Imperial Harvest by Bruce Pascoe review – an epic tale of humanity, horror and hope

<span>‘Pascoe is making a profound commentary on Australia’s past, present and future’ … Bruce Pascoe, author of Imperial Harvest.</span><span>Composite: The Guardian/Melbourne Books</span>
‘Pascoe is making a profound commentary on Australia’s past, present and future’ … Bruce Pascoe, author of Imperial Harvest.Composite: The Guardian/Melbourne Books

The Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian writer and farmer Bruce Pascoe is best known as the author of the modern classic Dark Emu. He has also written extensively in the realm of fiction. Alongside the nonfiction work Black Duck: A Year at Umburra, which he wrote with his long-term partner, Lyn Harwood, the epic novel Imperial Harvest is Pascoe’s second book release this year.

Despite the horror and violence of the world Pascoe has imagined, there is also a striking humanity, humour and sensuality here. A chronicle of grief, survival and adaptability from Asia and Europe in the 13th century, there are deep resonances between Imperial Harvest’s exploration of war and displacement and the experiences of First Nations people in Australia.

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The novel follows Yen Se, a simple man maimed by war. A one-armed, one-eyed trainer of horses, he carries a deep well of grief for his murdered wife and child and his distant home. He has been drafted into the great army of the Khan, a horde of horsemen intent on conquering all the land “from ocean to ocean”. The violence of the campaign is shocking, unrelenting: towns and cities are destroyed, men slaughtered, women raped. Children are left behind; traumatised, defenceless. Yen Se’s role is to help maintain the line of supply and take care of the horses that make the whole undertaking possible.

Dwelling in the memories of all he has lost, almost devoid of hope, Yen Se owes his life to the kindness of a humble miller, Peng Kai. Living an equally precarious existence, Peng Kai’s survival is also tied to the ravenous needs of the war: he supplies flour to the army. And yet, those who know Peng Kai often think of him as a saint, such is his willingness to care for others. He is responsible for saving a woman, Mishook, from death at the hands of the Khan. Yen Se and Mishook have a brief and intense romantic partnership and conceive a child but the war forces them apart before the birth.

Years later father and son are reunited, again through the auspices of Peng Kai. Mishook has died and the boy, whom Yen Se names Yen Kai after his friend, has a strange power: singing. As the boy grows, this talent carries him and his father across war-ravaged Europe. They travel to Italy and later to Spain. Buffeted by the sweeping tides of a world in constant violent conflict, Yen Se acts with the same generosity and kindness he has been shown by Peng Kai: “I was a simple man but in the course of my life I’d seen barbarity and kindness, wealth and poverty, cruelty and grace, but knowledge of the fount of these qualities and their seemingly random distribution defied my understanding.”

The grief that Yen Se bears – the suffering he has witnessed, and the loss of the two women he loved – is constantly in his thoughts. The harm inflicted on his body also affects how he can blend in, stop ceaselessly travelling, and make a home. As a refugee, he’s in constant danger. But Yen Se’s ability to survive, escape and provide for those he loves brings him to a place where he can finally rest. Reunited with Peng Kai, the two men formulate a way to provide sustenance to those in need, using the nous that has served them all their lives. At first Yen Se is sceptical of Peng Kai’s idea but his friend points out the significance of this work: “Having seen empires and navies and cathedrals you scorn such small things as a man cooking bread in a wood oven. You think it is nothing to support the lost?”

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The simplicity of Peng Kai’s idea speaks to the heart of this novel, which is a story of war and trauma – but also hope. Pascoe has given us a tale that articulates a kind of quiet, pragmatic optimism. To move into the future after the tragedies of the past requires simple human kindness, like baking bread for strangers. Nurturing community, allowing old wounds to heal, creating a space for a new togetherness to replace old divisions: it’s in this sense that I feel Pascoe is making a profound commentary on Australia’s past, present and future.

There’s a beautiful irony at the conclusion of Imperial Harvest which I won’t reveal. Suffice it to say, Pascoe’s sense of humour, the unique tone of the writing (Yen Se’s narration will really grow on you), and the breadth of his vision across the past, make his novel a resonant, powerful one.