If you’re an Australian reader of this blog, you have to have been under a rock not to have seen Michael Heyward from Text Publishing as passionate champion of Australian classic literature. I think that Text’s new collection of Text Classics is a great initiative - and I especially like the way it fits nicely with my project to read all the Miles Franklin winners.
Bring Larks and Heroes won the Miles Franklin in 1967, the third novel in Thomas Keneally’s long and impressive career as an Australian novelist. Reading it is a little bit like finding an undiscovered Patrick White, because its style, to my surprise, is modernist – utterly unlike Keneally’s later novels that I’ve read: Schindler’s Ark a.k.a. Schindler’s List (which won the Booker in 1982); The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, (see my review); and The Widow and Her Hero (see my review). I think it would be most interesting to trace Keneally’s development as a writer through his entire oeuvre – but he’s such a prolific author, there’s a PhD in it, I am sure.
It was the religious allusions, the brutal imagery and that sharp adjective ‘futile‘ on the very first page that made me think of Patrick White:
The afternoon is hot in this alien forest. The sunlight burrows like a worm in both eye-balls. His jacket looks pallid, the arms are rotted out of his yellowing shirt, and, under the gaiters, worn for the occasion, the canvas shoes are too light for this knobbly land. Yet, as already seen, he takes long strides, he moves with vigour. He’s on his way to Mr Commissary Blythe’s place, where his secret bride, Ann Rush, runs the kitchen and the house. When he arrives in the Blythe’s futile vegetable garden, and comes mooning up to the kitchen door, he will, in fact, call Ann my secret bride, my bride in Christ. She is his secret bride. If Mrs Blythe knew, she would do her best to crucify him., though that he is a spouse in secret today comes largely as the result of a summons from Mrs Blythe six weeks ago. (p1)
That ironically named Mrs Blythe also reminded me of Patrick White’s savage characterisation of women in The Aunt’s Story. No wonder that His Excellency’s true motive for restricting his own household to the newly imposed ration is to ‘starve his own wife, short of killing her, until her pious gut cracked’(p3). Here is our first glimpse of her:
So Halloran turned the handle, and came into the room where Mrs Blythe used all the day on her devotions and her leg ulcers. She sat in a heavy, straight backed Italianate chair. Her feet rested on a hassock, and there was a rug over her knees. On a table to her left stood all that was needed to rub, anoint, lance, probe, cauterize and dress her leg. A squat stone lamp, the spoons and needles and lancet, the rags and jars of stewing poultice were, all together, the staple of her life. For Mrs Blythe had been blessed with a putrid leg as other women are with children. (p4)
Don’t assume, however, that Keneally is misogynist. Characters of both genders come in for his excoriating pen. Bring Larks and Heroes is set in an unidentified British penal colony – somewhere remote from regular supply ships and with extremes of climate that add to the misery. The novel is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of convict life, reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life (see my review) but it satirises the redemption that brings Clarke’s novel to its conclusion. There are no innocent Sylvias or cleansing waves to wash away sin in Keneally’s novel.
Novels depicting humanity in extremis are not uncommon. From William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward we see the struggles of conscience when pushed to the limit. In Keneally’s microcosm of society, Original Sin flourishes. The Seven Deadly Sins are all there one way or another - wrath, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, and pride, and in this place where the gaoler suffers hunger and isolation much as the prisoner does, absolute power corrupts absolutely too.
Official sloth sees a eunuch convicted of rape and a man’s prison term unjustly extended; this same man is flogged because of an officer’s lust for revenge and greed for power. Aboriginal women are crudely used to satisfy lust, while Mrs Blythe’s pride in her own virtue sabotages the only innocent love there is in the novel. The Commissar satisfies his gluttony by stealing extra rations, and wrath pervades the entire novel. All the characters, free or bond, envy the life they have lost…
The central character is Phelim Halloran, a complex Irishman whose conscience is tortured by his wavering faith in God and man. He is the only character capable of love and honour, but tempted by fate, he is only too human. As the novel reaches its horrific conclusion, Halloran’s poetry is given to His Excellency as a reminder of the ‘varied herd he ruled’ and we see him consign to the flames Halloran’s symbols of hope and redemption – the larks and heroes of the novel’s title. It is the humanity of these other characters that is called into question by this unforgettable novel.
Now that Bring Larks and Heroes is readily available, I hope that many readers will enjoy it too.
Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: Bring Larks and Heroes
Publisher: Cassell Australia 1967 (First Edition)
ISBN: none, for this edition
Source: Personal library