Books: The long ambiguous journey into the ark: Peter Guttridge talks to Thomas Keneally, whose novel led Spielberg to the life of Oskar Schindler

Thomas Keneally is still angry. 'The Holocaust is an unconfronted European problem - the old world has still not repented of the anti-Semitism it has been practising since the Middle Ages.' This prolific Australian author, a self-styled 'pinko Republican', has long championed the oppressed and written polemically about the dispossessed in his fiction. But in his 1982 Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's Ark, he excelled himself. It was a humane and moving account of the Holocaust as refracted through the story of Oskar Schindler, the opportunist German industrialist who profited from the Nazi occupation of Poland while saving the lives of Jewish workers.

When he researched the story in the early Eighties, Keneally decided to write it as a novel rather than a biography because he wanted to reach the widest readership for polemical reasons. 'I was aware that to some the Holocaust is unutterable but I also felt that Europe had not accepted responsibility for its anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is a Gentile problem, not a Jewish one. I felt it ought not to be forgotten because it is morally unique. Coming up with an industrial process for getting rid of a hated race is the most thorough expression of race hate in European history. On the hate line in every racist's head something like Auschwitz is always the last station.'

He is adamant that the Holocaust should not be forgotten, which is why he is in London, jet-lagged, for the British premiere of Steven Spielberg's film version only days after attending the Australian premiere. He has seen the film six times and he thinks it gets better with every viewing. 'The first time I saw it, I was totally drawn into it. I forgot that it had anything to do with me. But I never had any doubts that Spielberg would serve the book well. When we first met, back in December 1983, to discuss it, it was clear he was interested in the very things that first attracted me to the Schindler character.'

Both Keneally and Spielberg were drawn to this unfathomable, contradictory character: a hard drinking womaniser who combined a chancer's willingness to profit from the war with an altruistic determination to save the lives of as many Jews as he could. 'Schindler had a capacity to be chums with SS men like Goeth (the sadistically murderous camp commandant) at the same time as being profoundly horrified by them. It's impossible to explain his motivation, but we both had the certainty that much of what he did could only be explained in terms of altruism. Also we were both attracted to this time when history was so upside down only a scoundrel was any use to anybody.'

Author and film director were both worried about trivialising the experience of those who had borne witness to them. 'I was writing for Gentiles, but you become obsessive about not debasing the witnesses' stories. Steven was afraid of this too, so the approval of the former prisoners probably gave him the greatest joy.'

Keneally spoke to many 'Schindler Jews' in researching his book. He was so concerned not to debase their stories that he wrote the novel in documentary style, inviting complaints when it won the Booker that it was not, strictly speaking, a novel. 'I read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff just before I encountered the Schindler story. I thought, this is the way to do it - the documentary novel - then it will reach a wide readership.'

Recently, Schindler Jews who had not responded to his letters at the time he was researching the book have come forward because of the film and given him their testimony about Schindler. Their stories merely add to the confusion about Schindler's character.

'Goeth's other Polish servant, who was a teenager at the time, told me at the Washington premiere of the film that Schindler used to come down to the cellar and say to her: 'I'll get you out, little one, don't you worry.' To restore a young girl's dignity to that extent was an act of extraordinary kindness. And he did get her out.

'Then another bloke in New York told me that he was brought to Schindler's camp as a boy of 11. Schindler saw him and said 'I don't want children here.' The kid gave some bullshit answer and Schindler let him stay, but only because he admired his line in bullshit. He'd been willing to send him back. So when I look back at the book's balance between altruism and opportunism, I think I'd still put it around where it is.'

Keneally has written 26 novels in 21 years on an eclectic range of subjects. Before Schindler's Ark won, he had already been shortlisted for the Booker three times: for his novel about Aborigines, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1972, for Gossip from the Forest (1975), set in France at the end of the First World War, and for Confederates (1979) about the American Civil War. He thinks he has written his best books since Schindler, however.

'I think my best are To Asmara, about the struggle for Eritrea, and The Playmaker, which I'm pleased to say Merchant-Ivory are going to film. I really think I'm getting on top of my craft now. When you're young, you have raw energy and there's no match for that, but I think you get technically more adept as you get older.'

He is slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the film and the reissue of Schindler's Ark (retitled Schindler's List) coincide with the publication of his first 'romp' novel, Jacko. 'It's a real romp that I found a joy to write. It's about Australian video gangsters pushing the bounds of popular television in America, working for a Murdoch- like being. Australian worldliness and innocence run up against American worldliness and innocence - very different things.'

He has already finished his next novel, provisionally titled In A Valley Reached By Steamers. It is set in 1900 in Kempsey, the town of his birth, on the north coast of New South Wales. His Irish Catholic grandparents ran a store there at the turn of the century. The new novel is about - among other things - two immigrants running a store, Punjabi hawkers selling cloths and herbal specifics, the Boer War and the bubonic plague in Sydney. He chuckles. 'It's a book I'm very much in love with, but it's not an immediate grabber.'

He finished the last large chunk of the book last week in a hotel in Melbourne, in between Schindler interviews. 'I really couldn't rest until it was done.' A compulsively industrious writer, it has been suggested that the speed with which he writes sometimes affects the quality of the finished work.

'They just seem to be finished when I finish them,' he says with a shrug. 'I do work very hard, I am compulsive. Even on a day when I'm travelling all over Australia I don't feel right if I don't find a spare hour to write, on a plane or in a hotel room. But my greatest strength is my greatest weakness. The same thing that could produce slapdashedness is also the thing that gets them done.'

And he listens to the advice of his editors. He rewrote much of Confederates when his editor expressed doubts. His hardback novel Woman Of The Inner Sea was shorn of some extraneous authorial intrusions - 'They seemed a good idea but it was author's vanity' - for its paperback publication.

He wanted to be a writer from a very early age. 'I thought writing was just the cleverest thing. I remember reading Captain Marryat's Masterman Ready. It was worlds away from my experience, but nothing blew me away like that did, even the pictures, which I loved. I didn't know it was possible for Australians to write. I thought foreign wars, fine wool and cricket was our way out of cultural ignominy. When my first novel was published in 1964, in my colonial innocence I carried on because there was no one to tell me I couldn't make a living from it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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