Out of Ireland: C. J. Koch's Ignored Masterpiece

If you know Christopher Koch at all, it is probably because you have seen the film made from his novel, The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt.

In 1996, Koch's Highways to a War was released, telling the story of Mike Langford, a Tasmanian photo-journalist in wartime Vietnam and Cambodia. The reader was given to understand that another tale was yet to be told, the story of his ancestor, Robert Devereaux, a fictional Irish rebel of 1848, who had been transported to Tasmania.

That book, Out of Ireland, was published in Australia and in the UK in 1999. I waited eagerly for its release in the United States, ready to order it for the library. After a couple of years, it became clear that no US publisher had picked it up, though it had won several awards in Australia. I was not prepared to order it from Australia or the UK for myself, and pay the expensive shipping cost, so I let it go.

Recently, I decided to check around for it. I found used copies of the 2000 Vintage Australia edition in a few US bookstores, so I ordered it. I began to read it today, and it is as good as I had hoped it would be. When I am finished, it will go into the collection.

1848 was to the 19th century what 1968 was to the 20th, a year of failed uprisings across Europe that terrified the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Marx's Communist Manifesto was published in early 1848 as a call-to-arms.

Many defeated 1848-ers, particularly Germans, emigrated to America, where their energies contributed to the birth of a sort of ante-bellum proto-New Age/New Left movement which, as Abolitionism, would spark the Civil War. I once visited the Texas hill country town of Comfort, founded in 1854 by German 1848-ers, notable for having a schoolhouse, but no church until many years later.

Edit 12/05/2008: It is interesting to consider that, if 1968 was analogous to 1848, it foreshadowed not an upheaval in the West, but rather one in Eastern Europe, which is what Tom Stoppard seems to have perceived in his play, Rock 'n' Roll. For all the drama of events in Chicago and Paris in that year, Prague can be seen as the epicenter, with reverberations that would bring down the Wall in '89. I saw this play in NYC last year, and it really opened my eyes. The Old Left had nothing but contempt for the Counterculture, even though they are lumped together in our memory of the "'60's". Who got himself a statue in Eastern Europe when the Wall came down? Che? No, guitar virtuoso and iconoclast Frank Zappa, in Vilnius, Lithuania.

More excellent recent Australian fiction:
Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire
Peter Temple, The Broken Shore
Gary Disher, The Dragon Man

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