Thomas Keneally

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Thomas Keneally World Literature Analysis

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Most novelists tend to find a niche tonally, thematically, and stylistically in which they feel comfortable and which best exemplifies their strengths as writers. Keneally started his career as a writer of Australian themes, but he did not stick to that pattern. What is different about him as a writer is that he provides the reader with opportunities to think about his work in many different ways because he never writes the same novel twice. Even novelists of very high quality tend to stick to one sort of work, but Keneally is a restless writer, and one can never be sure what he will write next. He is an extremely sensitive commentator on the Australian scene, not only in terms of its colonial legacy, as explored in Bring Larks and Heroes, his novel The Playmaker (1987), and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, with its concern for the plight of the natives, but also in terms of contemporary Australian life in works such as Three Cheers for the Paraclete and The Cut-Rate Kingdom (1980), a wry tale of Australian politics during World War II, when the country was in serious danger of falling into the hands of the Japanese.

The Australian theme can, however, be extended beyond the continent in interesting ways, as it is in his two novels about Antarctic exploration. In The Survivor (1969) and A Victim of the Aurora (1977), Keneally’s natural curiosity, intense enthusiasm for researching his projects, and inclination to see characters under stress as likely to indulge in bizarre conduct take the novels beyond the level of simple adventure narrative into much wider and richer areas. It is, in fact, his zest for research that helps Keneally avoid the label of provincialism that besets so many novelists who explore what is termed “the Commonwealth theme.”

Keneally is a novelist who might well be considered a historical writer. Sadly, such a label tends to suggest adventure at the expense of accuracy or literary quality, but this is not the case with Keneally, although if he may be considered to occupy any literary niche, this would be it. Blood Red, Sister Rose is the first example of his move into non-Australian historical themes, but it is not the last. Gossip from the Forest (1975) relates what happened in the forest of Compiègne, where meetings were held to negotiate the 1918 peace treaty between the Allies and the Germans. His 1979 novel, Confederates, is about the Civil War campaign in Virginia in 1862. The Tyrant’s Novel, published in 2003, takes place in an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation where a dictator, modeled after Saddam Hussein, has hired a ghostwriter to pen a work that will extol his questionably beneficent rule and help lift the international sanctions against his country. Narrated in retrospect by the coerced novelist who eventually abandons this project, which blurs the line between fact and fiction in sinister ways, the tale is, in part, Keneally’s personal indictment of how individuals seeking refuge in the West are often ill treated by their host countries.

Keneally’s natural sympathy for the underdog has sometimes threatened the artistic balance between narrative and message. For example, his novel To Asmara (1989), set in Ethiopia in the late 1980’s, tells the story of the battle between the Ethiopian majority and the Eritrean rebels. It starts out by exploring the reactions of several well-meaning foreigners to the disaster. Keneally conducted research, spent some time in the country, and came away not only distressed by what he saw but also outraged by the way in which the Eritrean cause had...

(This entire section contains 3189 words.)

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been misrepresented by the world press and political leaders. He was determined to redress the situation through his novel, and it is an interesting case of how the message, however valid, gets in the way of the final artistic success of the book. The novel raises the intriguing question of how far a work of fiction should go in attempting to change public opinion. Keneally’s 1991 novel,Flying Hero Class, a story of an airline hijacking by Palestinians on a flight from New York to Frankfurt, seems to indicate a response to the criticism of To Asmara, since Flying Hero Class seems reluctant to make any judgment regarding either side of the Palestinian crisis.

From very early on in his career, Keneally used his narrative gift to explore serious moral problems from an intelligent, somewhat skeptical, and liberal point of view. As a result, his work has not been simply a matter of a rattling good tale well told but also an inquiry, usually of some subtlety, into the ways in which self-interest, hypocrisy, pomposity, and cruelty make monsters of human beings. This exercise is often carried on with a light dusting of wit and a talent for comedy. Such humor serves as a foil for the moments of intense emotional pain that are also a mark of his work. The range of feeling in his work is very wide.

It is not possible to talk about Keneally as one sort of novelist. He is a regional writer and an international writer. He is sometimes a satirist, sometimes a political commentator, and sometimes a crusader for the underprivileged and the abused. Sometimes he can be a simple adventure writer, and sometimes he creates worlds of gothic incredibility. Stylistically he is very conservative, but when it comes to subject matter and setting, he is impossible to anticipate.

The Cut-Rate Kingdom

First published: 1980

Type of work: Novel

The novel mixes Australian politics, the terror of World War II in the Pacific, and love in the seats of power.

This work exemplifies Keneally’s ability to mix his interest in his native land, Australia, with two other interests: his enthusiasm for detailed historical research and his fascination with how characters, good or bad, respond to pressure. The historical frame for the novel is World War II. It is sometimes forgotten that Australia was seriously threatened by the possibility of invasion by the Japanese during that war. The Japanese had considerable success early in the conflict and had earned a reputation as fearsome warriors and barbarous conquerors. The novel is written in the context of the fear not only of invasion but also of certain defeat and what that would mean to the Australian population.

