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samedi 30 juillet 2011

OPINION: Water From the Moon reviewed by Igor Maver














Zeitschrift für Australienstudien Nummer 25 2011 has come out and is available for purchase and subscription.

ZfA is the journal of the German Assoc. for Australian Studies. It publishes essays, creative writing, reviews and other relevant info for the Australianist community in English and German.

It has run a review of my monograph on Koch's novels.

For more info about the book, click here:

http://www.cambriapress.com/cambriapress.cfm?template=3&bid=48&font=2

It is very topical given that July is the birthday month of Christopher Koch




SOURCE: Igor Maver, Zeitschrift für Australienstudien 25, 2011, pp.137-140.

Jean-François Vernay, Water from the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch. Youngstown, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2007, 201 pp.

Christopher Koch, an internationally acclaimed Australian writer and two-time Miles Franklin Award winner, born and educated in Tasmania, has been writing fulltime since 1972. Probably his best known novel is The Year of Living Dangerously, which was made into a highly successful film by the Australian director Peter Weir that was also nominated for an Academy Award. In his book on Koch's writing Jean-François Vernay covers and most minutely analyzes his novels which mostly seem to talk about divisions and contrasts such as illusion and reality, East and West, past and present or the divided and dubious or double identities: from the early novels The Boys in the Island, Across the Sea Wall, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Doubleman, Highways to a War to Out of Ireland. It has to be added, however, that Koch's literary fame at this very moment does not rest solely on The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) set in Indonesia in the 1060s, but also on his most recent well-received spy novel The Memory Room (2007) which came out right at the time of the publication of this monograph under review. In The Memory Room Koch once again, as in several of his novels, interweaves the political and the personal and juggles the double nature of the protagonists, in this particular case the motivations of Vincent (based loosely on Koch long-time friend and in reality a secret agent), who chooses to live the life of an Australian secret intelligence operative.

Koch has been also living in England and is someone who has always been aware of the power of the media, the political intrigue, and Australia's (Austral-Asian) closeness to Asia and its developments. The fictionalization of Asia (as for example in the works by Blanche d'Alpuget, Brian Castro and others) is thus also one of his recurrent themes, although most certainly not the only one. Although Koch disclaims of being a political writer, he is in his novels certainly frequently concerned with Australia's relationship with its Asian neighbours, putting white Australians into tense political scenarios in South-East Asia. He says in a recent interview that »South-East Asia was what you flew over on your way to Europe, now multiculturalism has helped bring us closer…. But it still interests me to see typical Australians dropped into these exotic worlds«.

In the realism in The Boys in the Island (1958) Vernay sees the rise of the Australian poetic novel and it is true that, despite its surface realism, Koch's novel is charting the inward journey of the »failed« character into the irrational forces of the psyche, the landscape of the mind, as Patrick White would have it. In the novel Across the Sea Wall (1965) Koch brings together the two worlds, Australia and Asia, the West meeting the East, which, as Vernay's book clearly shows, starts from the original Orientalist stereotypical construction of otherness, but one that eventually turns into its opposite and mutual respect: »With hindsight, Asia has proved a tremendous success with Australian citizens and has even superseded Europe in terms of identification. It has ceased to embody just mere backdrops to political intrigues in fiction and has gradually been recognized as a strong economic partner … Australians need to deal with on a more intimate level« (52).

Koch's probably most successful novel (and its film adaptation) The Year of Living Dangerously shows his fondness of historical novels but also »a Baroque-inspired Weltanschauung« (83), as Vernay puts it, one that introduces the Indonesian context of the theatre of life with stages, masks, stage effects, plots, puppetry, costumes , and the like, thus relativizing the concepts of illusion/appearances and reality. The novel The Doubleman (1985), a modern fairy-tale, confirmed Koch's reputation, although it together with the Miles Franklin Award also earned him the first academic acerbic attack, accusing him of »xenophobia, male chauvinism, and misanthropy« (91). Vernay's narrative and psychological analysis interestingly leads him to maintain that »The Doubleman, very much like the original function of the Doppelgänger, is therefore an evil figure, which highlights a spiritual conflict within Man. Yet, …, the Double-man does not take over the identity of his victim as he is only interested in the individual's soul« (102). He furthermore draws the conclusion that in several of Koch's novels the »flawed personalities in search of their alter egos must renounce to their sui generis identities and become their models' shadows in order to feel complete« (106). Moreover, Vernay correctly maintains that within the Australian context the use of an exclusively male alter ego figure may well just be a literary expression of the cult of male mateship, derived on the one hand from the hostile reality of bush life for men without female companionship and on the other from the idealisation of the laconic and lone male that in a new land in this way rebels to authority.

In The Doubleman the Australian postcolonial dilemma is clearly played out; the question of the transplanted or rather the translated Europe in the Antipodes Vernay concludes in favour of the latter. The novel Out of Ireland (1999) deals with the recurrent Australian collective trauma, the one-time penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (formely Tasmania), which is depicted as a land of terror and, better still, »the land of the damned or as a terrestrial Hell – which generated the anti-Eden myth on which the palimpsest of the national psyche has been fleshed out layer upon layer« (153). Vernay brilliantly juxtaposes Dante's The Divine Comedy and Out of Ireland and concludes that Koch updated one of the founding myths of Judeo-Christian belief, namely man's condemnation. Koch may not have written »Christian novels«, as Vernay writes, yet he also sees in the last two Koch's novels discussed the writer's expression of the need for the expiation of sins, spiritual distress and »the crisis in religion« (172).

