The Other Apprentice

Lewis Libby, The Apprentice, Graywolf Press, St. Paul Minnesota, 1996.

Libby’s novel has gotten more attention since his indictment, most of it bad. However, I have yet to see a review of this historical fiction by an historian or Japanese expert of any sort. Quite the contrary, one of the blurbs on the dust jacket — ironically, the only one that addresses the historical setting — comes from Francis “The End of History” Fukuyama. But the historical and cultural setting — rural northern Japan, 1903 — is integral to the story and to the writing. A novel by an American author set in Meiji Japan including entirely Japanese characters is a rare thing, and so my interest was piqued. Naturally, there’s a distinction to be made: this is a work of fiction, a novel intended to excite and entertain, rather than a reference work or scholarly product. But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends. [spoiler alert]

I will point out Libby’s errors — at least some of them — but it’s worth noting that a great deal of time and energy went into making this “authentic” as a representation of something Japanese. 1903 did indeed feature rising tensions between Japan and Russia, smallpox and urban unrest; there were significant continuities with pre-modern traditions and practices, particularly in rural areas. There are a myriad of details that are properly situated and used: material culture, festivals, the social hierarchies and treatment of marginal figures like entertainers. Some of it feels a bit anachronistic for 1903, but that may be more my professional tendency to see change and overlook continuities. Perhaps this level of detail is why the errors and misrepresentations stand out so clearly: there’s no vagueness to cloak slips or twists.

In the case of The Apprentice, the location and time allows Libby to write a very specific kind of story in a specific sort of way. The plot is a sort of inverted “Purloined Letter” in which the eponymous protagonist stumbles across and appropriates something which seems merely valuable but turns out to be more important and more contested than he realized, and though the protagonist — the Apprentice of the title — is ignorant, grasping and easily fooled, he manages to do just the right thing throughout. The “snow country” setting (not Hokkaido, but deep winter somewhere in the north) — which reminds me more of Abe Kobo’s The Dunes than anything by Kawabata — provides a field of outdoors action in which the necessities of the plot are easily served, as well as claustrophobic indoor settings. The historical moment contributes both characterizations and deeply disturbing erotic themes: the characters are distinctly and relentlessly Japanese, as are their interactions, and few sexual pathologies or myths are left unexplored.

The narrative is decidedly uneven: roughly the first third is eros and mystery; the second third is claustrophobia and romance; the last third is twist-and-turn action-adventure. The writing lurches along with the plot, but is most successful in the scene-setting sections, perhaps because they are the least bound by physical or psychological realism. Ultimately the hero prevails because a baseless suspicion turns out correct, and because of deus ex machina interventions by larger forces which are responsible for the prize which he appropriated (secretly, but everyone seems to know about it) and which evildoers will stop at nothing (including prophetic pre-planning and vision, or else incredible dumb luck) to obtain.

Perhaps it’s not fair to pick on the erotic elements of the novel: sex is so hard to write about well or with any originality. But the attempt to create and exploit sexual tension is so central to the novel as to be unavoidable. The focus of most of the sexual attention in the book is Yukiko, a young entertainer/prostitute. (It’s worth noting that many of the main characters are not given names through most of the book, following perhaps the Japanese tradition of vagueness in this regard, but it seems that Libby can’t quite sustain it because most get named eventually.) She is — all before the age of consent — sexually abused, sold to a house of prostitution, “trained” in sex (including abuse by a bear), sold again to her “first night” initiator, who in turn uses her as both a sexual outlet and entertainer. That’s the point at which she enters the narrative, in the company of her “master” and “the dwarf” (whose job it is to sexually menace her onstage). She then proceeds to attract the attention of the Apprentice, Setsuo, who watches her surreptitiously (but insists, with great specificity, that he’s not a voyeur [9]) several times (though she may be playing the exhibitionist, as well) before they become intimate. Their intimacy becomes then leverage used against the apprentice in the dramatic adventure section, and she turns out to be (probably) a turncoat against him, but he ends the novel wandering Japan looking for her or someone who looks enough like her to reignite the embers of his love (or lust). I apologize for some of the vagueness in that last section, but Libby’s novel follows the all-too-common writers-workshop style of endings heavy with implication, symbolism and suggestion rather than actual conclusion. There are times when ambiguity is a powerful tool for a writer, but this is particularly out of place in a plot-driven action story like this one.

