The Boys in the Island, 1958
Across the Sea Wall, 1965
The Year of Living Dangerously, 1978
The Doubleman, 1985
Highways to a War, 1995
Out of Ireland, 1999
Crossing the Gap: A Novelist’s Essays, 1987
Christopher John Koch (kosh) is a well-known contemporary Australian novelist whose works have been particularly influential in setting the terms for a cultural relationship between Australia and Asia. Koch was born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, in 1932. His childhood on Tasmania, an island to the south of the mainland Australia continent, was instrumental in shaping his artistic perspective. Tasmania, more like England in landscape and climate than the rest of Australia, was nonetheless doubly isolated, from both the English colonizer and Australia itself. Tasmania’s isolated beauty influenced Koch’s vivid nature descriptions even as it made him aware of the need for Australia to be connected to other nations.
Koch began as a poet, and indeed his poems based on T’ang dynasty Chinese poetry have won praise as being among the most accomplished of any Western attempts to master Chinese poetic form, but he soon decided to concentrate his talents on a novel. Koch’s first novel, The Boys in the Island, is a lyrical novel of growing up. As Koch’s young male protagonists experience disappointment in love, they realize both their own marginality and the potential they have for future achievement. It was a natural step for Koch to move from the Tasmania-mainland contrast to the Australia-Asia one, which he did in Across the Sea Wall. This novel, more ambitious in length and scope than Koch’s first, resembles a contemporaneous American novel, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1961), in being told exclusively in the present tense. Chronicling the anguished relationship of an Australian youth with a glamorous Eastern European woman, the novel’s plot interested critics less than the fact that much of the work is set in India, providing Koch with an opportunity to bring an element of Hindu spirituality into the book. This feature instantly made Koch one of the best-known Australian writers in India, but it befuddled Australian reviewers not yet conscious of their country’s close geographical and, eventually, cultural links to Asia. Koch had to pursue other work to supplement his income from writing fiction; for ten years, he worked as a radio producer for the Australian Broadcasting Company. This journalistic experience was to influence his subsequent fiction.
Koch faced another problem in this period, one endemic to all Australian novelists of his generation: the long shadow of Patrick White. White was the first Australian novelist to gain international celebrity, but his modern, symbolic style was very much his own. This fact frustrated both younger Australian writers, who tried to imitate it, and critics, who urged them to do so. To find his own novelistic identity, Koch needed to declare artistic independence from White. He did this through pursuing the Australia-Asia theme, but it was not until The Year of Living Dangerously in 1978 that critics appreciated his accomplishment. This book was set in Indonesia, Australia’s nearest Asian neighbor, during that country’s coup in 1965. Centered on a love triangle involving an Australian male journalist, an Australian woman, and a Chinese Australian cameraman, Billy Kwan, The Year of Living Dangerously explores both private and public imbroglios in a fast-paced and intense fashion. The novel catapulted Koch back to prominence among Australian writers, a position heightened when the book was made into a film by Australian director Peter Weir; this film, which did well in the United States, made Koch’s novel internationally known.
Koch’s next novel was The Doubleman. Like some of Koch’s previous books, it contained both philosophical and adventure aspects and was partially set in Asia. The Doubleman, though, was more abstract than The Year of Living Dangerously and brought to the fore the more artistic and conceptual aspects of Koch’s practice as a novelist. In 1986 Koch published Crossing the Gap, a collection of essays devoted largely to analyzing the Australia-Asia relationship. Koch’s essays are insightful and entertaining, but they are also provocative in the stress they lay upon Asia as a continent with a long history and upon the Australian-Asian relationship as primarily a historical relationship. In other words, instead of simply seeing Asia as foreign or exotic, Koch sees Asian nations as having had long and complicated histories similar to those of European countries such as Great Britain.
This interest in Asian history is displayed in Highways to a War, which centers on the Australian experience in the Vietnam War of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Centering on the experience of Mike Langford, an Australian photographer based in Vietnam during the war, Koch’s novel is rich and complex both in form and in content. Its first section, set in Tasmania, returns to the setting of The Boys on the Island, and Koch next published Out of Ireland, a “prequel” to Highways to a War, set in nineteenth century Tasmania and involving Robert Devereaux, an Irish patriot sentenced to exile for inciting rebellion against the English in 1848.