At war with his emotions
THE first impression is one of fastidiousness. Christine Piper’s After Darkness, winner of this year’s The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award, is the story of a doctor, and a Japanese doctor at that. It is his eyes through which readers see. The language lent to him by the author is orderly to the point of fussiness: whatever emotion it holds is buried deep. He possesses all the meticulous grammar and rhetorical reserve appropriate to a physician of competence but little bedside manner. He is a man whose consciousness has ingrown across time.
Lapping against his small island of individual propriety, however, is an ocean of chaos. It is 1942, and the Pacific theatre of World War II is entering a state of pandemonium. Dr Ibaraki has been in Australia for several years, running a hospital in Broome, mainly catering to pearl divers. He has been caught up in a nationwide effort to intern Japanese — even those who are of mixed race or who have lived in Australia their entire lives — and been moved to a camp in the South Australian outback.
Wartime prison camps are fascinating sites for the writer. They are worlds set within other worlds, in which disparate types are obliged into stifling proximity. They replicate in miniature ideologies and identities imported from outside; indeed, they often become more important in such environments, bulwarks against loss of purpose or sense of self and group. With his Tokyo university training, middle-class background and his command of English, Ibaraki is welcomed by the Japanese internees and Australian guards alike. His skills are soon put to use in the camp’s infirmary. He sets about his work with characteristic decency and dedication. His physician’s eyes are blind to everything but the task at hand.
It isn’t long before Ibaraki is obliged to look up from his work and acknowledge certain fissures in the social makeup of the camp. The governing council of the Japanese barracks (the Italians and Germans have separate grounds) are made up of more recent arrivals to Austra- lia: businessmen, mostly, who have been inculcated in the militarism and ultranationalism of the moment. When word gets out that the Japanese have successfully attacked Broome, these men are jubilant; not so Ibaraki. As Yamada, the council’s deputy explains: A month and more and it could be all over. These Australian fools with their fat bellies and rusty guns could soon be our prisoners, and they’ll be begging us for mercy.
It is against this background of ugly exceptionalism that events play out. The mixed race and Australian-born contingent of Japanese are viewed as troublemakers by the pure Japanese. Ibaraki, with his ingrained sense of decorum, initially agrees. It takes some time before the conscious exclusion from camp life suffered by these men, along with acts of violence mounted against them, convinces the doctor that something is awry.
All of this is outlined with an almost naive simplicity. What complicates the narrative is Ibaraki’s own hidden reasons for resiling from the full-blooded patriotism of his compatriots. In an elegant manipulation of timeframe, Piper returns us to the doctor’s youth via interleaved chapters: his time working as a medical researcher for the military, his marriage to a talented young woman named Kayoko, and his arrival to take up the Broome posting.
This progress is so tidy, so evenly described, that it takes some time before the reader realises that dusk has fallen over the narrative: Ibaraki is revealed as a man flawed in his inability to resolve conflict between his bare humanity and reverence for traditions that have been suborned by murderers and warmongers. He clings to older ideas of discretion and valour, even as they are manipulated by others to justify grotesque crimes.
Described in this way, it is hard not to think of another major Australian novel of recent months, Richard Flanagan’s superb The Narrow Road to the Deep North. While Piper’s book rhymes with Flanagan’s account of human misery in the prison camps of the Thai-Burma rail- way, viewed from the perspective of an Australian surgeon, it is a very different work. Piper is less concerned with war as a subject, a dark force at loose in history, than she is with a single individual trapped in those interregnums of reason and virtue.
A more apt comparison would be with an earlier work by another Anglo-Japanese novelist (Piper, an Australian living in New York, has a Japanese mother): Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. In that 1989 work, Ishiguro charts the life of a man who prefers discretion to truth when truth risks conflict — and worse, fuss — and who maintains a long reticence with regard to his feelings, in the tragically mistaken notion that by doing so he is acting in a manner appropriate to the code of his time and place. His elevation of dignity above all other human attributes is the cowl that eventually makes him into a monk.
‘‘Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically’’ thinks Mr Stevens, the English butler and narrator of that novel. ‘‘After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.’’
Ibaraki, thinking of his failure to tell his wife of his pre-war work, and recalling his unwillingness to open up to the Australian nun with whom he had established a powerful rapport in Broome, thinks similarly: ‘‘In keeping my silence, I hadn’t exercised the very quality that makes us human: our capacity to understand one another.’’
For all the violence hedged round the narrative, something of Ishiguro’s gentle, understated melancholy infects After Darkness. Such poise is surprising in a debut, as is its scope and ambition. And in a contemporary culture in which the airing of innermost secrets is seen as a healthy obligation, such reticence and grace bears its own certain, salutary shock. Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic.
Christine Piper displays surprising poise in her debut novel