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In memory of Christopher Koch

The Tasmanian conservative was the most important and sophisticated novelist Australia has produced

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Christopher Koch would not like me talking about his politics. Because the real point about Chris, who died in September, aged 81, after a yearlong battle with cancer, is that he was the most sophisticated, important and profound novelist that Australia has produced.

No other Australian novelist has had the depth of learning, the artistic sophistication, the profound psychological understanding and the sheer craftsmanship to bring such perfect novels to the page as Chris did.

Of course, I may be biased.

I exercised strenuous efforts to make his acquaintance, nearly 35 years ago, and after a drunken dinner at which I did my jejeune best to impress him, which efforts he tolerated good-humouredly,  Chris and I became the closest of friends. Although he was nearly a quarter of a century my senior, and at first I treated him with the deference youth naturally owes to age, Chris was a boon companion.

Ours was a friendship above all of talk. Over the years our conversations developed their own unconscious rhythm and structure, a little exchange of personal information at the start and then a long discussion of books, often revolving around what one of us was reading, followed by a shorter but still substantial session on politics.

As the years went by, I played a small role in all his novels.

For The Doubleman, set partly in Sydney in the 1960s, I skived off from my then job at the Bulletin to dig out historic newspaper headlines for him. The best parts of that book, which I don’t think was anywhere near his best, were set among east European refugees in Kings Cross. So we talked endlessly of refugees and the second world war and I found in the book a reference to Hitler and demonic influences which reflected a little our discussions.

His next book, Highways to a War (both these two won the Miles Franklin award), concerned the Vietnam war and the Cambodian genocide. I had written endlessly about these conflicts and Chris always did painstaking research on the background to his novels. The research was just the background, it had nothing to do with the central concerns of his work. Research was just a technical tool, but he always got it right.

Although he kept didactic politics out of his books, most contain some Socratic dialogue in which a modestly conservative traditionalist argues with a revolutionary of some kind. Thus there is  the journalist Guy Hamilton’s dialogue with his secretly communist assistant, Kumar, in The Year of Living Dangerously, Chris’s most famous and important book. In Highways to a War several of the main characters argue repeatedly about the politics of the Indochina conflicts and their historic background. The odious spy Aubrey, despite being odious, makes a classically Kochian point when he declares: ‘Revolution: colonising Europe’s most poisonous departing gift to Asia!’

The hero, Mike Langford, is very loosely based on the Australian cameraman Neil Davis. The left-wing characters, including a communist army officer and numerous journalists, are written with sympathy and imaginative understanding. His Socratic dialogues work because he enters imaginatively into the characters’ opposing world views as they confront each other.

I was thrilled when I read Highways to find that a column of mine on the Vietnam war had been adopted, argument for argument, though of course not word for word, by Langford himself.

In the book after that, Out of Ireland, Chris paid me the ultimate compliment of naming a minor character after me, although the fellow was portly and not particularly sympathetic. The key Socratic dialogue in that novel confronts a leader of the republican Young Irelander movement, exiled in Tasmania in the 19th century, against an unlikely spokesman for the British empire. Chris was of mixed Irish, German and English ancestry and was proud of all sides, but he had a deep love for British civilisation and a profound respect for the greatness of the British empire, even as he understood all its crimes and shortcomings. Nonetheless, the Young Irelander was the only revolutionary Chris ever more or less approved of.

Chris thought this book, which had a huge sale, perhaps his best. I disagreed. I thought it very fine indeed, but perhaps his fourth best, after The Year of Living Dangerously, Highways to a War and Across the Sea Wall, the only novel he set substantially in India. This novel got such mixed reviews Chris didn’t include it in a recent reissue of his works, though I think it is intensely involving.

Chris had a deep knowledge of many eras of history, Byzantine civilisation, ancient Rome, Victorian England, and he had a love of all things Indian. He stopped there, as it turned out for months, on his first trip to England as a young man, and would later write: ‘The detour I had made into India had been, in a sense, a detour for life.’

Chris was British, European and Australian in his intellectual formation. Partly because he was so secure in his identity, he came to Asia with acute perceptive strength. Nor was Asia an alternative to Europe for Chris. Rather, they complemented each other. Writing of Australia’s position in Asia, he remarked: ‘There is a sense in which we have always been conscious of Asia, since we began as part of that empire whose lynchpin was India.’

Because of India’s cultural inheritance from the British, and yet its need to find its own way, Chris concluded that ‘It was those Indians who were our brothers under the skin — not the British.’

His deep cultural knowledge of India fed into his great novel of Indonesia, as he drew on the Hindu influences in Java.

After the Irish book came a novel about spies, The Memory Room. The gripping middle section of this wholly successful novel is set in the Australian embassy in Beijing in the early 1980s.

