Monday, December 2, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“SHAME AND THE CAPTIVES” by Tom Keneally  (Vintage Books / Random House $NZ39:99)

            I must be getting old. I can recall when Thomas Keneally novels came out with the name “Thomas” on them. Now, apparently, he has re-branded himself as “Tom”.
I remember the racy fun his earliest novels gave me in the 1970s. Those first ones that reflected, ironically and half-affectionately, his Australian Catholic background and years as a seminarian (The Place at Whitton, Three Cheers for the Paraclete). That weird surrealist fantasy A Dutiful Daughter. Then the ones in which he hit his forte with reconstructions of history from the relatively recent past – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (mistreatment of Aborigines in 19th century Australia); Gossip from the Forest (skulduggery surrounding the signing of the armistice at the end of the First World War); A Victim of the Aurora (early 20th century polar exploration); Season in Purgatory (Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia in the Second World War) and later the Booker Prize winner Schindler’s Ark, better known by its American (and film) title as Schindler’s List. But the last Keneally novel I read was The Playmaker, written in the late 1980s in time for the 200th anniversary of the first British settlement of Australia, and a very effective evocation of the early penal colony.
I know the man has been prolific (30 novels and nearly 20 works of non-fiction, according to the list given in his latest novel), but I wondered if his work would still engage me as much as it used to do.
So, for the first time in about twenty years, I picked up a new Keneally novel, Shame and the Captives. It is clearly in line of descent with the old Keneally, being an historical novel of the recent past. But it is somehow more mellow, more reflective, more philosophical and ruminative than the old one-two historical punching you used to get in something as bitterly satirical as Gossip from the Forest.
 Shame and the Captives is based on the “Cowra outbreak”. In historical fact, this took place in August 1944, about 18 months after the “Featherston riot” in New Zealand (which Vincent O’Sullivan commemorated in his play Shuriken). It was a mass breakout by Japanese prisoners from a POW camp in rural New South Wales. 545 Japanese servicemen attempted to escape. 231 of them were killed as they rushed the wire and tried to overwhelm the garrison guarding them. Four Australian soldiers were also killed. About 300 Japanese disappeared into the bush, but they all either surrendered or were rounded up within the next couple of weeks, and were returned to captivity. The Australians noted that many Japanese committed suicide at the time of the outbreak, or begged to be killed when they were re-captured. There was no question that the camp had been run humanely and according to the Geneva Convention. The breakout was not provoked by any mistreatment of the prisoners. But even at the time, the Australians understood that the Japanese military code of honour said that it was shameful to be a captive and that death was preferable to imprisonment. Many of the Japanese, realizing that the war had gone against them, were hoping to be shot by their captors rather than be returned to post-war Japan and face scorn for having been captured.
As far as the external events of the outbreak are concerned, Keneally’s novel follows them very closely, right down to the fate of the two squaddies who tried to man the camp’s machine-gun against the rioting Japanese. There is very, very careful scene-setting, with the novel moving at a leisurely pace and divided into two parts, Spring 1943 and Autumn 1944. Yet while the externals of the story are historical, the inner worlds of the characters depend on the novelist’s imagination and intuition. All characters have fictitious names and the small town of Cowra has been retitled Gawell. Keneally is painfully careful in his preface (“Where the Tale Comes From”) to separate his imagined characters from their historical counterparts, especially as the novel implies some serious character defects in senior officers guarding the compound.
The novel is as much concerned with the mentality of Australians as with that of the prisoners. Indeed the title Shame and the Captives has more than one meaning. It is clear that the Australian characters are as imprisoned by their circumstances as the Japanese. In effect, they too are captives and they feel various shames.
Alice, for example, living with her father-in-law (a local farmer), is married to a man who is a POW in Austria. At first she thinks her own kindly behaviour to Axis prisoners in Australia is some sort of guarantee that her husband will be treated well. The same is true of the POW camp’s Major Suttor, whose son has been captured by the Japanese. He is constantly worried that any reported mistreatment of his inmates will be visited upon his son. Shame visits Major Suttor in an odd way. He earns his living writing radio soap operas about an idealised Australian family. He is aware of how different his scripts are from objective reality and of how much he has surrendered to slick commercialism, after having started out as a serious novelist. His superior Colonel Abercare has the shame of an adulterous affair in his past, which has poisoned his relationship with his wife. (The wife’s being a Catholic allows Keneally to revisit some of his Catholic background in scenes with the local priest). And where sexual shame is concerned, there is the major matter of Alice indulging in an affair with the Italian POW Giancarlo who has (like other Italian POWs) been allowed out of the prison to work as a farm labourer. What is interesting here is the way Keneally shows the wife as, in effect, exploiting the Italian who, for all his sexual attractiveness, is not in a position to resist (or complain) about her advances. Sexual hunger - given the absence of Alice’s husband - is part of the situation, but on a more subtle level it is clear that Alice, the “free” woman, has succumbed to the temptation of having power over somebody. It is implied that Giancarlo comes to feel more imprisoned by her attentions than he felt when he was behind the wire.
Keneally’s characters are rounded. They are not caricatures. He does not overdo references to racist attitudes of the times, or to the exaggerated fears that the outbreak generated, although these are referenced.
To dump all my criticisms in one spot, however, I do note the odd lapse into melodrama, and a few moments of somewhat stagey dialogue, as when Colonel Abercare’s aggrieved wife says:
 I should abominate the betrayal, Ewen….And by God I do! But there’s the damage to my vanity too – to my standing. It compounds everything. It shouldn’t, since these are fatuous opinions. But they’ve left their mark. It’s the pressure of them, all around, from every direction.” (p.119)
I could also wag my finger at the rather too-neat way (in terms of articulating the novel’s themes) that Alice is eventually dismissed from the story.
With regard to the novel’s exploration of the Japanese prisoners’ shame, Keneally dramatizes the fanaticism in the Japanese military code in the person of the fighter pilot Tengen, who incites his fellow inmates to strive for honourable death in their attempted “escape”. But Keneally’s interpretation of the outbreak is not monocausal. There are also the frustrations of homo-eroticism in an all-male prison environment, where physical violence between prisoners often masks sexual attraction. Tengen has a “utilitarian affair” (p.146) with a female impersonator. Wrestling contests become the site of dominance displays, with the winner taking as his reward the sexual submission of the defeated. And there is a very strange undertow to Tengen’s desire for mass self-immolation. Deep down, he is aware that the world is changing and the warrior code is already in the process of being rejected by many Japanese. There is at least one Christian among the Japanese prisoners, who rejects suicide on principle. More cuttingly, there is Tengen’s comrade Aoki, who says:
 even I feel the world beyond here is changing, and that under their flesh men’s opinions might be changing too. In this matter, I can speak only for myself. I can address only my own obligation. A coerced sacrifice isn’t worth a lot here. A voluntary one is a different matter.” (p.233)
This may be part of what is really haunting the more fanatical warrior Tengen – the unwilling acknowledgement that, having encountered the non-Japanese world, the warrior code of sacrifice at any cost is becoming faintly ridiculous. When they are rounded up, many escapees feel “stuck unexpectedly again with the chronic disorder of survival”. (p.308) They would rather be dead. Even so, as Shame and the Captives tells it, there is a certain “enforced ceremony” to the outbreak, as if the escapees are trying to convince themselves of values which they are really beginning to question.
This is a well-conducted mainstream novel, with a psychologically-convincing cast of characters and a strong sense of historical reality.
He may be more reflective than of yore, but Keneally stills knows how to tell a story for grown-ups.

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