This intelligent and interesting book -- the first novel by a writer in his early forties -- is notable among other things for its daring. Richard Wiley, himself American, has taken the not inconsiderable risk of writing a first-person narrative in which the protagonist is Japanese, or, to be absolutely precise, Japanese American. To what degree he has brought this off can best be determined by readers who are themselves Japanese, but to an American reader his narrator, Teddy Maki, is entirely convincing.
Indeed, he is more convincing than the plot, which, in order to make the points Wiley has in mind, takes him on a journey that puts credulity to the acid test. In the late '30s, Maki is a youth living in California, where he was born, and playing guitar in a small band. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, he and his friend Jimmy Yamamoto, a trumpet player, decide to seek their fortunes in Japan. They acquire an agent in Tokyo, whose sister Jimmy soon marries, and set about making names for themselves.
Then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and the lives of the two young men are drastically altered. They are Americans in Japan, but by appearance they are Japanese. They have little choice except to pass themselves off as natives, because they cannot return to America and to identify themselves as Americans would be to invite an uncertain but probably unpleasant fate. So they enter the Japanese army and are shipped off to the Philippines, where Jimmy is killed by his own superior officer in a confrontation involving a captured American soldier.
Teddy is released from the army and returns to Tokyo, where he moves in with Jimmy's pregnant widow Kazuko; after the war he marries her, becomes father to her son and embarks on a career as a musician and the host of a television show. Eventually the show makes him enormously popular, though he regards it and its audience with disdain; it is called the "Original Amateur Hour," in deference to an old American show of that name, but Teddy perversely chooses contestants for their tastelessness rather than their ability -- a policy that goes unnoticed by the show's adoring audience.
This brings us to the present and to the novel's climax, which involves the return of a Japanese veteran presumed to have been dead and a meeting before television cameras with the former officer who murdered Jimmy Yamamoto. The appearance of the veteran forces Teddy to confront his own past in utterly unexpected ways and to come to terms with questions that have haunted him: his guilt at surviving a war in which his best friend was killed, his tangled feelings of love and hatred toward America, his strange and unhappy relationship with his wife. At the end he find peace of a kind, and his bitterness is washed away.
As will be inferred from this description, "Soldiers in Hiding" is an intensely thematic novel that borders on the programmatic. Teddy, the man of divided nationalities, is a metaphor for the forces that divide and unite Americans and Japanese. His attraction to a mistress who bears scars from Hiroshima carries similar import: "Ours was a liaison made of wounds, though hers she wore freely while mine hung like pendants from my old thin neck." From first page to last, the novel is concerned with Japan's complicated connections, for good and ill alike, to "the life and technology of North America."
What saves "Soldiers in Hiding" from being merely programmatic is the deep emotional involvement with his subject that Wiley manages to convey to the reader, and the character of Teddy Maki. He is a man of calm exterior and deeply troubled interior; as he says at one moment of crisis, "If, internally, my chaos has continued, on the outside all seems serene and sequential, I am sure." He is formal, correct and polite, yet inside he seethes with self-doubt and uncertainty; the process by which he resolves these inner torments, though rather implausible in terms of plot, is entirely sound psychologically.
Because Wiley has written an intelligent book, little pleasure is to be taken in pointing out two small but irritating shortcomings that all readers are bound to notice. One is that the scene leading to Jimmy's death bears so striking a resemblance to a comparable scene in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" that for a few pages one seems to be in the wrong novel. The other is that Wiley commits the most breathtaking anachronism within recent memory. In 1944, in the city of Tokyo, he has an elderly Japanese gentleman, a sensei, speak of . . . "life style!"