The story is told by “Paper” Tyson, a journalist with some of the social gifts of Keneally himself. He is easygoing, worldly-wise, and generous. He is a longtime friend of the Labor prime minister of Australia, Johnny Mulhall. The choice of Tyson as the voice of the novel is important, since his point of view shapes the way in which the reader responds to the book. Tyson, a veteran of World War I, during which he lost a leg at Gallipoli, is mature and possessed of a deep sense of Australian history and politics. He provides a moral, intellectual, and sometimes emotional context for the complicated unrest of a nation on the edge of terror. The enemy is ripping through New Guinea, an easy jump away from the Australian mainland. In capturing the level of suspense created by the country’s collective fear of invasion, the novel is of considerable power, but it goes further in exploring the problems of the enemies within. These are the prowling politicians “greased with animus” and the arrogant American military, camped in the country as if on a battleship offshore from the hard fighting. There is an American general with a corncob pipe and his eye on the presidency of the United States who is muscling his way into the Australian war effort. Keneally’s satiric depiction of the infuriating pomposity of Douglas MacArthur, the commander of Allied forces in the South Pacific, provides some comic relief.

Without alienating their American allies, the Australians attempt to retain some independence, and it is in this area that Keneally explores the theme of national identity and character. Internal politics are also examined as the socialist Prime Minister Mulhall fights American pressures on one side and his own party on the other while the war gobbles up Australian boys and military conscription becomes a necessity. His detractors see the working-class boys as simply cannon fodder; the Australians’ feeling of being used is exacerbated by the general perception that America is treating Australia as a “cut-rate kingdom.”

These large public questions influence Tyson and Mulhall in their private lives too. Their love affairs, and those of others, affect the way power is used at the highest levels of the government. If the novel shows that politics and love should not mix, it also reveals the way in which Keneally can blend several themes at the same time, develop a period feel, describe the terror of the New Guinea battlefields, and satirize the social and intellectual aridity of Canberra, where the politicians, the military, the promoters, and their hangers-on push and shove for power, profit, and pleasure.

To Asmara

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

An Australian journalist, a celebrity photographer, and a titled Englishwoman investigate the Ethiopian civil war and find they were wrong in their assumptions.

Keneally has often taken on themes which have moved him not simply because of their artistic potential but because they have touched him personally. Usually this impetus does not create a problem, though sometimes if he feels very strongly about a subject he may develop his ideas in a nonfiction format, as he did for Outback (1983).

It must be acknowledged that a novel is not necessarily a success simply because it expresses admirable ideas or champions humane solutions to difficult moral problems. As a work of art, it is more than its content. Keneally has, usually, wanted to send a message in his novels, but he has also understood the necessity of incorporating that message into the story. This novel, however, poses the question of whether or not he has been successful in balancing the need to make a moral point with the responsibility to tell a good tale. Certainly the elements for a good story are there. The narrator is an Australian journalist, intelligent and open minded. Hurting from a failed marriage and, as a result, sensitive to the pain of others, he is determined to find out why Ethiopia is a running sore of national despair and suicidal conduct. He flies into the country, as does a celebrity photographer, who is risking his career by insisting on working in Ethiopia, with which the world is bored and wants to hear as little about as possible. A beautiful, titled Englishwoman arrives at the same time, concerned with the African custom of genital mutilation of girls. To add to the group, the photographer’s estranged daughter turns up to confront her father. There is also a weary, jaded American relief worker who is a constant source of trouble.

These characters explore two aspects of the Ethiopian disaster of the late 1980’s. One is the appalling nature of the war, and the other, almost as serious to Keneally, is the way in which the story was sometimes mistakenly, sometimes deliberately, misreported to the world. The Eritreans, living in the northern provinces, were, in fact, forcibly joined to Ethiopia by outside powers several years previously, contrary to their own wishes. Their refusal to be governed as Ethiopians was not simply a power struggle but an attempt to free themselves from a union that they had not made and that they never wanted. What made Keneally even more incensed at their plight was the way in which this information was deliberately suppressed, distorted, or simply misreported by the world press and by the world’s power brokers.

The novel is not only about the way that an African nation or two nations tear themselves apart. It is also about how the rich nations of the world have been, often mindlessly, involved in encouraging such mayhem. The novel shows the way in which information is wantonly manipulated by the press, without any concern for truth or fairness, in order to feed the mild curiosity of rich societies that do not much care to get the facts straight. It is a very angry book, and that anger may have gotten in the way of Keneally’s achieving an artistic fusion between the novel’s main ideas and the characters that move through the seared landscape.

Schindler’s List

First published: Schindler’s Ark, 1982

Type of work: Novel

An amoral, dishonest businessman, using Jewish laborers to make military equipment for the German army in World War II, decides to do the right thing.

