July in Podcasts: Mostly Chiang Kai-shek

Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast.  The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.

Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half  century or so before the Second World War.  It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority.  The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.

Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup).  The focus is, as ever, diplomatic.  There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy.  As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages.  Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.

I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go.  I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).

An Artist Of The Floating World

I read a set of books by David Peace a few months ago – Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City.  Both set in Japan in the post war period.  Both were clearly well researched, by someone who is sympathetic to and at least tries to understand the Japanese experience of that era.  Although David Peace is British, he has lived in Tokyo for years and certainly did not seem to be ‘using’ the setting with consideration.  On the other hand, both books felt like writing exercises: the first a detective novel with traumatic flashes of memory and a twist; the second a book with many characters and sources providing their own take on events, each written in a unique style.  It all got a bit much in the end.  I actually laughed at John Crace’s Digested Read for once.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t like that at all.  Ishiguro moved from Japan to Britain when he was five, so he probably has similar reference points, but approached in a different direction.  Here, a retired artist deals with the consequences of his role in Japanese militarism.  The story feels like it has a greater purpose – there is style here: subdued tone, delicate description, unreliable narration (?) – but the theme of faxing up to misguided ideals is a strong one.  Perhaps though, Ishiguro plays things on the safe side: he raises questions and poses multiple answers but doesn’t come down one way or another.

I’m happy enough to have read David Peace and he has a third coming out next year, which I may read; but I’d be unlikely to return to them.  Ishiguro, I enjoyed and I’d happily read again.