“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Asia Hands in Munich, 1938

Posted: January 17th, 2018 | No Comments »

I just read Robert Harris’s novel Munich. Obviously I was aware of the Munich Agreement, ‘peace in our time’, Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier, Musso and all that. What I hadn’t known was two Asia Hands were on the British and French negotiating teams, respectively – the Japan Hand Frank Ashton-Gwatkin for the British and Alexis Leger for the French.

Leger was a french diplomat who wrote poetry under the pen name Saint-John Perse – his most famous work Anabasis.  Leger was the press attache at the French Legation in Peking between 1916 and 1921.  Anabasis is suffused with imagery from China and Asia. No less than TS Eliot translated it into English in 1930. Leger was anti-Nazi and suffered under Vichy. Harris has him pop up a few times in the novel though has him down as being born in Martinique when in fact he was born in Guadelope.

Munich, 1938 – Leger, with black suit, hair and mustache, stands just to the rear and the right of Mussolini

Frank Ashton-Gwatkin was also a diplomat who wrote under a pen name, John Paris. Ashton Gwatkin served at a number of British embassies in Asia and became fluent in Japanese. He returned to England and joined the Far Eastern Department of the Foreign Office in 1919. Ashton-Gwatkin’s literary work concentrated on his experiences of Japan and included the novels Kimono (1921), Sayonara (1924), Banzai! (1925), The Island beyond Japan (1929), Matsu (1932) and a collection of verses A Japanese Don Juan and other Poems (1926). I’m afraid I’ve never read any of them so can’t comment on whether they are any good or not. Harris describes Kimono as lurid and says the Japanese were so outraged he was thrown out of the country and recalled to London in disgrace (which I don’t think is true as it was published two years after he’d returned anyway?).

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