Ian Buruma is best known for the audacity of his writing, impatience with sloppy thinking, indignation at the inaccurate rendering of history, and immunity to ill-considered criticism. In this collection of essays, as readable today as they were when published in 1996, Buruma’s scope is staggeringly eclectic, his subjects ranging from British explorer Wilfred Thesiger to reflections on the twilight days of empire in Hong Kong and the largely forgotten Dutch novelist, Louis Couperus.

The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West, by Ian Buruma.
352 pages

Living in Japan as a young man, Buruma’s ties to the country are strong. It gets a prominent place at the table here, with analysis of topics as diverse as Pearl Harbor and Japanese baseball. Writers with virtually nothing in common except nationality (Yukio Mishima and Banana Yoshimoto feature here), are also re-examined.

Buruma devotes an entire essay to the late Edward Seidensticker, a translator, who, along with Donald Richie and Donald Keene, was one of the most influential postwar figures in the dissemination of Japanese literary culture. And the book is dedicated to Richie, the proverbial writers’ writer.

Buruma’s books, descending from a line of insatiably curious intellectuals that include Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens, positively fizzle with ideas. When we come across incendiary older titles like these, buried on bookshelves or in digital archives like live munition, they should be handled with care and respect.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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