The Australian novelist Christopher J.Koch died a couple of days ago: he was most famous for The Year of Living Dangerously, which was made into a film. An early review of that book complained that it required the reader to know too much about its political context, and most of that was left out of the film, which focused on a love affair. Where Koch excelled though was in his ability to define the importance of political context in the lives of individuals, so that in his brilliant Highways to a War the background of the rise of the Khmer Rouge is made movingly urgent because it is related to the fate of the central character, a photojournalist called Mike Langford, whose disappearance inside Cambodia during the civil war initiates and drives the plot. His friendships with fellow journalists, and his relationship with a young Cambodian woman, are a highly believable emotional foreground which reveals the human impact of political disasters. And all of this is underpinned by Koch's marvelous evocation of the Cambodian landscape:
In the time of the monsoon rains, when the Mekong overflows, its tributary the Tonle Sap performs its annual miracle: it turns around to run backwards. Carrying the Mekong's torrents to the lake from which it takes its name, the river enlarges the lake from a thousand to four thousand square miles. Whole forests are submerged at the country's heart; fish swim among the trees. Then, at the beginning of the dry season, Tonle Sap river flows back to the Mekong. It siphons off the water from the Great Lake and the drowned heartland; it uncovers the underwater forests, leaving fish trapped there by the thousands; it exposes silt-rich acres for rice planting.