Thomas Keneally has written books on a variety of subjects. His first novel to attain international readership, Bring Larks and Heroes, presents the barbarous life of eighteenth century Sydney; Three Cheers for the Paraclete concerns a Catholic priest who attacks the Church for its indifference to social evil; The Survivor and A Victim of the Aurora are stories about Antarctic expeditions, told in flashback by aged narrators; A Dutiful Daughter is a surrealistic tale of a family in which the parents are bovine from the waist down. One may, however, separate Keneally’s work into two parts, albeit roughly: the novels that deal with seemingly ordinary, contemporary individuals, and the wide range of what might be called historical novels.
In a large portion of his work, Keneally concerns himself with European history, examining closely the human beings involved, seeing the past not as the present sees it, as a series of neatly wrapped, complete events, but as the participants experience it: as a jumble of occurrences that seem to have little meaning or purpose. Although some reviewers have commented on the portentousness lurking in the background of such works as Gossip from the Forest, a fictionalized re-creation of the 1918 peace talks that led to the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, such “damaging knowingness” is only partly Keneally’s fault; after all, the present knows what happened in the past, at least in outline.
It must be emphasized that Keneally’s historically based fiction is not about ordinary people set against a celebrity-filled background, in the manner of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975). Keneally’s works deal with the historical figures themselves, presenting them as human beings embroiled in the quotidian matters from which the historical events reveal themselves gradually. The writer’s knowledge of history shapes the delineation of the plot. Furthermore, theprotagonist’s awareness of his or her importance to posterity comes only in flashes. When such awareness occurs, it is as a result of the character’s makeup; Joan of Arc, for example, was a visionary, and it is unavoidable that, as a character, she knows something of her eventual fate.
It cannot be denied that what Keneally attempts to do in his historically based novels is difficult; that he succeeds as well as he does is primarily a result of a spare, objective style that is at times brilliant, such as in this description of Yugoslav partisans from Season in Purgatory: “Grenades blossomed like some quaint ethnic ornamentation down the front of their coats.” The third-person narration, deceptively simple, pretending to mere description, seems detached (at times too detached): Schindler’s List, based on a German industrialist’s widely successful efforts to save “his” Jews from the Holocaust, at times suffers from an almost sprightly tone, as if the author were so determined to be objective that he expunged any sense of moral outrage from his account. At its best, the stark simplicity of Keneally’s prose throws into sharp relief the horrors of which history is made.
After the success of Schindler’s List, Keneally focused on another aspect of Holocaust subject matter in A Family Madness, based on the mass suicide of a family of five in suburban Sydney in July, 1984. The story traces the legacy of guilt that impairs the lives of Nazi collaborators and their children. Then Keneally turned to contemporary warfare in To Asmara, a fictional consideration of civil strife in Ethiopia in the 1980’s as told by a narrator, an Australian journalist. His Flying Hero Class is a departure from works based in fact, images of war, and war’s impacts on people’s lives, as it is confined to events on an airplane hijacked en route from Frankfurt to New York. In Woman of the Inner Sea, Keneally returns to fact-based fiction with the portrayal of a woman who seeks to redefine herself in the Australian outback. A River Town draws on the experiences of Keneally’s Irish ancestors, depicting the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since 2002, Keneally has produced three historical novels with distinctly Australian flavor: An Angel in Australia, The Tyrant’s Novel, and The Widow and Her Hero. Keneally’s ability to write clear and singing prose has brought him both critical and public acclaim.
Gossip from the Forest
The history examined by Keneally is never pretty, no matter how heroic the subject. The final terrible lesson of Gossip from the Forest is that well-meaning, intelligent, civilized people have no place in the twentieth century. Matthias Erzberger, liberal member of the Reichstag, has no success in his negotiations; blind self-interest thwarts his every attempt at justice for his country, recently defeated in World War I. He is shot to death several years after the meeting at Compiègne by two young officers, proto-Nazis, as a traitor for his role in the Armistice. Erzberger himself, for all of his excellent qualities and basic decency, seems unequal to the task he has had thrust upon him. He is aware of his inadequacy: “Like a cardiac spasm he suffered again the terrible bereft sense that there was nothing in his background that justified this journey.At its most high-flown the true Erzberger’s mind wasn’t far off steak and red wine and Paula’s warm and undemanding bed.” His dreamy absentmindedness and his eventual despair seem to remove him from the heroic ranks; it is only toward the end of the novel that the reader realizes the true heroism of the civilian in his struggle against the military mind.
Season in Purgatory
This kind of gradual revelation of heroism is evident also in Season in Purgatory, the story of a young British physician, David Pelham, who is sent to the island of Mus to perform emergency surgery on Yugoslav partisans. Pelham arrives on Mus with all the fiery idealism of youth. After being thrust, day after day, into the results of war—both the direct results, such as graphically described wounds, and the indirect, such as Marshal Tito’s order that any partisans indulging in sexual relations be summarily executed—he is worn down, no longer convinced of the rightness of any cause: “In his bloodstream were two simple propositions: that the savagery of the Germans did not excuse the savagery of the partisans: that the savagery of the partisans did not excuse the savagery of the Germans.”
