‘Deep Ancestral Voices’: Inner and Outer Narrative in Christopher J. Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’

With The Doubleman (1985), Christopher Koch laid claim to be regarded as one of Australia's serious novelists. It was a novel which won him both local and international respect, most famously with the commendatory notice of Graham Greene. A decade later, with his fifth published novel Highways to a War (1995), that claim is not only reaffirmed - it too is in itself a novel of substance - but he also displays the accomplishment of a novelist who has now brought together all the achieved skills from a lifetime of writing and thinking. The characteristic tendencies and preoccupations of Koch's writing have long been apparent. Indeed, the characteristic of preoccupation itself is an abiding theme, and can be traced right back to The Boys in the Island (1958), where it lies at the very centre of the action - or more precisely, suspended at the heart of suspended action. Across the Sea Wall ( 1965) has not been as widely noticed, except by those constructing a reading of Australian imaginative interest in Asia, and some of the uncertainty about that novel's quality is probably indicated by Koch himself, whorecast it in a revised edition in 1982. Not until The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), award-winning and adapted to a highly successful film, did he begin to achieve widespread notice. After that, a novel of intricately interwoven political and mythological patterns, the important difference in the subsequent novels is in the quality and consistency of the conceptual imagination that emerges, and in the nature of the authorial vision. A secondary issue, a bonus as it were, is the correlation between that vision and the themes and preoccupations of other Australian writing.

As is made quite explicit in Koch's volume of essays, Crossing the Gap (1987), place matters- where a novelist comes from, where a people live. 'Geography is the great hidden shaper of history and character. The essence in landscape and climate will always impose itself on the human spirit, and especially the writer's spirit, more finally and insidiously than anything else, in the end' (118). That is a premise on which much else rests, yet it is also a proposition that requires unpacking. This is different from the customary, conventional nexus between character and history, or character and fate. Something else has been proposed, something larger - geography shapes, even determines history. Character likewise is determined, so that independent moral agency will be, as it clearly is in both The Doubleman and Highways to a War, and presumably will also be in the forthcoming novel Out of Ireland, a contested site. It follows that character is not altogether unique; and that figures will resemble each other in certain respects, emerge at least in part as certain psychological, national, cultural or symbolic types, they will express something more than just themselves. It is habitual in Koch's novels that characters are rarely just themselves. They speak or act for something other, something more.

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Published 1 May 1997 in Volume 18 No. 1. Subjects: Characterisation, Narrative techniques, Quest motif, Writer's craft.

Cite as: Mitchell, Adrian. ‘‘Deep Ancestral Voices’: Inner and Outer Narrative in Christopher J. Koch’s ‘Highways to a War’.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1997. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.faceec7f0a.