Robin Gerster reviews 'The War Artist' by Simon Cleary

Robin Gerster reviews 'The War Artist' by Simon Cleary

The War Artist

by Simon Cleary

University of Queensland Press, $29.95 pb, 304 pp, 9780702260346

It’s virtually axiomatic: ‘war can fuck you up’. This pithy observation, made by a veteran in The War Artist, Simon Cleary’s new novel about the travails of an Australian soldier during and after a tour of Afghanistan, goes to the heart of what we now understand about the impact of battle and its psychological aftershocks.

Before PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) became an identifiable diagnosis in the 1980s, they used to call it by the cruder term ‘shell shock’, that cluster of symptoms experienced by soldiers who continue to suffer after they have left the battlefield. This was a largely invisible injury that was not taken as seriously as more visible war wounds. The British World War I poets famously wrote about shell shock; it is less evident in the writing of their Australian contemporaries, who tended to be more intent on celebrating the exploits of the characteristically extroverted Diggers. A notable exception is the neurasthenic protagonist of Leonard Mann’s Flesh in Armour (1932), who resolves his sense of unworthiness at not living up to the heroic ideal by committing suicide.

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Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster is Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University, and is the author of several books and numerous scholarly articles. His major publications include the cultural study of the Occupation of Japan, Travels in Atomic Sunshine (2008), the travel book Legless in Ginza (1999) and the critique of Australian war writing Big-noting (1987), along with the critical anthology of Australian travel writing, Hotel Asia (1995). Presently, he is working with Prof Melissa Miles (also of Monash) on a cultural history of Australia-Japan relations through the medium of photography.

Published in April 2019, no. 410

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