Keneally’s Biographer on Towards Asmara

A Book Review by Stephany Steggall

The second in Tinteán‘s series of re-readings of Thomas Keneally’s fiction.

Thomas Keneally: Towards Asmara (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1989; To Asmara in the US edition

ISBN: 9780340528112

RRP: $21.95

‘I have been commissioned by my publishers to write a book concerning the politics of famine in the world. My idea is to examine the way that politics, both international and local, impinge on the welfare of particular peoples, and I know that nowhere is that impact more visible than in Eritrea. I would be very grateful to your [Eritrean] Relief Committee if they could make it possible for me to visit Eritrea at my own expense…’

Thomas Keneally was granted the permission he sought and so began the novel titled Towards Asmara. He embarked on several weeks of research in Eritrea. Keneally always had a queue of books lined up to write, but at this time he was looking for a story large enough to follow Schindler’s List – much was expected of the winner of the Booker Prize (1982). After a couple of less impressive novels he hoped that the book about Eritrea would capture the critics’ approval. This was, in the words of the main character Darcy, ‘a rehabilitative journey’.

Keneally filled many tapes and notebooks living in the society he described as ‘the most remarkable on earth’. Like Darcy, he was besotted with a people to whom he could not belong; intrigued by the inventiveness and stoic determination of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) whose war with Ethiopia spanned three decades. Perhaps this fascination overwhelmed the novel he wrote; the novelist was hypnotised by what he experienced.

The book requires a second, even a third reading, like much of Keneally’s fiction, to determine what he intended the story to be. In the first draft he put in too much, making the book a documentary rather than an absorbing work of fiction; he wrote several more drafts before he was satisfied that the characters had taken over. ‘So you will write about the war or the hunger?’ asked the character, Christine. ‘About everything I find,’ replied Darcy.

This is the difficulty, not satisfactorily resolved in Towards Asmara. The fictional and personal intersections become blurred; the narrative reads like a journal or diary such as the surly ‘spy’ Henry kept; the characters, companions on this odyssey to the capital city of Asmara, share their story with Darcy’s frequent diversions in thought to his estranged wife living in a remote Australian indigenous settlement. The characters represent the types encountered in a traveller’s tale: Darcy the Australian lawyer/journalist needs a story to vindicate his unsettled life [Keneally himself?]; young Frenchwoman Christine is searching for an absent father; English Lady Julia is pursuing a ’cause’ (eradication of the practice of female genital mutilation); American Mark Henry is an unpleasant, unhappy companion on the journey. Along with a couple of other less prominent characters, they possibly also represent the various countries or groups with vested interests in Eritrea, a country largely ignored for a long time by the outside world.

The travellers meet Eritrean ‘types’ along the way, including elusive Tessfaha, first met in London, who encourages Darcy to go to Eritrea and pursue the claims of a plaintive rock singer [aka Bob Geldof] outraged by the bombing of aid trucks; the energetic and apologetic guide Moka; the Ethiopian military man Fada, a prisoner-of-war in Eritrea; and Amna, beautiful and graceful like the Eritrean women so much admired by Keneally. They provide the closely observed details of the war and the people, testifying that ‘we are not an uncultivated people. Politics have done this to us.’

While Towards Asmara may not have realised its potential, its concern with the cause and consequences of drought and famine is better understood in Keneally’s non-fiction titles. In Three Famines (2010) he argues compellingly that the great famines in Ireland, the Horn of Africa and Bengal were caused not only by the failure of potato, rice and teff (or wheat) crops, but by ideologies, government incompetence and diversion of resources to war. In other words, politics.

The big story, The Great Shame, began with Keneally’s observation to one of his editors: ‘People come up to me all the time to talk about Schindler’s List. It really is a shame that I’ve never written about my own people. Everyone thinks it was the Famine that caused the great Irish migration. In fact, it was the politics of the British.’ He suggested an alternative title, The Halving of Ireland because of the near halving of the Irish population between 1840 and 1880. The chosen title, The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New (1998) is significant to its author, proud of his Irish heritage. The book is one of his best and most successful, deserving of a Nobel Prize. Some Keneally believers had hoped Towards Asmara would win the award, which has eluded him so far.

