Secret Agent of Japan – Amleto Vespa

542677722.0.mThis must be one of the best titles for a book ever. Period. Amleto Vespa was a spy for Japan, but claimed in the book he was forced to become one. If not, the Japanese would murder his family. The adult version of the premisse that underlies all decent martial arts flicks like The Karate Kid: I don’t want to fight, but you’re making it impossible for me not to open a can of whoop-ass on you. And boy, does the book deliver: here are some chapter titles that should wet the appetite for whoop-ass in print:

“White-Slave Traders”
“How Chang Tso-lin was Killed”
“Ying, the Bandit”
“The Chief Goes Berserk”
“Official Prostition Monopoly”
“Drugs and Degradation”
“Kidnapping à la Mode”
“Money-Dirty if Not Always Bloodstained”

Need I say more? The book is a thriller-like narrative, detailing all kinds of operations against Manchurian bandits and warlords alike, but most importantly the nefarious schemes of Manchukuo’s real rulers. If you had any kind of positive perception of the Manchukuo nation-building done by the Japanese, you won’t after reading this book. It is a true account?  By now we know of the opium and other drugs industries in Manchukuo Japan was involved in. So, a true account it could very well be. Probably is, but I wouldn’t swear to it that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is eminently readable and ultimately tragic. The writer and protagonist was killed, probably by another secret agent of Japan in Manchuria in 1941.

Vespa was a colorful if not altogether very likeable person. At least in political terms. He was a self-proclaimed fascist, apparently. But this didn’t stop the Left Book Club to publish his book. Anything to throw some mud on the Japanese in Manchukuo, I presume. Nonetheless, the author of the Introductory Note (Manchester Guardian China correspondent H.J. Timperly) strategically leaves out Vespa’s like for Mussolini in the brief cv he gives of him.

Vespa fought in the Mexican Revolution against Zapata, was wounded twice and traveled widely through the US, South America, Australia, French Indo-China, China, Tibet, Mongolia and Eastern Siberia. Arriving in Manchuria in 1921 (but having been in/near/around China etc since 1912), he went to work for warlord Zhang Zuolin, which got him into so much trouble (smuggling arms severely pissed off the Italian consulate, although it is not clear why) with the Italian government that he became a Chinese citizen. Zhang by the way was infamously blown up in his train by a Japanese officer in 1928.

Vespa comes across as a practical yet fundamentally decent person. But he wrote the book himself, so he would have to portray himself as a quintessentially nice guy I guess. Given his background, I can imagine he wasn’t. Anyway, the book is certainly worth reading. And there is even a Dutch translation for those so inclined. Just saying.

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