"Shame and the Captives," the leaden title of this somber novel, precisely describes it. Each of its sharply drawn characters is a captive in some sense, and in each case, shame is the thing that paralyzes, misleads and, quite often, kills.
Australian novelist Thomas Keneally is a master of war stories in which ordinary people struggle to retain some humanity amid horror. "Shame" revisits those themes, not on a battleground, but in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Australia. It's a fictional retelling of a 1944 rebellion by Japanese POWs rabidly convinced that their duty was to die, and to kill as many people as possible on their way out.
Tengan, the fictional leader of the Japanese prisoners, is a brave, arrogant man marked by "melancholy and disdain," rabid ideology and shame — a lethal psychological brew. Like many of his fellows, he is mortified to have survived combat and to have been captured by "idiots" who ignore his pleas for death. Every benign or benevolent act by his captors, who are partly motivated by the desperate hope that the Japanese will treat Australian POWs well, infuriates him.
Tengan leads the prisoners in a suicidal breakout so horrifically bloody that it almost physically explodes from the book's last 100 pages.
The plot uncoils inevitably, with the first two-thirds of the book largely focused on other characters, all of whom, in much milder fashion, wrestle with shame. Alice, a pretty Australian woman bored silly by life with her taciturn father-in-law as they await news of her husband, a prisoner in Europe, takes up with Giancarlo, a genial Italian POW who's sent to them as a farm hand. Alice's secret obsession renders her nearly insane. A similar morality duel takes place in the heart of Col. Abercare, who oversees the POW camp with humanity and a vague sense that something terrible is looming, although he's more focused on repairing his relationship with his prim wife after a tawdry affair.
All of these people are so preoccupied with their own fierce beliefs, and with guilt and shame, that they blind themselves to the people and realities around them.
The mercy-loathing Japanese are so harshly drawn that this novel is likely to cause a collective cringe in Japan, where there has been plenty of soul-searching since this horrific era. Yet even as fanaticism ebbs in one land, it flows in another, and it is hard not to think of the zealots of our time, who declare it their holy duty to butcher innocents.
As a work of literature, "Shame" does not hold the power of Keneally's 2013 masterpiece "The Daughters of Mars." His prose is stunning, his plot all too vivid, his characters haunting, but the story's final dramatic flourish, featuring Alice, Giancarlo and Tengan, feels contrived. Still, "Shame" is a powerful book, less about war itself than the insatiable insanity that ignites and feeds it. It's a book, sadly, squarely for our times.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune's West/North metro team leader.