Poet’s quest for en­light­en­ment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Ross Fitzger­ald

Peace­mon­gers By Barry Hill UQP, 676pp, $45 (HB)

BARRY Hill and I share at least one thing in common: an abid­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for In­dian poet, nov­el­ist, philoso­pher and play­wright Rabindranath Tagore. Born in 1861 in Cal­cutta (now Kolkata, West Ben­gal), Tagore died in 1941, a few months be­fore the Ja­panese bombed Pearl Har­bor.

A friend of Al­bert Ein­stein, Jawa­har­lal Nehru and Mo­han­das Gandhi, Tagore was one of the world’s great pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als, an early leader of In­dia’s na­tion­al­ist move­ment and, in 1913, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. He also wrote what are now the na­tional an­thems of In­dia and Bangladesh.

Hill is best known as an award-win­ning poet. Peace­mon­gers is his first ma­jor prose work since the ac­claimed 2002 biog­ra­phy Bro­ken Song: TGH Strehlow and Abo­rig­i­nal Pos­ses­sion. This new book is an in­volved and me­an­der­ing med­i­ta­tion on the au­thor’s search for spir­i­tual mean­ing, and also an ex­plo­ration of the gen­e­sis and foun­da­tions of peace.

It be­gins with Hill’s pil­grim­age in In­dia to Bodh Gaya, where the Bud­dha sup­pos­edly re­ceived en­light­en­ment un­der the bodhi tree, and fin­ishes in Na­gasaki, one of the two Ja­panese ci­ties de­stroyed by atomic bombs in World War II.

To­wards the end of the book Hill also gives due recog­ni­tion to Aus­tralian writer Wil­fred Burchett, the first Western jour­nal­ist to re­port on the ef­fects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Within 48 hours of ar­riv­ing there, Burchett had writ­ten what Hill terms “his world-shat­ter­ing story” that, a month after the atomic blast, was pub­lished un­cen­sored on Septem­ber 6, 1945, in London’s Daily Ex­press. Burchett’s ex­plo­sive piece ran un­der the head­line “The Atomic Plague” and opened with the words: “I write this as a warn­ing to the world.”

As well as poetic mus­ings about his trav­els to In­dia and Ja­pan, in Peace­mon­gers Hill in­ter­cuts re­flec­tions about in­dige­nous and other Aus­tralians and also about his fa­ther, a Mel­bournebased peace ac­tivist and a union man who is a pres­ence through­out this re­lent­less and, to my mind, some­times pre­ten­tious book.

What I do find fas­ci­nat­ing in Peace­mon­gers are all the de­tails about In­dian judge Rad­habinod Pal, from the High Court of Cal­cutta, and the role he played in the war crimes tri­bunal set up in Tokyo by the Americans in 1946. In­deed part six of the book, ti­tled Rea­son and Love­less­ness: Tagore, the Tokyo Trial and Jus­tice Pal, is alone worth the price of this well-pro­duced and finely il­lus­trated tome.

This es­pe­cially ap­plies to Hill’s anal­y­sis of Pal’s un­equiv­o­cal dis­sent from the tri­bunal’s majority decision and his rea­sons for re­ject­ing Ja­panese guilt. In fact, Pal’s lengthy judg­ment, the only one that dis­sented ab­so­lutely, was sup­pressed at the time. It was pub­lished only in 1953 in Pal’s mas­sive work In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East: Dis­sentient Judg­ment.

As Hill re­veals, Pal was one of the three to­ken Asians (the oth­ers were from China and The Philip­pines) be­lat­edly ap­pointed by Gen­eral Dou­glas MacArthur to ‘‘bal­ance’’ the 11 Western­ers on the bench. Pal’s ap­point­ment was com­pli­cated by the fact of­fi­cers of the In­dian Na­tional Army, led by Gandhi’s ri­val for the pres­i­dency of the In­dian Na­tional Congress, Sub­has Chan­dra Bose, were on trial for fight­ing with the Ja­panese in Burma.

It is in­trigu­ing to learn that the hand­some Pal, who hailed from East Ben­gal, ar­rived in Tokyo a lit­tle after the trial had be­gun. More­over his attendance at the trial, which ran for 2½ years, was the least of all judges save one. This was the Aus­tralian pres­i­dent of the tri­bunal, Wil­liam Webb, who reg­u­larly re­turned to Bris­bane.

The con­tro­ver­sial thrust of Pal’s Tokyo judg­ment is that all na­tions in­volved in the car­nage of war, vic­tors and van­quished, were cul­pa­ble. Thus he ar­gued that the ‘‘so-called trial … oblit­er­ate(d) the cen­turies of civil­i­sa­tion which stretch be­tween us and the sum­mary slay­ing of the de­feated”. In­deed, if crim­i­nal­ity were the main is­sue, the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and es­pe­cially on Na­gasaki, he ar­gued, was one of the great­est crimes of all. Such atomic blasts, Pal po­et­i­cally con­cluded, had “never oc­curred on earth be­fore — nor in the sun or stars”.

While all of the rich in­for­ma­tion about Pal is un­doubt­edly wor­thy of record, I find Hill’s con­ceit of hav­ing Tagore’s ghost at the Tokyo trial to be coy and un­con­vinc­ing.

Apart from most of the ma­te­rial about Pal, Hill is at his best when he writes di­rectly about Tagore and es­pe­cially about the poet-philoso­pher’s multi-lay­ered sto­ries of knowl­edge and epiphany, and about Bud­dhism, Hin­duism and Zen. Yet de­spite his quest to over­come self­im­por­tance, in the main Hill’s of­ten solip­sis­tic me­di­a­tions re­veal a writer still caught up in sel­f­re­gard.

As it hap­pened, when I first opened


For Jessica, a Quaker. One year I said I didn’t Want to be ar­rested. Back too frail to be man-han­dled. I set­tled for the dawn peace-vigil: Can­dles flick­er­ing in the po­lice horse’s eyes. War can make cow­ards of po­ets. This year I didn’t want to protest Un­der anti-SAS slo­gans. Those young blokes might have been sent to Mt Sin­jar To fight their way up To show the way down For the stranded women and chil­dren: Just the kind of war he­roes we want. Now, from my re­treat near Swan Is­land I hear that they stood on the hands Of my friends, stripped them And dragged them along the ground Took a hes­sian bag Put it over their heads Stood on their backs Said they would kick a head If it so much as opened its mouth. Words fail me when I think of that war Let alone try to imag­ine its peace. mon­gers the book’s saf­fron yel­low page marker in­di­cated page 9 of part one, which is ti­tled Slip­pery Bud­dha. Straight­away my eyes fell on the fol­low­ing sen­tence: “He walked adrift, feet splayed and astray, like an ele­phant that had lost its trunk.”

What on earth did this mean, I won­dered. It was not an aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning.

Of­ten the ma­te­rial Hill quotes is much more lu­cid, pow­er­ful and pen­e­trat­ing than his own text. Bear­ing that in mind, I will end by quot­ing from the Dalai Lama’s ex­e­ge­sis on the Heart Su­tra.

This an­cient Bud­dhist text is some­thing to which Hill of­ten refers in Peace­mon­gers, as well as in a sep­a­rate seven-page au­thor’s note po­si­tioned inside the book.

So here are some lines from the pen of the Dalai Lama:

In­dian poet Rabindranath Tagore, left, with Mo­han­das Gandhi, top; Ja­panese wartime leader Hideki Tojo at his war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1948, above

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