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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

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Chapter 6

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TRAITOR/TRAITOR?

Peter Pierce

By the time his first novel, Traitor,1 was published in 2010, Stephen Daisley was in his mid-fifties. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of another unexpected literary eruption long ago, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘it must have had a long foreground somewhere’. Born in 1955, Daisley grew up on the North Island of New Zealand. He served for five years in an infantry battalion in the New Zealand army. He also worked on sheep and cattle stations, oil and gas construction sites and drove trucks, both in his home country and in Australia, on whose west coast he now lives with his wife and five daughters. These experiences – of military life and rural work – and of the many implements and the skills required to use them, inform both Traitor and Daisley’s recently released second novel, Coming Rain (2015)2. The two books show a deep assurance concerning the things that the author knows, whether of the material and visceral world – of loading rifles, shearing and delivering lambs, saddling horses – or of the emotional lives of characters who are articulate in their own terms, if in no fluently cosmopolitan way.

In 2011, Traitor won the Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction. Michael Heyward, the head of Text Publishing that had punted on the novel, has related how the esteemed New Zealand literary agent and short story writer, Michael Gifkins, who died in 2014, called the book – a touch wistfully perhaps – ‘the great New Zealand novel’,3 as though this fabled creature had been sighted and certified at last, albeit on the wrong side of the Tasman Sea. These two judgments – by the award committee (of which I was the Chair) and by Gifkins – have the combined effect of making Traitor a decidedly ANZAC product, reinvigorating the acronym that was forged in the Great War from the time of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Now it could describe one of the most impressive of all the literary retrospects of the last century on the events of battle and of their much longer lasting domestic consequences. It is the case that both Australian and New Zealand literature of the Great War has more of substance to show from imaginative reconstructions of that conflict by those who were not there, than by those who had served.

Thus The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998)4 glumly declared that ‘the First World War, for all its devastating casualties and patriotic fervour, produced little literature of lasting or distinctive quality’. Or, perhaps, one had to be patient. John A. Lee’s Civilian Into Soldier, an autobiographically based account of his experiences on the Western Front, appeared in 1937. His later work, Soldier, about the loss of an arm in battle and a subsequent love affair in a military hospital in England, was not published until 1976. Other books that drew on their authors’ experiences at war include Robin Hyde’s novels, Passport to Hell (1936) and Nor the Years Condemn (1938), and Archibald Baxter’s memoir, We Will Not Cease (1939).5 The latter work, and the story that it tells of the author’s field punishment (in part by a kind of crucifixion) in France on account of his conscientious objection to war, was a key point of reference for Daisley. The modest hero of Traitor, Sergeant David Monroe when we first encounter him, will hear at first-hand of Baxter’s sufferings and judge him to be ‘a brave and difficult man’ before he endures similar travails of his own. Much later, and back in New Zealand, Monroe will learn of Hiruhurama, or Jerusalem, ‘a place of cherry trees and nuns and a prophet poet whose father he had seen in the Etaples prison yard’. The poet was James Baxter.

If the Baxters’ stories were primary New Zealand bearings for Daisley, he was also enrolling in a wider literary tradition. Monroe’s crucial and instinctual decision both to befriend the Turkish doctor, follower of the Sufi tendency of Islam and prisoner of war, Mahmoud, with whom he has been wounded in a shell blast, and then to seek to escape with him from the Greek island of Lemnos, is a valiant and quixotic gesture. Monroe’s epiphany recalls what Ernest Hemingway’s Lieutenant Frederic Henry, in the famous and poignantly titled war novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), described in audacious and soon enough blighted hope as the making of ‘a separate peace’. In Australia, revisiting of the Great War in fiction, film and poetry began in the late 1960s. The main works are easy to name. They include such films as Break of Day (1976), directed by Ken Hannam, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981); poems by Les Murray (‘The Trainee, 1914’, ‘Visiting Anzac in the Year of Metrication’), Geoff Page (‘Christ at Gallipoli’, ‘Trench Dreams’) and Chris Wallace-Crabbe (‘The Shapes of Gallipoli’) and novels by Roger McDonald, 1915 (1979), David Malouf, Fly Away Peter (1982). A generation later came Bruce Scates’s On Dangerous Ground (2012) and Steve Sailah’s murder mystery, A Fatal Tide (2014). To what extent the earlier works were motivated by a last chance to speak in the name of survivors of the Great War, and how far they marked a recoil from the divisive conflict in Vietnam, remains debatable. (There is no place here to assess the seemingly unstaunchable flow of histories of Gallipoli and of the Great War more widely. Three only from last year suggest some of the range: Ross Coulthart’s biography, Charles Bean, of the Official Australian War Correspondent and later the editor of the national history of the Great War; Raden Dunbar’s The Secrets of the Anzacs, which deals with venereal disease and its treatments in Egypt, England and back in Australia; and another piece of febrile populism from Peter Fitzsimmons, Gallipoli).

