peteg's blog - noise - books - 2023 04 05 ChristopherKoch HighwaysToAWar

Christopher Koch: Highways to a War. (1995)

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Kindle. Australian (actually Tasmanian) AFL-playing war photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Cambodia in 1976 and his boyhood mate, now a lawyer, goes looking for him. The novel has a clever structure — exposition via taped diaries, lightly fictionalised by the lawyer, leading up to present-day events — that avoids omniscient narration, yielding a neat-and-tidy novel where all the classically hard questions are avoided.

My main problem with this book was that it had nothing new to say about the Indochina of the war years, even when it was written. Daniel Ellsberg was out reconnoitring the Mekong Delta in the mid-1960s, and David Halberstam wrote up a day in the field with the ARVN back in 1967. Of course Graham Greene was all over the spook stuff in The Quiet American back in the mid-1950s; see also Burdick and Lederer's The Ugly American, and Neil Sheehan and Tim Page's work. Moreover the multitude of Vietnamese accounts that were translated into English circa 1990 (e.g. Dương Thu Hương's Novel without a Name, Bảo Ninh's The Sorrow of War amongst many others) had far more local colour. And let's quietly ignore the contemporaneous The Moon of Hoa Binh.

This book seemed so inessential, so late to the party, that it took me a while to realise that it's really a homage to colonial Asia, a time (mid-1960s to mid-1970s) and place (cities: Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Sài Gòn, Singapore) where sufficiently brave and ravenous white men could live like kings while the latest version of the Great Game played out around them as some form of entertainment. This becomes inescapably obvious when paradisal, prelapsarian Cambodia was embodied in characterless Ly Keang, a derivative of Greene's Phuong without even the minimal agency that comes from being one corner of a love triangle. Things got a bit excruciating when Koch talks crudely about Cambodia returning to freedom.

Overall Langford is simpler than Koch claims him to be: he's a bleeding-heart humanist as well as a Quiet Australian who enjoys what that time and place had to offer. By the fall of Sài Gòn he seemed to be more like a Johnny-on-the-spot Forrest Gump than the Christ figure glimpsed in longshot at the end.

The text got Koch the Miles Franklin Award in 1996. Wikipedia (and Koch in his introduction) tells me it drew heavily on the life of Neil Davis, but Robin Gerster reckoned Sean Flynn is a better match, i.e., Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (1979). A common complaint is the assumption of too much historical knowledge. Koch asserts this to be the mate of his later Out of Ireland (1999). I expect his The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) was more valuable.