The poor had no lawyers

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the poor had no lawyers

The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post

Another remarkable account by Laurens van der Post of his time incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp in Java, 1942-45. I read this after reading The Seed and the Sower, and it helped me understand the meaning of that title a little better. The title for this one is explained towards the end of the book: It seemed no idle coincidence to me that the moon, which plays the great symbolic role in the movement of the Japanese spirit that I have stressed so much, should be in the last phase of dying just when the end for the Japanese in this war appeared to have drawn so near. In The Seed and the Sower, the narrator mentions the fact, noticed by himself and other prisoners, that the most violent outrages of their Japanese captors came around the full moon.

This book is less fictional than The Seed and the Sower and has just one narrator. It deals with the day-to-day facts of what we had endured under the Japanese, but with a specific purpose which requires, in typical Laurentian fashion, that a long story be told in detail. The frame of the story is a visit to a recording studio to give a radio broadcast. Van der Post arrived in time to see the end of an interview with an elderly Japanese gentleman. After hearing the mans final comments, van der Post turned to his hosts and insisted he be allowed to change his topic to address matters which had occurred to him as he listened to the end of the interview. He then addressed his remarks to the Japanese gentleman, which form the bulk of the book.

more and more people see the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of context. They tend to see it increasingly as an act of history in which we alone were the villains. I have been amazed to observe how in some extraordinary way my own Japanese friends do not seem to feel that they had done anything themselves to provoke us into inflicting Hiroshima and Nagasaki on them and how strangely incurious they are about their own part in the war.

Those of us who had survived like him and myself could only discharge our debt by looking as deeply and as honestly as we could into the various contributions we had made to this disaster. The war and the bomb, after all, had started in ourselves before they struck in the world without, and we had to look as never before into our own small individual lives and the context of our various nations. We who were saved seemed to me charged by life itself to live in such a way now that no atom bomb could ever be dropped again, and war need never again be called in, as it had been throughout recorded history, as the terrible healer of one-sidedness and loss of soul in man.

The only sure way to rid life of villains, I believed, after years of thinking about it in prison, was to rid ourselves first of the villain within our own individual and native collective contexts.

the only hope for the future lay in an all-embracing attitude of forgiveness of the peoples who had been our enemies. Forgiveness, my prison experience had taught me, was not mere religious sentimentality; it was as fundamental a law of the human spirit as the law of gravity. If one broke the law of gravity one broke one’s neck; if one broke this law of forgiveness one inflicted a mortal wound on one’s spirit and became once again a member of the chain-gang of mere cause and effect from which life has laboured so long and painfully to escape. The conduct of thousands of men in war and in prison with me confirmed with an eloquence which is one of my most precious memories of war, that the spirit of man is naturally a forgiving spirit.

That is the message of the book. The author also provides a perspective on the atomic bombings which I had not encountered before: This cataclysm would end the war, and a new phase of life would inevitably result from it. This cataclysm I was certain would make the Japanese feel that they could now withdraw from the war without dishonour, because it would strike them, as it had us in the silence of our prison night, as something supernatural. They, too, could not help seeing it as an act of God more than an act of man, a Divine intimation that they had to follow and to obey in all its implications. The continuation of the war by what we, for want of a better word and for fear of telling the truth call ‘conventional means’, would have left them locked in the old old situation of a battle of opposites in which their whole history, culture and psychology would have demanded death either in fighting or by their own hand.

I have lived in Japan for many years, and yet I found many interesting insights into the Japanese psyche from reading this book, too many to quote in full but Ill give you just one: the remote and archaic nature of the forces which had invaded the Japanese spirit, blocking out completely the light of the twentieth-century day. It was, indeed, the awareness of this dark invasion which made it impossible for people like ourselves, even at our worst moments in prison, to have any personal feelings against our captors, because it made us realize how the Japanese were themselves the puppets of immense impersonal forces to such an extent that they truly did not know what they were doing. It was amazing how often and how many of my men would confess to me, after some Japanese excess worse than usual, that for the first time in their lives they had realized the truth, and the dynamic liberating power of the first of the Crucifixion utterances: ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’
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Published 13.08.2019

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4 thoughts on “The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post

  1. It offers a vast amount of useful and important information, much to chew on, much to argue with, and a good deal to disturb complacency — Allan Massie, Times Literary Supplement, 14 December

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