by Ian Callinan
Arcadia, 2012, 290 pages, $24.95
There may once have been a time when it was fair to think of Ian Callinan as a very distinguished lawyer who wrote interesting fiction. On the evidence of his latest novel, Dislocation, many experienced professional novelists might envy the former judge his skills. In this absorbing work, packed with information about postwar Tokyo and wartime Brisbane, with challenging themes, extended legal argument, courtroom drama, and sensitively etched personal relationships, everything the reader needs to know emerges effortlessly from conversation and action. The novel doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Dislocation is about lives relocated and dislocated by war and its aftermath, in particular Bill Liston’s in a prosecutor’s office in postwar Tokyo, and Irene White’s in “occupied” Brisbane.
Liston, a principled young law lecturer, moves from Brisbane to Tokyo to become part of the Australian prosecution team working for the International Military Tribunal trying Japanese war criminals. He is assigned Admiral Hashiko, a senior but relatively obscure naval officer and a character of some complexity. Liston was recruited by Justice Sir Michael Bailey, Chief Justice of Queensland, now, improbably, President of the International Tribunal. The senior Australian prosecutor is Justice Soames, also from the Queensland Supreme Court. Energetically defending Hashiko is John Shire, from the Sydney bar. Well drawn Australian and American military, legal and medical personnel create a sense of day-to-day actuality.
Liston immediately objects to aberrant procedure. The President of the Tribunal, Bailey, assisted by Liston, has already investigated war crimes in the Pacific and this, in Liston’s mind, should exclude a judicial role. Vain and unprincipled in regard to the processes and requirements of justice, Bailey hobnobs with the prosecutors, inquiring about their cases and offering thinly veiled inducements, and threats, to win collaboration. Bailey was appointed President of the International Tribunal possibly because an American official misunderstood the status of an Australian “Supreme Court”, possibly because Bailey sedulously cultivated General MacArthur when MacArthur’s headquarters were in Brisbane.
At least in his public profile, Bailey closely resembles Sir William Webb, Chief Justice of Queensland in the 1940s. Like Bailey, Webb was a Catholic from a poor family and a “Labor man”, much of whose legal career was in government employment rather than at the bar. Ian Callinan evinces a healthy disrespect for the tribal-Catholic political culture which promoted men like Webb/Bailey.
Justice Soames, the chief Australian prosecutor, is a member of an established Queensland business dynasty, neither Catholic nor Labor but, living in what was then virtually a one-party state, a prudent donor to Labor Party funds. His appointment to the bench was apparently a whim of the Premier, who rudely rejected the Attorney-General’s recommendation. May we assume that Soames is a Freemason, because Queensland once balanced its judicial appointments between the then potent rivals? Though superficially more in tune with the proprieties than Bailey, Soames in the end proves equally unworthy. Mr (later Sir) Justice Alan Mansfield from the Queensland Supreme Court was Australia’s Chief Prosecutor at the trials, but initiates must decide whether Soames bears any resemblance to him. The novel gives Soames habits that look like clues—but to whom?
Bill Liston, with the aid of a young Japanese woman translator, Yono, works hard at convicting Admiral Hashiko, but he is distracted by the growing realisation that the accused are to receive only summary justice—which Bailey freely admits is all the Tribunal is aiming at—and by his growing understanding of Yono. Her presence and their occasional mild disputations cause Bill to ponder the insoluble question of whether a victor can reasonably try an enemy that it has vanquished by overwhelming force, far greater in intensity and effect than any the enemy has been able to apply.
Confronted on the one hand with written evidence of appalling Japanese atrocities ordered at the highest level, but on the other hand surrounded by the unrelieved desolation of vast expanses of a Tokyo almost obliterated by relentless fire-bombing aimed at intimidating the civilian population—a war crime in President Roosevelt’s own terms—and conscious of the two atomic bombs, Bill is perplexed. Does the massive suffering and loss of life created by rationally driven impersonal bombing pay for the seemingly mindless cruelty inflicted by Japanese soldiers on a multitude of individual victims, such as POWs? Still perplexed, Liston presses on with his brief. Hashiko is defended by an able, but ill, Shire, who courageously challenges the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, and persists in his challenge in the face of Bailey’s open hostility and contempt. The novel hints that the Indian judge might think along the same lines as Shire, and in fact the Indian member of the actual Tribunal, Justice Pal, did write a long dissenting judgment.
An exciting situation develops involving Liston, Shire, Hashiko, a sympathetic American nurse and Soames that it would be a crime to reveal, except to hint that it involves the Emperor and makes riveting reading. Both Liston and Shire are sent home. As a parting shot, Liston denounces the Tribunal’s proceedings as “an embarrassment … a travesty that’s being carried out in the name of justice. Sure, the defendants might be guilty, guilty as sin, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they get a fair trial.” To which Soames, voicing the spirit of the Tribunal, replies: “They’re getting what they deserve.”
