“Art about what we know about war”
By Thea Lenarduzzi
Following Michael Caines’s “eve-of battle note”, I’m relieved to report that proceedings at “ANZACs at War: Writing about WWII and Vietnam” this morning remained peaceful. As Mark Dapin began telling us about his most recent novel, Spirit House, donning his “performing hat” (a New York Yankees cap, not a helmet, for the occasion), everyone looked very relaxed. We were surrounded by the ambrosial beauty of King’s College Chapel, after all.
Dapin started us off by describing his novel as a kind of “wish fulfillment”, written with his grandfather in mind. Which is not to say that the veteran at the centre of the novel, who toiled on the Burma Railway, is based on his grandfather (“I don’t think he ever left Leeds”) – but he was a cabinet maker, and at the heart of Dapin’s novel is the gently crafted relationship that grows between an elderly veteran and his thirteen-year-old grandson as they build a Spirit house, a shrine to hold the memories of atrocities he had known but never spoken.
Recovery after war, Dapin reminds us, is so often measured in terms of repression and silence, a severance of “during” from “after” based as much on the subject’s reluctance to revisit dark days as on the belief that nobody wants to know, or should have to. Even the most basic amateur psychologist could debunk this in a second. “We think of war”, Ashley Hay said, “as a tap that can be turned on and off.” But, of course, taps leak; one day you might get home and find your house flooded.
Hay came to write about war (in The Railwayman’s Wife) after a visit to Queen’s House, Greenwich, with its vast collection of war paintings. These examples of “art about what we know about war”, led her to interrogate the importance of “keeping war in the imagination”. A Spirit House of sorts, but one in which memories (first-, second-,third-hand), history and invention constantly change the layout. Fiction about war is necessary, she argued, citing a recent study which shows a link between the reading of fiction and the ability to feel empathy. (We might also relate this to the old prejudice against the novel as a feminine divertissement, not for real men…but perhaps that’s another blog.)
C. K. Stead was the only writer present who could say for certain that his novel had been used to make a point, as it were, about war: Smith’s Dream, “a political fantasy” about a Vietnam-type situation taking hold in New Zealand, was published in 1971 and adapted into a film, Sleeping Dogs, a few years later; now it is taught in NZ’s schools – “a boys’ adventure”, but one that allows teachers to branch into history, politics – and switch over to the film if attention starts to wane….
Film played a small part in the conception of Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (2009). Not long after watching Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger one, very loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s story, from 1966, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”), she diagnosed a similar blending of fact, fabrication and (selective) memory in her Australian uncle’s photo album from his time in Vietnam. Jungle, jungle, explosions, jungle, “a small dead boy in black pajamas”, a beautiful woman, jungle . . . . These documents – trophies or memorials? – spoke of a war that her family never acknowledged, but in which Uncle Tim fought. (Wyld’s mother, meanwhile, had moved to London and was taking to the streets to protest against it.) The scrapbook, kept but never openly shared, represented the contradictory impulses to share and to store away, to expose and to conceal, and led Wyld to ask him the questions nobody else had. (As Hay reminded us, the Australian Government’s failure to publish, until 2011, interviews conducted in 1946 with veterans suffering the effects of PTSD speaks of a similar discrepancy between the will to document and that to deny.)
Dapin closed – ambitiously, with only half-a-minute to go – with a far reaching point: because of the geography, Australia’s and New Zealand’s war writing had always been a kind of travel writing. For what is travel but a suspension of the day-to-day, and a chance to choose the things we take home and those we leave behind? Except it’s never as straightforward as that.