David Malouf: The Great World
This, probably, Malouf’s finest novel, tells the story not only of two individuals, but also of an era in Australian history as well as the Kings Cross suburb of Sydney. The two individuals are Vic and Digger. We first meet them later in life but gradually learn of their early life. Vic was the son of poor parents, who lived in a makeshift dwelling on the dunes. His father was on a pension from a wound he received in World War I and drinks it all away. He allows himself to be humiliated to get money for his drink and then returns home to his long-suffering wife. However, Vic’s mother soon gets cancer. Vic cares for her but she dies. His father, who for once resists his humiliation, is involved in a fight and killed, leaving Vic an orphan. Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Warrender, who was Vic’s father’s superior officer in the War, had agreed to look after Vic if anything happened to Vic’s father and Vic moves to a well-to-do home. Mr. Warrender is a poet but his wife’s family owns a soap-making factory and the family lives from its earnings, despite the struggles of competing with the big companies. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Warrender, there are two daughters.
Digger came from a poor family but more conventional. His parents had many children, who mainly disappeared elsewhere once they grew up, leaving only Digger and Jenny. Both Vic and Digger join up in World War II and both are captured when the Allies surrender to the Japanese. They are sent to Changi, along with many others. Digger is, at first, friendly with Mac and mistrusts Vic, as, indeed, he does throughout the book. But Vic, given an order by a Japanese soldier, spits in his eye. Mac, who is just behind him, carrying a bag of flour, trips and in the ensuring melee, it is Mac that is killed. After that, they become closer, as they are moved around the area, building the Burmese Railway, trying to survive. It is not the direct brutality of the Japanese that is the main cause of death, but a combination of tropical diseases – Digger is a cholera carrier – malnutrition and hard work. Much of the book is about the survival of Australian troops in these camps. At the end, it is Vic that saves Digger from the Japanese.
After the War they maintain an uneasy friendship. Digger becomes a general handyman, living at the Cross. He goes to meet Mac’s sister-in-law, herself widowed, to give her Mac’s letters and they start an affair which continues until her death. His sister, Jenny, who has run off to Brisbane, returns at his request. Vic’s life is very different. Initially, he does not want to return to the Warrenders but goes and works at hard labour jobs around Australia. Eventually he does return, marries Ellie, the youngest sister, and takes over the family business, with the aid of Mrs. Warrender, turning it into a powerful company with shrewd investments and purchases. But he is not happy. His son, Greg, does not turn out the way he would like and eventually runs away from home, becoming a beggar. He has affairs. He turns to Digger for occasional solace but ends up dead in Digger’s sister’s garden.
What makes this such a fine book is not only the uneasy relationship between the two men and the prisoner of war camp stories but it is the rich array of characters – from Pa Warrender to Jenny, Digger’s sister, from Vic’s pitiable father to Digger’s friend, Doug, as well as the portrait of a part of Sydney that most non-Australians and, probably, many Australians never see. Malouf never lets up in his tale, which, like his previous works, is a tale of real people.
First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus