- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

THE GREAT FIRE

By Shirley Hazzard

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24, 278 pages

REVIEWED BY ISABEL COLEGATE

Shirley Hazzard’s impressive new novel — her first for over 20 years — takes us back to the troubled atmosphere of the years immediately after World War II. Two decent men, still in the Army but soon to leave it, try to prepare themselves for the return to civilian life. They have to remind themselves what civil society is, or what it should be. They make this attempt against a mainly South East Asian background and with varying degrees of success.

The year is 1947. Aldred Leith has had a heroic war and has followed it by two years of wandering through China, making observations for a book which he has been commissioned to write by a somewhat mysterious French colonel. Now he is adding a coda to the book, dealing with Japan after Hiroshima. He arranges to meet a distinguished professor, recently released from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Their interview takes place on a beautiful island, the former naval academy of the defeated Japanese, now a hospital for the victors.

The professor dies, worn out by his experiences, before he can pass on much that is useful for Leith’s researches but not before warning him against the medical administrator and his commanding wife. These two, the Driscolls, are a pair of brash and bullying Australians who neglect their two utterly unexpected children, a 20-year-old boy who suffers from a wasting disease named Friedrich’s ataxia and his brilliant and beautiful younger sister. These young people live in a world of books and high thoughts a million miles from anything imaginable by their determinedly uncivilized parents.

Meeting and immediately, as foreseen, disliking Driscoll, Leith then has the misfortune to witness his shameful loss of temper with a Japanese underling — a young man of distinguished background, now, as one of the defeated, working as majordomo to the victors. The next day the young man kills himself on a path close to the young Driscolls’ bungalow. Leith is the first to find him. The connection with the enchanting Ben and Helen and with tragedy is established.

Leith’s friend Exley is also trying to recover the feelings proper to civilian life, among which he would count the giving and receiving of affection. He is an Australian, in perpetual flight from his homeland. Leith at some stage has saved Exley’s life; the wartime exploits of both men are only partially and almost casually revealed, some guesswork being required of the reader.

Exley was trained as a lawyer and was meant to follow his father into the profession in the cultural desert of Melbourne but instead fell in love with art and its history and had to come to Europe to study it. (“We can afford the Uni,” his father had said. “But not for the art stuff, son. We don’t go in for that in Australia.”) Leith remembers the Chinese proverb according to which if you save a man’s life you become responsible for him thereafter.

The two men now meet in Hong Kong, where Exley is involved in war crimes prosecutions. Exley, meeting his plane, thinks Leith has crashed, but he is in the subsequent plane. Leith is lucky. Exley is not. The fire is always there somewhere; the lucky escape it, the unlucky may not. There are hints of other fires.

Leith twice recalls a childhood visit to the Monument of the Great Fire of 1666 in London, taken there by a godmother — “a far from primeval figure in toque, dust coat, and lavender spats” (did women ever wear spats?).

Leith, concerned for Exley, introduces him to a likely-looking young woman whom he has met at lunch in Government House (“iron rations, to show solidarity with Home”), but at a certain point feels compelled to look after himself, rescuing his endangered love affair with the very young Helen. He seizes happiness, trusting that the embattled Exley’s luck will turn. Exley, decent as ever, exposes himself to infection in trying to save a sick child; unlucky as ever he contracts polio and is semi-paralysed.

There is still a shadow of hope from the likely-looking young woman.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this wide-ranging novel is its way with topography. The author evokes with much authentic detail not only Japan, but also Hong Kong, its heat, the teeming streets of the Chinese quarter, the cooler calm of the colony’s privileged hillside; Canton, with its shattered university and its foreign community on the island of Shamien; London, shabby and tired after the war; elsewhere in England, Leith’s former home in Norfolk; then Tuscany, and beautiful dull New Zealand, and Australia.

It must be admitted that Australia in 1947 comes out of this book badly. Perhaps the author, having been born there, feels no obligation to pull her punches. Exley has to share a room with a fellow Australian, the noisy and noisome Rysom, whose “panic stricken ribaldry passed off as virility,” as he recognizes.

“He and Rysom had been raised on the Australian myths of desecration — on tales of fabulous vomiting into glove compartments or punch bowls, of silence ruptured by obscene sound: the legends of forlorn men avenging themselves on an empty continent, which, in its vast removal, did not hear or judge them.”

Through these variegated backgrounds, and in contact with a large number of acutely observed secondary characters, often described with a pleasant irony, the two men, still decent and responsible though haunted by echoes of wartime violence, struggle to re-establish their common humanity.

Isabel Colegate is the author most recently of “A Pelican in the Wilderness.”


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