Gossip from the Forest

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Thomas Keneally has given us an account of the signing of the Armistice between the Allies of World War I and the German Imperial plenipotentiaries in November, 1918. The setting is a forest in Compiègne, France, where a railroad siding and the tracks of the main line provide roosts for the railroad cars that house the Germans and provide the rooms in which the negotiations take place. Although the real meeting and the delegates thereto have been highly memoired and mulled over by historians, Thomas Keneally’s sweeping perception of the divergent interests presented and their interplay at the negotiation table provides the reader with much more than the gossip which he claims in the title.

Keneally has apparently done a great deal of research as preparation for Gossip from the Forest. Numerous details that would appear to be contrived for the purpose of fleshing out a characterization or circumstance are actually facts. The author presents not merely a chronological recounting of the facts of the event, but a powerful psychological drama. It is more of a fictional meditation on history than a novel in its intensity. Keneally uses terse prose interspersed with hard-hitting dialogue in a format reminiscent more of a play than a novel. Each topic or scene is introduced with a headline, many of them seeming to be almost stage directions to the players in the action.

Keneally’s descriptions of people and events are spare and incisive, at times almost to the point of being cryptic. In his half-metamorphosed state between novelist and playwright, the author’s amalgam of writing styles lends impact to the dramatic dialogue, and the descriptive passages are deftly drawn but succinct. The small shocks in mannerisms or anecdotes that occasionally jolt the reader help to reflect the great tension under which the delegates must have labored.

Keneally’s terse style adds to the imagined effect of the confinement that the delegates must have felt within the strictures of the railroad cars, and lends an intensity to the atmosphere as the German delegates and Allies alike wait for news of and instructions from the German government. The seemingly long wait is described in a measured pace reflecting the slow but steady erosion of time as the deadline for the signing draws near.

Although they are confined together in such a small area, each man feels isolated and indifferent to the problems of the others. Each man, of course, has expectations of what is to be accomplished by the Armistice determined by his own experiences and background. It is this theme that is successfully pounded home by Keneally—that each individual worked in his own interest, rather than out of a great idealism of creating a better world or for the greater good of his countrymen.

Although each of the principals in the drama is examined in detail, the person who most often has the sympathy of the reader is Matthias Erzberger, the head of the German delegation. Erzberger is a quiet semi-hero. He is from a homey peasant background and represents the middle-class Everyman’s viewpoint at the negotiation table. He is an astute and successful politician, and Keneally uses him to interject into the otherwise fairly dry and technical details of the negotiations their real significance in human terms of their effect on the population. Through Erzberger we learn of the appalling condition of large segments of the German population—not those powerful chosen few who eat well even in the midst of a crippling war, but of the middle and lower class children who are nutritionally deprived because of the war and who are likely to be brought to starvation if the German economy is to suffer the insults of the demands proposed by Marshal Foch.

Moreover, Erzberger explicates for the reader the very real threat of a Communist takeover from within that existed at the time because of such miserable economic conditions. He reflects concern over the dwindling milk and coal supplies while the militarists in the group debate the future role of the German navy and honorable capitulation in East Africa for the Germans still there.

Erzberger seems even more human in that he is a reluctant diplomat, not altogether pleased at having been chosen to head his country’s delegation, for it will make for him many enemies. While he is a politician at heart and realizes that there is a good amount of pride to be felt at having been so chosen, he also realizes, more than do the others in the party, that they really have no position from which to bargain and will probably be forced to sign a document that will bring ruin to Germany. In contrast to the other delegates, he wonders as most of us might, why he of all people has been chosen for this dubious honor, but goes ahead with...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Burns, D. R. The Direction of Australian Fiction: 1920-1974, 1975.

Burns, Robert. “Out of Context: A Study of Thomas Keneally’s Novels,” in Australian Literary Studies. IV (1969), pp. 31-48.

Geering, R. G. Recent Fiction, 1974.

Keneally, Thomas. “Doing Research for Historical Novels,” in Australian Author. VII, no. 1(1975).