The Stencil Man, Garry Disher


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

14 thoughts on “The Stencil Man, Garry Disher

  1. Well, I am one of those who’ve heard of him but only as a crime/YA writer. His story The Divine Wind was on the Year 12 reading list when I was trifling with a project to read whatever was required reading for young people in their final year of school. (Based on my own experience reading wonderful books like Authority and the Individual, and The Power and The Glory), I had thought such a list would be a good source of books but it was rather discouraging. All rather lightweight because I suppose they think nowadays that young people can’t/won’t tackle anything more profound.
    Anyway The Divine Wind is a not-bad-at-all YA novel of Australians at war. Similar themes by the sound of it: young people in Darwin when anti-Japanese feeling interacts with the multi-racial population. (Perhaps a sly way of teachers getting their students to learn a bit of Australian history?) It’s a long while since I read it, and I haven’t been tempted to read more of Disher, but from what I remember it would make satisfying reading for young adults…though I’d still like them to be encouraged to read more demanding works.


    • Do kids still do Eng Expression and Eng Lit.? I can see why it is good to get ‘middle of the road’ kids a) to read and b) to read stuff with issues in it that will get them to argue – ie. read critically. I do think that by year 12 students should be reading pretty ‘heavy’ stuff in Eng Lit – I wonder what 12 books I would set. Probably Scott’s Taboo or That Deadman Dance for starters (Benang might be too much). And one Jane Austen of course!


      • I think they do, have the two, and yes, I agree that EngLit ought to be qualitatively different, otherwise why do it? But what I did was English: my other subjects were piano, Social Studies a.k.a. Politics, and Legal Studies. I had a brilliant teacher and we had wonderful discussions about the books we read.


      • I guess the difference between then and now is that at the end of the 60s students were only just starting to go through to year 12 (and we still had tech schools for kids who were always going to work with their hands). I did maths science so dropped Lit and French after year11.


  2. Yes. We just did English too. With that I did French, Geography, Modern History and Maths.

    Like Lisa, I only know of Disher as Crime and young adult writer too. I have a Guest Review of a book of his on my blog. I’ve have been meaning to read his Bitter Wash Road which is crime, but was well reviewed, and I’d really like to read it.


  3. Bitter Wash Road was pretty good, the others of his crime novels that I’ve read (one or two, both set on the Mornington Peninsula) were middling. Can’t say I’ll be rushing out to read this one.


    • Because I buy secondhand Australian books in bulk, I have two or three hundred that I haven’t read and which I take off the shelves and review more or less at random. All right, because they are shorter than the books I should be reviewing. Still, having got this far with Disher I’ll try his detective fiction, it can’t be worse than the American stuff I listen to.

      Different subject. Annabella Boswell in NSW in the late 1830s attended the weddings of (I assume, sister and brother) Ann and F Macarthur. Off the top of your head, do you know who they are?


      • John Macarthur (formerly of the $2 note) had a nephew called Hannibal. The nephew came out to NSW as a young man and ended up staying and prospering (until he didn’t). He and his (long suffering) wife had eleven children. One of them, born in 1816, was called Anna…
        And yes, all this was off the top of my head – except for the last sentence. Strangely, I had not committed the names of Hannibal’s many children to memory!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure if this author is famous enough that he wouldn’t Google reviews of his own books, but I DID have an author contact me the other day. I didn’t like her book, and she found my review through an internet search! She was very kind, but I also felt ashamed.


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