An escape from New South Wales

Shame and the Captives, by Thomas Keneally, is not a perfect novel, but this fictional account of escapee Japanese POWs is gripping nonetheless

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

Shame and the Captives Thomas Keneally

Sceptre, pp.378, £18.99, ISBN: 9781444281281

Thomas Keneally has constructed his latest novel around a framework of true events: the mass break-out of Japanese PoWs from a camp in New South Wales. This intrinsically thrilling incident, triggered by a fascinating clash between mutually uncomprehending cultures, is an obvious gift to a writer. There may be some who claim that any novelist could therefore have produced an interesting fictional version of it; but this is like saying that anyone could have made a landscape out of the fine park at Blenheim. Keneally spotted both the tale and its possibilities, which in itself is a truly enviable talent.

His imagination is fired by the incongruities of the camp in the small town of Cowra, here fictionalised as Gawell. It consisted of four areas, containing European (chiefly Italian) PoWs in compounds A and D, a quarrelsome mix of Japanese officers and merchants, Taiwanese, Koreans and Indonesians in compound B, and a sullenly uncooperative mass of Japanese warriors in compound C. This tightly-packed, tense mass of humanity was placed in the strung-out rural society of an Australian back-water, living by the ‘patterns of daily tedium’.

The Japanese prisoners are all, to some degree or other, consumed by shame. They see themselves as dishonoured by surrender, even if unconscious when taken prisoner; death, even by suicide, would have been preferable. They give false names to their captors, not just to mislead the enemy but so that their families will not learn that they are alive. Returning home is not an option, and is not the point of escape.

It is an anthropological cliché to say that Japan has a ‘culture of shame’, and western civilisation a ‘culture of guilt’. But if guilt is a form of internalised shame, the two, as Keneally suggests, are affects or emotions on a sliding scale. All the western characters are burdened by shame, shading into guilt.

Alice Herman, waiting for the return of an imprisoned husband she barely had time to get to know, and living a life of ‘near-drudgery’ on her father-in-law’s farm, embarks on an affair with Giancarlo, an Italian PoW. Readers who expect a fully-fledged romantic love story will be disappointed: this is not the tale of a love so intense that it escapes guilt and shame. It is ‘an intoxication’ which ‘glittered with its own morality’ — but is as unstable as a fever. In the absence of moral and cultural markers, it is indecipherable, even to Alice herself.

The commander of the camp, Colonel Abercare, and the officer in charge of Compound C, Major Suttor, each have their own domestic secrets. Both are separated from their wives, though there is no bond of fellowship between them, only mutual distrust between a career- and a merely wartime-soldier, and between an Englishman and an Australian.

Colonel Abercare’s relationship with his wife, Emily, is a brilliant vignette. They married in India, but their relationship suffered in the tedium of suburban Queensland, where Abercare had an affair with a storekeeper’s wife. Small-town gossip provided searing shame. Emily, ‘coldly charitable’ yet also obscurely self-accusing, decides to forgive him — a willed rather than spontaneous gesture, yet deeply touching.

In Australia, torpor and indifference are the enemies. The first prison guards we see exude ‘military lack of interest…princely boredom’. Abercare’s rule is marked by an attempt to induce in the captives ‘a state of dull acceptance, occupation and languor’, which baffles the Japanese.

Shame and the Captives would make a superb GCSE text, since it is constructed around obvious themes. Such texts, of course, may themselves raise only torpor and indifference if the themes are too blatant. At times, Keneally does not quite escape the charge of over clarity, which is, of course, partly the problem of portraying hardliners. It is difficult to write about men who are attempting to live up to foreign stereotypes without making them sound clichéd. (Keneally does not dwell upon those Japanese who ‘secretly wanted to survive’, the lone Japanese Presbyterian being a somewhat cursory exception.)

Yet within this clear framework, his imagination fires, stuttering, into memorable vignettes: the complex life of a Japanese female impersonator; the attempt of a boorish Australian father and his bookish son to prove themselves with rifles on a manhunt; and the superb moment when the suicidal egotism of an escaped Japanese prisoner shrivels as he confronts a ‘huge, indifferent’ landscape alone.

This is not a perfect novel. The style is uneven. There are startling images — the nightmarish rows of bodies strung on the prison wires are ‘like huge fruit-bats’ — but much of the narrative of the escape is pedestrian, though this may be deliberate, to suggest compelling factuality. Some of the more florid sentences are unconvincing: ‘Within the limits of his everlasting deceit, he answered the unnegotiable kindness of her breasts…’ And I did not quite believe that a Japanese warrior would choose death at the hands of a female civilian.Yet so much is vivid and intriguing that Shame and the Captives is almost consistently gripping.

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  • jim clifford

    Stay tuned. There will be a lot more of this sort of thing when the last WWII vet dies. Probably around 2030. Most will be about the Japanese as victims. See the movie “The Emperor” for a preview. Don’t expect any cleaning up of the Germans, however.