Well, I am not a Houdinist. I mean, a hedonist who escapes artistically. No matter how many supposedly escapist works I see, read, or hear, I can never entirely lose myself in them; instead, I seem to bring to or burden them with my own story and the stories of our time. By the time I am halfway through a yarn like Thank You, Mr. Moto, a 1936 thriller I am currently reading, I have spun such a web of references that I am thoroughly entangled, lost not in the world of the text but in the context of the world I invariably find between the covers, the world that draws my mind’s eye to the not so blank spaces between the lines. It is through my writings that I try to uncover a few intelligible strands in the muddles my mind makes while reading, listening, and watching. Let me give you a “for instance.”
I had considered continuing my recent discussions about the challenges of adaptation by commemorating the anniversary of “Alice in Wonderland,” the first of a two part radio version broadcast in the US on this day, 28 September, in 1937. I took a copy of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy from my bookshelf, but left it unopened. Surely my plans would be undermined somehow, I thought, when I stepped into the floating library that is our bathtub. And so it was. Alice had to wait, and is waiting still. The aforementioned Mr. Moto was not done with me yet.
Ever since I saw Peter Lorre’s impersonation of the man a few decades ago, I’ve been meaning to read a Mr. Moto mystery; so, browsing with a friend at the aforementioned Black Orchid Mystery Bookstore in Manhattan last month, I gladly accepted the gift of a 1980s paperback copy of Thank You, Mr. Moto, the film adaptation of which was readied for release at the time when “Alice” was being squeezed through radio’s rabbit hole. Before Moto found himself in quite another ditch after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a hole from which he only sporadically and tentatively reemerged, Pulitzer Prize winning author J. P. Marquand allowed the Japanese agent to speak candidly about American culture and politics.
Indeed, I was rather surprised at some of Mr. Moto’s observations when I read them today; and considering that the Far and Middle-East—contested or world market-contending nations, regions invested with suspicion whose future is being claimed by suspicious investors from the West—are such an Occidental headache these days, Mr. Moto’s remarks about America’s view or conception of the East still ring true today:
“Affairs in the Orient are so complicated to-day. They grow so difficult, if you will pardon my saying so, please, because of the suspicions of your country,” Moto tells the American narrator; “and because of the suspicions of certain European nations regarding the natural aspirations of my own people.” Such “suspicions,” Moto claims, “make the most harmless activities of my country very, very difficult”; but did not the US and Britain “seize” and engage in “colonizing efforts” in the past? he reminds the American.
To the American listener—captured, along with Mr. Moto by a Chinese rebel—Moto’s talk seemed as strange as the “conversation at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.” Apparently, Alice was eager to make herself heard, waiting impatiently outside my bathroom and intruding herself on the story I had chosen instead. But I let Mr. Moto continue as he told apologetically of a “disturbing, radical element” in his country, “somewhat bigoted and fanatical,” which had been “a source of very bad annoyance.” Still, he asked, does not even a “great nation” like America have its “disturbing elements?”
The US, it seems, has two main responses to the world, commercial interests aside: indifference and suspicion, but rarely a sustained interest in or engagement with other cultures, cultures it is prepared to absorb or incorporate, but not to see develop independently. Reveling in the fantasy of “equality,” it does not deal well with difference, at least not a difference that goes beyond a certain savory and amusing flavoring. Those who refuse or fail to be incorporated, those who remain torn between or by cultures, are labelled suspicious or serve as scapegoats to be impaled on the fence on which they seem to be defiantly perched. Any ambiguous “not for” tends to be read as a clear “against.”
When I stepped out of the tub, already convinced to make Mr. Moto, rather than Alice, the topic of the day, I learned of the death of Iva Toguri, the American who became known as Tokyo Rose and was convicted of treason after broadcasting to Americans from Japan, where she was sent by her mother to attend to an ailing relative during the Second World War. Even though little could be found that was hostile or harmful in her broadcasts and charges against her appear to have been manufactured, she was stripped of her American citizenship and sentenced to ten years in prison, just about the time it took Mr. Moto to rehabilitate himself in the service of anti-Communist America.
Judged by the either/or dynamics of American thought, those positioned in between are as suspicious as those, like me, who cannot get straight to the point simply because there are so many dots left to connect.