‘Cultural depth-charges’


Download 170.9 Kb.
Date conversion07.11.2016
Size170.9 Kb.
1   2   3   4
It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.43

In fact, the opening paragraphs of Catch-22 read like a comic inversion of the first page of No Time to Look Back, which also begins with a hospital visit by a military chaplain to a serviceman with a mysterious ailment that puzzles his doctor:
The Padre with the Modern Approach looked down at the man who lay on the shabby bed.

‘He still remembers nothing,’ the medical officer said. His voice was a complaint.

Padre Choyce looked at the clear brown eyes of the soldier lying there, at the profile that might have been the impress of an ancient coin, at the deep-toned skin, the smile which stirred lightly as unravelled silk about the young lips; and a little spring of elation bubbled quietly in him at the nearness of this man.

He frowned, for there was no room for elation in this fearful place. Yet the soldier lying there was beautiful: not as a girl, beautiful … somehow else … beautiful like a book. Yes, that was it – like a book.44

This is obviously not a representative soldier of the Second World War. The man portrayed here is a Christian priest, an aesthete, a bibliophile, and, possibly, a homosexual. Nor is the language in which he is represented that of the 1940s; the period it suggests is that of the ‘decadent’ 1890s and Oscar Wilde. Reading the first page of No Time to Look Back for the first time can induce a mild shock. For a moment, it can seem almost as if the reader has picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray by mistake. One phrase in particular, ‘the smile which stirred lightly as unravelled silk about the young lips’, is typically Wildean in its combination of aestheticism and homo-eroticism. But, oddly enough, Greener does not seek to suggest by this that Padre Choyce is a homosexual. (Nor is there any reason to suppose that Greener himself was homosexual. He married twice and had a son by his second marriage.) This all seems to indicate a certain unself-consciousness in Greener’s description of Padre Choyce’s thoughts – a quality noted by Paul Fussell in First World War writers’ handling of homo-erotic motifs. Certainly none of the comic irony of Catch-22 seems to be intended here. If there is any irony present, it lurks in the phrase ‘The Padre with the Modern Approach’ since almost everything we are told about Padre Choyce reveals him not to be ‘modern’ at all.
The Relic and The Survivor
If Padre Choyce is not a typical prisoner of war, neither are the other men around him in Panchor. The patient on the bed, Andros, is a young man with amnesia. He is (apparently) a private soldier in the British Army, yet one who reads the New Testament in the original Greek and speaks an oddly formal, abstract English. Most of the other named characters in the novel – the pharmacist Bumble, the artist Pendle Grieve, the old Indian Army officer Major Fleche, Captain Ajax – do not quite seem ‘real’ either. Their names suggest characters from English novels of the Leavisite Great Tradition, especially the novels of Smollett, Dickens and Trollope, far more than they do a roll-call of prisoners in Changi. Greener’s method of establishing character through a hyperbolic, caricature-like verbal sketch of an individual’s dominant physical characteristic (rather than, say, by dialogue) also seems to hark back to a technique of Smollett and Dickens: Andros’s profile has the beauty of an ancient Greek coin; Bumble is round and fat like a bee (like his Dickensian namesake); Major Fleche is a weatherbeaten old soldier who sports, as his name seems to imply, a large moustache (flèche is an obsolete military term for a V-shaped parapet that projects from the face of a fortification); Captain Ajax, as his name suggests, is a warrior-type.

Yet not all these improbably named figures are entirely the product of Leslie Greener’s obviously cultivated literary imagination. The character of the artist Pendle Grieve, who lampoons senior British Army officers who insist on trying to enforce military ‘bullshit’ in impossible circumstances, is almost certainly based on the well-known English cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920–). During part of the period Greener describes in his novel, Searle was illustrating The Survivor, a hand-published magazine that was produced in Changi in 1942–43. Later in the war, Searle illustrated a similar magazine, Exile, from a cell in Changi Prison. In his novel, Greener writes:

The Relic was a sophisticated magazine which published two copies of each edition to circulate among the thousands of Panchor. Its reading matter was typed, its illustrations hand-drawn. Since its matter was far above the heads of most of the thousands, its limited editions were not so long in circulating as might at first have been supposed … There was a drawing of a moustached staff officer, pouter-pigeoned with importance although he was obviously a prisoner-of-war, for he was fantastically shabby and patched. He was holding something out to his batman, who wore only a loin cloth, and was saying to him, ‘Bates, my red arm-band is improperly pressed.’

