Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Highways To A War by Christopher J. Koch. 451 pages. Viking.
Reviewed by Milton Osborne.
It is appropriate that the publication of Christopher Koch's new novel, Highways to a War, should take place in 1995, a year during which attention has been focused on the Communist victory in Vietnam 20 years ago. For the book is a notable literary reflection on the war. Koch has long been regarded as one of Australia's finest writers, praised for his sensitive use of language and meticulous attention to detail, whether in describing his homeland or, as in his earlier novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, settings in Indonesia and other parts of Asia. These qualities are abundantly apparent in this, his fourth novel. The book tells the story of Mike Langford, a photo journalist who bears some resemblance to Neil Davis, the legendary Australian cameraman who survived the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia only to be killed in a failed coup in Bangkok in 1985. Like Davis, Langford seems impervious to danger and concerned to show the war as it was fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops. This commitment leads to one of the novel's most rewarding features. Langford's association with South Vietnamese and Cambodian government soldiers means that they emerge from the pages of this book as characters who invite sympathy, rather than being, as so often has been the case in other novels about the Indochina wars, mere background against which foreigners play their dominant parts.
Nor is it only those fighting against the Communists who are given humanity. In one gripping section of the book, Langford and two journalist colleagues are held for a time by the North Vietnamese. Captain Danh, who leads their captors, is shown as a man of principle whose commitment happens to be to the other side. This is a novel that can be read at several levels. It is a tale of courage in the face of danger. As a reflection on the wars that ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia,Koch's book insistently reminds us that few conflicts lend themselves to being analyzed in simple terms of right and wrong. Victims can be found on both sides. But, above all, the book is rewarding because it brings alive a world that increasingly large numbers of readers will never have experienced and which others are beginning to forget. This is the author's most striking achievement.
As we follow Langford from his farming boyhood in the rural Australian state of Tasmania, through poverty in Singapore, to increasing status as a journalist in Indochina, the sights and sounds of his surroundings are vividly before us. Also vividly portrayed are the men and women who live, work and fight there. For those of us who knew Phnom Penh and Saigon before 1975, the descriptions Koch provides are achingly familiar, as are the scenes set in lush, yet harsh, environment of the Cambodian and Vietnamese countryside. In introducing his book, the author writes that Highways to War is "one of a related pair: a diptych." With the success of the current novel, readers will eagerly wait for Koch's next offering.