Yukiko is the prototypical Oriental female: elite yet fallen, hypersexual and innocent, treacherous and submissive. Setsuo is a prototypical Oriental male: amoral but timid, a lustful virgin, easily dominated but cunning. I use the term “Oriental” deliberately: they are not specifically Japanese stereotypes, though they take on particular Japanese forms, and they are old tropes, however they survive to the present. That pair are surrounded by other stock figures: the tragic self-sacrificing spy, the mysterious old warrior who reveals his true colors when he comes to the aid of the hero (with convenient frequency), the abstruse government functionary, the anti-foreign rumor-monger, credulous and very raunchy common-folk, “baddies” who are overconfident, ruthlessly vicious, yet incompetent and easy to kill. There’s nothing particularly Japanese about these people except their clothes and weapons.

Aside from the plot and characterization issues, there are some specific details which I think Libby got wrong. The figure of the Apprentice is the first issue: Japan doesn’t have a tradition of apprenticeship in service or hospitality trades, at least not one that is separate from concepts of kinship. For Setsuo, who clearly does seem to be in training to take over the inn, or at least run it independently, to be an apprentice in the Japanese sense, he’d be the natural or adoptive heir of the innkeeper, but there’s no hint of that in his interactions with his fellow workers, the female relatives of the absent innkeeper. Libby refers twice (5, 23) to “backward” hats (one “top hat” and one “European”) which make no sense. He uses a sort of country shorthand (e.g. “tappers of lac” for lacquer-sap workers, [8 passim]) for the rough-country folk just often enough to be annoying but not often enough to be consistent. There is far too much gold coinage around, at a time when paper money was widely used for anything silver yen couldn’t handle (I’d like to think that the scenes involving the hunter’s wallet were intended as an homage to Chushingura but there’s no other evidence of references to premodern literature). I’ve never heard of Japanese sprinkling peppers in their boots to ward off cold (31) but it apparently works. The ruminations of the village assistant headman (160-162) are typical: he correctly mentions the circular petitions of premodern protests, but asserts that collective punishment has become the norm in the modern age; he attributes a rape to “fox spirits” (which is anachronistic, at best) and the arrival of mysterious people around the village to trouble with China and Russia.

As a work of literary fiction, I’d say that this book is a barely tolerable action story but not something to read twice. Perhaps its greatest virtue is the central character’s complete ignorance of the role he’s playing in the larger dramas; much more realistic than adventure stories in which a hapless bystander unravels multi-layered mysteries and solves the problems of (or defeats) empires. As a work of Japanalia, I’d say that it was an excellent example of how a little learning can be a dangerous thing: having been inspired to chose this backdrop and make it as real as possible, Libby ignores logic, realism or the humanity of his characters in favor of highly artificial drama and tawdry thrills.


  1. Thank you for this helpful reading, grounded in historical fact. I’ve also read the book, and suspect Libby emphasized geopolitical intrigue because he may have been writing a text to illustrate the principles of Leo Strauss. Fascinating that this is a spy novel, given Libby’s situation, and that a lot of casual readers seem to miss that fact.

    My own take is here:

  2. I’d seen variations on that theory when I wrote this, but I think it’s far too circumstantial. For one thing, I’ve not really seen anyone explain what Straussian principles guide the book, or what situation it might be an allegory for. I’m open to the possibilities, but there’s enough political writing and historical events to parse without delving into their recreational writings.

    Sometimes you just have a novel in you, and it’s not related to anything else you do….

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