Padre Choyce looked at it for a long time. ‘Not very clever, Bumble, but interesting. It tells us something about Pendle Grieve.’


‘Oh, I don’t know exactly. Frustration, I suppose.’45

This is an intriguing passage in several ways. It provides a glimpse of a very real conflict between different groups of prisoners in Changi and at the same time, I think, offers a key insight into Greener’s novel. It may even partly help to explain why No Time to Look Back never went beyond a single edition. During the early period in Changi, senior British and Australian officers made a determined attempt to preserve normal military discipline (growing of beards, for example, was forbidden) and routines such as daily parade-ground drill. Their efforts were bitterly resented, not only among the rank and file but by many junior officers. The Australian Russell Braddon is scathing in his attacks on this policy in his memoir The Naked Island:

If 1940 France was the phoney-war, 1942 Changi was certainly the phoney-captivity. To us who came from Pudu [Prison, Kuala Lumpur], it was unbelievable …

Changi was phoney not because of the mass of men in it but because of the official attitude behind its administration. The Command determined to maintain full military discipline and establishments, regardless of circumstances or psychology, waiting upon the day when Malaya would be invaded by a British force. Accordingly, two principles seemed to guide every decision. One, to retain full divisional and regimental staffs pottering round achieving nothing useful at all in divisional and regimental offices: two, to preserve the Officers–Other Rank distinction by as many tactless and unnecessary orders as could be devised.46

Braddon was an ordinary soldier, a gunner. Ian Watt, who was a junior British Army officer, made a formal protest to his superiors at being required to drill squads of malnourished prisoners on a barrack-square in equatorial heat.47 Watt wrote in 1956:
At first, I think, most men tended to resent the fact that the usual sort of military procedures went on under quite different conditions; and this was made worse by the fact that, since we didn’t see the few Japanese officers who gave orders to our chain of command, it was easy to blame our terrible lack of food, clothes, and drugs on our own superior officers; and every necessary working party or fatigue seemed to be a gratuitous demonstration of their authority. At the same time our commanders took some rather foolish steps to restore our morale. For example, despite the fact that there were few razor blades, less soap, and certainly no hot water, we were forbidden that traditional occupation of the prisoner, growing a beard. There seems to be a rooted idea in the military mind that although a moustache is a symbol par excellence of manly pugnacity, hair below the lip is certain evidence of effeteness or moral turpitude or both. So senior officers went around distributing razor blades to insolently unshaven subalterns. That wasn’t all: despite my beri-beri feet, I also had to turn out before breakfast for saluting parades. It seemed it wasn’t enough to be prisoners; we had to be in the army too.48

This is the context in which we should read Pendle Grieve’s cartoon. It is noteworthy that the officer in the cartoon is a staff officer, as his red armband indicates, and not a regimental officer. Such men, after the First World War, tended to be despised by ‘fighting’ soldiers.49 In Changi, they must have been more unpopular than ever because many of their fellow prisoners would have blamed them for the poor planning and muddled higher leadership which contributed to the fall of Singapore. The Survivor, which seems to have been almost a kind of proto-Private Eye, was regarded as so radical in its humour that in March 1943 it was suppressed – not by the Japanese, but by the British. In other words, Ronald Searle was eventually silenced by the same officers who are satirised in The Relic. In fact, the cartoon that Greener describes in his novel is almost certainly the same one that sealed the fate of The Survivor. The magazine was brought to the attention of the British camp commandant when an army chaplain took offence at an attack in it on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception written by its flamboyantly eccentric editor Hilton Tranchell. That alone would probably not have been enough to bring about its suppression, but the commandant discovered that in the same issue ‘Searle had perpetrated a cartoon that was mildly deflationary at the expense of generals’ and The Survivor was ‘pronounced too dangerously bolshie to continue’.50

