“A Burden of Mortification”: Thomas Keneally, Shame and the Captives

shameAnyone who’s ever graded essays has probably struggled to balance execution and aspiration in their evaluations. For me, a paper that’s ambitious and original but doesn’t quite succeed often ends up with the same grade as one that’s better written or argued but takes a safer or more conventional approach: the interest and challenge of the task you undertake affects the credit you get for accomplishing it well.*

I was thinking about this as I finished Thomas Keneally’s Shame and the Captives, which inevitably provoked comparisons to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. If (for some strange reason) I had to give both novels a letter grade, they’d both get an A-, but they miss out on the top grade for opposite reasons. I already wrote in some detail about Flanagan’s book: overall, it struck me as uneven, largely because it was straining after a level of profundity and artistry that it couldn’t quite reach. Its language and structure were both imperfect, and it never really leads us to a particular insight about the harrowing experiences the book covers. Still, I was gripped by its story and impressed not just by its ambition but also (if only intermittently) by its literary qualities. Shame and the Captives, on the other hand, is as competent as Narrow Road is hit-or-miss: its design is clear from early on and it proceeds with level-headed determination through to its conclusion. That in the end it’s also disappointing is due to the predictability of that design, and the flatness — even dullness — of its treatment.

It’s not that Flanagan and Keneally were trying to write the same book, of course. But the novels have a lot in common: both focus primarily on Australians and Japanese interacting as prisoners and guards during the Second World War. But in Shame and the Captives the POW camp is in Australia and the POWs are mostly Japanese and Italian. Keneally’s preface tells us that the book is a fictionalized version of a real event: “an outbreak of Japanese prisoners from a camp on the edge of the New South Wales Central West town of Cowra.” We know from the outset, then, what the main plot event is going to be. But the novel is a very slow burn — so slow that I was actually bored at first. Everything about Shame and the Captives is in a lower key than Narrow Road: the prose is unremarkable as Keneally recounts with a minimum of emotion and no melodrama the stories of a range of characters with different roles in the community in and around the prison.

These include Alice Herman, who lives and works on her father-in-law’s farm while her husband is a POW in Austria; prison commander Colonel Ewan Abercare, who knows “that he was one of those men of limited gifts who might be asked to make a stand somewhere” but will never rise to military preeminence, and who “rules the camp with a light hand as instructed”; Major Suttor, commander of Compound C where the Japanese prisoners are confined, who writes popular radio dramas which allow him “to visit a more kindly planet with a better climate,” and which are declared valuable to national morale; the pilot known as Tengan, a “man of martial purpose” who is embarrassed by his captivity and determined to redeem his honor; the female impersonator Sakura, who is protected from her antagonists by his (her) own strength and popularity among the prisoners, who love her theatrical performances and ballads; and the young Italian prisoner Giancarlo Molisano, who is assigned to work on the Hermans’ farm.

That this is only a partial list of Keneally’s cast of characters, and that he divides our attention almost equally among them, reveals his intent, which is close to what I suggested I would have preferred for Flanagan’s novel: he spends most of the novel building our relationships with characters on all sides of what becomes an explosive conflict. Thus when it takes place our interest and sympathy is also dispersed: it’s not a case of good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, but a story of the convergence of very different ways of living in the world which have been only provisionally held in balance by the artifice and coercion of the prison camp. The title tells us about Keneally’s chief interest: the effect of the captives’ shame at their moral failure (which is how most of them view their failure to die in combat) on their behavior, and also the inability of the captors to understand well enough how shame motivates their prisoners. “There is a new world coming,” says the translator to the prisoners when they arrive at the camp, “and those extreme warrior codes are now obsolete and do not serve as a useful guide.” But they are the guide by which the majority of the prisoners still live, under their “burden of mortification.”

shame2Keneally works harder than Flanagan to make this point of view something more than a caricature: however foreign it might be to us as well as to the other characters (“an entire ocean and all its archipelagos had been captured by a cult of death,” thinks the one Christian in their ranks), it’s a code to which most residents of Compound C are sincerely committed. Still, it’s not until the actual uprising that most of the Australians realize quite what this death wish means — not just ruthlessness against others, but a deliberate effort to bring death on themselves which makes real victory during violent confrontation almost impossible. When your enemy wants you to kill them, and will pursue you with deadly force to ensure you do, what use is your own code, which values life? When your deadly weapons are opportunities rather than deterrents, too, how do you prevent or protect yourself against insurrection?

