I spent the warm week of spring break in Ithaca, lounging around in shorts and reading trashy best-sellers. Having read some positive reviews of the book The Commoner, by John Burnham Schwartz (Vintage Contemporaries, 2009), I decided to armchair travel to the royal compound in Japan.
The Commoner is a work of semi-historical-fiction, based on the life of Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. During her tenure as Crown Princess, the Empress had a break-down caused by anxiety and depression due to internal pressure at court. The Japanese court is known to be extremely insular, like most royal houses; Schwartz has spoken in interviews with The New York Times about his failure to garner much information about Michiko herself beyond musings on the internet and officially reported news.
Having family roots in China — a nation that has occasionally been at odds with Japan in war and culture — I preface this review by calling it what it is: ignorance criticizing further ignorance. However, regardless of background, if you have seen the film adaptation of the best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha, you may be familiar with the bizarre and profoundly off-putting alienation that The Commoner exudes. In the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, which is supposed to be set in WWII Japan, we see Chinese actors (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li) speaking English in San Francisco, directed by a white man in a film based on a novel by another American. A veritable Japanese heart is notably missing from the body of the movie: filmmakers misguidedly believed that pseudo-Japanese accents and San Francisco’s Tea Garden would simulate Japan.
I believe that it is impossible for a work of any kind of fiction — film or literature — to be convincing and believable without deference to the world it inhabits. This is especially true for a work set in Japan, a nation that is extremely rich in tradition but hard to penetrate or understand for outsiders. The Commoner fails because of this: I found the book lacking in real rigor. Schwartz’s extreme alienation from the culture results in a book without much detail or depth, and it reads like a report of the famous events with some superficial gesticulation — the social hierarchy of Japan, which should be the foundation for the novel, is barely explored. The novel seems a pale shadow of the struggle Michiko Shoda had to undergo. His fictional fairy-tale ending for the story (which is extremely Western in its priorities) is disrespectful to Michiko and Crown Princess Masako’s choice to fulfill their duty. Ultimately, The Commoner presents a façade of Japanese culture superficially appropriated for the American best-seller market.