Padre Choyce’s humourless, patronising reaction to Pendle Grieve’s cartoon marks him for a contemporary reader (as it probably did for readers in 1950) as an aloof, unsympathetic figure. Yet I doubt that this response is the one that Greener as a novelist intended. It is not easy either to reconcile his description of the cartoon with his earlier statement that the content of The Relic ‘was far above the heads of most of the thousands’. As well as being very funny, its message seems perfectly clear (and plays cleverly on the military expression ‘improperly dressed’). It is hard to believe that any of the thousands of prisoners in Changi would have failed to see the joke – except, possibly, the staff officers whom it ridicules, and Greener himself, we should remember, was one of those officers.51

Leslie Greener and Ronald Searle must have known one another personally because they helped create the ‘Playhouse’, the prisoner-of-war theatre built in Changi in 1944, for which Greener designed the stage and Searle produced the sets.52 However, other than the fact that both are artists, the character of Pendle Grieve bears surprisingly little resemblance to other accounts of Ronald Searle. Grieve is an officer; Searle was an ordinary soldier (a sapper in the Royal Engineers).53 Moreover, Greener’s character is clearly a literary type: a ‘sensitive’ artist who is horrified at even the mention of blood. Russell Braddon describes Searle as an incredibly tough and resilient individual who simply carried on drawing on the Burma–Thailand Railway even when dangerously ill (by October 1943, Searle’s weight was down to seven stone; he was suffering from beriberi, malaria, tropical ulcers, scabies, ringworm, the tropical skin disease perfligas, and a wound from a pick-axe, inflicted by a Japanese guard, that had penetrated as far as his spine).54
Christianity in No Time to Look Back
Leslie Greener launches a ‘cultural depth-charge’ of his own in No Time to Look Back. Whereas Nevil Shute in A Town Like Alice seeks to nullify the identification of Joe Harman as a Christ-figure, Greener does the opposite: the character of Andros in his novel is intended to represent the Risen Christ. ‘If Jesus Christ were to walk in the gate, none of us would recognise him’, he is reported to have written in Changi in 1944, and this is, in fact, the basic premise of his novel.55

Greener is fairly methodical in developing the figure of Andros–Christ (andros being the Greek for ‘man’): he attracts a group of disciple-like followers in Panchor, he performs ‘miracles’ (causing two prisoners with temporary paralysis to walk again), and when he prays addresses God in the first-person (‘my Father’). Other characters in the novel refer to him as ‘this Greek revivalist fellow’, ‘this dago preacher’, ‘this Greek yogi’, or as a man who is ‘divinely inspired’.56 However, the powers-that-be in Panchor suspect him not only of usurping the function of the camp padres, but of spreading ‘subversive ideas like saying war guilt is shared equally by all people who go to war, and not confined to Japs and Germans’.57 This culminates in a remarkable scene in which Andros is brought before the British camp commandant and senior chaplain.58 At this disciplinary tribunal, Andros’s insubordinate moral superiority – ‘I claim nothing but what each man finds in me’ – reduces both men, as they re-enact the biblical roles of Pilate and the high priest Caiaphas at the Trial of Christ,59 to baffled rage. Nevertheless, there is a lingering ambiguity in Greener’s development of his Christ-figure. The novelist’s emphasis on Andros’s physical attractiveness means that it is not until the second part of the novel that it becomes clear to the reader that the excitement Padre Choyce experiences in Andros’s presence is spiritual and not sexual. That Greener portrays his character as a Greek and not as a Jew introduces further ambiguity: the associations Andros evokes initially in Padre Choyce’s mind are Homeric rather than biblical.

