In his previous novels, Thomas Keneally has demonstrated his insight into the relationships between individuals and their societies, especially the conflicts between natural impulses and abstract justice, which is too often defined by an oppressive authority. In Keneally’s most famous novel, Schindler’s Ark (1982), the oppressor is the Nazi government. The protagonist of the book is Oskar Schindler, who saved fifteen hundred Jews in Poland and in Czechoslovakia. Here there is no ambivalence about right and wrong, though Keneally shows that even the saintly Schindler is far from being perfect. In some of Keneally’s earlier works, such as The Place at Whitton (1964) and Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974), the oppressor is the Roman Catholic Church, which considers itself a force for good but which can, ironically, be perceived as an instrument of evil. It is not surprising that when Keneally deals with the early days of Australia, he must explore similarly complex moral and ethical issues. For example, in Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), the protagonist finds himself caught between the understandably rebellious convicts and a blind, brutal government, determined to repress them. Again in The Playmaker (1987) it is suggested that although the convicts committed evil acts in England, they may be redeemed in the new environment; the problem arises because the authority which has judged them and which has set up a system to punish them does not dare to admit that possibility without risking its own existence.
Like The Playmaker, To Asmara: A Novel of Africa emphasizes the difficulty of distinguishing oppressor from oppressed, good from evil. In the first chapter of To Asmara, the narrator, the Australian journalist Timothy Darcy, speaks for the author as he points out how well-meaning but ill-informed outsiders can make easy judgments which ignore the facts. In their struggle against the alien Ethiopians who have terrorized and starved them, the Eritreans have blown up a food convoy. To a visiting rock star, a self-styled humanitarian, the conclusion is clear: These rebels are evil. What he does not know is that Ethiopians have regularly used supposed food convoys to ship weapons; if such was not the case in this one instance, the rebels had no way of knowing it. Furthermore, by so easily espousing the righteousness of the Ethiopians’ cause, the rock singer ignores the real oppression of one people by another, a heartless and bloody oppression which has kept the Eritreans resisting, since they know that they will be systematically slaughtered if they fail to do so.
Like Keneally himself who spent three months in Eritrea gathering the material for this book, Timothy Darcy is above all a searcher for truth. Because he suspects that the rock musician’s interpretation involves a false conclusion, Darcy has come to Eritrea to investigate. His quest takes him to refugee camps, to rebel outposts, and behind the battle lines. There is, however, another uncertainty in Darcy’s mind, an uncertainty which he has brought with him from Australia. There his marriage failed and his wife deserted him. He has yet to puzzle out the reasons.
Each of the other outsiders who join Darcy on his trip into Eritrea also has a personal quest. Christine Malmedy is a young French girl. Having recently lost her own child, she has been impelled to reestablish a relationship with her father, the intrepid cameraman Roland Malmedy (Masihi), who has never troubled much about her existence. Mark Henry, an American aid worker, desires above all to gain freedom for his Somali girlfriend, who is in the hands of the Ethiopians. Finally, Lady Julia Ashmore-Smith, an elderly representative of the Anti- Slavery Society, has devoted her life to the crusade against female castration. While her dedication cannot be questioned, it, too, has a personal dimension. Julia’s aunt, a nurse in Kenya, was herself tortured and murdered because she had objected to the traditional practice of female mutilation.
In addition to his search for a political and for a personal truth, Darcy has another quest. Through a journalist friend, he has become interested in an Ethiopian pilot, Major Paulos Fida, who is being held by the Eritreans. Obviously a civilized and honorable man, Fida would seem to argue for the righteousness of his own people, especially when he insists in a letter to Darcy that he has no knowledge of the use of napalm by the Ethiopians, an atrocity which had been reported. Darcy carries with him a letter to Fida from his wife; if and when he can deliver...