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April 28, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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Lucky Bastard: Peter Wells

Peter Wells’ latest novel, Lucky Bastard, covers a seldom-discussed period of the Second World War: the War in the Pacific, and the investigation of Japanese war crimes by British, Australian, and Kiwi officers.

Written while Wells was Writer in Residence at Waikato University, Lucky Bastard is all about remembering and forgetting. It’s about retrieval, literally in the case of a box of documents which explain a massacre, but also about trying to retrieve life history, the experience, what it might have felt like. Salient book reviewer
Kerry Tankard interviewed Wells by e-mail.

KT: I’ve listened to some of the source tapes that were part of Gayleen Preston’s War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us project — it’s very powerful, raw stuff, the personal memories from those times, when you divorce it from the official history that’s been handed down. How did you manage, personally, dealing with researching oral history of that nature?

PW: I relied on my own memories as the son of a returned serviceman.

Lucky Bastard is really about the space of silence which existed between returned servicemen and their children — a kind of invisible wall which neither could easily cross. I also listened to sound tapes in the Archives of returned servicemen in old age, when they were willing to divulge their war experiences, aware that death was round the corner.

KT: The major demographic phenomenon of our time has been the movement of the baby-boomer generation through the stages of life. About now, boomers are starting to find themselves as the elders, having nursed elderly parents to the end. Did you set out to portray that moment of psychological shift that goes on when one generation rolls over to the next, handing on the mantle of the aged?

PW: Yes, I was aware of this moment of transition — a fade to grey and then white and then black — in my own family. I was aware of untold stories: stories that are rough and unsmooth with jagged edges, which don’t necessarily fit within a family paradigm.

The fact is when it is a war, people behave in extreme ways, sexually, emotionally, judgementally. After a war, people want to bury all this and they go for a super, unreal normality (i.e. the 1950s in which I grew up). But the emotional turmoil is all there, wrinkling the surface.

I was very taken with the story of an acquaintance. His father would drop to the ground every time a car exhaust went off. This is because he did this during the war, with explosives. For children like ourselves, brought up in peace time, this was curious, haunted, weird. But if you have a father suffering PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), you don’t necessarily understand it. You suffer from it at one remove, and it bugs the hell out of you.

KT: War and genocide are concepts we have become, sadly, too familiar with over the past decade, between the Gulf Wars and the civil strife that tore Yugoslavia apart. How much do you think we’ve become inured to the discoveries of mass graves, the confessions of minor torturers, and the horror that makes up war in the 20th and 21st centuries?

PW: I don’t think we’ve become inured. I think we ‘think’ we do, but if you think of the immense emotional implications of colonialism in NZ society — where the genocidal impulse was relatively brief and minor — you can see how powerfully affecting these things still are. Maybe because we tend to see genocide on television or the internet we feel there is another layering between us and reality, but I don’t think this is actually so.

KT: Family, and all the dysfunction that can be contained within that one noun, is another strong theme in your novel. Tell me about the process you took to bring the characters of Ross and Alison together.

PW: Sibling rivalry is at the heart of the novel. It’s something you aren’t aware of when you are caught in that dynamic.

It’s about a very bitter fight for love and approval. It goes with family relationships, and is really an expression of how powerful family dynamics are. Perhaps Ross and Alison’s intense feelings for each other are a frustrated kind of love.

A lot of people have said they find this part of the novel the part they can identify with. Probably when Ross and Alison were younger they both thought they were too cool for this dynamic to exist. Get any family round a grave and you will find sibling rivalry is a form of electricity that goes on forever.

KT: How do you feel about modern Japan, now, having done the research into the events of the Pacific War?

PW: I feel Japan needs to accept its past in the way Germany has.

Japan’s relationship with China probably means it will have to make some accommodations. The first thing to do is to get textbooks in Japanese schools actually acknowledging that these things existed.

The situation is complicated by post-war realpolitiking, whereby Japanese war crimes were quickly swept under the carpet. But of course as the novel asks, is there such a thing as justice when the victors (i.e. Britain and USA) never looked at their own behaviour during war?

But we need to acknowledge as human beings that we would not have any of the freedoms we now enjoy without the war effort of Britain and America, and of course New Zealand. The internet would not exist, for example, in the totalitarian racist tyrannies that Japan and Germany had in mind for the world. It is a very complicated picture, and it is sophistry to argue that Britain, for example, was ‘the same’ as Germany or Japan, and that Britain — or New Zealand for that matter — was fighting for the same thing.

However illusory democracy and parliamentary government seem, with all their flaws, the other alternatives are so awful, you have to accept democracy as the best of all possible way of doing things. So far, anyway.

This has got a long way from the novel.

If I can go back, I’d like to restate that the novel is an acknowledgement of the debt owed to that older generation that went to war. This debt is not easy to repay.

The novel, in one very small way, is my attempt to repay a debt I felt I owed my father, and by extension, to that whole prickly difficult generation of ‘old bastards’ who existed and held power so frustratingly when I was a young man.

Now I find myself graduating into being a prickly old bastard. I understand more, and I empathise more with the silent pain of that generation. I was and am still anti-war by way of sentiment. But then I had never had to face such a dark predicament: fight against a tyranny, perhaps go away and die. And worst of all, come back and survey a world in which all your efforts and losses seemed not to mean a great deal.

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My thanks to Peter Wells for participating in this, during a very busy time as the Auckland Writers and Readers Week was just about to kick off!

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