I was stationed in Beijing in 1985 and saved Chris from a few minor solecisms such as having an episode feature the ambassador from Singapore at a time when China and Singapore did not have diplomatic relations. He took some of my diplomatic anecdotes and fashioned them into nuggets of meaning and authenticity. Of course, he had many sources for this background, not least his own journey through China in the early 1980s. He had started his working life as a press artist and in China made many fine sketches.

Later in life, as I discovered when we holidayed together in Malaysia, he would take photographs with professional skill, as though he were taking stills for a motion picture. These would feed directly into his visual imagination.

I always regretted that Chris didn’t write a novel set in Malaysia. We were there together with our wives over Christmas 1999, and motored one day from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka. There, to the utter dismay of our driver, we bought a durian fruit. These fruits have the most powerful and obnoxious smell in the created universe, though they taste soft and sweet. Eating a durian, it has been said, is like consuming a strawberry ice-cream in a loathsome, foul latrine.

As we drove back from Melaka, the smell from the cut durian in the boot began to overwhelm every part of the car. Finally we decided to stop, eat as much of the durian as we could by the side of the road, and throw the rest away.

Chris began to speak: ‘Cecil Trelawney was a tough old planter, but that evening he was feeling liverish. There was something strange about the durian his wife had placed before him on the veranda of their isolated jungle home.’

There before our eyes Chris was composing a Somerset Maugham-style short story, to be called ‘Cecil Trelawney and the Deadly Durian’, about a planter whose wife poisons him, confident the aroma of the durian will cover any smell from the poison.

Although I think Chris by some distance our greatest novelist, even he had his limitations. His greatest strength was the staggering range and depth of his artistic knowledge and understanding. Another was his unerring ability to structure a novel perfectly. Reading one of Chris’s books is like listening to a fine symphony. The movements gradually meld together, motifs of great beauty recur and sometimes swell, there are minor trills and grace notes, the end of the symphony is always the culmination of everything that has come before.

Another is the exceptional poetry of Chris’s prose. I almost hesitate to use that phrase because it sounds arty and high-falutin’. Chris’s prose was at once artistically perfect and perfectly unpretentious. He always cautioned me against the unnecessary use of the ten-dollar word. He wanted reading to be a pleasure, and a sensual pleasure. He had an unerring ear for the poetic rhythm of a sentence. The phrase ‘the year of living dangerously’ has entered the English language as universally as Orwell’s 1984, or Big Brother. It comes from a translation of part of a speech by Sukarno, but the phrase is entirely Chris’s. Now it is a universal part of our language, routinely gracing newspaper headlines all over the world. Few Australian novelists have done anything like that.

His other great strength, as Graham Greene remarked, was a unique ability to evoke place. The Year of Living Dangerously has long been recommended to our diplomats as required reading when they go to Jakarta. That city today is transformed in every superficial way from the Jakarta of Chris’s novel. But there is something timeless about Chris’s Jakarta.

He could also capture the feeling of a particular moment. In 1965 Jakarta, and much of Indonesia, was convulsed by terrible political and racial killings. Chris caught the dread, the incredible tension, of the period leading up to that explosion.

He wrote:

There is a definite point where a city, like a man, can be seen to have become insane. This had finally happened to Jakarta when we reached the seventeenth of August: Merdeka Day, and the end of Sukarno’s year. Amok is an old Malay word; and Jakarta had now run amok with classical completeness. For a long time, a man may be unbalanced, given to irrational hopes and irrational rages; and though these signs are disconcerting we continue to think of him as eccentric but sane. It’s always difficult to believe that someone we know well has crossed into that other territory where no one from our side can reach him, and from which messages crackle back that no longer make any sense. But finally something happens to jar us into seeing this. That’s how it was with Sukarno’s Jakarta, in the middle of the that weird August, the end of the dry monsoon.

The single limitation in Chris’s work was that he was not as good in dialogue as in the expository, narrative and reflective passages. His dialogue was always believable but it didn’t instantly convey character as some other great novelists do.

His political views were intensely conservative, not reactionary, but worldly and profound. He greatly admired Tony Abbott, who likewise loved Chris’s novels. But Chris had the discipline of a fine artist and didn’t use his novels for propaganda about transitory political issues. Nor did he want readers’ experience of his novels confused by their knowledge of his political outlook. But  occasionally he was caught out giving free expression to what he privately believed.

You can get the most direct idea of this from his essays, which were collected in a superb volume called Crossing the Gap. In one beautiful meditation, ‘Mysteries’, he turns to the purposes of a Christian writer:

This is all that a Christian novelist can do, in the end: to salvage joy wherever it’s to be found, among the rubbish and waste and pathetic incongruities of life; and to show as well the results of its displacement; to identify those counterfeits that come to us in its place, whispering their lies of fulfilment, power and love.

Chris had a supreme gift for friendship. He was utterly clubbable and The Spectator was  for him a singular, weekly joy. In many ways he was out of step with his time, but his work is timeless. I will cherish his memory all my days.

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Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of the Australian and author of everal books on foreign policy and international relations.

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