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Sunday, 23 December 2018

Book review: An Elephant on Your Nose, Warren Reed (2018)

This smart, refreshing procedural gives the reader a rare thing: access to the Japanese psyche and through it to the delineations of Asian realpolitik. I’m winging it of course, but the author of this book used to work for Australia’s overseas spy agency, so presumably he knows whereof he speaks. From my point of view, living in Japan for nine years gave me some special insight as well.

I’ve seen two reviews of this book, both from publications based in Hong Kong. They might be publications where Reed has contacts, I can’t be sure. Both of the reviews are complimentary about the geopolitical content of the novel. The world is changing and Asia is closer to the centre of it than it has been for 200 years. But one of the reviews criticises Reed’s use of multiple focalisations to portray the drama, saying, “The book is let down by his tendency to overexplain, excessive narration, stilted dialogue, lessons in history, and some lapses of judgment.” I agree on the count of the historical glosses that appear at the beginning of the book although they are very short and hardly constitute a solecism. The other reservations held by the reviewer, whose name is Richard Lord, completely miss the point.

In fact, Reed has borrowed a leaf from the book of a master of Japanese prose, Kenzaburo Oe, many of whose works fulsomely reward scrutiny. Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 and his later novels do what Reed’s does: respect the multiple vantage points that are involved in any narrative. This is an ensemble piece. As in a later Oe novel, Reed’s novel balances the intertwining viewpoints of many characters in an intricate diorama that unfolds gradually to expose the consciousnesses of all participants at the same time as the action unfolds. Politics and personality intertwined like a vine. Reed also looks beyond the standard narrative spy novel “money shot” provided by the canonical collar, to uncover hidden meanings in the world he so deftly creates. In the case at hand, a major player in the story is revealed as a foreign agent, although no-one in the story initially had any idea of this fact.

The story in Reed’s novel is a lot of fun. A Chinese source has uncovered a terrorist plot set to target Japan and Bella, an MI6 operative who is in the country to help the Japanese set up a centralised spy agency, is drawn into the action. She is joined by a young Japanese politician named Sakamoto and a Chinese intelligence operative named Li in an effort to catch the culprits. The Japanese side tries to uncover more information about the plot and sends Sakamoto to China to find out details; there he is regaled by a senior Chinese politician with a plan to establish an Asian mutual assistance organisation to rival the UN. More details then emerge from China as Japan signals it is interested in the plan. The political aspects of the drama are deftly handled (and the flips that come at the end are masterful).

With a female Korean-Japanese named Kim and a Japanese technology specialist named Saito, Bella goes to Nagasaki where a cargo of lethal weapons is due to arrive in the country via a fishing trawler from Korea. The way that Reed weaves his tale provides moment-by-moment revelations of critical importance and we get to see a group of people from many different countries working together in the pursuit of a single goal. Reed told me in an email that successful intelligence work usually comes from close cooperation, often between people of vastly different backgrounds. I can understand why someone like Lord might view this sort of close work as a bit tiresome, but if you have read Oe and have any understanding of Japan you must see that merely privileging a single protagonist is just not the way things are done there. Further, if you think about it, there are a lot of different people involved in a counter-terrorism operation like the one described in this book. That kind of scope is best served in fiction by giving each of the people involved a unique voice. This is a book that provides expression to the commonality, rather than singling out one individual to be the sole point of focus for the narrative.

If I have any criticism of the characterisation in the book it is to regret that the relationship between Bella and Li, which is revealed at the end of the book in a letter from Bella to Li, which he reads in a car on his way to the airport, where he is due to catch a plane back to China, is not more elaborately developed. This is the only shortcoming I had but this kind of detail might have just been beyond the capacities of the author, who in all other respects shows himself to be a competent practitioner.

On the other hand, Reed’s portrayal of the Japanese media, which is relatively tame compared to what exists in other democracies, is convincing. You sometimes wonder why the Chinese are so dead set against democracy when Japan shows them how it can be done for a community living with a culture that prizes consensus over conflict.

Reed has published books with Harper Collins before and has an author page on their website but this book appears to have been self-published. I didn’t recognise the name of the publishing company shown on the copyright page. I got this title in my social graph when I was out and about. I know this because normally I note down the titles of books on a piece of paper next to my desktop computer, but for this book there is a note in my mobile phone’s notebook program. I think there was a post in Facebook I saw that told me about it. I post reviews of books on Facebook on most days so clearly the ad was targeted to someone like me.

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