Garry Disher’s website says he “is one of Australia’s best-known authors”. I hope he’s not reading this because I haven’t heard of him. Apparently he’s mostly famous for crime fiction, as he writes concerning another of his novels that it “received rave reviews, but apart from a couple of shortlistings, sank without trace in Australia. It’s my belief that it wasn’t “read” properly, that it was assumed that a crime and children’s writer couldn’t write a “literary” novel.”
Disher (1949- ) has a Masters in Australian History from Monash University and The Stencil Man (1988) is, he says, one of two World War II novels stemming from research he did for an Australian History textbook. It is reflective of an earlier post of mine, Internee 1/5126 about my Great etc Uncle interned during WWI, in that it is the fictional account of the internment during WWII of Martin Linke, who had emigrated to Australia from Germany in 1925, married an Australian woman, become naturalised and was the owner of a small farm near Casino in northern NSW.
Linke has the custody of his two children after his wife has run off to find excitement elsewhere, but in 1942 he is arrested by his local grocer in his uniform as a captain in the VDC militia, and a friendly policeman, and put on that night’s train to Sydney which, having come down from Brisbane, contains Japanese, Italian and German internees from further north. Martin makes friends with another German, Uwe Wurfel: “‘My mother and father and I came here in 1905. I was sixteen,’ said Wurfel. ‘In 1915 they interned my father; now it is my turn.'”
His children are taken in by his sister in law and her husband who live nearby, but Martin is constantly worried that his feckless ex-wife will come back to claim them.
The story is slight, but interesting (and only 112pp). Martin and Wurfel are taken first to a camp at Liverpool, on the outskirts of Sydney, and then to Tatura, north of Melbourne, irrigated farming country, where there are different camps for each nationality. I’m sure Disher’s research is good, but I was surprised by the pro-German and even pro-Nazi feeling of many of the internees, not all of them long term Australian residents, though I don’t think they included any military prisoners of war.
The men are able to choose whether or not to work, on roadworks and so on, or to study, or simply loaf. A few get together to run a patisserie. Martin is one of those who maintains a garden plot, but he also makes stencils of remembered Bavarian scenes for his children, for other internees to buy – the camp issued tokens as a form of internal currency – and on at least one occasion, for the camp newspaper, of the sinking of HMAS Sydney by the disguised German raider the Kormoran.
At each step in the process of arrest and appeal the evidence against him is disturbingly light and it is obvious at least some of it is from his unhappy wife. A supplier of seeds has sent him a German tie pin which is found by police in his hanky drawer, he has attended lectures about German culture, in the camp he has been observed speaking to Nazi sympathisers, and he has contributed to the camp newspaper and so on. Wurfel is in an even more difficult position, as he is targetted by pro-Nazis within the camp and so is seen by the camp authorities as a trouble-maker and is given periods of solitary confinement which lead to him becoming increasingly withdrawn.
I grew up reading all the popular WWII books including of course, The Great Escape (Paul Brickhill, 1950) and the descriptions of camp life are surprisingly similar. Squadron leader Bushell and his subordinates at Stalag Luft III had their counterparts at Tatura in Dr Oser and his followers in their red berets. Oser would dine with the camp commander and his men were relied on by the Australians to enforce camp discipline. As at Stalag Luft III, the internees kept themselves busy with work or make-work, concerts, and the celebration of national days (May Day, Hitler’s birthday). There were even escape attempts by tunnelling.
Spoilers: If you’re actually planning to read this novel, you had better stop here. Martin becomes increasingly unhappy. He learns that his farm is being run by Italian prisoners of war while he remains locked up, and that his ex-wife has been visiting his children. The Nazis running the camp are deposed in a brief insurrection, but Martin and Wurfel as loners are classed with them by the Australians and so are persuaded by Egk, Dr Oser’s former right hand man, to escape with him.
[Martin] wanted to go home to put things right. They could throw him back into concentration camp again afterwards if they liked. Or prison: his spirit was murderous. Uwe Wurfel should go north and disappear, live in a rain-forest or go west to the opal fields like any old foreigner. Let Egk go with him. Egk was a marked man anywhere else. He dare not reveal his accent: here they think all foreigners are spies.
After three days huddling in deserted sheds and damp paddocks, they steal a car and petrol and drive to Sydney, where Egk’s contact has already been arrested and so make their way by goods train to Casino …
I don’t often say this, but I enjoyed this work of Australian historical fiction. I was a bit sorry on researching this review to find that Martin was completely fictional and not Disher’s uncle or somesuch (and at some stage in the family tree I imagine Disher was originally Discher) but it is thoughtful, hopefully accurate, and the descriptions of people and country are compelling.
Garry Disher, The Stencil Man, Imprint, Sydney, 1988