Meanwhile, back in Brisbane Irene White’s life has been dislocated by war in quite other ways. Lurid accounts of Brisbane under American “occupation” abound, involving riots between Australian and American servicemen that the censors tried to hide, and local young women’s astonishing preference for American soldiers over Australians. An enterprising reporter did a count in a picture theatre and found 152 Brisbane girls with 112 American servicemen, while only thirty-one girls were with sixty Australian soldiers.
The city at war is closely drawn, with its dancing halls and American facilities, but Irene is on the periphery of the excitement. From a sound middle-class family, intelligent and purposeful, she is a young woman of character. The war introduces her to interesting men, whom she comes to love, and in the atmosphere of war the relationships go further than they would have in peace time. But her affairs, even when temporary, are intimate, interesting meetings of mind and spirit, though one has highly dramatic consequences.
Irene is attractively drawn, a physically vigorous, independent, clever Australian woman in charge of her own life, a perfect foil for Yono, the half-starved, delicate, restrained, bravely enduring Japanese translator. Yono is a haunting portrait; there is no collision of cultures between two people as sensitive as Yono and Bill, but they learn a lot from each other. Ian Callinan writes women exceptionally well.
Irene’s brother, Paul, has been a POW on the Burma railway and is physically and mentally scarred, a constant reminder to Bill of what he is prosecuting. Government doctors threaten compulsorily (and most inappropriately) to apply shock treatment, a fate from which Bill’s legal skills save Paul. (I can confirm the fixation of some repatriation doctors with psychosomatic explanations for ex-POWs’ sickness. A very close friend who had spent years “on the line” but miraculously remained sweet and balanced became very ill. Repatriation specialists, individually and in panels, insisted that the “illness” was a psychological reaction to the rigours of captivity and doped my friend into a vegetative state. Then he fell dead. The post-mortem revealed a kidney that had long ceased to function. The allegedly “imagined” physical symptoms endured over that long time had been excruciating.)
Dislocation is deeply thought-provoking as well as riveting, and I hope I will be excused for offering a thought that it has provoked. The novel raises in dramatic fictional form the question of whether the Emperor should have been prosecuted. Blatant characters like Thomas Blamey (John Curtin did say that he didn’t want “a Sunday School teacher in charge of the Army”) and the Australian tabloids loudly demanded that the Emperor be tried. General MacArthur flatly refused. The novel attributes two rather inadequate motives to MacArthur, namely, the need to turn Japan into a bulwark against communism and fear that a trial could lead to a costly uprising.
I suspect that, for all his flaws, or perhaps because of them, MacArthur had wider perspectives. By that I don’t mean that he believed the fulsome rhetoric with which he flooded Japan and America about democracy, Christianity, and Japan’s great good fortune in being “a laboratory for National Reconstruction”. But many people at the time were acutely conscious that the Hitler phenomenon owed a great deal to the cruel blockade imposed on Germany for some years after the Armistice of 1918, and to other humiliations, including the demolition of its political structures, following the Peace Treaty. Successful colonisers such as Britain governed, where possible, by rendering powerless, but retaining, the symbols of national authority and of traditional life. And MacArthur, being MacArthur, was no doubt aware that the great conquerors of the past, like Alexander the Great, made friends with the conquered. (Did his enemies, I wonder, ever depict him as wishing, like Alexander, to seal the peace by marrying an Imperial Princess?)
Nowadays there is a mania for punishing, even when it means cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Relatively recently I was astonished to hear educated Zimbabweans—from the safety of London—fiercely denounce a plan to let President Mugabe leave the country, with an amnesty and a suitable fortune, in order to end the appalling situation there. No, was the cry, he must be punished for his crimes—although this in effect ensured that the egregious crimes would continue and critics would be paid back with interest. The merits of MacArthur’s instinct to keep the figurehead Emperor in place seems to me to outweigh by many magnitudes any conceivable gain from bringing him to trial.
By grim good timing, Ian Callinan’s Dislocation appears alongside several books graphically describing the experience of Australian prisoners of war on the Burma railway. Mark Dapin’s Spirit House opens with the unbearably brutal “punishing” to near-death of a game but doomed Australian prisoner of war. Irene’s White’s brother, scarred from years of slavery on the Burma railway, is a survivor of HMAS Perth. Pattie Wright’s Ray Parkin’s Odyssey prints the diaries and paintings of Ray Parkin, also a survivor of the Perth. With the co-operation of Weary Dunlop, those alternately exquisite and forceful diaries and paintings of Parkin’s time “on the line” survived Japanese captors and incessant jungle-strength tropical downpours. They create as meaningful a record of the crimes Bill Liston was seeking to punish, and of extreme dislocation overcome by sheer nobility of spirit, as it may be possible to find.
Donat Gallagher is one of the editors, and one of the essayists, of the book A Handful of Mischief: New Essays on Evelyn Waugh (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).