Sunday, 13 April 2014

Shame and the Captives, by Tom Keneally

August, 1944:  in a Prisoner of War camp on the outskirts of the New South Wales town of Cowra, Australia an uprising by the Japanese captives occurred.  When it was eventually subdued, more than 200 lives had been lost and 500 prisoners had escaped into the surrounding farmland, to be recaptured eventually by soldiers and local inhabitants.  The instigators of the rebellion had ordered that no prisoner must harm any townspeople or farmers if they were to come into contact with them, and this was honoured, but the main reason for the uprising seemed to be a mass death-wish;  an attempt to force the barbarians who held them captive to kill them, rather than experience any longer the humiliation of captivity.
Booker Award-winning author Thomas Keneally brings powerfully to life the whole episode, transplanting the P.O.W. camp to the fictional farming town of Gawell and expertly re-creating characters and situations to evoke the harshness of the winter environment – ‘this barbarous country where it is so cold but it never snows’ – the boredom and resentment of thousands of angry men;  and the yawning gulf in cultural understanding between them and their captors.
Tengan is one of the Japanese elite;  a destroyer pilot who was forced to crash-land his faltering bomber off the coast of New South Wales, only to endure the unimaginable shame of being captured by aborigines and turned in to the local authorities.  He is one of the first to be sent to the camp at Gawell, followed by other soldiers who had fought in the Chinese campaign in Manchukuo and the Pacific, warriors all who expected to die in battle as the emperor and the Gods instructed:  to exist in ignominious captivity is a shame too great to be borne.
There are other nationalities imprisoned at the camp:  several thousand Italians, Formosans, Indonesians and Koreans, but their philosophy and cultural make-up is different and more accommodating - the Italians are considered so reliable that local farmers can apply to have them as farm workers – ‘ Yair, they’re not bad jokers for Dagoes’:  yes, every other nationality in the camp tolerates their imprisonment markedly better than those who expected to die gloriously for the Gods and the Emperor.  Unless they can mount a last suicidal attack against their despised captors, the Japanese prisoners will not only have disgraced their families and country, but also their ancestors:  the die is cast.
Mr Keneally writes masterfully of war, his novel ‘The Daughters of Mars’ (see review below – what a great book!) being a perfect example, and he doesn’t fail us here.  His characters are compelling, not least the young woman with a P.O.W. husband in Austria, who, whilst living with her farmer father-in-law embarks on a doomed affair with their Italian prisoner farmworker;  the fraught relationship between the camp commandant and his second in command;  and the utter contempt felt by the Japanese for any kindness shown by their captors.  Mercy can be only regarded by them as weakness.
Mr Keneally is a writer of superlative quality, and each book is a pleasure.  Highly recommended.

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

It is 1914 and Australia, as a Commonwealth member country loyal to the British Empire, is gearing for war.  Country nurses Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters but Naomi has moved to Sydney from their farming home to work in a  big city hospital while Sally works in the local hospital of her home town.  They are rivals, not least because their parents appear to favour Naomi in Sally’s eyes, and she is also resentful that her elder sister is living a life she wishes for herself.  Sally is not happy to be regarded as the family spinster, consigned to the care of her dying mother while their father buries his concern in farm work, and when the call for nurses to sign up to care for any wounded in ‘the War that Will be Over by Christmas’ is issued, Sally takes her chance:  both sisters are accepted, but leave for Cairo weighed down by their mother’s death and an act of mercy in which they are both complicit:  for Sally at least, mercy weighs heavy and sleep is troubled;  even the novelty of their new, alien surroundings in Cairo fail to blot out the secret she and Naomi share -  until they are posted onto the hospital ship ‘Archimedes’ and sent to Gallipoli, that tiny Turkish peninsular where all the brave Diggers ‘each one worth ten Turks!’ are sent to scale the cliffs from the beach and win the peninsular, in theory gaining a good foothold against their Turkish adversaries.
Thus begins one of the cruellest debacles of World War One, forever deplored and enshrined in Australia and New Zealand as a Day of Remembrance:  Anzac Day.
The battle for Gallipoli is a disaster from the start, men being used as cannon fodder by inept and arrogant commanders, fighting for territory that is impregnable and defended by experienced Turkish soldiers fighting on their home ground, secure in the belief that each Turk is ‘worth ten Anzacs!’
For the sisters and their colleagues, trying to care for the floods of wounded ferried out to the ‘Archimedes’ in a constant stream is like a perpetual waking nightmare – never in their experience have they been confronted with such horror, such terrible wounds – such anguish.  Life and death become reduced to the barest essence, and overriding everything is the grief all feel for the senseless, sinful waste, the slaughter of patriotic eager young men by commanders who have inherited their ranks but not the intelligence to match, for nine months later, the Gallipoli campaign is over ( ‘didn’t succeed, don’t you know)’ and all remaining troops are withdrawn, only to be sent to the Western Front.
The sisters and their colleagues are sent too, plunged again into the awful mayhem of agony and destruction, but with the results of a new weapon to contend with:  poison gas.  The adage ‘War is Hell’ has never been more true.
Mr Keneally writes with great power of this terrible time in history;  his prose is starkly beautiful and his characters are vivid and all too human, especially the men Sally and Naomi eventually pledge themselves to:  the dreadful art of war has never been more finely portrayed and ‘living for the moment’ has never held more urgency.
Mr Keneally has written a literary masterwork that has been a privilege to read:  not to be missed.

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