Imag­in­ing how the war was lost

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Peter Pierce

N By John A. Scott Brandl & Sch­lesinger, 600pp, $34.95 FOR­TU­NATELY it has been left to nov­el­ists rather than his­to­ri­ans to re­late what might have hap­pened if the Nazis had won World War II (Robert Har­ris, Father­land, 1992), or if the anti-Semitic avi­a­tor Charles Lind­bergh had beaten Franklin Roo­sevelt in the 1940 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion (Philip Roth, The Plot Against Amer­ica, 2004).

Such al­ter­na­tive his­to­ries are risky ven­tures, dar­ing the reader sim­ply to dis­miss the premise.

Un­de­terred, English-born Aus­tralian poet and nov­el­ist John A. Scott has imag­ined, in his novel N, across a span of 600 pages, a par­al­lel chronol­ogy of Aus­tralia’s fate in World War II.

The be­gin­ning and end are fa­mil­iar. Sin­ga­pore falls, Dar­win is at­tacked; years later, Ger­many is de­feated and atomic bombs are dropped on Ja­pan. In be­tween, how­ever, Scott treats us to a Ja­panese vic­tory in the Bat­tle of the Co­ral Sea, fol­lowed by their in­va­sion and an oc­cu­pa­tion of most of Aus­tralia in which ‘‘the rich end of town’’ was com­plicit.

Scott’s new novel, his first in a decade, has been com­pared to Thomas Pyn­chon’s 1973 post­mod­ern epic of the war, Grav­ity’s Rain­bow, but its an­tecedents are closer to home. They lie in fic­tion, po­etry and car­toon­ing of the late 19th century in Aus­tralia that imag­ined an Asian (usu­ally Chi­nese) in­va­sion of this coun­try. The Mon­gol woke, ter­ri­fy­ingly, from the slum­ber of cen­turies.

In a Bul­letin cartoon of 1895, Liv­ingston Hop­kins de­picted the raft Aus­tralia, car­ry­ing The Lit­tle Boy from Manly, about to be boarded by a dev­il­ish Chi­na­man. In his 1895 novel The Yel­low Wave, Kenneth Mackay fore­told how a com­pla­cent Aus­tralia would be over­run by mer­ci­less Chi­nese hordes. Al­though it is not men­tioned in the au­thor’s notes, Scott al­ludes to John Hooker’s The Bush Soldiers (1984), a novel that treats of the guerilla war that fol­lows Ja­panese vic­tory. Hooker’s ir­reg­u­lars, Sawtell and Couni­han, are given fic­tional re­in­state­ment by Scott, al­though — un­like Hooker — he has Curtin’s cab­i­net de­camp­ing to New Zealand, not Perth.

Packed with con­vinc­ing pe­riod de­tail and mul­ti­ple al­lu­sions — to fic­tion, lit­er­a­ture, the clas­sics — N is in part an in­tel­li­gence test for his read­ers (one that some, re­sent­fully, may fail). For in­stance, nov­el­ist and ra­dio drama­tist Regi­nald Thomas, who be­gins to grow breasts af­ter his wife’s death and who can fore­see the fu­ture, is a mod­ern-day ver­sion of Tire­sias from Greek mythol­ogy.

Some char­ac­ters who lived in the 1940s ap­pear un­der their own names, such as pain­ter Sam Atyeo, politi­cian John McEwen and pop­u­lar au­thor Frank Clune. Oth­ers are given fic­tional iden­ti­ties. So­cial­ist re­al­ist pain­ter Noel Couni­han is tu­ber­cu­lar Roy Cunningham, while Clune’s ghost­writer and spokesman for Aus­tralia First, PR Stephensen, takes the stage at tire­some length as Al­bie Hen­ningsen of One Aus­tralia. He rants: ‘‘Fa­nat­ics are needed, crude, harsh men … to arouse us from the lethargy of deca­dence.’’

That sup­posed deca­dence is rep­re­sented too openly for their own good by the Mel­bourne artists and bo­hemi­ans who are prom­i­nent in Scott’s nar­ra­tive. They drink at the Swanston, eat Ital­ian at the Leonardo, are paid as life mod­els and painters. As the novel’s main char­ac­ter, Missy Cunningham, re­flects, “it was also the time of gam­blers, of pros­ti­tutes and of hote­liers with their cache of short-term rooms’’.

Briefly, it is also the time of the Amer­i­cans — Ne­gro soldiers, the mur­der­ous Pri­vate Leon­ski (un­der his own name) and Gen­eral MacArthur, hastily promis­ing that he will re­turn. There are nu­mer­ous sal­lies of wit in N, but the au­thor is dis­tracted by hav­ing to man­age both the grand his­tor­i­cal back­ground and the fore­ground story, in which a se­nior pub­lic ser­vant, Robin Telford, is asked to in­ves­ti­gate a mur­der.

Not any mur­der, but that of Nor­man Cole, one of two in­de­pen­dent MPs who put the La­bor Party into of­fice but whose ap­par­ent drown­ing leads to the fall of the Curtin govern­ment, then the seizure of power and dec­la­ra­tion of emer­gency by the in­creas­ingly crazed Sir War­ren Ma­hony. Telford is ap­proached by Cole’s widow, Es­ther, to find the truth about her hus­band’s death. On cue, he falls in love.

Scott, whose 2001 novel The Ar­chi­tect was

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