Creeping towards catastrophe

By David Hill

The writing is meticulous and utterly unshowy. The slumbrous, dour rhythms of country life and the mordant Aussie patois are just right.

Tom Keneally's narratives begin carefully rather than speedily. Photo / David Mariuz
Tom Keneally's narratives begin carefully rather than speedily. Photo / David Mariuz

Featherston, early 1943. In the nearby POW camp there's increasing friction between Japanese prisoners and Kiwi guards. For the former, captivity is a shame that can never be expunged. Their captors, aware of the brutal treatment meted out to Allied prisoners, show little sympathy or comprehension.
Violence flickers.

There are rumours of hidden weapons, assassination plots against New Zealand personnel. Work parties refuse to co-operate; guards are taunted and respond with bayonet "prickings". Suicide, self-harm and confrontations increase.
On the morning of February 25, prisoners charge the barbed wire. The guards open fire. Inside a minute, scores of Japanese lie dead or dying.

Eighteen months later, it happensagain in rural New South Wales. Hundreds of Japanese overwhelm and kill guards, breaking out into the surrounding countryside. In a few hours of bloodshed and during the manhunt which follows, more than 200 of them die.

This is the catastrophe towards which Keneally's's 30th work of fiction builds. We meet the town of Gawell, where no one locks their doors, farmworkers live in corrugated-iron shacks, kids stay four years at high school only if they want a bank job, and where a Sunday sermon condemns the moral turpitude of American films.

We meet the protagonists. Alice lives her "life of near-drudgery" as farm missus.
Her short-term husband is held by the Germans; the arrival as workhand of slim-hipped Italian prisoner Giancarlo points to an affair of positively domestic contentment.
Then there's Tengo, an austere young pilot shot down by an enemy he knows are his inferiors, placed in a captivity he can't accept.

There's the Australian Major and radio serial writer; the female impersonator; the Senior Sergeant whose life will be shaped by sustained deceit.

They control or endure a complex of barbed-wire compounds that hold - in strict separation - Koreans, Taiwanese, Japanese and Italians. The last are increasingly tractable, especially after Mussolini falls. The second-to-last are marked by profound unease and incipient rebellion.

Like most of Keneally's narratives, the novel begins carefully rather than speedily. Physical and psychological landscapes are set out. Characters populate them.
Events shape, then start to surge.

We get the edgy manoeuvrings between regular soldiers and "citizen warriors". The confused existence of Japanese POWs filling their time with tiny acts of sabotage (breaking toothbrushes, wearing out safety razors on concrete walls), reconciled to being shot by the garrison when Japan invades the Australian mainland, as it surely will. The volatile factions among Italians, who come to blows over songs.

Misunderstandings multiply. Intentions harden or disintegrate. Events accelerate towards a sustained and shocking sequence as howling Japanese prisoners attack the perimeter, hurling themselves on to barbed wire as ladders for their comrades; pausing to slit the throats of fallen friends as etiquette demands; charging machine guns with cudgels and knives made from tin lids, begging to be killed if they're wounded.

The writing is meticulous and utterly unshowy. The slumbrous, dour rhythms of country life and the mordant Aussie patois are just right. Individual relationships, homicidal or homely, counterpoint the public moments of tumult and fanaticism. It's a story that gathers momentum like a landslide.

And, as usual with Keneally, it's rich with meditations on human failings and yearnings.

Shame and the Captives by Tom Keneally (Vintage $39.99)

- NZ Herald

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