BiographyA War of Words: The Man Who Talked 4000 Japanese into SurrenderHAMISH MCDONALDUQP, $32.95 Born into Meiji Japan, Charles Bavier was the illegitimate son of wealthy Swiss silk entrepreneur Edouard de Bavier and a mother he never knew (who probably died during or soon after she gave birth). To avoid a scandal, Edouard left the boy in the care of his Japanese mistress and returned to Switzerland, abandoning his son to desultory paternal instructions and his lover to shrinking maintenance payments. Young Charles was thus brought up outwardly a ‘hairy’ European and inwardly – as he felt - a Japanese child. He absorbed Japanese customs, songs and traditions, wore male kimonos and ate his daily rice portion. He enjoyed school cadets and swordsmanship and dreamt of being a war hero (a juvenile dream he took into adulthood). His grudgingly adoptive mother was a ruthless disciplinarian - threatening half-seriously on one occasion to snip off his penis if he continued paying attention to girls – and who pleaded unsuccessfully with Edouard in writing to take the boy back to grow up among Europeans. Unloved, and caught between his self-identity as a Japanese and the Japanese perception of him as European, the young man eventually jumped ship for Australia, reached Melbourne, where he persuaded the military authorities of his usefulness as an interpreter. Eager to fulfill his military ambitions, he was accepted – notwithstanding suspicions about his odd provenance – by the Australian Army, and soon found himself bound for the European theatre, where he would serve without distinction as a sergeant in the Gallipoli campaign. His war ended prematurely. Not surprisingly, this curious hybrid did not fit in with the diggers. In the 1920s, Bavier returned to Japan. He was now married to a Japanese woman, with whom he had two sons. Soon, he would be compelled again to leave: the rise of paranoid militarism and violent nationalism made life extremely difficult for ‘foreign-looking people’, who were invariably branded spies. To Australia’s shame, the government refused to accept him back, coarsely dismissing his hope of residency for his wife and their two sons. If that was how Australia treated a World War I veteran, Bavier had little choice but to turn to the British, via a contact with the authorities in Hong Kong, who took an eminently practical view of Bavier’s skills. In Singapore, they told Bavier, the large Japanese population was growing aggressively patriotic. Many businesses were fronts for Japanese espionage. Would Charles drop in and work as an interpreter? Thus began his work with MI5 – then an imperial service, with more than 40 offices abroad. He was sent to assess the Japanese presence in Thailand and the Malay Peninsula, before being evacuated by Special Branch ahead of the fall of Singapore, in February 1942. He returned to Melbourne, with his Japanese wife and one son, whom he hid away at home (the other son had been compelled to serve in the Japanese Army, as a member of the Kempetai military police). Bavier’s service with MI5 recommended him for a job as a wartime propagandist with the Far Eastern Liaison Office (FELO). If Bavier was often suspected of being a double agent, the collapse of Japan and the arrival of Japanese prisoners gave him a chance to prove his loyalties. He became an effective propagandist for the Allies, writing pamphlets and broadcasts that persuaded the enemy to surrender by appealing to their sense of nostalgia, their longing for home. He helped develop a subtle form of ‘psywar’ that involved the soft touch: Japanese music and stories from home were broadcast into the Bougainville jungle. In response, more than 4000 Japanese laid down their weapons. Though just a fraction of the 57,000 Japanese who would fight to the death in the operational area, it was something. McDonald has written a solidly researched biography of a thoughtful, unprepossessing man whose strange circumstances, rather than any inherent strength of character, would determine his destiny: it was perhaps inevitable that Bavier, ‘a Japanese in European skin’, would find himself buffeted about on the waves of 20th-century nihilism and prejudice. A serious flaw in the book is the author’s tendency to plug the gaps in Bavier’s life by imagining what might have been. At several points McDonald frames his narrative with, ‘Let us suppose’ or ‘Let us imagine this incident…’, to flesh out important events or, in one case, a year of Bavier’s life. Perhaps this works over a sentence of two, but pages of speculative narrative are less persuasive. While this biography lacks psychological depth, and sometimes reads as a series of ‘things that happened’ to the subject, its considerable strength lies in the vivid historical setting McDonald imposes on him. ‘Imposes’ is the correct word, because events tended to act on Bavier; Bavier rarely acted on events - except in the last year of the war, when he helped to persuade those 4160 Japanese to surrender, no small feat. Paul Ham’s latest book is 1914: The Year the World Ended.