Jean-François Vernay in his book-length study of Koch demonstrates persuasively and with an assured literary critical hand how some of his novels owe a lot to certain classic hypotexts, ancient epics such as for example, The Reincarnation of Rama (an Indonesian religious play), or Dante's Divine Comedy, and how reality is and always will be a social and cultural construct: illusion and reality are thus constantly in an ambiguous relationship. He is right in discovering a sense of bovarysme in the novels discussed, as well as »an undeniable postcolonial dimension, which challenges the Eurocentric perspective on Australia« (174). It is owing to his fine in-depth study of Christopher Koch's literary oeuvre that we got a much needed monograph of his work, which has for over a decade, due to Koch's alleged conservatism, anti-postmodernism and even male chauvinistic treatment of certain women characters, fallen from the trendy literary grace in Australia. Koch is, regardless of this, a great Australian literary author, despite some of the downsides that Vernay does not sweep under the carpet; rather, he certainly makes an excellent scholarly case for Christopher Koch's writing.

By IGOR MAVER.

................................................................................................

My very last article on Koch was published in the following postcolonial collection of articles:

White Nation Fantasy, the Imperialistic Streak, and the Lingering Empire. A Contrapuntal Reading of Christopher Koch’s Fiction”, in Perennial Empires: Postcolonial, Transnational, and Literary Perspectives, Chantal Zabus & Silvia Nagy-Zekmi (eds.). Amherst/ New York: Cambria Press, 2011, 153-167.

To order your copy, click here:

http://www.cambriapress.com/cambriapress.cfm?template=4&bid=431

Abstract:

Regarded as one of Australia’s leading novelists, Christopher Koch wrote seven novels set in his native Australia and in Asia, all characterized by an adventurous and nomadic protagonist yearning for another land. Despite his Asia novels, Koch may be thought of as a Caucasian writer clinging to the idea of a White Australia pining for Europe, as attested by Out of Ireland and The Many-Coloured Land. This chapter analyses Koch’s literary representations of Australia by questioning his whitewashed hybridity. The novelist’s Eurocentric fantasies liberally sprinkled throughout his Asia novels could be taken as evidence of a lingering Empire at the forefront of his mind while fostering and publicising imperialistic ideologies that may well rekindle colonial tensions and revive interest in the “dying colonial world”.


Synopsis:

Cet article sur les quatre romans de l’Asie de Christopher Koch (Across the Sea Wall, The Year of Living Dangerously, Highways to a War et The Memory Room) nous conduit à nous interroger sur la perception européocentrique de ses personnages principaux. En m’inspirant de la théorie postcoloniale, je tente de démontrer que ce « fantasme de la nation blanche » trahit la présence d’une idéologie impérialiste dans l’œuvre de Koch.

Praise for the book:

URL : http://www.cambriapress.com/cambriapress.cfm?template=3&bid=48&font=2

Reviews: Susan Wyndham, Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum) 31/02-01/03/2007, p.30; Chad Habel, Australian Book Review 293, 07-8/2007, pp.57-8; Sue Ryan Fazilleau, Correspondances océaniennes 6: 2, 11/2007, p.34; CA Cranston, JASAL 7, 2007, pp.116-21; Paul Sharrad, Postcolonial Text 3: 4, 2007, online; Paul Genoni, Australian Literary Studies 23: 4, 10/2008, pp.493-6; Richard Carr, Antipodes 23: 2, 12/2009, pp.224-5; Igor Maver, Zeitschrift für Australienstudien 25, 2011, pp.137-140;

Comments (excerpts)

Chad Habel, Australian Book Review 293, July/ August 2007, pp.57-8.

“This is an important book, and a valuable contribution to what correctly identifies as a neglected area in Australian literary studies… Water from the Moon is a testament to the richness of Koch’s work and to the difficulty in analyzing, categorizing or pigeonholing it. It is a fitting (but backhanded) tribute to an author who has always vocally opposed the appropriation of his work for political, social or ideological ends.”

Sue Ryan Fazilleau, Correspondances Océaniennes 6: 2 (dir. Christophe AUGIAS), novembre 2007, p.34 : “…un livre important qui comble de façon compétente une lacune reconnue dans la critique littéraire australienne contemporaine”.

Paul Sharrad, Postcolonial Text 3: 4, 2007 : “Another valuable feature of Water from the Moon is its bringing Koch commentary up to date, with chapters on Highways to a War and Out of Ireland. Vernay is to be commended on pushing through the post-thesis trough to produce this study.”

URL : http://journals.sfu.ca/pocol/index.php/pct/article/view/827/511

CA Cranston, JASAL 7, 2007, pp. 116-21 : “…Water from the Moon is, importantly, relevant and topical…”

URL : http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/jasal/article/view/649

Paul Genoni, Australian Literary Studies 23: 4, October 2008, 493-6.: “… Water from the Moon has considerable merit. At a time when single author studies are out of favour, it is reassuring to find an account of a major Australian author that is timely, thorough and generally persuasive.”

Richard Carr, Antipodes 23: 2, December 2009, 224-25. : By the close of Water from the Moon, Vernay has succeeded in his goal of giving Koch his due as a complex artist, even as he has achieved a corollary aim: to send readers to the author and his books.

Commentaire de Christopher Koch, publié sur le site internet de Cambria Press : “Jean-François Vernay has written an interesting study of my work, informed by a particular set of theories concerning the nature of literature. This is natural; every critic, like every creative writer, works within the framework of his own beliefs. In doing so, Dr. Vernay pursues his themes with considerable thoroughness, relating them to the broader topic of Australian literature in the 20th century in a way which should be of interest to other scholars in the field – and to anyone who is concerned with Australian writing, both at home and abroad. His book should provoke thought and discussion; and for this, I welcome it.”


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