In part in reaction to what he regarded as ‘the easy nostalgia’ of Weir’s film and also to a desolating trip that he made to Gallipoli in 1977, New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt abandoned plans for a novel about the conflict. Instead he wrote the play On Chunuk Bair (1982)6 about the heroic and disastrous New Zealand action on 8 August 1915. Briefly, the Allied goal of the Dardanelles was sighted, but this was a literal high point that the rest of the campaign failed to repeat. Daisley has his David Monroe take part in that battle. Monroe would not have been out of place among the ageing contributors to the collection Voices of Gallipoli (1988)7 that Shadbolt later edited. He described it as ‘a collection of narratives which tell how humble and mostly simple New Zealanders lived and died on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula for eight months in the year 1915’.

In his distinctive way, Daisley was also responding to Shadbolt’s complaint that ‘no significant poem, song, novel or painting – literally nothing in our nation’s cultural life – enshrined the New Zealand experiences of the Gallipoli campaign, and this though the Anzac Day, 25 April, remained conspicuous on our calendars’. Shadbolt quotes Ormond Burton, a soldier turned militant pacifist, from his book based on Great War service, The Silent Division (1935): ‘How men were to die on Chunk Bair was determined largely by how men and women had lived on farms and in the towns of New Zealand’. Daisley’s Traitor is deeply attuned to such a sentiment. The battles in which Monroe takes part at Gallipoli, and his wounding there with Mahmoud, are an essential preliminary portion of the novel. Where Monroe came from, and the world to which eventually he returns after being impressed into service in an ambulance corps on the Western Front, is the larger and in some ways its essential business.

The epigraph to this work titled, as it seems at first, bluntly and acridly Traitor, is from E.M. Forster and it will resonate through all that follows, not without ambiguity: ‘I hate the very idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country’. That famous declaration informs, but does not altogether fit the choices that David Monroe makes. The novel opens on Lemnos in 1915, where Monroe, on the recommendation of an Australian doctor, is allowed to keep company with Mahmoud, who has been wounded with him on a spur of Ari Burnu by an errant British naval shell. (This was the same kind of misadventure that had killed Colonel William George Malone, commander of the Wellington battalion on Chunuk Bair, together with many of his men.) Almost at once, Daisley moves the action forward half a century to 1965 and to rural New Zealand. That country has just committed troops to Vietnam. However improbably, this means that the ageing shepherd who has worked on Papanui Station since 1920, has been called into the small police station at Ruatane on account of his distant, supposedly subversive and treacherous past.

This enables Daisley economically to outline what the military case had been against Monroe at his court martial. The officer in charge, Inspector Ogden, reads from Monroe’s service record: ‘in October 1915 you aided a POW to escape from detention in a camp on the island of Lemnos. That you also deserted with said prisoner’. He further asserts that ‘You were a traitor to your country Mr Monroe is that right?’ For his own part, Monroe explains how ‘the Australian boys’ refused to carry out his death sentence. Remembering Monroe’s ‘service at the Cove’, they told the authorities ‘to go fuck themselves they will not shoot one of their own’. After demotion and field punishment, Monroe was sent as a stretcher-bearer to France and Belgium. In this second kind of war service, Monroe displays a quiet and inspiring Christian fortitude: ‘God has not deserted any of us’, he counsels a young soldier. After a further six months in Germany, he was granted a full pardon. ‘And I came home then’. What is also revealed is Monroe’s record at Gallipoli. Wounded on a Sari Bair ridge, he was ‘mentioned in dispatches and recommended for field promotion by his battalion commander for actions on the Chunuk Bair heights’. Unfortunately, that recommendation was never given effect, because the commanding officer, Colonel Malone, had been killed. As Monroe remarks to the policeman, ‘We all should have died but we didn’t’.

