Intrigue as mysteries remain
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.