Archipelago of Souls
When Evelyn Waugh’s unit steamed into Crete’s Souda Bay in May of 1941, they found a rough approximation of hell. The English writer saw a harbour choked with the masts and funnels of sunken vessels, some of them still smoking. The quay, all but destroyed by aerial bombardment, was scattered with burntout vehicles and abandoned supplies, along with tattered knots of wounded men. Waugh wrote of a man wearing only shorts and a greatcoat bursting into the captain’s cabin, clearly in distress. “We took this to be an exceptionally cowardly fellow,” he recalled, “but in a few hours realised that he was typical of British forces on the island.”
Readers of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy will know that the disastrous evacuation of Crete is the pivot on which his fictional account of World War II turns. At some point during the bombing attacks of the German Stukas the author located some snapping of nerve: not just military – he rightly saw events as a failure of will, not necessity – but morally, spiritually, too. In that episode Waugh’s beloved Empire turned its face to the wall – a decision he would spend his remaining years crustily bemoaning, a conservative version of postcolonial critique.
Australian writer Gregory Day’s fourth novel also deals with the evacuation of Crete, though this time from the perspective of Australian troops who fought and died alongside the British. And just as the hero of Waugh’s trilogy retreats from the world he despairs of after the conflict’s end, so too does Wesley Cress consciously withdraw. But this is where the two authors part company. Waugh’s creation Guy Crouchback, aristocratic scion of an old Catholic recusant family, heads for a castle in Italy; Day’s invention, Wes Cress, a farmer’s son from Colac in Victoria, heads for King Island in Bass Strait: an island off an island.
At first, Day keeps short arms thrust in deep narrative pockets. We know little about Wes except that he has come to King Island having refused the mainland soldier settler grant to which he is entitled. There is damage in him, that much is clear. But as he sets about finding a small patch of land to live on and comes to know the locals – a small community welded together by gossip and goodwill, antipathy and resilience – two things become obvious: he disdains the earnest desire of the local postmaster, Lascelles, to celebrate and memorialise the war’s returned; and he is drawn to Leonie, the attractive, intelligent yet half-feral daughter of a local farmer.
The novel proceeds in a Janus-faced manner. In the postwar present of the late 1940s we follow Wes as he chops wood and reads the Stoic philosopher Epictetus at his new smallholding, “Wait-a-While”. To some extent he is undertaking a form of nature cure – the physical environment and daily life of King Island is registered in photorealist detail, with passionate attentiveness to people and place – yet Wes can’t help returning to a terrible past. He comes to understand that only his growing need for Leonie will rescue him.
So it is that a man who has so far been little more than a mute in his social relations, begins to unburden himself on the page, acknowledging by doing so that there may be something to the postie Lascelles’ bush psychoanalysis – delivered over a beer in the one pub on the island – that writing an account of traumatic events might free soldiers such as Wes from their grip. That he should send his early efforts to Leonie by
post gives readers some indication of the oddity of their courting. But she reads them, and responds in suitably oblique fashion by giving Wes cuttlefish ink with which to continue his account.
That black salt ink produces the retrospective chapters set on Crete in the days preceding and the months after the island’s evacuation. Wes writes of his older brother Vern, a self-educated man and paddock poet who finds in war the freedom he lacked so far in life. He rises to the place and the occasion with a ferocious aplomb his younger sibling cannot match. He also writes of the Cretan family who took the brothers in: Uncle Tassos, kind and world-weary protector of the Australian troops; and his niece Adrasteia, a young woman as beautiful as her name whose sole tryst with Wes results in him missing the evacuation. He spends the following months trapped behind enemy lines.
There is a lovely, crosshatched quality to the movement back and forth in time and place: Day delineates two worlds – one ancient, storied, alien, mythic; the other surpassingly remote, an exquisite vacancy to European eyes – while quietly insisting on a pairing. Islands have qualities that render them distinct from other land masses: they admit the sovereignty of sea and sky; they breed humility and tend to turn their denizens inward. Wes’s psychological involutions have their obvious analogy in the twists and turns of Theseus in the Cretan labyrinth.
Day is a gifted writer whose talent sometimes outruns his intention. There are many passages in these pages where a neat simile or elegant descriptor is needlessly piled upon by two or three others, the result a khaki mush of meaning and style. But there are many more instances where a clear, pure line of thought is etched into the page. Wes Cress, like Guy Crouchback – and like Dorrigo Evans, the wartime survivor from a recent novel by another islander, Richard Flanagan – is heroic to the degree that he abhors the notion of heroism in a world so absent of larger meaning or divine guidance.
But unlike Dorrigo, the bitter soldier-surgeon at the centre of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wes Cress is still open to the possibility of love. “Circumstances don’t make the man,” says Wes’s constant companion Epictetus, “they only reveal him to himself.” Gregory Day has chiselled artfully away at his creation, and the result is lovely precisely because it is the image of a frail, flawed and all too human man. His novel is fitting memorial for a character who refuses all commemoration. AF
Picador, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "Gregory Day, Archipelago of Souls". Subscribe here.