I asked a Japanese friend how he would characterize Shiba Ryotaro’s famous historical novel, “Clouds Above the Hill.” I’ve known its immense popularity, but Shiba had started its newspaper serialization after I left Japan in 1968, and the size of the finished work — six volumes in book form — had daunted me, so I’d never read it. My friend’s reply: “The nation’s favorite book.”

Now it’s in English translation, in four large volumes — two of them out, the remaining two to come out later this year. As the English subtitle says, the novel concerns the Russo-Japanese War, from February 1904 to September 1905 — a war that has special, even nostalgic, meaning for the generations of Japanese who, like Shiba, lived significant chunks of the 20th century.

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