Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 2, 2014

Sensational Snippets: Shame and the Captives, by Thomas Keneally

Shame and the CaptivesA sombre and occasionally shocking solidity befits the themes of this stunning new book by Thomas Keneally.  Shame and the Captives is a fictionalisation of the Cowra Breakout, and it is compelling reading.

In this excerpt, Nevski the Russian translator shares his understanding of Japanese POW attitudes with Suttor, the Camp Commander who has himself, a son captured by the Japanese at Singapore:

Nevski interpreted these mysteries for Suttor.  Their captives’ pride, their good order, their energy and despair seemed to Suttor a combination which in young men was poignant, as is the case for all young men caught on the hook of their culture.  In the meantime, the major was pleased that he did not, at least, have to deal with the officers in Compound D, who were rarer captures.  They were said to be leftovers who had avoided the entrenched necessity to sacrifice or disembowel themselves.  Intelligence had heard from private soldier captives that many of their officers had said goodbye to their diminished units as the beachheads had shrunk to patches of swamp and palm and sand, and had formally washed and then killed themselves.  Or else there was the option of the hopeless charge.  The officers in Compound B had sidestepped both these imperatives, though they would have told you with some truth that they were sick or wounded at the time.

One of them yelled incitements to resistance whenever he saw work parties from Compound C assembling in Main Road.  But most officers seemed muter and somnolent, involved passionately with mahjong, flower cards and Go.  Their rebellion seemed restricted to being deliberately and insolently late for rollcall.  Some were getting plump, for lack of exercise. If active at all, they chiefly applied themselves to bullying and sodomising the Koreans and the Formosans, army servants and dogsbodies, captured in the field along with their masters.

As for Compound C, it was essential to Suttor that when the Swiss rapporteurs visited Gawell, they could send a glowing picture to the authorities in that North Pacific archipelago up there, the counterweight in the north-west Pacific to Australia’s mass in the south-west, of how well their children in captivity were being treated.  Thus, in a way, it gratified him that in administering Compound C, he was sending signals to the barbarians for his son’s sake.

Tom Keneally, Shame and the Captives, Vintage Books (Random House), 2013, p62
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.95

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Fishpond: Shame and the Captives


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