I had to do a bit of a hunt to get hold of a copy of The Far Road by George Johnson OBE (1912-1970). It is long out of print, and only a few libraries still had a copy when I ended up scouting around on ZPortal. Now that I’ve read the novel, its demise seems all the more surprising, because I think it makes essential reading for anyone interested in the ethics of journalism. That would be all journalists, right?
Here in Australia there have been a few high-profile cases of journalists’ burnout, most notably one that resulted in drug abuse in a country that has mandatory capital punishment for drug offences. But there have also been disturbing programs on Radio National and the ABC about the long-term impact of reporting in dangerous places where war correspondents’ witness horrific events. But it is not just warfare that can overwhelm a journalist. Bearing witness to natural disasters which cause mass deaths such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami or the 2011 famine in Somalia causes anguish too, especially when the journalist’s best efforts are met with public indifference. Employers clearly have a responsibility to monitor the wellbeing of their staff and in some cases to override the journalist’s sense of mission if it means his/her mental health is at risk.
But what Johnson exposes is that consumers of ‘the news’ in all its forms bear some responsibility too. We want to know, but not too much. We don’t want to see any really horrible pictures, we don’t want to read really graphic descriptions of the horror. We want the sanitised version. ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’ wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, and so the story that is filed is filtered to make it ‘acceptable’. Charlotte Wood showed the frustration this can cause in her portrayal of a journalist trying to fit back into the normality of a family reunion in her novel The Children, but in The Far Road Johnson explores the impact of atrocity on two very different men as they witness it.
Set in 1944, during the largely forgotten Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), The Far Road is based on real events. According to the introduction by Garry Kinnane, Johnson, a distinguished war correspondent before his rise to fame as twice-winner of the Miles Franklin Award with My Brother Jack and Clean Straw for Nothing, was haunted by what he saw along the road to Liuchow. The city of Kweilin (also spelt Guilin), was a place of refuge during this war although it was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese. It was fear of invasion that led to the evacuation of the entire city and the flight of thousands of refugees along this road (an exodus that also figures in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club). But Southern China was in the grip of drought at this time, and thousands perished of hunger along the way. Their bodies littered the road as Johnson drove through it, and he never forgot the horror of it.
Written 16 years after the event in 1962, The Far Road follows two war correspondents, David Meredith and Bruce Conover as they make their way along the Liuchow road in search of a story. Meredith is the older, more experienced and reflective man while Conover is young, brash and dynamic – and also somewhat in awe of Meredith whose reputation is based on his experiences in other theatres of war. There are few additional characters other than the uncountable thousands of dead and dying refugees along the road.
The city of Kweilin is deserted and the eerie silence impacts on Meredith and Conover in different ways. In a fictional twist that lays blame on the Chinese themselves rather than the Japanese, Meredith realises the cause of the exodus: a corrupt money speculator called Fabian Ling has spread the rumour of an imminent Japanese invasion in order to deflate the currency and buy up big, reaping a huge profit when the exchange rate stabilises. Both Meredith and Conover know that the exigencies of censorship mean this is a story that won’t be told, with Meredith retreating into silent bitterness and Conover focussing instead of the pragmatics of reporting on the devastation, counting the bodies and marking them off in their thousands on his carbine.
As the novel traces their journey, Meredith’s bitterness escalates. Both men make moral choices that revolve around the question of what to do when you can’t do anything. If it’s not possible to feed the many, and feeding the one or the few puts one’s own safety at risk, how does the journalist cope with the blame and guilt of walking away? Is it rape if a man accepts an exchange of food for sex from a starving prostitute? If the last train to safety is reserved for the privileged few, does anyone have a responsibility to tell the ones who will be left behind? And what about the methods used to ‘clear’ people away from where, in their mute misery, they clutter up proceedings?
Both Conover and Meredith display qualities of compassion and courage, callousness and cowardice, selflessness and self-preoccupation, but it is Meredith who fails to guide his younger colleague on this moral journey. Conover is pragmatic to the core, and by the time they reach Liuchow, he has overcome his respect for Meredith and replaced it with jaunty rejection of impractical idealism.
It’s not an easy book to read. The plot is really a vehicle for Johnson to lay some ghosts of his own, and it is very melancholy in tone. Nevertheless, it’s an important book and one I’d like to see reissued as a classic.
Author: George Johnson
Title: The Far Road
Publisher: Fontana Books, 1987
Source: Redcliffe City Library via inter-library loan.
PS At first I didn’t like the cover art of the paperback edition, but I have since changed my mind. The artist, Julie Hook, has captured perfectly the melancholy, anguished character of Meredith.