The first thing to note when reading Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama is that this isn’t a war novel. Certainly there are aspects of war involved, but to call it either a war or anti-war novel would be too lazy, since it is not really either. The novel contains some of the most idealized versions of both the Japanese forces and anti-war, for fighting itself is not sensationalized in any way. Instead, the thrust of the book is more of gentleness and peace, rather than the actual brutality that went on (although parts of that are mentioned.)
There are scenes, for example, that are not realistic even for a novel. That’s not a flaw of the book per se, since readers are being told the tale through the lens of the narrator. The company of Japanese troops often sings their way to happiness while they fight. There is even a harp involved (hence the title) where in one moment, when the Japanese are encountered by the British troops, instead of firing guns, a harp is played and they all sing together. There is another moment where the harp is being played despite having bullets gliding by forcefully. As someone with an open imagination, I can accept this, yet I do realize that any Pacific War veteran would likely laugh at such a notion, since the West portrays the Japanese as brutes, not peaceful chorus singers. The opening begins with:
“We certainly did sing. Whether we were happy or miserable, we sang. Maybe it’s because we were always under the threat of battle, of dying, and felt we wanted to so at least this one things well as long as we were still alive.”
Corporal Mizushima ends up abandoning his troop, and the remaining soldiers are wondering what happened to him. Believing he is dead, they press onward, until they encounter a Japanese solder who is disguising himself as a monk. He wanders through Burma and manages to be regularly fed by villagers, and meanwhile, the soldiers cannot help but to notice the similarities between this wandering monk and their beloved Corporal Mizushima.
Kon Ichikawa directed the film version of Harp of Burma (The Burmese Harp), and he also directed another Tuttle Classic, Fires on the Plain. The two tales share little in common, save for them both involving Japanese soldiers during WW2 and some aspects of religion. Fires on the Plain is the better of the two books, both in writing and also in philosophical profundity. In other words, Fires on the Plain is a great book, while Harp of Burma is a good one.
As the tale progresses, the narrator (as told via a letter written by the monk believed to be Mizushima) experiences the threat of being cannibalized by the Burmese, whom he believes are “savages,” even before this realization. Attempting to use his harp to save him, he manages to trick them into believing he is communicating with the evil spirits. Eventually, he wanders onward and comes to several scenes with dead soldiers. He finds himself deeply disturbed and feels that they deserve a proper burial, yet he lacks the proper means to do so. Weeping and despondent, he comes to his own realization that the dead are something separate from him, and something he cannot change or control:
“And so I gave up. I would not attempt to bury them. The dead are dead, I told myself; I won’t give them another thought.”
The way Takeyama constructs his narrator is noteworthy because he only reveals to the reader what he wishes to reveal. (This is one of the reasons why many of the scenes, which might not seem “believable” to some, actually do work.) At one point, he even mentions: “I shall refrain from going into detail about what I saw. It was unbelievably horrible. As a Japanese, as a fellow countryman of the dead, I was sorrowful beyond tears.”
Readers are given glimpses into what he is alluding to, but we are never really told. And what it is, exactly, isn’t really important, since Harp of Burma is more about the “spiritual journey” that is taking place. For that reason, Siddhartha easily springs to mind.
The language in Harp of Burma (translated by Howard Hibbett) contains moments of lyricism, but it’s not an overtly lyrical book. There are moments of poetry, certainly, but the novel does not quite reach the height of the far more lyrical Fires on the Plain. Again, given the relationship between these two books, it is difficult to not compare them. Harp of Burma offers a new slant to the war at large, in that it is not about the actual dead, but those who press on through life and in afterlife. The novel shows that “pressing on” requires one to leave these old lives and old selves behind, as indicated by the narrator’s outward rejection of his dead countrymen.
Harp of Burma contains a deal of interesting symbolism—talking parrots that at times, seem to mutter the narrator’s thoughts, the internal harmony that can be found in the literal harmony within the notes of a harp, the ingesting of another human as a means of absorbing their strength, and the very act of a Japanese soldier pretending to go about his days as a Burmese monk. Many of these occurrences seem dreamlike even, and this goes back to the way the narrator relays his tale—by only selecting parts to disclose, readers cannot rely on him fully for all the facts. All of these aspects make Harp of Burma not just an insightful and enjoyable read, but a memorable one, since how many books are set within a time of war and come away with a message of peace found in song?
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