In the landmark Western “The Searchers” (1956) directed by John Ford, John Wayne plays embittered Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, in obsessive pursuit of Comanche Indians who have kidnapped his niece. Such is Edward’s hatred for Native Americans we spend the movie convinced he will murder, not rescue, his niece for falling into their clutches. Wayne, said one critic, was an American gone mad; in chasing the beast he had become the beast himself.

Liv, by Roger Pulvers.
148 pages

For Roger Pulvers, Ford’s revisionist take was a rare moment of cinematic reflection. For much of Pulvers’ childhood in 1950s America, Wayne embodied the national self-righteousness that he came to hate. “Even as a child, I was wary of this holier-than-thou attitude,” says Pulvers on the phone from his home in Sydney, Australia. “The books I read, the films I saw; virtually all had the theme of the fight of good against evil. And America was always the good.”

Pulvers says he is more interested in human ambiguities, in the darkness within. “‘How do we confront evil without becoming evil ourselves,’ that’s the theme of a lot of my work.” That’s one reason, he explains, for his lifelong passion for Kenji Miyazawa, the prewar Japanese poet and visionary. “There is very little of the triumph of good over evil in his work. He begins by saying you must look into yourself.”

It’s a theme Pulvers has touched on repeatedly, most recently in the script he co-wrote for the movie “Best Wishes for Tomorrow” (“Ashita e no Yuigon”), which deals with the morality of America’s murderous aerial bombing campaign in Japan during World War II; and in “Star Sand” (2017), his first feature film as a director, in which a Japanese and American army deserter duke it out in an Okinawan cave.

“Liv,” his latest novel, delves again into the war, its aftermath and the toll exacted on its survivors. The title character is the daughter of Norwegian missionaries who died in Japan — a transplant to Australia (like Pulvers, who gave up his American citizenship in the simmering aftermath of the Vietnam War), a “country where people came to put their pasts behind them once and for all.”

Liv has been emotionally cauterized by the horrific events that took place in Tokyo 30 years before. On a suburban Sydney train she spots an elderly man with “piercing cornflower-blue eyes” who haunts her memories, and who she believes was responsible for the death of her lover. But she must be sure. So begins a detective story in which Liv turns devious and obsessive, stalking the man’s family and elderly wife, who is dying in a nursing home.

The more she learns about her elusive prey, Donald Meissner, the further he seems to retreat from the cold-hearted Nazi she remembers from the German Embassy in wartime Tokyo. Could the polite Swiss man in the Panama hat and summer suit really be the sadistic thug who spent his “life sending innocent people to torture chambers and their graves?”

Pulvers says he identifies with Liv. “I’ve always tried to show compassion for victims. When someone has done something evil to you, how do you deal with it? I’m much more interested in the victim than the victimizer. A lot of books are about the evil person, how they become evil and how we eliminate that evil from our world. My obsession is how to help the victim cope with what has happened.”

Set in 1975, the novel references the real-life collaboration between wartime Japan and Germany. Meissner may or may not be based on Josef Albert Meisinger, a Nazi who was executed for committing atrocities against Jews in Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto and who was the Gestapo’s point man at the German Embassy in Tokyo for most of the war. The historical setting should not disguise its contemporary resonance, says Pulvers.

“We’re going through a stage where the main theme of political life seems to be a very high-handed self-righteousness, and nothing could be more dangerous,” he says, citing the rise of strongmen such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much of what passes for foreign policy, he suggests, consists of painting the other side as “ogres.”

“Japan is also considering that path — and why would it lead to a different outcome this time?” he says.

“I’ve always felt that when the (Nazi) Brownshirts were marching down the streets of German cities in the 1930s and (Nazi leader Adolf) Hitler was waving to people from the back seat of his black Mercedes, the danger was from millions of ordinary people, those standing at the side of the roads, with a little smile on their lips,” he continues. “Those are the people I want to talk to. I’m not going to get to Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin — they don’t read books. The feeling of Trump supporters is still self-righteous anger. To me, they’re the same people who stood by on the streets in Frankfurt and Nuremberg. Trump is a buffoon and will come and go. Those people are the ones we have to worry about.”

Roger Pulvers’ “Liv”, will be published by Balestier Press on Feb. 15. Pulvers wrote the Counterpoint column for The Japan Times from 2005 to 2013 and continues to contribute on a freelance basis.

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