‘Highways to a War’ by Christopher Koch

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707An absorbing tale of courage in the face of adversity and, unusually, a war story set in Indochina where the emphasis is on the war as fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops.

Australian photojournalist Mike Langford is an enigmatic but hugely popular Tasmanian farmboy who finds himself, almost by default, in the centre of the action in the mid 1960s. It is his disappearance years later inside the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and the search for him by his friends that is at the heart of Highways to a War.

Mike’s boyhood friend and executor of his estate, Ray, travels to Thailand on learning of the disappearance of a man he has not seen for many years. With cassette tapes left by Mike, photographs by the thousands (published or simply stored in boxes), a few accompanying notes and the stories of his friends and colleagues, Ray pieces together the extraordinary story of the boy who ran away from home in rural Tasmania to become a legendary war photojournalist.

But Mike was much more. He recorded not the US offensives: instead, he chose to focus on local Vietnamese (and later Cambodian) troops, recording the war from their perspectives. Less equipped than the Americans, involved in more of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, the risk was much higher for the troops and western media representatives. In telling the world their story, the unassuming photographer is elevated to mythic status in Saigon and (later) Phnom Penh.

But Highways to a War is also a love story. For Mike, there’s the businesswoman, Claudine Phan in Saigon followed by the true love of his life, the feisty Cambodian, Ly Keang. Core to the novel is the friendship of the three photojournalists, Langford, Jim Feng and Dmitri ‘Count’ Volkov: only one will survive. But overarching all is the love for country.

The result is a haunting novel that follows Mike’s own personal highways to war and a world of lives lived on the edge. Packed with compelling characters both inside the press circle and out, Highways to a War is a story of place and time vividly realised by Koch’s powerful but empathic writing.

Christopher Koch (1932-2013) is best known for his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, adapted for the screen in 1984 and starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, with Linda Hunt picking up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet Highways to a War is one of two Koch novels to win the Miles Franklin Award (the other being The Doubleman in 1985).

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