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07/4 2014

Highways to a War – Christopher Koch



This is not my typical read, though reinforces why I so love sharing books.  Thank you Anna for sending this, among others.

Highways to a War by Christopher Koch is a novel about an Australian war photographer who disappears in Cambodia in 1975, as told by his childhood friend from Tasmania who goes in search of him.  It begins with the friend, Ray Barton, receiving news of his friend Michael Langford who had been living in Southeast Asia for ten years before entering Cambodia, that was under control of the Khmer Rouge.

The novel moves back and forth in time, from Barton’s childhood memories of Langford, to interviews of his recent colleagues and coworkers and Langford’s audio journal.  By introducing an audio journal that Langford mailed to Barton, he is able to tell part of the story in Langford’s own voice.  It is a very tidy novel in that there are a lot of moving parts Koch is able to string together to tell the story of being a war photographer in Saigon during the Vietnam war, the move to Cambodia after that, and the final years in Bangkok before Langford’s disappearance.

The start is a little slow, and much of the detail described in the first few chapters I had to re-read later because I was somewhat bored by it.  Dramatic events are interesting, but as Koch’s writing style is somewhat clinical, I found it hard to get into until I had a deeper understanding of the larger plot.  While Koch is adept at coordinating time and a complex series of events, he is not a poetic writer.  There are a few parts where the writing is vivid and engaging, such as the sun setting on the farm in Tasmania, looking over Saigon from a rooftop in 1965, but overall this is a story driven by action.

I imagine Koch was a writer who had charts and was a meticulous editor.  All of his characters have individual voices and he is careful with the way they develop, speak, sigh, and navigate a volatile living situation.  There is the family man, the volatile and heavy drinker, there is a best friend and a series of secondary characters who appear and disappear but all with consistent habits and voices.  He appears to be very systematic and careful with his pacing and use of a number of different narrative devices.  Stories told with more than one voice can easily go off the rails and be confusing, but I find Koch did a really good job of stringing them together, even if having the audio diary did seem a little too neat.

Once the story gets going, it is quite engaging.  It was not a predictable novel but at the same time was not fanciful or unbelievable.  I think Koch did a very good job of having a detailed understanding of what triumphs and challenges these men would encounter.  When they are captives of the North Vietnamese Army, for example, the health issues and problems they had were very real.  I can only imagine the research that went into a novel like this.

I do feel Michael Langford  is a bit idealized.   I found myself searching for the moments when he was not always saving others, or defending the needy.  Of course there are giving people in the world but I tired a bit of the descriptions of all his heroic deeds and was pleased when faults and mistakes would emerge to make him more human.  The other component of the novel I didn’t enjoy was the clearly western white male description of things.  Langford’s friend  Jim Feng is often described by his “Chinese face” as though that alone defines an expression.  In another scene where Langford’s girlfriend sits with him after a tragedy, he states “we sat for a long time in silence.  A Western woman would not have done that” (383).   This projects a stereotype not only of invasive western women, but also a submissive Cambodian.

Overall I enjoyed the opportunity to read more about wartime Southeast Asia, as I have loved Cambodia since traveling there in 2002.   This certainly made me want to return.  I do think this is an interesting read and am glad to have taken the journey, though I’m not hitting the bookstore for another one of his novels just yet.