Imagining how the war was lost
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