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Pure Inventions

by James King

The world of Pure Inventions is complex, intriguing, and quite beautiful in its rendering. It is a world that straddles two cultures within the life and body of a Japanese-American protagonist, Hiroshi. But it is in the telling of Hiroshi’s experience of Japanese art and culture that the novel finds its form and its narrative vibrancy.

Similar to the premise of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which author James King cites in the opening pages, Hiroshi is the product of a beautiful Japanese courtesan and a handsome American soldier in pre-First World War Japan. But as King assures us, this story has a much different ending. The son in King’s story stays with the courtesan, who, as a woman caught in dreams of the past, is a rather ineffectual maternal figure. The energetic son becomes something of a “scoundrel” (in King’s rather romantic language) and ultimately becomes a forger of his mother’s precious store of woodblock prints. This leads him into the sometimes shady world of art dealing, until, on the eve of his discovery as a fraud, his father’s American wife arrives in Japan to take him to the U.S.

Ironically, under his stepmother’s tutelage, Hiroshi manages to secure a respectable position at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where he becomes an authenticator of Japanese art. As a result, he seeks a life of redemption for his past crimes, noting at one point that in forging works of art he was “robbing the souls of other men.”

The themes of alienation and redemption, alongside the search for beauty and truth in art, are beautifully rendered through Hiroshi’s story. The style of the narrative is quite formal, and includes the sporadic retelling of ancient Japanese myths to illuminate questions that arise out of Hiroshi’s life. If any criticism can be made, it is that these stories within the story become somewhat belaboured and obvious at times. As well, the ending comes ominously close to being banal and overly sentimental, as Hiroshi finally journeys back to his beloved Japan.

Despite these flaws, the novel is indeed one of pure invention, but with an underlying, rigorously researched, cultural authenticity. It is a story born of colourful imagination and creative originality that is a pleasure to read.