Night of the New Moon – Review

The Night of the New Moon

The Night of the New Moon by Laurens van der Post

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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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 man’s 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.  This may have been a rhetorical device, as it is not clear in what language Van der Post made his remarks, nor are the gentleman’s responses or reactions described at all (which I found a little odd, but it’s not odd if there was no Japanese gentleman on hand at the time). Here follow some key quotes from the book (the “him” in paragraph 2 refers to the aforesaid Japanese gentleman):

“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 new insights into the Japanese psyche from reading this book, too many to quote in full but I’ll 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.’”

Van der Post wrote more about this topic of forgiveness and of the importance of accepting the “shadow” as Jung called it, the negative self, the part or parts of ourselves which we reject and which we then tend to project onto others. In 1956 he gave a number of speeches on this topic, which were compiled under the title of “RACE PREJUDICE as SELF REJECTION: AN INQUIRY into the PSYCHOLOGICAL and SPIRITUAL ASPECTS of GROUP CONFLICTS”. :

It seems to me that the most important matter before us at this moment is to find a way of fighting against evil in such a manner that we do not become just another aspect of the thing we are fighting against, which seems to be going on all over the world. I have seen this happen so much in my own lifetime. I have seen people fight against what they call colonialism and imperialism and get their way, merely to become another form of the colonialism and the imperialism they are fighting against. The problem is to fight against evil in such a way that we do not become the evil itself. There is a very old French proverb, and a very wise one, which says that all human beings tend to become the things they oppose. To avoid this, we must accept full responsibility for our actions.

…This is the facing up to the mechanism of rejection in ourselves, the realization that the thing we reject in order to become what we are, unless we meet it as a friend, comes one day knife in hand, demanding to sacrifice that which sacrificed it. That is an absolute law. That is how it works, whether we like it or not. That is how it works in us, how it works in groups, how it works in the world. We have had disastrous illustrations of it from time to time, particularly in this generation in which we live. Twice already have we seen the sacrificed aspects coming knife in hand, being dealt with by foul means because we would not deal with by fair means.  Until we transcend this darkness in ourselves, we shall never be able to deal with it in our societies.

The above extracts make clear the reasons for Van der Post’s absolute opposition to the war crimes tribunals in Tokyo after the war. Again, from the Postscript to “Night of the New Moon”:

  I myself was utterly opposed to any form of war trials. I refused to collaborate with the officers of the various war crimes tribunals that were set up in the Far East. There seemed to me something unreal, if not utterly false, about a process that made men, like war crimes investigators from Europe, who had not suffered under the Japanese more bitter and vengeful about our suffering than we were ourselves. There seemed in this the seeds of the great, classic and fateful evasions in the human spirit which, I believe, both in the collective and in the individual sense, have been responsible for most of the major tragedies of recorded life and time and are increasingly so in the tragedies that confront us in the world today. I refer to the tendencies in men to blame their own misfortunes and those of their cultures on others; to exercise judgement they need for themselves in the lives of others; to search for a villain to explain everything that goes wrong on their private and collective courses. 

Men, I believed, were their own greatest villain — they themselves the flies in their own ointment. Villains undoubtedly do exist in the wide world without. But they do so in a mysterious and significant state of inter-dependence with the profoundest failures and inadequacies in ourselves and our attitudes to life. It is almost as if the villain without is a Siamese twin of all that is wrong within ourselves. 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. If we could take care of the measure of the failures in ourselves, I was certain that the world on the whole would ultimately take better care of itself.

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. I was convinced that if the cancellation of the negative past which is forgiveness could take its place, it would automatically be followed by the recognition that men could no longer change the pattern of life for the better by changing their frontiers, their systems and their laws of compulsion of judgement and justice, but only by changing themselves.

Van der Post, Laurens. Postscript. The Night of the New Moonby Van der Post. Vintage Books, 2002.

He also felt that the colonial populations were to some degree responsible for the outrage (and outrageous) treatment they received at the hands of the Japanese and Indonesian revolutionaries.

 the most disturbing feature for me of all the years I had spent in Indonesia which I had come to love with almost as great an intensity as my native Africa, was the discovery that a people so intelligent, admirable and efficient as the Dutch, unbelievable as it may now seem, had managed to live in Indonesia for some 350 years without apparently ever suspecting even that in the secret hearts of the millions of people they governed, well after a Roman fashion, the greatest desire from the beginning had been to be quit of them and their rule. This aspect of life in Indonesia, this kind of insensitivity of Empire, seemed to me the outstanding example of the cause of all the great and growing European trouble in the Far East.