This final realization that “the masters of the ideologies, even the bland ideology of democracy, were blood-crazedthat at the core of their political fervour, there stood a desire to punish with death anyone who hankered for other systems than those approved,” does not allow the story to end. It is in this moral vacuum that Pelham becomes a hero, having sacrificed the innocence and illusion of idealism for an embittered realism. Keneally continues to reveal Pelham’s personal flaws, as he does with all of his heroic figures: Pelham’s childishness in love and hate and his typical upper-class British attitudes survive the revelation. Therefore, the apotheosis of the physician at the end of the war comes as much as a surprise to the reader as it must to the character himself.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Pelham’s loss of idealism is necessary to Keneally’s concept of the heroic figure; idealism bathes reality in a rosy glow that does not fit anything but the usual type of historical novel (or many types of history, for that matter). Generally, Keneally’s heroes find themselves chosen to be sacrificial victims, without having wished for it. They are by turns reluctant and filled with fervor, and they are always human, at times perversely flaunting their faults. The positive aspect of their selection is generally far more ephemeral than the certitude of the doom toward which they know they are going. They are often in the situation epitomized by the half-caste protagonist of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: “in tenuous elation and solid desolation between self-knowledge and delirium.”
Jimmie Blacksmith has a white father, whom he does not know, and an aboriginal mother. He has been taught Christianity and ambition; he is no longer tribal, but his attempts to show the whites that a black may be as industrious and educated as they are fail to gain for him acceptance in their society. He marries a white girl who has also slept with the station cook; when their baby is born, it is white.
Jimmie has been cheated by the whites, has taken up arms against his tribe in order to be thought white, and has married white to consolidate his ambition, yet he is still rejected by the white society. The birth of his baby makes him explode, and he goes on a methodical rampage, first killing the Newby family, for whom he worked, then taking a sympathetic white schoolteacher as a hostage. He eludes his pursuers for a time, but they catch up with him. Shot in the jaw, delirious, he takes refuge in a convent, where he is eventually captured. His hanging, however, is delayed so that it will not detract from the celebration of the Federation anniversary.
Throughout, Jimmie is seen as a man who might be a bridge between the two cultures, but neither the Aborigines nor the whites allow such a resolution; his killing spree seems to represent his only alternative, and although other people die, Jimmie is actually the victim. He wants to become the peaceful link, and when this course proves illusory, he becomes the avenger, knowing that he will not survive. He is doomed, in the way Keneally heroes are usually doomed.
Blood Red, Sister Rose
This sense of being the sacrificial victim is most strongly presented in Keneally’s retelling of the Joan of Arc story. Blood Red, Sister Rose is a fictionalized account of the youth and triumph of Joan of Arc. The novel ends with the few anticlimactic months following the coronation of Charles in Rheims and an epilogue in the form of a letter from Jehanne’s father to the family about his daughter’s death. Throughout the development of Jehanne’s awareness of her destiny, however, the certitude of her martyrdom is evident, for she is a peasant who knows that Christ’s sacrifice was not enough; the king needs one, and she has been chosen. Alternately buoyed and depressed by her fate, she sees herself as a conduit for these forces, the importance of which leaves very little time or passion for Jehanne, daughter of Jacques and Zabillet, to pursue her own humanity.
Described as wide-shouldered and plain, Jehanne goes through adolescence without menstruating, which proves to her that she is not like her sister or her mother, that she is the virgin from Lorraine prophesied by Merlin. She has not chosen her fate, but she must accept it. There are moments when she resents this election: Words of tenderness spoken about another woman, for example, evoke great sadness within her, for she knows that such words will never be spoken about her. The greater part of the time, however, she is consumed with her mission, not to France, not to the destruction of the English, not even to stop the slaughter of the farmers who suffered so greatly in the wars of the fifteenth century, but to ensure the consecration of the king, to whom she is mystically bound.
Through ancient ritual, Keneally presents the notion of the human sacrifice. The author’s weaving of historical incident with the motivations based in archaic mythologies allows a dimension of verisimilitude to the slippery genre of historical fiction. The inclusion of certain surprising elements of fifteenth century life (for example, the mention that peasants in eastern France plowed their fields with a naked woman in the harness so that the earth might be bountiful) reveals a society in which the voices heard by Jehanne cannot be casually dismissed as a frustrated spinster’s wishful thinking.
Jehanne is, like her forebears, a mixture of ignorance and hardheaded shrewdness. These qualities, at the service of the obsession that invaded her at the age of nine, ensure her success in reaching the king. Furthermore, the feudal society that she opposes is rapidly approaching dissolution: The battle of Agincourt has demonstrated the impotence of armored knights, Prince Hal has taken to killing noble prisoners instead of ransoming them in the time-honored practice of chivalry, the alliances of dukes and barons have been complicated by the presence of the English, and the ongoing war has caused a near famine in the countryside. Jehanne’s clarity of purpose shines...
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