NINETEEN YEARS AFTER earning literary kudos as the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, Richard Wiley’s Soldiers in Hiding has been re-released by Hawthorne Books as part of its Rediscovery program. The “rediscovery” of selected and esteemed works of literature will, if Soldiers should serve as any standard, offer readers a disturbing glimpse at a world where the changing circumstances of a man’s life test the depth of his values and offers a haunted glimpse of his struggles. Soldiers in Hiding is similar to novels penned by other returned Peace Corps Volunteers, which capture the introspective musings of a character forced to adapt and thrive in a foreign environment. For Teddy Maki, the rending of his personal and national allegiances complicate the very notion of identity, plaguing him with a guilt that burdens and transforms him into the kind of man who cannot find home even within his own skin.
We have an initially unflattering impression of Teddy. He is a middle-aged Japanese-American host of a popular entertainment program in Tokyo, which, in his own words, effects to destroy intelligent culture (“I must push toward the collapse of culture in the remaining years that I have . . ..”). We are in the years immediately following World War Two and, as Japan struggles to redeem its pride following a humiliating defeat by the United States, Teddy is an oddly appropriate symbol for the times: wealthy, famous, embittered . . . and a philanderer without scruple or any constructive vision for the future. He keeps a mistress and blithely provides incorrect directions to American tourists trying to find their way around the city.
Wiley provides a context for his life by recalling readers to Teddy’s childhood in Los Angeles he is an American citizen, we learn where, as a boy, he develops an awareness of (and a disdain for) the old-country traditions of his Japanese-farmer father compared to the more modern and attractive manners of his uncle in whose home Teddy relishes spending his summers. Predictably, Teddy learns to play guitar and begins a band with his friend, Jimmy Yamamoto, and, even more predictably, scandalizes their local ethnic community by naming the band the American Japs. After taking their act to Japan, ominous overtones quickly pervade Teddy’s life. He is introduced to the realm of physical pain after getting knifed by a stranger then suffers equally in his love for a Japanese woman, Kazuko, who marries Jimmy. Ideological pain, finally, confronts the two young men during the first heady days of war. Following the announcement of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Teddy and Jimmy remain unaffected. But their Asian countenances make it increasingly difficult to avoid the involvement that consumes the loyalty of other young, similarly-featured Japanese men and, at Kazuko’s urging, Teddy and Jimmy enlist in the army to take up arms against their own country.
His national allegiance already compromised, Teddy draws further from any sense of a strong identity following the incarceration of several American soldiers. Major Nakamura, who leads Teddy’s military unit, decides to punish one American who, he perceives, acts with too much pride for a prisoner of war. Made to stand for days at end in the middle of an open yard, the American receives some chocolate from Jimmy, who feels compassion for him. Unfortunately, Jimmy is caught in the act and, rather than obeying Nakamura’s order to shoot the prisoner on the spot, Jimmy is himself shot and killed by the major. Nakamura then hands Teddy the gun to carry out the sentence, but he exhibits no bravery equivalent to that of his friend. To avoid his own death, Teddy executes the American.
Following his discharge from the army, Teddy returns to his Japanese friends with news of Jimmy’s death. Kazuko reveals she is pregnant with Jimmy’s child; with her silent consent, Teddy assumes the role of husband and father. But Teddy is a changed man, war-weary, humiliated, unmoored from role, purpose and cause. Gone is the pride and irreverence of his youth, while the trauma borne by his failure as a Japanese soldier lives on, as does the loss of his friend and his false role as father to the infant, Milo, who is born immediately following an air raid over Teddy and Kazuko’s neighborhood. The war sweeps over every aspect of Teddy’s existence, even the life of his new “son.”
Teddy’s growing detachment reminded me, somewhat, of the film, Apocalypse Now and, especially of Marlon Brando’s depiction of Kurtz, the renegade Special Ops colonel whose journey into the heart of darkness during the Vietnam War reduces him to a hardened core where individuality, morality and ethics cease to matter. Teddy’s war experiences and waning sense of purpose are nothing as extreme or dramatic as Kurtz’s madness but his self-destructive tendencies accumulate alarmingly in the post-war years. Japan is eventually defeated and General Douglas MacArthur’s first message to the Japanese people is broadcast against the backdrop of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and, in particular, an interpretation produced by Teddy and Jimmy’s band from years ago. The nationwide publicity launches an unsuspecting Teddy to stardom as a cultural entertainer and icon for his generation but, as his star rises, so do his personal failures bring him down, transforming him into the crushed man we meet at the novel’s start.
Wiley’s investigation of the Teddy Maki trauma might be engaging enough, were his mission more ambitious. More ambitious: and, ultimately, more redeeming. If Colonel Kurtz reflects a man’s destruction at the hands of unmanageable experiences, Teddy represents a soldier whose life is only buried or “hidden” by experience. Years later, after Milo has grown and an extra-marital affair has estranged Teddy from Kazuko, Teddy meets Major Nakamura again the incarnation of a nightmare that has plagued him since his time as a soldier. Teddy learns that Nakamura, a school principal before the war, became a pharmacist afterward. The major’s seeming ability to live a normal life despite the war’s violence and its memories, infuriates Teddy, who decides to utilize his entertainment program to launch a kind of war-crimes tribunal by proxy, to show Japan the devil Nakamura really is.
The novel closes on the stage of a makeshift Japanese theater, which Nakamura has constructed on his property. Teddy finds his prey adorned in a drama mask, acting out a role of a well-known play. Several members of Teddy’s troupe bizarrely join Nakamura as the play turns into a re-enactment of the death of Jimmy Yamamoto. Teddy is helpless to stop the proceedings and begins to acknowledge the “role” Nakamura simply believes he played, and the responsibilities he had no choice to accept, during the war. While the play-acting implies a controversial dismissal of charges and accountability against the major it likewise offers Teddy a way to forgive himself for the death of the American soldier and relinquish the guilt that has crushed and distorted him. Much of this is implicit in the novel’s final pages but Teddy abandons his project to crucify Nakamura (whose pale and jaundiced countenance tells that life has not been easy for him either), restore his life of its cynicism and return to an affectionate marriage with Kazuko.
Soldiers in Hiding offers the opportunity for redemption. Teddy’s protean roles throughout the novel as a Japanese American, a failed Japanese soldier, a bitter entertainer, a false father and, ultimately, a true husband test his will to remain strong and faithful to his life. Much is lost to those struggles: his American loyalty, his friend, his sense of home, nearly his marriage. But in a final confrontation with Nakamura who he believes causes his suffering, Teddy Maki recognizes the essence of human fragility and accepts the restorative nature of forgiveness for acts committed.
The Peace Corps challenges its Volunteers to bring their Americanness to foreign cultures and remain honorable to their own values without dishonoring those of the populations they serve. It is not always an easy calling, as any PCV can tell you. But in his engaging and somewhat disturbing novel, Richard Wiley vaunts the challenges of identity and role-play into the context of a world war. The story is worthy of praise and awards.