Remembering Christopher Koch, our greatest Catholic novelist

Jakarta, 16 December 2002. Author Christopher Koch (left) and his brother Philip Koch (right), a former Indonesia correspondent for the ABC, standing outside the Hotel Indonesia today during their visit to Jakarta to raise funds for a journalist’s scholarship. Christopher wrote the Year of Living Dangerously, a novel about an ABC correspondent covering the dramatic fall of founding President Sukarno in 1965, using material provided by his brother, who was the correspondent at the time. In 1983 the book was made into a film of the same name by Peter Weir starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. (AAP Image/Catharine Munro) 

Bemoaning the Australian tendency to forget its notable cultural and literary figures is as cliched as the tendency itself. It’s normal for the profile of writers to fade in the years after their death. What most writers are aiming for after all is centuries, not years, of glory. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to note that the tenth anniversary of the death of the most accomplished Catholic novelist Australia has yet produced, Christopher Koch, which occurred in September last year, was passed over in silence.

At the time of his passing in 2013 I had an interview about what was ultimately his last novel, Lost Voices, lined up with Koch through his publicist. As soon as he was well enough to speak, she said, we would get on the phone. He never recovered. But I had written my side of the conversation in the margins of his books—questions my lukewarm self was beginning to ponder about faith, art and life through my reading of Koch and other Catholic writers.

“Do you really believe in supernatural evil?” I wrote in the margin of the essay “Mysteries” (published in Crossing the Gap, Hogarth Press, 1987), which details Koch’s insistence upon the reality of the supernatural. The answer through eight novels was of course a resounding yes, but my naïve younger self couldn’t conceive of a first-rate artist and dual Miles Franklin Award winner believing in something so irrational.

Commenting on a particularly gruesome murder case in England Koch writes: “The idea of the action of supernatural evil was not to be considered by authorities representing a society whose laws and sciences are based on the premises of materialistic rationalism. Insanity had to be the only possible cause of these events and therefore insanity was pronounced to be the cause.”

Koch was a subtle chronicler of the decline of Western Christianity, rarely overt in his allegiances in his published work, but firm all the same. In the Year of Living Dangerously (1978) Billy Kwan tells the Australian journalist Hamilton, “but the spirit doesn’t die, of course, it just becomes a monster,” a quote Les Murray was fond of repeating.

As a dramatic substrate, evil has, for obvious reasons, more potential than good. It was this type of evil, that in the words of Joshua Hren, “chill us with the gelid metaphysical breath of the hell-bound” that Koch explored most thoroughly in The Doubleman (1984). But Koch’s narratives ultimately are larger than any evil, taking in the sweep of war, romance, and drama at personal and international scale. With a Tolstoyan authorial omniscience he peered into the thoughts and hearts of his characters, always granting them their complexity, their susceptibility to outside forces, their good and bad motivations, and the spiritual dimension of their lives.

Koch had a traditional understanding of basic human motivation, including patriotism. “You come from countries where patriotism no longer matters,” a Vietnamese commander tells Australian journalist Mike Langford in Highways to a War, “but that is because you do not have to fight for your soil.”

While he wrote at great length of his love for our country, and his birthplace of Tasmania in particular, he was no chauvinist: “I had no use for the strange idea that we should make allowances for our early fiction, or support it patriotically. We had produced a great poem in Five Bells; why hadn’t we produced a Moby Dick?”

“Have we yet?” I wrote in the margin next to this.

Koch could have been expected to follow the trajectory of a writer of his generation. Born in 1932, he won a fellowship to Stanford in 1961 in the then cutting-edge field of creative writing. The seminar director was the Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor. As Koch tells it in his memoir The Many-Coloured Land, O’Connor and he, alone among the students, consistently shared the same reactions to the work of the others, among whom was Ken Kesey, who were embracing and creating the beginnings of the 1960s so-called “counter-culture.” Both men preferred traditional storytelling over the type of stream-of-consciousness pioneered by the likes of Jack Kerouac. “For God’s sake, man, learn to tell a story!” O’Connor would shout.

Koch was also one of the first Australians to portray Asia in fiction. Even before the great success of The Year of Living Dangerously and its surprisingly good film adaptation, Across the Sea Wall, his second novel, detailed the still arduous sea-journey required to visit Europe and the long encounters with Asia that journey necessitated. This was an Asia that had yet to be flattened through integration with the global economy and the protagonist of the novel is risking more than just money and time when he decides to desert his ship for an impromptu journey through India. While differences naturally remain, it is hard for younger audiences to appreciate just how exhilarating even an overnight stopover in Indonesia could be for a suburban Australian.

Koch held the line against a literary culture increasingly obsessed with identity, radical politics, and upper-bourgeois tone policing. His characters face real dilemmas, have real desires and act consequentially in the world in the face of limited information, real enemies and their own wickedness. The novels lie at the intersection of literature and the so-called “thriller” genre, engaging the heart, the mind, and at times, the sweat glands.

Compared to the flashier modernists such as Joyce, Koch’s prose can seem rather staid. He preferred to allow complexity to build up slowly through the thoughts and actions of characters rather than through linguistic spectacle, which the best modernists of course also do. It’s not necessarily a dichotomy. He was fond of the famous anecdote of the Chinese poet Po Chu-I, who said he would read his poems to an old washerwoman outside his window and revise them until she understood them. “This is the norm to which literature must constantly return.”

In his essay “The Novel as Narrative Poem” he defends the unique artistic possibilities of the novel, that elevates it beyond a sociological or political (or religious) artefact.

“Heightened prose isn’t a poor man’s poetry, but a different form of poetry, with its own technical demands, its own particular cadences. It isn’t flowery or overblown; it’s often quite spare … but sound is only part of it. The aims of the novels and short stories I’m talking about are also essentially poetic—in the essential, not the superficial sense of that term. Such works tend to do two things at once: they tell a story, and they work through extended metaphors—which are not decorations, but organic to the narrative itself, and which set up echoes like the multiple themes in a symphony.”

“Is this still possible?” I wrote next to Koch’s outlining of the novelist’s task: “To reach into the hearts and secret lives of ordinary men and women, not just of a supposedly cultivated few, and to do it by communicating the best one had, not the worst, not the spurious, not the concocted—what real writer wouldn’t want this?”

How naïve I was. It is not only possible, but essential. Old-fashioned ideas of storytelling, character, good and evil and the yearning for greatness bore Christopher Koch on. In America, Catholic novelists like Katy Carl and Joshua Hren are carrying on this struggle, but in Australia he has no literary descendants—for now.

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