There is one more crucial episode to be related of these events from long ago. Monroe’s friend, Mahmoud, the Sufi, ‘a man who wears wool and believes in God’ has corresponded with him after the war. But the last letter that he receives from Turkey has been sent not by Mahmoud, but by his wife, Aisha, who relates that her husband has been hanged for his religious beliefs. That is, the former Turkish commander at Gallipoli, Kemal Ataturk, now first Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic, has cracked down on Sufis for their refusal to acknowledge a secular state. Mahmoud was ‘the so-called enemy’ not only for the ANZAC forces, but in his own country as well. Monroe dissents. As he recalls, ‘I just felt an enormous affection even love for this man … He kissed me on the mouth and called me God’. It was Mahmoud who led Monroe in an ecstatic whirling dance that he still performs in private on the sheep pastures near his home. Of course he has been seen, and thought mad, ‘spinning around and around with his arms held out all alone on the Abernethy Flat. Falling and crying out to the sky’.

Monroe’s connections to the district include Chung Moon, the Chinese owner of the general store where he used to buy birthday gifts for the child Catherine, who is now the widow Mrs Catherine McKenzie and owner of Rapanui Station. ‘Old Dave’, as he already seemed to be in his thirties, left those gifts at her door. Her mother, ‘Sarah Mitchell the witch’, had disappeared, leaving the baby girl in a basket on the front step of her Maori neighbours. Monroe knows the mother of his friend, Peter Whiting, whom he saw die in the rain on Mount St Quentin in the last months of the war. She tells him how – in one of Peter’s letters home – he had said of Monroe that ‘you were with him and that you were a blessed saint and not to take any notice of what anyone might say about you’. Among Monroe’s threaded memories are those of his mother, born Mary O’Connell, who drowned when he was sixteen and she was only thirty – a casualty of some deep private pain unrelated to war. It was Eoin McKenzie, who still wore his captain’s uniform with the right sleeve pinned up, who gave Monroe work on his property in 1920. Mrs McKenzie, whose father was killed at Gallipoli and whose brother went mad, spat at him. Too conveniently for her he was a criminal and a traitor, the worse because he had not perished.

The casualties of war do not end with the armistice. In making an accounting of them, of the sufferings of the damaged ones who return and of the grieving ones who have stayed behind, Daisley’s novel has a deal in common with Chis Womersley’s Bereft (2010), which relates the disruptive consequences of the homecoming of one presumed lost, the Great War veteran Quinn Walker, to the New South Wales country town of Flint. (Other disturbing revenants from that war are the protagonists of two earlier novels by Patrick White: Stan Parker in The Tree of Man, 1957, and Eddie Twyborn in The Twyborn Affair, 1979). Among Monroe’s friends is the melancholy scholar and drinker Wit Abernethy, who has a soldier settler’s block next to Papanui and who is tormented by how he had to shoot the horses that could not be taken away with the troops. Rehabilitated, he becomes a school teacher at New Plymouth, and now drinks only once a year on ‘the anniversary of when the horses forgave him’.

With an unerring lightness of touch, Daisley weaves backwards and forwards between events during the war and their enduring legacy at home. For Monroe the essential episode was his decision – made suddenly but surely – to escape from their convalescence on Lemnos with Mahmoud, with no more considered plan that that ‘I have a boat and a fisherman to take us’. The true traitor of the story is now revealed, the Limnion called Alexis who strands ‘these two strange men who seemed to love one another’ and then turns them over to the British. Three years later Monroe is in France, at Courcelles, with the Third Field Ambulance of the Australian Fifth Brigade: ‘on the day it all ended he smelled burning gum leaves’. It is he who is chosen to kill the calf for the celebratory meal for those who have survived.

Back home he becomes the best shepherd in the district, tending to the ‘lambing, the early ewes along the river flats’. He rides a horse called the John, ‘named after a list of horses that had come before him. It was thus more than a name or an individual, it was an affirmation of memory, a respect for that which had been’. Monroe talks to Catherine McKenzie, who does not know that she is his daughter, and she tells him how ‘I saw you once when I was a girl, turning in circles’. And he replies simply, with the quiet conviction that she will understand him, how ‘a man called Mahmoud taught me this thing … He was a Sufi. They are mad, crazed with the love of God’. All that should have been alien to him in the other man’s belief and behaviour has not only been accepted as natural, but also as a guide and a benediction. This is the wonder at the heart of Traitor, a novel less concerned with the horrors of war than to the possibilities for redemption that they cannot foreclose.

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1 Stephen Daisley, Traitor (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010).

2 Stephen Daisley, Coming Rain (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015).

3 Michael Heyward, e-mail to the author on Gifkins, 8 December 2014.

4 The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, eds Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

5 The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, eds Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012).

6 Maurice Shadbolt, Once on Chunuk Bair (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982).

7 Maurice Shadbolt (ed), Voices of Gallipoli (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988).

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates