Every city, town and village has its memorial to war. Nowhere are these more eloquent than in Australia, generations of whose young men have enlisted to fight other people's battles - from Gallipoli and the Somme to Malaya and Vietnam. In The Great World, his finest novel yet, David Malouf gives a voice to that experience. But The Great World is more than a novel of war. Ranging over seventy years of Australian life, from Sydney's teeming King's Cross to the tranquil backwaters of the Hawkesbury River, it is a remarkable novel of self-knowledge and lost innocence, of survival and witness.
This book exposes the "other" history of its two principals, traced through childhood, capture by the Japanese and a return to the new post war world of Sydney.
"All those unique and regrettable events, the little sacraments of daily existence, movements of the heart and intimations of the close but inexpressible grandeur and terror of things...the (history) that goes on in a quiet way....and is the major part of what happens each day in the life of the planet,and has been from the very beginning."
This is the first Malouf book I have read, and I have to say it simply blew me away. It is a deep and absorbing look at an unlikely friendship between two men, Digger Keen and Vic Curran, who met in the Australian army during WWII, and then spent more than three years together under the most brutal and inhumane conditions as POWs of the Japanese, laboring to build a rail line in the jungles of Burma. (A setting which brought to mind a fine WWII memoir I read a few years back, Eric Lomax's RAILWAY MAN.) In a narrative which spans both World Wars (as well as Korea and Vietnam, if only tangentially)and a couple of generations, and closely follows the fortunes of the two men's families, THE GREAT WORLD could easily be written off as one of those blockbuster generational 'sagas' (think, say, THE THORNBIRDS), a description which usually sends me running in the opposite direction. But because Malouf delves so deeply into the minds and souls of his characters, particularly Digger, the novel takes on multiple layers of meaning and experience, which forces its readers to reflect on their own lives, and their own places in 'the great world' of the title.
Both of the central characters spring from extremely humble origins, but Vic, through a series of serendipitous breaks and his own cunning, manages to become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Digger, the more thoughtful of the two, lives a much more modest life, working with his hands and also living a rich life of the mind.
On second thought, okay, maybe this is a generational saga, but the characters here are so fully realized and completely human that they grab you from the story's beginning and won't let go 'til you've read the last page. And then you keep on thinking about them. I was continually struck by various passages, turns of phrase, descriptions, etc. For example, Digger's wonder at how Vic's previously inept and socially awkward father-in-law became moderately successful as a poet -
"In the small world of writers, reviewers, university lecturers and other people who cared for these things, he had begun to be well known, but it was a very small world of course; most people didn't even know it existed."
Poets. Indeed. Or Vic's sorrow at the sudden death of that same father-in-law, who had been like a real father to him. Unable to voice what he is feeling, he finally tries, unsuccessfully, to read and understand the man's poetry, and in the process begins to get an inkling of his own mortality -
"It is a sobering thing, even when you are a father yourself and have some force in the world, to find, in the childish part of yourself that goes on existing despite the years, that there is no hand you can reach out for ... Now, for the first time, he felt orphaned."
And more than once in the novel, repeatedly in fact, Malouf touches on what he calls "this difficult business of fathers and sons," with Digger and his father, and also with Vic's tortured feelings about his brutal drunk of a father, and, years later, the estrangement with his own son, Greg.
I have only just discovered David Malouf, who is "internationally renowned as one of Australia's finest contemporary writers." It is easy to see why. I loved this book and hated to come to the end of it. Very highly recommended.