Monday, June 10, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE LOST PILOT – A Memoir” by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman (Penguin, $NZ40)

            Writing honestly and unsentimentally about your own parents is one of the hardest things a writer can do.

I know this from experience.

Sixteen years ago, my friend the late Bill Sewell asked me to contribute an essay to a book he was editing, in which New Zealand men wrote about how their fathers influenced them. The book appeared as Sons of the Fathers (Tandem Press, 1997). When I re-read now the essay I contributed, I don’t regret any of the factual material I included. I would still endorse most of the things I said about my father. But a couple of times I do detect a note approaching sentimentality, which I would probably edit out now. It’s so hard to get the tone quite right when discussing your parents in public. Edmund Gosse knew this when he wrote his classic autobiography Father and Son [see index at right to find my comments on it].

            Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s The Lost Pilot is a whole book in which the author reconciles with his long-dead father; but he does so in a very roundabout and artful way. As Holman notes in his introduction:

 “In the course of telling this story, I was well aware that this book was going to cross many genres: memoir, history, travel, a spiritual quest – and poetry. Not only does it do that, but in the process various themes and styles and voices are interwoven, with leaps backwards and forwards in time. There are historical sequences where the personal interjects, and the register changes….” (p.11)

            After his introduction, he opens with his father Bill (William Thomas) Holman dying of cancer, at the age of 50, in 1972. This develops in the second chapter into an account of how son related to father when the author was a child and a young man. Bill Holman was no intellectual, but he was no fool either. Jeffrey has a youthful memory (p.20) of his father reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and identifying with its troubled anti-hero John Henchard. An English immigrant to New Zealand, Bill Holman was moody, an alcoholic and prone to rages, which he sometimes worked out on his sons. The war had clearly played a part in damaging him. From the family home in Blackball on the West Coast, Bill went to prison when he embezzled money to cover gambling debts. His wife, the author’s long-suffering mother, formally separated from him. But she took him back when he promised to reform. Unfortunately Bill relapsed into booze and gambling; and to make matters worse he’d been kicked out of the social clubs connected with the navy, which were his chief standard of identity. The author admits that there were clearly some Oedipal feelings at work, as he rivalled his Dad for his Mum’s attention.

Only when Bill died and was buried did his son begin to research his parents’ background in earnest. Bill Holman was the child of a working class English family in the Depression. Circumstances led him into youthful crime. In 1938, as a teenager, he was drafted into the British Navy as a punishment for petty theft and as a preferable alternative to being sent to jail. The childhood of Jeffrey Holman’s Mum was just as fraught. She was put into an authoritarian orphanage by an over-stressed mother, who had a hard time keeping her. Later, as best the author can work it out, she was sexually molested by one of her mother’s lodgers. So both parents had unpromising starts in life, which made them emotionally distant from their children.

Yet the author is aware of his parent’s hardships and praises their resilience, especially in the circumstances of the Second World War, where civilians like his mother and her family were as much in the front line as Royal Navy boys like his father. As he notes:

In this new form of total war, the front line was not some far away designation in a newspaper headline, but your own address. What my mother, her mother and the entire Liverpool community went through was a trial by fire every bit as deadly as that faced by my father and his shipmates at sea. It would be returned – with savage interest – on German civilians…” (Pg.68)

Although announced at the start, the key and centrepiece of this memoir is held back until the third chapter. In 1945, Bill Holman was serving as a signaller in the British Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carrier Illustrious. On 6 April 1945, a kamikaze plane dived out of the clouds over the aircraft carrier. Accurate fire from the ship’s Bofors guns sheared off one of the Suisei dive-bomber’s wings. It crashed into the sea and exploded a mere 30 yards off the ship’s starboard side, at once killing its two-man crew (pilot and navigator). Jeffrey Holman’s father (who was on the ship’s bridge) and his fellow crewmen had missed death by a mere fraction. Jeffrey Holman has a photograph of the moment his father’s life was almost lost – taken from another ship, a grainy shot of the huge tower of water as the kamikaze plane exploded next to the Illustrious.

This incident, for the author, became the key to all his questionings about how the war damaged his father and turned him into the unhappy, angry man that he was. But it also led him to think about the mentality of young men in wartime – kamikaze pilots as much as English seamen. So he set off on research into the Japanese and their military tradition. He relates this without sentimentality. He is aware that two atom bombs may have seemed, to sloppy observers, to turn all Japanese into the war’s victims. But they only followed the barbarism and atrocities of Japan’s own campaigns in China and elsewhere. He remarks:

The post-war, post-atomic Japanese victimhood and memory loss regarding atrocities committed in the course of her stated desire to liberate colonial Asia from the British, the Dutch and the French remain in the court of history as familiar examples of a bully’s self-piteous reaction when his nose is bloodied in defeat.” (Pg.95)

Nor does he glamorise the kamikaze crews. Perhaps something could be said in favour of a desperate last-minute attempt to ward off an invading enemy by suicide attacks. But, after quoting pages of transcripts from diaries by Japanese war pilots, Holman concludes that there was much sheer cynicism in their deployment. Many of the kamikaze crews were scared, unwilling young men who flew off on their one-way missions out of a sense of duty, but without the patriotic fervour that Japanese newsreels depicted. Most knew their campaign was futile and were thinking of the families they would miss rather than the emperor they were supposed to worship.

