In­trigue as mys­ter­ies re­main

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

A War of Words: The Man Who Talked 4000 Ja­panese into Sur­ren­der By Hamish McDon­ald UQP, 344pp, $32.95 CHARLES Bavier (1888-1977) was the son of a Swiss silk mer­chant who worked in Ja­pan for some years. The iden­tity of his Euro­pean mother is un­known. Raised in Ja­pan by his fa­ther’s for­mer Ja­panese mis­tress, Bavier was im­mersed in Ja­panese cus­toms, lan­guage and think­ing. He was of Euro­pean her­itage, but Ja­pan was his life.

This un­usual back­ground en­abled Bavier to work ef­fec­tively as a pro­pa­gan­dist for the al­lied war ef­fort in Aus­tralia dur­ing World War II. A writer, sol­dier and teacher, among other things, Bavier trav­elled widely, but re­turned per­ma­nently to Ja­pan in the post-war years.

Hamish McDon­ald, a for­eign af­fairs jour­nal­ist, has spent many years un­cov­er­ing the mys­ter­ies of Bavier, whose fam­ily life in the war was com­pli­cated by hav­ing one son serv­ing in the Al­lied forces and an­other serv­ing — how­ever un­will­ingly — in the Ja­panese army.

The au­thor has a good un­der­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal de­tail, and writes lyri­cally and some­times af­fect­ingly of Bavier’s life jour­ney. McDon­ald por­trays Bavier as a broad-minded scholar caught in the mid­dle of a 20th-century Ja­pan that was both push­ing to­wards the West and pulling away from it.

Cer­tainly, the idea of fo­cus­ing on a man of two cul­tures liv­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in key his­tor­i­cal events has a great deal of po­ten­tial, and McDon­ald does his best to draw the reader into Bavier’s so­phis­ti­cated world. A War of Words has been con­structed as a his­tor­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy, but it would have worked bet­ter as a straight­for­ward novel, based on a true story but al­low­ing for artis­tic li­cence. For de­spite his best ef­forts to amass ev­i­dence, the au­thor’s trove of use­ful bio­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion is rel­a­tively slight.

In­deed, the sup­posed fo­cal point of the text is a per­son that kept most of his se­crets to the grave. Ac­cord­ing to MacDon­ald, Bavier’s at­tempt at an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, ‘‘Hachis­aburo’’, was full of ex­tra­ne­ous ma­te­rial and was not very com­pre­hen­sive (a ver­sion of this man­u­script is held at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia). While McDon­ald was able to sup­ple­ment this ac­count with other sources, in­clud­ing oral his­tory, this new ev­i­dence has failed to flesh out Bavier the man and his deeds in any sub­stan­tial sense. It is thus dif­fi­cult for read­ers to sus­tain their in­ter­est in Bavier and his fam­ily.

Even the ar­rest­ing claim on the front cover that Bavier ‘‘talked 4000 Ja­panese into sur­ren­der’’ dur­ing the war is ul­ti­mately un­know­able. This rough fig­ure ap­pears to be a ref­er­ence to what the Far East­ern Li­ai­son Of­fice al­legedly achieved through their pro­pa­ganda work: Bavier was em­ployed by FELO, but his achieve­ments were surely part of a team ef­fort.

McDon­ald works hard to com­pen­sate for the many miss­ing episodes and facts of Bavier’s life. First, the au­thor pro­vides lengthy his­tor­i­cal con­text for events that Bavier lived through or par­tic­i­pated in, to the ex­tent that Bavier at times be­comes a shad­owy pres­ence in his own tale. Sec­ond, when his sources are com­pletely silent on the sub­ject, the au­thor es­sen­tially asks the reader to sus­pend dis­be­lief as he pro­vides some nov­el­is­tic de­scrip­tions of what might have hap­pened to Bavier at a par­tic­u­lar time. Third, the au­thor re­veals lengthy bio­graph­i­cal de­tails of people re­lated to or as­so­ci­ated with Bavier. Fi­nally, McDon­ald in­vents di­a­logue that might have taken place. While these man­u­fac­tured con­ver­sa­tions were un­doubt­edly de­signed to push the nar­ra­tive for­ward, they feel more than a lit­tle con­trived. All these dif­fer­ent forms of nar­ra­tive pad­ding make the book more dif­fi­cult to read.

The au­thor has noted that ‘‘the story … re­mains frag­men­tary. There are some imag­ined, even fan­ci­ful bridg­ings of the gaps, which should be ob­vi­ous to read­ers’’.

Notwith­stand­ing these claims, the lack of ref­er­enc­ing makes it dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate fact from fan­ci­ful fac­tion. To his credit, McDon­ald in­cludes a list of key sources, but a more com­pre­hen­sive ref­er­enc­ing sys­tem would have greatly en­hanced the book’s claim that ‘‘Bavier’s ac­count of his life has been shown as es­sen­tially true’’.

A War of Words is oc­ca­sion­ally marred by sensationalism. The pruri­ent para­graphs on ‘‘booze, brawls and broads’’ in war­time Aus­tralia are typ­i­cal of the nar­row so­cial de­scrip­tions of this era by many jour­nal­ists and his­to­ri­ans.

Such writ­ing is jar­ring, as the au­thor’s tone is largely mea­sured and will­ing to un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence with em­pa­thy. Less sen­sa­tional is the au­thor’s treat­ment of his bio­graph­i­cal sub­ject’s sex­u­al­ity. The reader is given brief glimpses into Bavier’s sex­ual awak­en­ing and sub­se­quent ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments: such erotic de­tail is sen­si­tively han­dled, but given the ex­tent to which Bavier is a non-pres­ence in the book, it is dif­fi­cult to as­sess the rel­e­vance of such anec­dotes to the nar­ra­tive.

A War of Words is of­ten po­etic, gen­tly hu­mor­ous and strongly in­formed by the great cur­rents of in­ter­na­tional his­tory from the 1860s to the 1940s. How­ever, its lack of schol­arly rigour and clear nar­ra­tive fo­cus com­bine to pre­vent this work from fully suc­ceed­ing as an his­tor­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy.

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