Stories with children as the main characters

(Disclosure:  Every book  or DVD link in this post is an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy any of these books—if you go to Amazon via one of the links, and buy anything else—I shall earn a small commission. You pay nothing. Whatever you buy is the same price as usual. My commission is part of Amazon’s operating cost. )

The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, is a WWII story about a young girl who grows up in Munich as Hitler comes to power and WWII begins. Other children also play a key role in the story. It is a deeply moving story told in an original style: it avoids the schmalzy, sentimental style that might have been used, thank goodness; it also avoids the more gruesome and brutal styles of, say, Schindler’s List. Instead, it uses Death as the narrator, and a unique form of synaesthesic images which create unforgettable similes and metaphors.

(I note in passing that Zusak has a new book coming out in October, 2018 called “Bridge of Clay“, and it also has a young person as the main character.)

(I also note in passing that there is a book called “The Book Thieves” also about Nazi Germany, but non fiction.)

Stories which have a child or children as the main character or characters form a special genre of their own.  They’re not necessarily stories for children. “The Book Thief” for instance, is that a book for children? I don’t think so. Yet it has a child as the main character. Fairy stories are of course one example, but as is well known, fairy stories were not originally created solely for children, and in their early forms were often much more gruesome than the versions we know today such as the Disney versions. As a child, the author C.S. Lewis read the Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, “The Worm Ouroboros“, The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe,  “Treasure Island“, “Peter Rabbit” and “The Wind in the Willows, “ of which only the last three were written specially for children.

Wikipedia tells us that

“Even after printing became widespread, many classic “children’s” tales were originally created for adults and later adapted for a younger audience…. French historian Philippe Ariès argues in his 1962 book Centuries of Childhood that the modern concept of childhood only emerged in recent times. He explains that children were in the past not considered as greatly different from adults and were not given significantly different treatment. As evidence for this position, he notes that, apart from instructional and didactic texts for children written by clerics like the Venerable Bede and Ælfric of Eynsham, there was a lack of any genuine literature aimed specifically at children before the 18th century.

Let’s take this as given, although not everyone agrees entirely with Aries’ position. Recently, there has been a trend the other way: stories written ostensibly for children but enjoyed by adults as well. Perhaps this trend is not so new, as Lewis points out that he himself enjoyed reading fairy tales when he was an adult, and in fact some stories that influenced him the most he did not read until he was an adult, e.g. the fairy tales of George MacDonald.

Be that as it may, there is a genre of literature called “children’s literature” and within that genre there is a sub-genre of stories that are what one might call “coming-of-age stories”, about young boys or girls who go through some kind of adventure or ordeal that leaves them more mature, more grown-up, more responsible, wiser than before.

I’m thinking here of many of Miyazaki Hayao‘s movies such as “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind“,  “Kiki’s Delivery Service“, “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (based on a British novel), which all have a young girl protagonist who grows up or goes through a maturing process as the story progresses.

Here is a partial list of some English stories in this sub-genre which I have read and enjoyed. Why not add your own suggestions? I know nothing about Japanese literature, for instance, so feel free to enlighten me.

  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, a story of some young children who trek across war-torn Germany to find their parents. Amazingly realistic for a children’s story (I read this when I was in my early teens). Serraillier was a brilliant story-teller.
  • Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.  A boy gets stranded in Alaska when the light plane taking him to see his father crashes into a lake miles from anywhere, killing the pilot. No food, no shelter, no radio. In shock, though not badly injured, the boy sets about learning how to survive until he is rescued. The days turn into weeks, and winter approaches…
  • “Where the Red Fern Grows“. A young-boy-and-his-dog story, set in the bayou (Louisiana, I think). This is a whole sub-genre in itself, which I’ll write about later.
  • Education of Little Tree“. Story of a young native American brought up by older relatives who pass away, leaving the boy alone in the world. Said to be autobiographical, though some have questioned the author’s veracity. Still, a deeply moving tale.
  • A Story Like the Wind” by Laurens van der Post, friend and mentor to Prince Charles and many others, author of a war-time trilogy on which the Japanese movie “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was based. The boy also has a dog, so this one might qualify for my “young-boy-with-faithful-dog” list (coming soon). Van der Post claimed to have been partly raised by a Bushman nurse who taught him many Bushman myths and stories, rather as Rudyard Kipling learned Indian stories from his nurse.
  • A Far-Off Place” (sequel to “A Story Like the Wind”). Two white teenagers are witnesses to the destruction of the boy’s farm and the murder of both children’s parents. Hunted by the murderers, they set off on a long, perilous, cross-country journey, helped by a Bushman whose life the boy saved. Made into a movie by Disney starring Reese Witherspoon. Read the comments and summaries for this and “A Story Like the Wind” on Goodreads.
  • My Side of the Mountain“, about a boy who runs away from his New York home and learns to survive, alone, in the Catskill Mountains. One of those magical books once read, never forgotten.