Any attempt to represent the figure of Christ as a character in a modern novel is obviously fraught with unusual problems. But the fact that Greener should decide to introduce such a character into his novel is not in itself unique. The ‘risen’ Christ appears as a character in at least three earlier twentieth-century English novels: George Moore’s The Brook Kerith (1916), D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died (1931), and Robert Graves’s King Jesus (1946).60 However, each of these are historical fictions set in first-century Judea. More significantly, each challenges the divinity of the historical Jesus by denying the actuality of the Resurrection and suggesting its own, alternative version of events after the Crucifixion. Each is also progressively less sympathetic in its treatment of Jesus as an historical figure. All are clearly modernist fictions. What is remarkable in Greener’s case is that he should choose to depict his Christ-figure in a near-contemporary setting and that he should ask from his readers an unproblematic acceptance of the fact of this character’s apparent divinity.

In addition to its metaphysical dimension, No Time to Look Back is notable for its frequently anachronistic use of language. Greener seems to insist on the literariness of his text through the use of elevated diction; he seems determined at times to write in a ‘high’ prose style. As a result, his novel contains a striking number of what were, well before 1950, verbal archaisms: ‘fearful’ (for ‘frightening’), ‘horrid’, ‘bravely’, ‘yearn’, ‘dwelt’, ‘thither’, and – more bizarrely – ‘ere they fled’ (for ‘before they ran away’). With the possible exception of ‘horrid’, none of these words belongs to modern spoken English. They are literary expressions of the nineteenth and pre-1914 twentieth centuries. In fact, it is hard to imagine anyone actually saying ‘ere they fled’ in a military context since at least the time of Oliver Cromwell, but not difficult to imagine reading it in a poem of the reign of Queen Victoria. Greener also relies to an unusual degree in his novel on literary allusion: Homer, Chinese philosophy, Voltaire and the Bible (understandably) all figure in Padre Choyce’s thoughts and conversation. Other Far Eastern prisoner-of-war authors do make literary allusions. But these are nearly always to modern books that were actually read at the time. Russell Braddon recalls that he read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) three times in one prison-camp and later memorised Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925) as a mental exercise; Eric Lomax remembers reading the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) in the railway truck that took him from Singapore to Kanchanaburi; Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) was read aloud to men dying from dysentery in one camp on the Burma–Thailand Railway.61 All these books are real, physical objects rather than the stuff of memory. And, as prisoner-of-war authors frequently point out, the tangibility of the text – especially if printed on thin India paper like a pocket Bible or the Oxford Book of English Verse – often lent it an added metatextual significance. As anyone who has tried will verify, it is much easier to roll a cigarette from a page of the Bible (as James Clavell’s Lieutenant Grey does in King Rat) than from a modern novel. I return in the Conclusion to the use by prisoners of the Japanese of the Bible for cigarette paper.62

There seem to be two quite distinct forms of memory in prisoner-of-war literature – a prisoner’s memories of his former life while he is still a prisoner and his memories of his life as a prisoner after his release. The first of these is exemplified by Ian Watt’s description, quoted in Chapter 3, of newly released prisoners returning to the derelict Tamarkan camp to retrieve their buried personal mementos; the second by the writings of Eric Lomax and J. G. Ballard. In No Time to Look Back, Leslie Greener is concerned with the first, which is perhaps of less intrinsic interest for the reader. For Padre Choyce, the tropical creepers which cloak the barbed wire around Panchor evoke memories of hops growing in Kent; the sight of an island off the coast of Singapore memories of his honeymoon in Yugoslavia. Greener himself, it seems, also spent time ‘looking back’ during his period in Changi since he began writing a fictionalised autobiography, which was published after the war as He Lived in My Shoes (1948).63 The title of Greener’s novel, which is taken from Japan’s most famous martial song,64 provides in fact what is perhaps the only intentional use of irony in the book. While Padre Choyce’s thoughts are directed back in time to his peacetime domestic life in England, that life no longer exists because his rectory has been shut up for the duration and his wife killed in an air-raid.

