchi's story he wanted to tell. 'What interested me more was how people fantasised about her and how that blended with all kinds of political and historical fantasies,' he reveals.

Thus, he created the novel's three-part structure, each with a male narrator observing the protagonist from within a different historical setting: Japanese-occupied Manchuria, post-war Tokyo and 70s Beirut.

Buruma left London for New York more than 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, New York state, where he holds the catch-all title professor of democracy, human rights and journalism.

In 2007 he married another Japanese woman, Eri Hotta, 20 years his junior. 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.'

Writer's notes

Name: Ian Buruma

Born: The Hague, the Netherlands

Age: 57

Home: Harlem, New York

Genres: history, fiction, cultural commentary

Latest book: The China Lover

Current project: a book on the relationship between democracy and religion

Other books include: God's Dust (1989); Great Cities of the World: Hong Kong (1991); Playing the Game (1991); The Wages of Guilt (1994); Voltaire's Coconuts or Anglomania in Europe (1998); Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (2001); Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle 1853-1964 (2003); Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (2004); Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (2006)

Other jobs: former culture editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and foreign editor of The Spectator

What the papers say: 'Buruma knows the persuasive pull - and the misleading simplicity - that film can have on memory and history. His novel takes us deep into events of the 20th century and shows us with vivid strokes what it felt like.' The Los Angeles Times on The China Lover