At war with his emo­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.