Keneally takes his time setting up his pieces and then patiently plays out the game, the nature and outcome of which seems, in retrospect, inevitable, though there are certainly surprises in the specifics. All the time we spend with the various characters creates real suspense, or at least curiosity, about what part they will have in the impending catastrophe. But in the end he doesn’t make a great novel out of these promising elements — just a good one. I’ve already mentioned the unexciting prose and flat tone: to me, the writing sounded like someone getting the job done. (You’ll notice I haven’t been tempted to include any longer quotations: that’s because I don’t think they would add much except more words.) I know that self-conscious minimalism is a thing these days (Exhibit A: Colm Toibin). But even for people who like that kind of thing, I don’t think Shame and the Captives is quite the sort of thing they’d like: Keneally’s is not a particularly elegant or literary style, just a straightforward, almost plodding one, one statement following on another. The only other novel of his that I’ve read is Schindler’s List and that was a long time ago: I remember being moved and impressed at the time by what struck me as remarkable understatement given the story he was telling. Saying too little seemed much preferable, in that case, to saying too much, getting too ornate and drawing undue attention to the writing rather than its subject. Now I wonder if it wasn’t deliberate but is just how Keneally writes. Which is fine — but not exciting.

Shame and the Captives also seemed perfunctory in other ways, though. It doesn’t offer us anything beyond what the characters themselves see and experience: there’s no commentary, no sense that the disparate elements in the novel might add up to an idea about the world, or about violence, or death, or honor. I couldn’t figure out the thematic unity of Narrow Road, but at least it gestured towards bigger ideas: Flanagan clearly sees the novel as something potentially transcendent. Keneally’s vision is more mundane, and that limits him. I thought Shame and the Captives could have used a harder-working narrator, one who would come between us and the characters and offer more understanding or insight about their situation than they individually are capable of. Perhaps the absence of that kind of unifying perspective is itself a kind of comment, a rejection of the idea that events mean much. Since I tend to side with David Masson that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists,” I find that an unsatisfying result!

Still, once I adapted to its pace I read Shame and the Captives with interest. The very normalcy of the many lives it follows, with their loves and lies and failures and mistakes, becomes a useful reminder that historical events are not abstractions, and that there are always as many aspects to them as there are people involved. He clearly had his concept, and he carried it out capably: A-!

*In case this doesn’t go without saying, it’s important, obviously, to explain this from the start, and to give students guidance in developing a thesis that has a good chance of making their work as interesting as it is articulate! I include essay-writing workshops in all of my classes now in which this is a central focus. This is also why detailed feedback on essays (along the way and at the end) is so much more important than the letter grade itself, which is necessarily a very reductive shorthand.

2 thoughts on ““A Burden of Mortification”: Thomas Keneally, Shame and the Captives

  1. lawless May 3, 2015 / 10:07 pm

    Despite its pedestrian prose and lack of ambition, this book interests me more than The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I’m not eager to read something that depicts Japanese soldiers one-dimensionally, especially since Japan was far from the only country interested in becoming or maintaining colonial power. From your description, Shame and the Captives seems to show more nuance.


    • Rohan May 4, 2015 / 9:35 am

      What I found so odd (well, one of the odd things) about Narrow Road is that Flanagan added dimension to his Japanese characters eventually, but the back stories came after we’d been set up to react to them as cartoon villains.


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