The West

Author Tom Keneally

Give him half a chance and Tom Keneally will attribute his latest and thirty-third novel, Shame and the Captives, to "a surge of recklessness". It's true that in a writing career that now spans 50 years, the septuagenarian novelist and historian is fabled as much for his self-confessed impetuous streak as he is for writing more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction.

"Without recklessness," argues Keneally, who has also garnered numerous prestigious awards including a Booker Prize, three Booker Prize short- listings two Miles Franklin Awards and the Royal Society of Literature Prize, "writers would never do anything."

But Keneally's recklessness goes only part way to explaining the genesis of Shame and the Captives, which is a fictional re-imagining of one of the bloodiest prison escapes of World War II. Keneally was nine years old in 1944, when more than 500 Japanese escaped from a Cowra camp for Japanese, Italian and Korean prisoners of war. Four Australian soldiers and more than 200 Japanese soldiers were killed and, in the manhunt that ensued, the rest were recaptured and re-interned. Keneally has vivid recall of the fear the breakout induced.

"I had an aunt by marriage who lived in a nearby hamlet who slept with an axe - of course my father when he got back from the war said that 'if I was the axe I would have complained'," Keneally laughs. "But the idea of a woman sleeping with an axe had a very powerful effect on my all-too-easily-provoked imagination."

He first wrote about it in 1965, in his second novel The Fear, which he now dismisses as "technically appalling". But his indefatigable imagination was provoked all over again three years ago when he visited Cowra, and felt compelled to revisit the subject. "I wanted to do it properly and write it from the point of view of the present where the prisoners are not grotesques. When I was a kid, we thought they were after us - shades of the Tampa of course - and in fact they were after something entirely other.

"When I found out that they were after self-exoneration, expiation, I became fascinated by that. It's true that a lot of them were scared but they felt they should go along with the motion for self-destruction, for an honourable death, because that's what their military culture told them. But I was interested in the fact that you can condition young men to believe anything, and this is an example of that."

He was also interested our attitude towards the Italian POWs "as a kind of foreshadowing of the large Italian influx to Australia post-war", and Shame and the Captives deftly captures the cultural gulf between the combatants in the POW camp through the lens of an Italian POW's love affair with an Australian woman.

"These things happened as we know, they're on the record." Indeed, sexual yearning suffuses the pages of this novel, which is set in the fictional NSW town of Gawell and manages to inhabit both the mindset of its Japanese soldier characters and that of the Australians with consummate ease.

Keneally is, of course, famous for his ability to put a human face on both perpetrators and victims of war, but this novel excels in its haunting portrayal of not just individuals, but of the yawning chasm between the cosmologies they inhabit.

It miraculously sheets home too, the unfathomable emotional complexities for individuals trapped in a time when, as Keneally writes: "An entire ocean and all its archipelagos had been captured by a cult of death."

For Keneally, who is quick to own up to his own experience of conditioning as a young man studying for the priesthood, the notion of the conditioning of people is endlessly fascinating.

"The great crimes of the 20th and 21st century have been carried out by young men, whom if you met them, you'd think, 'what a nice fellow', and I certainly wanted to write about the fact that you can make young men do anything - not that it won't haunt them later.

"But I also think it's going on now. Australians are kindly people, but I think we're being conditioned to take certain attitudes towards asylum seekers, and sadly that conditioning works on us, on all of us."

It's why he has co-edited, together with writer Rosie Scott, a new volume of writings on asylum seekers, A Country Too Far. "We wanted tot put a human face on the asylum seeker in a world where there are about 50 million displaced people and about eight million official refugees." In it, too, he writes of "a more honourable time" in Australia's history "when we were part of an international effort to locate eight million displaced people after WWII and we took 170,000. It didn't sink Australia, in fact it enriched Australia. We had well over half a million refugees who settled prior to 1992 without having to be mandatorily detained.

"Simply punishing people very badly who have not committed a crime under international law for taking the risk of getting here is not going to solve their problem or ours."

Shame and the Captives is published by Vintage ($32.95). Tom Keneally will be a guest of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.

The West Australian

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