When I was a boy, my father told me and my kid brother stories from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and taught us how to sing some of the threnodies that Gen. Maresuke Nogi composed in classical Chinese on the battlefield. My father was born three years after the war, but memories of it were still strong.

Clouds Above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War (Vols. 3 & 4), by Shiba Ryotaro Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Andrew Cobbing.
routledge, Fiction.
Rating ★★★★★

One story had to do with Iwao Oyama, commander-in-chief of Japan’s Manchurian expeditionary forces.

One night Oyama rustled out of bed to take a piss and, while doing that from a rampart, asked his chief of staff who happened by, “Kodama, what’s that thumping and crackling all about?” Gentaro Kodama replied, “Sir! That’s the attack you ordered a few hours ago.”

This happened during the Battle of Shaho, in mid-October 1904, Shiba Ryotaro tells us in “Clouds Above the Hill.” Japanese forces of 120,000 and Russian forces of 220,000 repeatedly clashed, “with no prospect of victory,” resulting in 62,000 casualties. The Japanese headquarters staff was “in a state of bedlam.”

At one critical moment, “Oyama woke up after an afternoon nap, poked his head into the room, and addressed Kodama. ‘More fighting going on somewhere today?’ Those present were dumbstruck. This brief query had an immediate calming effect, raising spirits and quieting hysteria.”

Not that Oyama was absent-minded or careless. When young, he was regarded as “a fount of wisdom” until he began to take charge of others. Then he cultivated “the habits of self-effacement and thoroughgoing detachment,” Shiba explains. Oyama “impressed me rather as a très grand seigneur,” wrote the British military observer Gen. Ian Hamilton. He had just fought the Boer War.

Shiba adds that Adm. Heihachiro Togo, who vanquished Russia’s Baltic Fleet in May 1905, “shared these traits.” You might expect him to say the same thing about Gen. Maresuke Nogi, who subdued the Russian fortress at Port Arthur in January 1905. Instead, Shiba counts Nogi among the war’s “incompetents.”

In fact, the second half of his roman-fleuve on the war — the first half reviewed in these pages on July 28, 2013 — opens with Gentaro Kodama taking over the command of Nogi’s 3rd Army. It was an unprecedented breach of military protocol and order, but Kodama could not allow Nogi to continue wasting any more troops and ammunition. His forces were unable to move against Gen. Alexei Kuropatkin’s larger army because of a dire shortage of both.

According to Shiba — some historians disagree — Kodama quickly achieved the occupation of 203-Meter Hill that enabled Nogi’s army to directly bombard Port Arthur and destroy Russia’s Pacific Fleet anchored there. This freed Togo from standing guard outside the port and allowed him to prepare fully to face the giant armada Adm. Zinovy Rozhestvensky was bringing all the way from the Baltic Sea.

Despised as incompetent, Shiba says, Nogi was assigned to play the role of decoy in the crucial battle of Mukden. Why was it then that it was neither Oyama nor Kodama but Nogi who “strongly impressed the world and whose figure became symbolic of the Russo-Japanese War in people’s minds”?

“The more I see of General Nogi, the more he impresses me,” Gen. Hamilton wrote. “I sense nobility of character and a spirit of philosophic heroism that penetrates the mild dignity of his manners and appearance.”

The young American reporter Stanley Washburn more than agreed. He was so taken by the general he wrote a whole book, “Nogi,” to detail his reverence. When Nogi disemboweled himself during the Meiji Emperor’s funeral, to atone for his sins as a soldier, Harriet Monroe, who had just started the magazine “Poetry,” wrote a poem, “Nogi.” She may well have read Richard Barry’s translations of Nogi’s poems in Collier’s Weekly.

Shiba is a master spinner of yarns, and “Clouds Above the Hill” is packed with entertaining and enlightening digressions. It is not without flaws, however. In telling his tale in a daily newspaper over a span of five years, Shiba repeated anecdotes and other information many times. The translators, apparently tasked not to drop any word, repeat them all.

Another flaw is Shiba’s various, relentless denigrations of tsarist Russia, from Nicholas II down. At one point, within a few paragraphs, he uses the word “despot” three times in putting down Adm. Rozhestvensky. In a sweeping narrative like this, the approach is self-defeating.

After all, leading a large fleet from the Baltic Sea to the Japan Sea was such an epic undertaking that Shiba himself says, “If the expedition of this great armada succeeded, the achievements of the builders of the Pyramids and the Great Wall, as well as the expedition of Alexander the Great, would all pale by comparison.”

The 8-month-long oceanic expedition failed because Togo defeated Rozhestvensky just before he reached his destination, Vladivostok. It was lopsided, too. Togo lost just three torpedo boats, even as he sunk all of Rozhestvensky’s capital ships.

Shiba ends his account of the war with that fateful encounter, the Battle of Tsushima. But he takes leave of his grand account not on a triumphant but a wistful note. For him, the course Japan took in the four decades following that “victory” after the country’s remarkable rise may well have been too sad to contemplate.