After the release of Steven Spielberg’s enormously successful film in 1993, it is unlikely that many people do not know the story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudetan German confidence man who uses his connections with the German SS military organization to feather his own nest. He sets himself up as a military supplier in Kracow, Poland, in 1939, in order to take advantage of the expropriation of Jewish businesses, staffing his factory with Jews whom he can use as slave labor. Little by little he takes responsibility for the workers’ lives, with a minimum of interference from the German authorities. First, he houses them in his own compound to save them from constantly being taken out of the ghettoes for other work, which would interfere with their factory time. What starts out as effective business practice becomes a peculiar kind of cruel paternalism. Everything changes, however, when the workforce is threatened with transfer to the extermination camps. Schindler, seemingly without much thought or moral intent, begins to thwart the SS in its attempts to drag his workers into the boxcars. He does not save them all; in fact, he saves only a few of the hundreds who pass through his shop, but the Jews who survived the war never forgot him. This feckless, morally dubious, and often unsavory confidence man became one of the most beloved heroes of the Holocaust.

Keneally found this true story by chance, when a Jewish survivor, Poldek Pfefferberg, told him about this strange German and urged him to write the tale. Keneally researched the historical events assiduously; any other writer might have decided to present the narrative in a nonfiction format, but, as he himself asserts, his strength is in storytelling, and the novel is his natural form of expression. This does not mean that there is much about the novel that is the product of his imagination. Indeed, one of the common criticisms of the work is its reliance on facts, and some critics have suggested that it is really not a novel at all.

The truth of the matter, however, is that for all of its meticulous detail, Keneally’s main interest in the story is in Schindler himself. Keneally, who has some experience as a screenwriter, prepared a film script for Spielberg, who, significantly enough, declined to use it. The reason appeared to be that Spielberg wanted the emphasis to be placed on the plight of the workers, as it is in the film. The screenplay prepared by Keneally evidently focused more on the character of Schindler, who seemed not quite to know why he was acting so nobly. The heart of the novel, for all the particularity lavished on the intense squalor of the workers’ living conditions and the terrifying cruelty of their German captors, is a character without a moral center who indulges, without any attempt to understand or articulate what he is doing, in a series of mortally dangerous acts of magnanimity. The novel is rich with incident, but at the same time it is propelled by the mystery of human morality.

Homebush Boy

First published: 1995

Type of work: Nonfiction

This amusing and gently self-deprecating personal memoir focuses on a single year in the author’s life.

In this tightly focused autobiography, Keneally looks back on this sixteenth year, a pivotal period of time in his life, signaling the end of his boyhood and the initial recognition of adult responsibilities. The narrative, filtered through the consciousness of the adult writer, manages to retain much of the flavor of youth. On the one hand, Keneally confesses to the reader that much of the energy that he expended on spiritual and aesthetic investigations during his teenage years was probably the result of sublimated sex, whose mysteries his rigid Catholic upbringing kept hidden from him; on the other hand, Keneally’s evocation of such landmark events as the first school dance summons up vivid images of adolescent wonderment, particularly the sights and sounds of what is generally perceived to be the relatively innocent decade of the 1950’s.

While acknowledging the sacrifices that his dapper father and ambitious mother made in sending him to a Catholic school, Keneally focuses much more attention on the contributions made by his teachers and peers to his adolescent identity. His teachers fall into two basic categories, defined by their ability to think outside the box. On the one hand, there are educators like Brother Buster Clare, who teach only to the test and discourage independent learning; on the other hand, there are those like Brother Dinny McGahan, English teacher and track coach, who introduces the author to texts outside the established curriculum, particularly the works of contemporary writers, and inspires Keneally to broaden his horizons, whether competing for the Newman Society Essay Prize or learning the true meaning of sportsmanship on the playing field.

Among his fellow students, Keneally singles out those whose idiosyncrasies lead him to question the status quo. Of special interest are Mangan, a stubborn, dreamy dilettante whose stated goal is to become a Trappist monk, and Matt Tierney, the first blind boy in Australia to attempt the leaving certificate, the tangible evidence of high school graduation, doubly handicapped by his lack of sight and his albinism.

It is Keneally’s volunteering to become Tierney’s study companion that introduces the author to the injustice that often besets those outside the social norm, a condition that he will rail against in later life. In Tierney’s case, for example, even though he possesses a keen mind and an athletic body, the authorities, by virtue of his blindness, restrict his participation in sporting events and initially deny him the right to pursue a public college education.

In presenting his own story, Keneally exhibits much of the same insight regarding human psychology that makes his fictional characters believable representations of their flesh and blood counterparts. A good example would be how he uses his own climactic decision to enter the seminary as an implicit acknowledgment of how complicated human motivation can get. In the last section of his memoir, Keneally accepts an invitation to study for the priesthood, partially out of a youthful allegiance to the church, partially in response to persistent coercion from the clergy, and partially because the girl of his dreams, Bernadette Curran, has taken herself off the dating market by announcing that she wants to become a nun.

By joining the author as he revisits a pivotal year in his own development, readers will discover some of the roots of Keneally’s subsequent authorial agenda and vicariously rediscover some of the innocence of youth.

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