A Town Like Alice and No Time to Look Back, the first two full-length novels of the prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese, both contain major characters who are Christ-figures. Or, more accurately, Shute’s Joe Harman is a Christ-like figure in that he is an ordinary Australian soldier who suffers crucifixion, while Greener’s Andros is more than merely a Christ-figure: he is the Risen Christ in person.

Shute and Greener clearly draw on the same Christian religious symbolism in their novels, the same ‘cultural depth-charges’. But the use of such symbolism, A Town Like Alice seems to indicate, does not neccessarily imply a statement of personal religious faith on the part of the author. Shute avoids the suggestion that Joe Harman is a Christ-figure in the fullest sense by relegating the idea that he is the Risen Christ re-enacting his Crucifixion to the imagination of the little old woman prisoner and religious crank, Mrs Frith. However, Shute obviously still relies heavily in his novel on the parallels between Joe and the biblical Christ (and on those between Jean and the biblical Mary Magdalene), but he is careful to secularise them.

No Time to Look Back is more puzzling. In his novel, Greener apparently had a didactic aim in mind: to communicate a powerful ‘anti-war’ message. Greener articulates through the figure of Andros–Christ, who functions as a kind of authorial mouthpiece, the anti-war sentiments that he wishes to express in his novel. The message that Andros–Christ preaches in Changi is pacificism: that ‘war guilt is shared equally by all people who go to war, and not confined to Japs and Germans’. Using the Risen Christ as the mouthpiece for this sentiment certainly assigns to it an unusual (not to say unique) moral authority – but at the same time requires on the part of the reader a considerable suspension of disbelief. Even committed Christians, I think, would have difficulty accepting Greener’s premise. Moreover, there is a strangeness to the fact that the Risen Christ and this message appear in the novel at all: there is no external evidence to suggest that Greener himself was a practicising Christian (his entry in Contemporary Authors gives his religion as ‘pagan’) or indeed that he was a pacificist (he served as a career officer in the Indian Army and volunteered for active service overseas with the Australian Imperial Force). The notion of a fictionalised Christ walking among the prisoners of Changi – although this may be an unfair comparison – also pales beside a grim actuality of the Second World War. In the Nazi death-camps, Jewish prisoners openly called on their God and, in the words sometimes used by Holocaust survivors, ‘He did not come’. In this particular context, Greener’s novel is more than just a curiosity; it is almost, I am tempted to say, an aberration.

A remarkable drawing by Ronald Searle (Illustration 2.5), his ‘Changi’ Crucifixion, can stand as a coda to this chapter. Dated 1946, it is one of the earliest symbolic representations of the prisoner of the Japanese as a Christ-figure – perhaps the first. The drawing was based, apparently, on notes or sketches that Searle made as a prisoner of war in Changi. It was clearly of some personal significance for the artist – a photograph of the 1950s shows that he hung it in the living room of his London home. However, the tortured, contorted, El Greco-like figure on the cross in the drawing does not represent Christ himself, since Searle titled it ‘Crucifixion of a Thief’,65 suggesting that it therefore cannot be read as a simple affirmation of religious faith. Like both Nevil Shute and Leslie Greener, Ronald Searle apparently felt, after the Second World War, that the image of a crucified man provided the most potent symbol for the prisoner of war of the Japanese. But Searle in his drawing (like Shute in his novel, but unlike Greener in his) seems simultaneously to both affirm and deny the ‘myth’ of the prisoner as a Christ-figure.

Notes to Chapter 2

1Jack W. Bennett, ‘Nevil Shute – Exile by Choice’, in Bruce Bennett (ed.), A Sense of Exile: Essays in the Literature of the Asia-Pacific Region (Perth, WA: The Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, The University of Western Australia, 1988), p. 82.

2Robin Gerster, Big-noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1987), p. 229.

3Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice (London: William Heinemann, 1950; rpt London: Pan, 1961), pp. 94–95.

4A Town Like Alice, p. 124.

1   2   3   4

The database is protected by copyright ©hestories.info 2017
send message

    Main page