Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt:(1) Myth and Allusion in out of Ireland

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt:(1) Myth and Allusion in out of Ireland

Article excerpt

CHRISTOPHER Koch's novel, Out of Ireland, purports to be the journal of Robert Devereux, an Irish insurrectionist convicted of high treason and transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1848. When he escapes his Vandemonian confinement, Devereux commits his two `notebooks bound in calfskin' (Highways 42) to a writing-slope in his Derwent Valley property, `Clare', to be discovered a century later by his great-grandson Michael Langford and his friend, Ray Barton: the journal is edited and published by Barton. Langford's life, the focal point of Koch's Highways to a War, reverberates with the events, thoughts and feelings described in Devereux's journal. Koch has described the novels as a diptych. They are bound by subtle integuments, echoes and reverberations, shared motifs and mutual illuminations. Devereux's hidebound diaries are the hinge between Highways to a War and Out of Ireland.

Creating his novel as a mid-nineteenth-century journal challenges the author in a number of ways. Convincingly Victorian in style, Out of Ireland should at the same time achieve thematic connections with Highways to a War, and it must also engage today's readers: ideally, therefore, it lives in three ages without ostensibly leaving the earliest.

The convention of novel-as-journal is validated by Devereux's character, and by his exile: his sanity depended on its thread (114). In October 1999, Koch told David Marr,

   Devereux was living in absolute isolation, keeping himself going with the
   diary, indulging himself with fine writing. I want you to believe he wrote
   that diary, a very literate diary. (Mart, `Beyond the Brave')

Devereux is an intellectual, a `person of education and a gentleman' (6). His journal poetically records responses to the country of his exile; its pages register social, literary, philosophical and political preoccupations in that critical time when, `from the Danube to the Seine, Europe [was] convulsed' (78). Devereux's perceptions have been forged by his literary environment, by `dangerous French companions' like Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire (11) and the poetry of Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Goethe, read with friends in `flickering midnights' (14): his journal is punctuated by the names and ideas of the world's `unacknowledged legislators' (Shelley 508). Devereux's Europe explodes with revolution, a Continental epidemic in which he once played a significant role, and which he now observes and chronicles from the ahistoric country of his imprisonment.

Rich as his perceptions are, they are bound within his social and historical confines. Devereux is Eurocentric: his journals describe life lived wholly within the British Empire. To achieve spiritual resonance in Highways to a War, set largely in Vietnam and Cabodia, Koch may use Indo-Chinese myths, twentieth-century poetry and Asian literature: the life and cerebration of Robert Devereux must instead be illuminated by allusion to Celtic myth, Graeco-Roman writings and the poetry of Dante, for example.

Koch has described himself as `myth-obsessed' (Crossing the Gap 24). His characters are

   ... driven by a need for completion beyond the normal, in other words for
   the experience of Paradise. And I continue to believe that the longing for
   Paradise is implanted in each one of us, and that in the words St Augustine
   addresses to God in his Confessions: `You made us for yourself, and our
   heart is restless until it rests in you.' (`The Novel Today' 19)

His novels are a conscientious `search for what I call the Otherland' (`Christopher Koch in Conversation' 18), a `search for Paradise' (Thieme 20). Beyond Out of Ireland's naturalistic dimension is a profoundly spiritual one. Allusions generate reverberations, and ostensibly simple journal entries are transmuted into wrestlings with universal problems.

Koch is a writer of great subtlety. No less than his other novels, Out of Ireland is complex, layer artfully superimposed on layer. …

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