Vietnam, of all the foreign conflicts in which Australians have been involved, most outgrew and out lived its military dimension. The ghosts of what Christopher J. Koch in this new novel calls ‘that long and bitter saga’ continue to haunt the lives (and the politics) of the generations of men and women who lived through it; the archetypal television war, it was as much a social melodrama as an armed struggle.
Curiously, neither the Vietnam War, nor the monstrous Cambodian civil conflict which grew out of it, have engaged the contemporary Australian imagination. Writers looking back at our military past have been more tempted by the comfortably distant two world wars – Vietnam remains more the subject of political argument than of literature. Even if it were for this reason alone, Highways to a War, about an Australian combat photographer who goes missing in Cambodia, would be a novel to be welcomed.
Koch is a major Australian novelist, but not a fashionable one. ‘Conservative’ in both technique and ideology, he has been written off as a bit of a boys’ writer, interested in male crises and quests, in questions of masculine identity. His best-known novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, set in Sukarno’s Jakarta in 1965, attracted charges of racism and sexism. Some saw the book as dizzy with the pot-boiling aromas of the exotic East – a retreat from the foreign, not an understanding of it.