Eritrea, Africa's border with the Red Sea, is an odd place to find a 58-year-old prize-winning novelist. The author of Schindler's Ark, winner of the 1982 Booker prize, had just returned from a gruelling drive from Massawa, three hours of hairpin bends from the sweltering, ruined port to the capital of Eritrea, more than 6,000 feet up 70 miles of a narrow, twisting, disintegrated, pot-holed road through mountains that rocket up into the clouds.
He had passed an accident where a car had gone over the edge of the precipice. There was nothing he could do to help. And he had met the incarnation of the reason he is here. 'We passed a soldier in the terrible heat of the plain just before the foothills. He had his rifle and his belt of grenades, and he was wrapped in the blue flag of Eritrea. He was walking to Asmara to collect money for the children of Massawa. We gave him money and he gave us a receipt, and I have no doubt he will turn that money in. He started at eight this morning and it would not surprise me if he walked half the night.'
Keneally is not here collecting material for a new novel - he's done that. He is here observing an election. He cuts a peculiar figure among the suited diplomats, the casually dressed aid workers and journalists draped in cameras. He is a short, round, bald man with a round red face, a round grey beard and round twinkling eyes. Give him little horns, a tail and a pipe to play and he could model as a satyr. He skips along at a great pace, and at dinner with a group of heavy Australian senators who have also come as observers, he drops mischievous asides and chuckles richly.
In 1987 Keneally 'did the Eritrean trip', flew to Sudan, then made the long trek by road across to the Ethiopian border, up into the mountains, bouncing about in a Land Cruiser on rough roads to Orotta, the makeshift capital and military camp of the Eritrean People's Liberation Army (EPLF). Journeying on through the mountains, anxiously watching for enemy aircraft which bombed and strafed any vehicles on the roads, he went to the front, whose miles of trenches and deep bunkers at times resembled the Western Front in 1916.
As a result of his trip, he wrote Towards Asmara, which he describes as 'an attempt at fiction'; the characters are fictional but the setting is Eritrea 1987, taken from the notebooks and tapes he filled during the trip. The New York Times compared it to For Whom the Bell Tolls in its open support for an armed struggle. But Keneally was no tourist and, like many who visited Eritrea during the war, he was overwhelmed and fascinated by the spirit of the Eritreans. Two years ago, after the longest war of the 20th century, the Eritreans and their allies in Ethiopia overthrew the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and secured their independence. Yesterday was the last day of a three- day referendum to ratify that independence, and Keneally is an official observer.
'What you inevitably think about is the Israelis. These people should have given up years ago. I would have given up . . . they should have fragmented and disintegrated, they should have been, as Mengistu said, ground in the dust of Sudan, they should have been driven into the Red Sea.'
He first became involved with Eritrea in the mid-1980s through a friend, Fred Hollows, an Australian eye specialist. Hollows met the Eritrean representative in Australia, who had come to him with eye problems, and decided to see the country for himself. He kept visiting Eritrea until he died of cancer a few months ago. Hollows set in train Keneally's visit and the novel and the large Australian delegation here now.
This delegation has won appreciative thanks from the Eritreans, whose allies on the international scene during the war could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Keneally had other reasons for coming. Towards Asmara begins with a thinly disguised picture of Bob Geldof and his campaign to raise money for famine in Africa in 1984.
'I was fascinated in the early 1980s as to whether drought was the ultimate determinant here. I never quite believed that the laudable generosity and energy of the youth of the West could ever end hunger. I didn't believe that 'we were the world' because there was someone out there stopping us, and that someone was that sod Mengistu. I was horrified at the scale of the war, but I was exhilarated by the EPLF. They were manufacturing things; that's what everyone liked about them, the way they could repair vehicles over and over, and there was equity in the food distribution. It was the best operation in Africa.'
Like the others who arrived sceptical about the EPLF's cashless society, its ability to organise and improvise and survive and fight, he became convinced that it had created a unique society. 'Quite obviously there was a motivation generated from within each person . . . there was no big stick visible to me, and the people spoke in real sentences. There was a lingering tinge of Marxist rhetoric, and for a time they used the same rhetoric as Mengistu. But they delivered what the rhetoric said; when Mengistu said it, it was doublespeak.'
Keneally went right to the front. 'I spent a week at Nacfa, and at four o'clock every afternoon as dusk fell the Ethiopians would start shelling, so we would sit in this deep bunker and listen to the BBC Africa Service.' He recalls the aftermath of the attack on Keren by the Ethiopian infantry: 'They launched this World-War-One-style assault on the trenches above Keren, about division strength, and the Ethiopians made a salient in the line and then, as happened in World War One, the Eritreans closed it and poured fire down on them. Three thousand died there, most of them very young. There were family photos blowing up and down the trenches. The Eritreans in their front line had to wear face masks because of the stench. It's been an unspeakable tragedy.' Keneally ponders whether military victory will lead to the democratic open society that was promised, even in a crowded land whose economy has been wrecked by war and drought, and which has almost no natural resources.
He points out that the EPLF has appointed to senior positions many people who are not its members. 'Another revolutionary group that had suffered as much as this crew have might well say, 'Well, bugger you, you were in the cities drinking arak when we were out there fighting, and so to hell with you. We are going to put our guy in now and he's going to boss you bastards around.' But they haven't. They surprise you at every turn.' And his own plans? 'I want to come back and do a non-fictional book about what went on in the war, and get beyond the cult of impersonality in the EPLF, and find out who their Stonewall Jackson was and who their Montgomery was.' Former-president Mengistu is now in exile in Zimbabwe, and I asked Keneally if he would like to interview him. 'I'd love to, but I'd find it difficult not to physically attack the bastard.' We start to walk away from his hotel towards the partying and dancing in the main street of the town, which has made this referendum one week-long carnival. He swings jauntily through the hotel door, but his companion stops him and reminds him that he has to be up at 5.30am to go to a village 50 miles away for poll monitoring. Reluctantly he gives in. 'Ah well - another night.'