The Samurai, the science teacher and the monster typhoon

Small bars among Japan’s skyscrapers

Stuart Campbell’s recent trip to Japan wouldn’t have been the same without a rambunctious Japanese science teacher, a swashbuckling English sailor, and an American historian shocked by a monster typhoon.

I visited Japan briefly last year for the first time, and I was smitten – despite the North Korean missile that shot past the day before I arrived. This year, I had a more relaxed trip – a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, followed by a cruise from Yokohama down to Kobe and Kagoshima, with a dogleg to Okinawa via Shanghai.

At the last minute, I loaded my Kindle with Brett L. Walker’s A Concise History of Japan  (2015), and two novels: Natsume Soseki’s Botchan  (1906) and, in glaring contrast, James Clavell’s Shogun  (1975). My plan on this trip was to use my reading to make better sense of what I saw (besides being curious about James Clavell, who I’d never got around to reading).

I’ve given up trying to characterise my fascination with Japan, other than offering a handful of impressions: The fastidious manners and self-control of a people packed into a tiny country; the overengineered ugliness of the technology, whether it be an ATM where you snatch the banknotes from the clicking guts of the machine, bathtub taps like the bumper of a 1960’s Cadillac, or drab industrialised coastlines. And by contrast, food so delicately served that you hesitate to disturb it; picnickers in a Kyoto park dressed out of a Jane Austen novel; an entire street life of miniature bars with names like ‘Old Pal’ in the lanes behind the skyscrapers.

So to the books: What intrigued me about Walker’s History was his rewriting in 2013 of the last chapter after observing Super Typhoon Haiyan smashing the Philippines. The book concludes with ‘a departure from the conventional manner of telling Japanese history – that is it required fully embracing the idea that the physical islands called ‘Japan’ are geologically and historically unstable’. He goes on to say, ‘this book is what I imagine a history should look like in the twenty-first century, as ice sheets and glaciers melt and sea levels and storm intensities rise’. As I sailed south, it was easy to understand the seriousness of Japan’s watery fate: The world’s third largest economy bolted onto a strip of engineered coastline just meters above an inexorably rising ocean.

James Clavell’s Shogun is set in 1600, but its events lay down the foundations of Japan’s contact with the West and its eventual economic dominance of the outside world. It’s easy to categorise Shogun as a ripping yarn – the swashbuckling English pilot roaming the southern seas on a mission to thwart the Portuguese; his imprisonment in Japan and elevation to the rank of samurai; his delicate and passionate lover of high rank. It’s a Western fantasy of Japaneseness of course with its (probably) thousands of seppuku suicides, men and women bound by impossibly stringent codes of honour, lovers with pillow skills of improbable ingenuity. But Shogun is also an extraordinary feat of detailed plotting and character development that stands the test of time.

I found the author’s treatment of foreign languages most charming and  compelling. Like many a seadog of his time, the lead character John Blackthorne is multilingual. Our man is fluent in Dutch, Portuguese and Latin (as well as English), and is determined to master Japanese. Clavell deftly shows Blackthorne’s slow progress and frustration by back-translating his halting Japanese into English, and through the use of his multilingual lover Mariko as an interpreter to fill in the gaps when  Japanese fails him. And what about these two lovely linguistic tricks? All the Japanese dialogue is peppered with ‘so sorry’ to remind us of the politeness of Japanese speech; and Blackthorne speaks sweet Latin in secret with his lover (we know because they ‘thou’ one another).

Remember that Clavell learned about Japan the hard way as a prisoner of war; surely Blackthorne’s struggle to learn Japanese must reflect the author’s grim experience?

Natsume’s Botchan was the last on my list. This popular 1906 novel (Wikipedia says most Japanese children read it at school) follows the adventures of an awkward and superior-minded young science graduate from Tokyo who takes off to the provinces to be a school teacher. Our hero’s city attitudes brought alive Walker’s account of the adoption of Western culture in the Meiji period, when the cream of Tokyo paraded in European fashion and listened to jazz. In fact, the cream of Tokyo to this day parades in a version of European fashion that is distinctive in textile and cut, and it’s easy to see how the West is co-opted rather than copied. A word on the translation of Botchan: It’s hilariously archaic with girlfriends referred to as ‘tootsywootsies’. ‘Ha, good for you, Gov’nur’ says our man when his friend’s fishing line comes up minus the bait.

To end, a plug for the camera function on the Google Translate app. My travelling companion twisted her knee and was confined to a wheelchair on the cruise ship for a couple of days. In need of art materials to fill her time, she sent me off at Kobe with a shopping list. Mission was accomplished in no time with me pointing the camera at the labels and the translation popping up instantaneously (well, in the instant it takes to send the live image around the world to a server where it is compared to thousands of stored bits of translated text and the best match sent back around the world to the mobile phone of the hapless foreigner in the art shop).

While you’re here, why not have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour?

‘An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity’ discounted this week only

It hit the Amazon best seller ranks in 2016. Help me hit those dizzy heights again!

Here’s the short blurb:

The Walsinghams dabble in petty crime as they try to enliven a failing marriage. But a figure from the past tips them into a double murder plot. Could this respectable Home Counties couple really be killers?