The cynicism came from Japan’s highest authorities. The Emperor Hirihito was essentially a war criminal who had approved much military barbarity. The emperor survived only because, post-war, the occupying Americans needed a unifying figure to calm down any Japanese anxiety. Hirihito (pp.116 ff.) was not in the least concerned about the loss of his own pilots’ lives – he had already advised inhabitants of Saipan to commit suicide rather than surrender. His cynical purpose in authorising the kamikaze campaign was to show the strength of Japanese resolve in face of what he knew was inevitable defeat; in the hope that the Americans would not invade Japan and that they would reach a negotiated peace.

Once Jeffrey Holman has established all this, from a little over halfway through (p.168), The Lost Pilot becomes an account of his month-long visit to Japan, in his quest to find out fully how young Japanese men regarded the war; what their stresses were, as opposed to his father’s; and whether he could somehow put his father’s harsh experience into perspective. A strong sense of death hangs over these chapters, as they were written post-Christchurch earthquake and post-tsunami that ravaged coastal Japan in 2011.

Holman does get to meet, and is reconciled to, the Nagata family, surviving relatives of one of the kamikaze crews that attacked the Illustrious on 6 April 1945. He also describes in detail his own feelings and spiritual development as he considered Japanese ways of remembering the dead, and how war now features in Japanese culture. As he lays his father’s troubled ghost to rest, he makes many comments on the modern Japanese such as:

Walking back, I’m getting used to being the roving gaijin zoo animal; drivers, bikers and walkers sneak a look at me as I go. Tourists don’t come very often to Kurume and there are few local foreigners. Neil, tall and blond, sticks out like a giraffe in a deer park; when he breaks into his fluent Japanese, amazing the locals wherever he goes, suddenly he seems to blend in. He’s a permanent outsider here, however, a state of being he accepts and wears as a kind of badge. Japan does seem a nation unto itself: despite Western prejudices about its propensity to imitate the West, that’s only true on the surface. So, a gaijin is a gaijin is a gaijin: the price is a certain undeniable loneliness….” (p.223)

The final chapter (entitled “The Old Illustrians – Writing from Memory”) reflects on the whole meaning and purpose of writing a memoir like this. Holman draws heavily on the observations of the German W.G.Sebald and others to remind us that, even if it is scrupulously well-researched and honest, any memoir is still the theatre for unreliable memory and translation. Hence inevitably any memoir becomes a species of fiction. The written memoir is never the same thing as the lived experience. Holman knows fully that his interest in Japanese kamizake pilots is as much an exorcism of his father as a memory of him.

In both its poetry and its prose, there is much to admire in this book. Jeffrey Holman is not patronising about his parents’ generation or about the motives that drove them. He respects people’s spiritual traditions and, although his own understated Christian faith is clear, he does not proselytise. Though it is roundabout in structure, I found this an enlightening journey. I do have to admit, though, that I felt it drooped stylistically after the mid-point where it becomes, in effect, the worked-up version of Holman’s diary notes from his Japanese journey. Perhaps some of this could have been more rigorously edited.

Even so, I found much of the book’s detail fascinating.

I never realised, for example (p.75) that when the British Pacific Fleet went into joint operations with US fleet in the Pacific war, British signallers like Holman senior were required to re-learn their craft and adopt the US Navy signal system in order to operate. A clear indication of how much the British fleet was junior partner in that theatre.

Then there is the story Holman tells of his great-uncle (his mother’s uncle), the English strategic theorist Hector C. Bywater who speculated on the coming war in Pacific. In 1925, Bywater wrote a book called The Great Pacific War, 1931-33 in which he predicted that the Japanese would launch a war with a surprise attack on American naval bases (just as they had surprise-attacked the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904); that they would gamble on America not having the will to retaliate, despite its much greater industrial base; that the Americans would defeat Japan by adopting an “island-hopping” strategy; and that in the last phases of the war the Japanese would adopt tokkotai (suicidal crash-dive or kamikaze) tactics. Allowing for the fact that Bywater couldn’t be expected to predict the atom bomb in 1925, this was, twenty years before the fact, a very accurate account of what actually did happen. More amazingly, Bywater’s book was read avidly by Japan’s high command, who agreed with the doctrine of a first strike and resistance to invasion at all costs, but who failed to take on board Bywater’s clear conclusion that in any such conflict Japan, lacking America’s resources, would inevitably lose.

Finally, in The Lost Pilot I discover (p.220) the extraordinary fact that T.W.Ratana modelled his famous temple on the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki. Ratana visited this Catholic cathedral in 1924. As Holman tells us, the cathedral was exactly re-built in 1959, after having been obliterated by the second atomic bomb as much of Nagasaki was.

I do not think The Lost Pilot hangs together well. In his introduction, Holman has fairly warned us that it is a blending of many genres. Even so, the jumps from personal memoir, to the history of his parents, to a general history of Japan, to a travel diary, are very jarring, as if the author hasn’t fully digested his own material. But if the parts do not hang together, each has much that is worth reading. And the image of the lost (kamikaze) pilot is a fair image of all young men who are destroyed or damaged by war, including the young sailor who never adjusted to the peace and turned to booze and domestic violence.

1 comment:

  1. I have almost finished this, and commented that while I loved it, I thought the last part could have been shortened; it just felt a little self-indulgent at times. Perhaps that is just my NZ-centric feelings coming through. I didn't mind the mixing of styles, but did prefer the first half.

    But a great and dense book, full of history, family history, stories, analysis, ideas, interesting detail, and love.