The death yesterday of Christopher Koch at the age of 81 marks the end of a distinguished literary career. Twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Koch's work as a writer spanned novels and poetry as well as pungent commentary on what he saw as the failings of contemporary culture.
For those with an interest in Asia he will always be remembered for his two novels set in that region: The Year of Living Dangerously, a title that sprang from Sukarno’s own description of the time leading up to his overthrow, and Highways to a War, where the title reflected the fact that from 1970 all roads out of Phnom Penh took you to battles.
I knew Chris Koch well as the result of his having asked me to read Highways to a War in manuscript in order to comment on its authenticity. It most certainly passed that test and I remained in touch with him subsequently, admiring not just the two Asian novels but his other works, andglad to benefit from his friendship. If The Year of Living Dangerously is probably the better known of his two novels with Asian settings, Highways to a War deserves wider fame for its insight into a period in Cambodian and Vietnamese history that is nowadays often poorly understood. It also captures a vision of Phnom Penh that is long gone:
A river city. Hot silence: and Phnom Penh’s noises were muted, magic sounds that come to you in a doze; an afternoon siesta when you are having good dreams.
And his description of the Psar Chaa, the Old Market:
The combined scents made you tipsy; the coloured mountains of produce hurt your eyes. Rambutans, durians, mangoes, oranges, bunches of lotus buds; Cambodia’s horn of plenty not yet run dry.
He will be long remembered.