Hey, Burl: I’m reading Black Ocean now…

Back on a previous post, Burl asked me whether I’ve ever read a book he sent me a year or two ago — which has weighed on my conscience ever since, sitting there among all the others I keep meaning to read.

Well, as it happens, that was one of the “two or three” books I was reading and rereading over the past week. Now, I’ve set the others aside, and have just started to get serious with Black Ocean.

I’m only on page 88, but I have some observations already (just to prove to Burl that I’m reading it).

One is that I’m enjoying watching familiar people pop up in the book. I felt foolish for not realizing who “Ed Burroughs” was until he mentioned his “ape-man.” But  then, how would I have known before that? I then checked Wikipedia, and found that the real-life Burroughs was, indeed, in Hawaii at the end of 1941.

Then Sammy Amalu’s name cropped up, which was really weird, because something — I forget what now — a page or two earlier had caused me to think of Sammy, then Google him on my iPhone. I think the thing that made me think of him was a mention of pidgin. And I thought I remembered that Sammy used to hold pidgin in great disdain and refuse to speak it to anyone. (By the way, Burl, did you and Sammy work together?)

Then there was a passing reference to “the Kanahamoku brothers.” Well, I know who one of them was.

I’m sure there are loads of other references that I’m just not getting, because I only lived in Hawaii for a little over a year — things that Burl will get because he has spent most of his life there, as both a journalist and historian.

This weaving of real and fictional characters is reminiscent of the style of Harry Turtledove, who dares to make historical figures main characters in his works of alternative fiction. Burroughs, for instance, is already playing a role as significant as that of Col. Leslie Groves in Turtledove’s Worldwar series.

Oh, did I mention, to those of you who don’t know? Black Ocean is a novel with the premise that the Americans attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, at which time the islands were controlled by the Japanese.

The second thing I’m noticing is that, at least at the outset, Black Ocean is both very much like, and very much unlike, Len Deighton’s SS-GB.

Both are set in 1941. Both take place on islands that, contrary to history, are in Axis hands at that time. Another way that they are alike is that Tad Morimura — a Honolulu policeman who now works for the Japanese — is investigating a death (actually, several) that will run him afoul of the Japanese military, the deeper he goes. In SS-GB, Douglas Archer is a renowned Scotland Yard detective who is now working for the German SS (the Germans having invaded England and won the war). He, too, is looking into matters that will get him into serious trouble with the Nazis (or the English resistance, which seems to pose just as much of a threat to him).

But the differences, so far, are more noteworthy than the similarities.

To begin with, I don’t know what’s happened that changed the direction of history. I thought, for a moment, that when Morimura was explaining to a Japanese Army officer the history of the Hawaiian royal family’s relationship with Japan, that there would be a clue — but I don’t know enough about Hawaiian and Pacific history to know where things diverged, other than that the princess Kaiulani (whom I had to look up, even to know who she was) survived her youth to become an aging queen.

By contrast, I knew from the very beginning what had happened in SS-GB. It was what everyone had feared — Hitler had not squandered his opportunity to invade, and had prevailed, well before the Americans could get into the war.

This makes me much more comfortable with the Deighton book than I am so far with this. And I find myself wondering, is this my own Anglocentrism? Am I more comfortable with it simply because I feel so much more comfortable with British history and culture? There’s no doubt that I’m better able to identify with the characters and understand where they are coming from — how they feel about the German occupation, and how conflicted they might be carrying on with their jobs under such domination.

Whereas, with Black Ocean… I don’t really understand where anyone stands. But I reject the idea that this is because of my own Western frame of reference, or (more disturbingly) that I simply understand and care more about the concerns of Anglo-Saxons than about the Japanese and Filipina and other ethnic characters in the book Burl sent. I really think it’s because the author, Rick Blaine, is being so coy with me as a reader. Yes, a man of Japanese ancestry (although he grew up in Hawaii) like Morimura is going to have an even more nuanced relationship with the Japanese authorities than the thoroughly English Archer did with the Nazis, if only because the Japanese, apparently because of their own racist assumptions, trust him more.

