The Catholic imagination of Christopher Koch, the Australian novelist most remembered for The Year of Living Dangerously (1978), was shaped by two intense experiences.
The first was his childhood immersion in the popular Catholic culture in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. Abounding in hints of supernatural mystery and memory, it showed the power of earthly symbols and cultural ritual to evoke timeless realities.
The other was his upbringing in Tasmania, the Alaska of Australia, an island state nearer to Antarctica than the northern Australian mainland. This sense of remoteness sharpened his appreciation of the cultural centre. It embraced not only the traditions of his modern Australian homeland but also the deeper Christian heritage of historical Europe.
Both these experiences, religious and cultural, supplied the background to his eight novels. His Catholic insights enlivened his depiction of human character, especially the dualities of nature and identity that comprise a flawed being who was yet made in the image of God and destined for eternal life. His Tasmanian childhood, meanwhile, nurtured a sense of cultural isolation and the perspective of separation. Tasmania was for Koch a metaphor for Australia – its people, as he wrote, “marooned in the southern hemisphere”. Yet this experience held a wider meaning in a Western culture that was itself religiously marooned, embroiled as it became in his lifetime in uprooting its religious and cultural traditions.
Koch, who died in 2013 at the age of 81, was among the first novelists to respond imaginatively to the importance of Asia in world affairs. Graham Greene had written The Quiet American in 1955, but its essential focus, in the gathering conflict of the Vietnam War, was arguably political rather than cultural and religious. Koch focused on the spiritual turmoil underlying the surface events.
The Year of Living Dangerously – a bestseller in Australia and subsequently an Academy Award-winning movie – depicts the life of an unusual character, Billy Kwan. A Chinese-Australian dwarf serving as a cameraman in the final months of the Indonesian president Sukarno’s rule in 1965, Kwan is a Catholic convert. A crucifix hangs on his bungalow wall, and his spiritual reading includes St Augustine’s Confessions.
Kwan was at first enamoured of Sukarno for his love of the poor, and was inspired by his hero’s walking anonymously through the Jakarta slums at night, “to rub against the masses who intoxicated him”.
But he is soon disillusioned. In a dramatic scene, he falls to his death from a hotel window on which he has hung the beseeching banner, redolent of Christ’s exhortation to Peter: “Sukarno, Feed Your People”.
Les Murray, the late Australian poet, placed the novel in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. It evoked “the spiritual night in which Western souls are brought to strange extremes”. Murray observed that the novel’s key moments occur at night, “away from the sun, by street light, airport lights, hotel candlelight or the dim oil lamps of the Jakarta slums”. The dimly lit darkness symbolises a culture in decay, expressed by one of the characters: that Westerners no longer have many answers, as they believe in nothing but their pleasures.
The Year of Living Dangerously became obligatory reading for foreign correspondents such as Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the Australian newspaper and author of the recent bestseller God is Good for You, who is currently a visiting fellow at King’s College London. His chance reading of the novel in the late 1970s had a decisive impact on his career. It quickened his interest in Asia as a region of inescapable importance in world affairs.
A key theme of Koch’s writings is the vulnerability of Western people to bogus beliefs and spiritualities as the influence of Christianity wanes. He saw our culture as prone to illusions and shadows, and what he termed “bazaars of the spirit”. Gurus would emerge in response to spiritual longings, and fill the void with alluring mysteries.
His 1985 novel, The Doubleman, used a Tasmanian setting to depict the rival offerings of a modern spiritual bazaar. When Graham Greene read the novel, he commented: “Koch has an extraordinary power of evoking place, and I feel now that Tasmania is part of my memory.” His other notable works include Highways to a War (1995), Out of Ireland (1999), The Memory Room (2007) and Lost Voices (2012).
In my long years of friendship with Koch, we often discussed the vocation of the Christian novelist, which he always felt a deep urge to fulfil. He greatly admired Georges Bernanos, and believed that his novels revealed the meaning of joy, “which emerges out of pain with a truth that can’t be mistaken”.
“This is all,” he wrote, “that a Christian novelist can do, in the end: to salvage joy wherever it’s to be found, among the rubbish and waste and pathetic incongruities of life; and to show as well the results of its displacement; to identify those counterfeits that come to us in its place, whispering their lies of fulfilment, power and love. Such a novelist will tend, in weaving his fantasies, to recall St Augustine’s words, addressed to God: ‘In darkened affections is the true distance from thy face.’ ”
Karl Schmude is a former university librarian and a founding fellow of Campion College, a Catholic liberal arts college in New South Wales