The New York Times compared Towards Asmara to For Whom The Bell Tolls in its open support for an armed struggle – a big, debatable comparison. While Keneally does succeed in questioning the politics of famine in the world, the words he gave to Darcy hold true: he wanted the story from ‘straightforward ambition: to be there, at the point where the crucial things happen, the things which – when adequately witnessed – change the opinion of the world’. There is no doubt, however, that he took the Eritrean cause sincerely to heart and maintained links with the Eritrean Relief Association in Australia and supported his friend Fred Hollows, the ophthalmologist who conducted eye treatment clinics in Eritrea. An intraocular lens laboratory in Asmara bears Hollows’ name. The name Thomas Keneally on a book about Eritrea added credibility and consciousness to the small country’s independence struggle.

‘During the struggle, it was not only the content that mattered but also that a person of Keneally’s literary stature wrote and made it available to the ‘world’, explained Paulos Tesfagiorgis, Eritrean human rights activist. ‘From experience, I also know that ‘an outsider’ cannot capture all the sensitivities, intricacies and subtleties of a people and a situation, but I appreciate the effort and the insight, whatever its depth.’

Keneally conceded that the book was too didactic, but authentic. When asked recently for a revised opinion of the book, he said:

Towards Asmara is very accurate in observation, but I fell into a trap including the Asmara airport raid. I have been many times now to Asmara but not when I wrote this and it was a tale of derring-do that added little to the story of inventiveness and tragic valour of the Eritrean people. Otherwise, as I say with an aged distance on it, well observed, well written etc. If it were written by someone else I would give it a good review.

My own appraisal seems grudging, given the great respect I have for Tom Keneally and his writing life. When I wrote Interestingly Enough: The Life of Tom Keneally (2015), I included a chapter, ‘Was It God or Politics?’ about his Eritrean experience. I was not convinced then that the book did justice to the epic Eritrean struggle for independence. I was similarly beguiled by another remarkable place and people when I lived in Ethiopia, a year after the biography of Keneally was published. I wanted a story and I found it in the life of a dissident Olympic athlete. My book, A Time To be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story, will be published by Red Sea Press in 2021.

The publisher, Kassahun Checole, made this comment:

Towards Asmara, written in the middle of the flaming heat of the battles for the ‘liberation’ of Eritrea from neighbouring Ethiopia’s cruel and despotic rule, was ultimately an overly optimistic outlook written with rose tinted glasses due to the romance of the moment and the spin generated by its determined fighters and their supporters. The book could have used some scepticism on the then articulated vision and the promises it represented. But Mr Keneally was not alone. We were all tainted by the ‘romance of the moment’. I wonder how he would reflect on the past informed by the sordid events of the post-independence Eritrea, and the promises that were never kept?

Keneally did wonder whether the victory won by the EPLF in 1991 would lead to the promised democratic open society, ‘even in a crowded land whose economy has been wrecked by war and drought and which has almost no natural resources’. A referendum in 1993, observed firsthand by Keneally, resulted in President Afwerki’s announcement, ‘Eritrea is a sovereign country as of today.’

Afwerki, regarded by partisans in Keneally’s story as ‘the world’s most successful rebel leader’, has not delivered on his promises to Eritrea. Keneally expressed his astute opinion to one of Eritrea’s leading intellectuals, Bereket Habte Selassie, that under the guise of self-effacement and meticulous avoidance of the media, Afwerki was employing a shrewd device of myth-making. In Towards Asmara Afwerki ‘believes the camera corrupts everyone’, but a personality cult was being assiduously cultivated. Keneally may not have got it all right in Towards Asmara, but his fears for Eritrea and his assessment of narcissistic Afwerki were prescient. Afwerki’s government has been compared to that of North Korea and he stands accused of crimes against humanity.

Bereket Habte Selassie was among a group of Eritrean intellectuals, now known as the G-13, who wrote a protest letter to Afwerki after he embroiled the country in another war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). The Berlin Manifesto, as the media referred to the notorious letter, is the subject of my next book, titled The Letter Writers.

Stephany Steggall

Dr Stephany Evans Steggall has written biographies of Colin Thiele, Ivan Southall and Bruce Dawe, as well as the biography of Thomas Keneally, for which she won the Hazel Rowley Fellowship. She visited Ireland in 2013 to research Keneally’s, and her own, forebears. She has also written family and institutional histories, including Status and Sugar: A History of the Australian Society of Authors 1963-2013. Her next book, A Time To Be Born: The Feyisa Lilesa Story, about a dissident Ethiopian athlete, will be published by Red Sea Press in 2021. A work-in-progress is titled The Letter Writers, a story out of Eritrea. Stephany lives in Toowoomba, Queensland.