But there’s more than that. Blaine has really muddied the waters. In Deighton’s book, ordinary Englishmen chafe as you would expect them to at the Jerry yoke, griping openly when only their countrymen are around. But in Black Ocean, the locals take Japanese control of the islands more in stride, even alluding to “patriotism” in terms of being loyal to the current order.

A lot of things make sense, such as the Japanese military’s attempt to pin a murder on American provocateurs, or preparing the islands’ defenses. Other things don’t, such as… the journalists at the Star-Bulletin (Burl’s paper) in many ways have to deal with the hassles of occupation — tapped phones, and pressure to cover things a certain way. But beyond that, they seem to (thus far) assume more freedom than you would think they would have under this regime. For instance (SPOILER ALERT!), why would the Japanese assassinate the newspaper’s publisher, apparently not for playing ball, and no one at the paper, initially at least, suspect their hands in the killing? So far, the folks at the paper seem to assume a cocoon of invulnerability like you would typically find at an American paper, not at a paper in a place under the control of Japanese imperialists (but then again, I do know so little about how the Empire of Japan would have related to local media, and I still don’t understand the nature of the Japanese presence).

So what happened, and when did it happen, and how did it happen? I suppose I’ll have to keep reading to find out.

10 thoughts on “Hey, Burl: I’m reading Black Ocean now…

  1. Brad

    I fear, though, that with my vastly inferior knowledge of local (and Pacific) history, I’m going to have fewer “aha!” moments.

    I was suspecting that the Japanese domination had happened gradually, or long ago (had Kaiulani married the Japanese prince?). Yet there are these indications that there had been a sudden change like a military occupation — such as the shuttered library that Morimura and Yay had both used as kids. And there are all sorts of references to the way things USED TO BE, within the lifetimes of these young characters. (But why would they shutter the library, but allow the very Americanized-seeming Star-Bulletin to maintain a great deal of autonomy?)

    Yeah, I see the parallels to Fatherland, but then Fatherland was so much like SS-GB it was ridiculous, right down to the protagonist’s relationship with a beautiful American reporter (Barbara Barga in SS-GB).

  2. Burl Burlingame

    Yeah, you’re gonna have to keep reading. Things in “Black Ocean” — such as the meaning of the title — are revealed fairly leisurely, a bit at a time. One of the things about the book I like is that there are several “Easter egg” bits aimed at Pearl Harbor history nerds.

    I don’t know if it’s clear, or I forget how it’s revealed, but Japan is in Hawaii by a gradual process, due to a vassal state relationship between the independent kingdom of Hawaii and the Japanese government, sort of the way Manchuoko was allied with Japan.

    But America can’t be ignored, because of the large presence of dual Hawaiian-American citizens, American workers and American cultural dominance. If I recall, the Japanese authorities aren’t too happy with Hollywood.

    It’s pretty much a paperback thriller, with a subtext of basic nationalistic loyalty issues. No, you don’t know where anyone stands. NEITHER do the characters!

    Another influence is “Fatherland.” I’m thinking about how the policeman character and the journalist character “investigate” the same thing but with different philosophies.

    Have fun with it. I did! It’s full of clues.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    Sammy Amalu is in it? I’ve forgotten. Must be a passing reference.

    I never worked WITH Sammy Amalu. But just as I came back to the islands from j-school, I was hired for a free-lance photo assignment, documenting Amalu’s poor physical condition due to problems in the hospital he was staying at. The worst bedsores I’d ever seen. I smuggled a camera into the hospital. I thought he would die at any second, but no, he lasted another decade or so. He was a real rascal.

  4. Burl Burlingame

    I’m guessing, Steven, because Brad likes literature, because Brad likes history, because Brad likes provocative ideas, because Brad enjoys a well-spun tale, but mostly because it’s Brad’s blog.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Oh, the newspaper publisher assassinated at the beginning was publisher of a rival newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser. I don’t know if that was clear. (It’s been several years.)


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