And here’s where you can buy it for 99c/99p between 5 and 15 March 2018:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Kobo

iBooks

Barnes & Noble

Google Play

Giveaway to Oz residents – two signed copies of Cairo Mon Amour

I’m giving away two signed copies of Cairo Mon Amour in March 2018 to Australian residents only. Simply tell me in the LEAVE A REPLY box  below the name of the cafe Pierre visited on the first page of the novel (hint – check out this link and hit the ‘Look inside’ arrow). The first two correct answers get the freebies! I’ll contact the winners privately to get their Australian postal addresses.

Open for entries 1-5 March 2018.

Cairo Mon Amour gets big surge from Goodreads

 

espionage romance thriller cairoAfter Goodreads giveaways in November, December and January 2018, word is spreading about my espionage romance Cairo Mon Amour. In total, 2597 people entered the giveaways, and 547 have the book on their ‘to read’ list.

I’m planning more giveaways this year, but if you want to skip the line, just click here to find out how to buy a copy.

Sincere thanks to publisher Austin Macauley for organising the December and January giveaways.

If you’re going to talk like a pirate, do it properly!

Do you suffer from bruxism brought on by poor pirate accents? I do: I grind my teeth whenever I watch the BBC TV show Doc Martin. If you’ve ever watched this program you’ll know that in the English seaside village where the doctor practices, all the locals speak Piratese, or as I sometimes like to call it Yokelese.  But more of Pirate language in a moment.

My real gripe as a finicky linguist is that TV and film so often handle language use so amateurishly. I often get into foetal position and weep when an actor playing an immigrant with poor English is given an inconsistent mishmash of lines where in one utterance they speak in ‘me no understand’ fashion, and in the next produce perfectly formed complex sentences dressed down with a silly foreign accent.

And don’t get me started on those war movies vere ze Chermans spik like zis! Make ‘em speak German and add subtitles, I say. The worst such example of this genre is the (for me) unwatchable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Nicolas Cage should have got an Oscar for sustained performance of high front vowels and trilled r’s.  Maybe he’d had tuition from an actor I once met at an audition whose résumé included the ability to speak English in twenty-five accents, including both Eastern and Western Armenian.

Arrr! That’s Piratese by the way, for ‘back to the topic’. In Britain and Australia, it is customary for actors playing southern English rural characters to employ a couple of pronunciation tricks such as modifying the ‘o’ sounds in words like ‘coat’ and changing the vowel in ‘eye’ to the vowel in ‘boy’. The principal trick, however is to rhotacise, i.e. (in simple terms) to pronounce most of the r’s indicated by spelling. So, where a Londoner or Sydneysider would not pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘hard’, a speaker of Piratese would pronounce it. Give it a try. If you have young children or grandchildren, you can copy Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles, who speaks quite good Piratese.

So why are my teeth a millimetre shorter than they should be? It’s because of the basic mistakes that Piratese speakers make. Why do I keep hearing actors saying things like “Hello GrandmaR” and “Where’s LouisaR?” where no ‘r’ exists in the spelling? Well, the reason is that they overdo a little rule that allows us non-rhotic speakers to pop in an ‘r’ when the next word starts with a vowel. So, while we don’t say the ‘r’ in ‘Here’s my car’, we can say it in ‘My caR is in the next street’.

OK, all clear so far. However, the brains and mouths of native Londoners and Sydneysiders wickedly conspire to play the ‘India office’ trick on us. Try saying this phrase quickly and not making an ‘r’ at the end of ‘India’.  No ‘r’ in the spelling – we just overextend the ‘caR Is’ rule to ease the transition between the last vowel in ‘India’ and the first vowel in ‘office’. Try it: IndiaRoffice.

Arr! What bad Piratese speakers do is push the rule too hard by sticking the ‘r’ on the end of words that end in a vowel but are not followed by a vowel: While it’s fine to say ‘GrandmaR isn’t here’, it’s a plank-walking offence to say ‘Here’s GrandmaR’.

If I can be shamelessly unscientific for a moment, we non-rhotics are like carriers of damaged linguistic DNA; a few centuries ago all English speakers pronounced all their r’s, until the effete London court gave them up and the fashion spread through the hot chocolate drinking classes. But not all our telomeres were degraded, and the vestigial ‘r’ still pops up here and there in the attenuated fin de siècle speech of Camden Town and Bondi.

I’m astonished that few people I’ve spoken to seem to notice these errant r’s, or, when the mistake is pointed out, care. But I do, which is, I suppose one of the burdens that we sad scholars of linguistics carry. For years I’ve struggled to answer the question ‘what’s the use of linguistics’ at cocktail parties, and I’m beginning to think that it’s to keep dentists in business.

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Now, if I’ve sparked your interest in linguistics, have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour, which has no pirates in it whatsoever and actually has nothing to do with linguistics

Russell Darnley’s ‘Seen and Unseen’: Testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee?

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Seen and Unseen: The testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

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Stuart Campbell is a Sydney author. News of his latest novel Cairo Mon Amour can be found here.