Book Review: An Elephant on Your Nose

When I first saw this book by Warren Reed, a onetime Australian spy and my former colleague in Tokyo diplomatic circles, I was intrigued by its unusual title. It is actually an old Malay proverb, meaning that someone can see a louse as far away as China but is unaware of the elephant on his or her nose. The saying sits nicely in the story, where it is used to measure where the non-Asian world stands today in trying to understand the new power plays underway in the Asian region and the rise of China.

The author has a 50-year association with the region, which began with three years studying international law and politics at the University of Tokyo, all in written and spoken Japanese. He was part of a generation of young Australians who ventured to seek knowledge and wisdom in Asia rather than automatically heading for North America or Europe.

Most of Reed’s life after his initial contact with Japan has involved getting to know the rest of Asia as well. It shows in this contemporary story, which is built around a positive theme of spies with vastly different backgrounds crossing cultural and civilizational fault-lines in the region for a common cause: to thwart a terror attack on Tokyo, a conurbation of some 40 million people. The implications of this devious plot would stand alongside the horrors of 9/11 in the United States, and that’s not only for Japan but for the global community as a whole.

An outstanding feature of this story is how these spies cooperate with each other. This is no simple story of the good guys chasing down the bad guys, and winning. This is the first novel I have read that delves into matters cerebral, rather than merely outlining the mind games that spies often play with their targets.

John La Carre does that eminently well. But Elephant goes a number of steps further. It looks at how the spies involved, and under great pressure, mix and meld their intellects to provide a combined brain power much greater than their number. In a way, it is reminiscent of Bletchley Park in England during World War II when some thousands of British experts, mathematicians, creators of crosswords, spies and many others with a bent for problem-solving came together like a giant human computer to break crucial enemy codes.

Whether Britain would have avoided invasion without this outstandingly successful feat is beyond doubt. Not only did Britain survive but most of the Free World as well.

This is a fascinating attribute of the story. It’s not just a tale of intellectual, linguistic, and technical coordination. It goes far beyond that, delving into a greater challenge: that of building trust across borders seldom traversed. Indeed, in this story, the gravitational pull of history and political ideology work against fruitful cooperation at almost every turn.

Former spies who go on to write spy thrillers obviously have a treasure trove of experiences to draw upon in creating credible story lines and believable characters with which to furnish them. Those who inhabit Elephant are delightfully real. They’re not just clever at what they do, but have foibles and weaknesses like the rest of us.

Despite this, they exercise their strengths to ensure success in ways that most of us never get to appreciate about a spy’s life. How do they suppress their emotions to focus their minds clearly on the task at hand? How do they tackle the challenge of minimal or no sleep while keeping their minds razor-sharp? This story ranges over those dimensions of a spy’s life in a way that is not only real but readily understandable.

James Fallows, the national correspondent for The Atlantic in Washington, who also has had a lifetime of intimate contact with the Asian world, has described An Elephant on Your Nose as “pulling off the trick of being brisk-paced and absorbing while conveying larger truths about the new power game in Asia.” He said he read it straight through, which is what I did. It certainly is a page-turner, not just because of the rapidly evolving story line but mainly because of the characters. You feel you’re with them all the way. It’s a great read and is packed with information on, and insights into the spy world that are unique.