Much lauded on its release, Shirley Hazzard’s dull The Great Fire is set immediately post-World War II.
It is ostensibly the story of Aldred Leith, a physically scarred British war hero who is sent to Japan (Nagasaki in particular) to research the impact of defeat on local and traditional culture. But, having spent considerable time in China, he’s also there to witness (for the British government) a China that is about to fall into the hands of Mao, when archaic iniquity was about to be swept away by the new juggernaut of the doctrinaire.
Whilst in Japan, Leith meets 17 year-old Helen, daughter of the crass and abrasive (Australian) camp commander and sister to Benedict, a youth dying from Friedreich’s ataxia. The three become close and, in spite of social barriers, Helen and Leith, 15 years her senior, fall in love.
Literary to the point of soporific, Hazzard’s writing is grave, old-fashioned and overly pretentious – Before dawn, as he slept, there had gushed out this emanation of an extreme (seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide). There is also the problem of the lack of any obvious storyline until the halfway point in the book. Up until then, The Great Fire is a series of vignettes as Leith travels backwards and forwards between Japan, China and Hong Kong. But colonialist through and through, The Great Fire introduces not local characters and experiences. Instead, the main talking point seems to be the standard of food served up at Government House in Hong Kong.
Twenty years in the writing, published in 2004, the pompous novel is littered with Aldreds, Bertrams, Benedicts with its language and sensibilities firmly entrenched in British mores of the 1940s. Hazzard herself was born in Sydney in 1931 into a diplomatic family and essentially left Australia by the time she was 16. Yet The Great Fire was awarded the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.