Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2019

Accidental Feminists, by Jane Caro

To afficionados of the ABC current affairs program The Drum, Jane Caro’s Accidental Feminists is exactly what you might expect of the author: forthright, amusing, full of pithy anecdotes to illustrate a point, and witheringly authentic.

This is the blurb:

Women over fifty-five are of the generation that changed everything. We didn’t expect to. Or intend to. We weren’t brought up much differently from the women who came before us, and we rarely identified as feminists, although almost all of us do now.
Accidental Feminists is our story. It explores how the world we lived in-with the pill and a regular pay cheque-transformed us and how, almost in spite of ourselves, we revolutionised the world. It is a celebration of grit, adaptability, energy and persistence. It is also a plea for future generations to keep agitating for a better, fairer world.

This was our anthem, (and it explains the cover art):

 

(BTW, in my search for this video, I came across another more recently-made clip which featured women in all kinds of swirling sexualised imagery accompanied by backgrounds proclaiming harmony, which to me shows me just how far our younger sisters have to go.)

What was revolutionary about our generation was that the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s is the first in history where most of the women worked for wages for most of their lives. And because money is power, this has changed everything.

While (of course) not everyone accessed higher education, Caro acknowledges that the Whitlam government’s abolition of university fees was pivotal:

If tertiary education was free, it was harder to rationalise preventing girls from accompanying their brothers, especially as so many of us had higher marks. More than that, however, our mothers also began to grasp the chance that was offered to them.  It was female mature-age students who radically swelled the ranks at universities during that tiny window of opportunity…(p.71)

However…

[women]  tend to be concentrated in lower-status industries and at the lower end of the pay scale.  Even more depressing is the fact that previously high-status, well-paid occupations tend to fall in both status and pay when they become female dominated.  General medical practice, marketing and human resources (the latter of which once meant a board position) spring to mind. (p.72)

Caro attributes this to ‘flexibility’ — because (again backed up by her statistics) most women still do the ‘second shift’ i.e. the housework, the cooking, the childcare.  Again there are also structural reasons like expensive child-care and high effective marginal tax-rates when moving from three to four days a week to full-time work due to the loss of family and child benefits. (p.75)

The take-home message of Accidental Feminists is this: there is a cohort of older women in dire financial straits because of structural and social impediments to financial independence that have affected their entire lives.

All of these hurdles and impediments combined with a stubborn unconscious bias against women and their abilities—despite how well they do in education—is the reason women lose that much-quoted $1 million of potential earnings over their lifetime in comparison to men.  This situation is grossly unfair and limiting if you are a women who has managed to earn a relatively high income, but it is devastating if you have earned a low one.  The cumulative effects of this loss as they age and become less able to get paid work are why so many of this generation are living on the edge of poverty.  They are directly responsible for the fact that women retire with half the [superannuation] of men and a major contributor to the fact that one in three women retire with no super at all. (p.75)

The chapter about elder abuse (not just financial) which is most often female elder abuse, is shocking. But the raw facts about female retirement are also confronting.

The average age of ‘retirement’ whether voluntary or not is currently 58.8 years for men and 52.3 years for women.  Yet if you [like Caro] were born after 1 January 1957, you are not eligible for the old age pension until you are sixty-seven.  If you have superannuation (and remember, one-third of women currently retire with no superannuation at all) you can access it between the ages of fifty-five and sixty, depending on when you were born.  Nonetheless, given so few of us have much put aside for our old age, if so many women leave the workforce—either voluntarily or not—a good fifteen years before they can access the pension, what on earth are they living on? (p.156)

The answer is, for some of them, the Newstart allowance which pays them a pittance to apply for jobs they are deemed too old to get.

(I knew some of my teaching friends who’d been pushed into early retirement were doing it tough, but I hadn’t realised that there was this gulf between how their fractured work history had led to financial insecurity and how my unbroken full-time work history had led to a comfortable and secure retirement).

For some too many women, this financial insecurity leads to homelessness…

By unpacking the mixed messages that women absorb about work, money, caring and assertiveness, Caro shows that there is not just still a need for change, but also for women to wise up.  Using the example of Lisa Wilkinson, a television co-host who asked to be paid the same as her male counterpart Karl Stefanovic, and was subjected to a TV station damage control story that her pay rise would cost ten producers their jobs — Caro comments wryly:

Odd, isn’t it, that it is only the large salaries paid to women that impact on the jobs of the more lowly paid in an organisation?  Apparently Stefanovis’s $2 million annual whack had no effect on Channel 9’s ability to hire people. (p.57)

This is the 21st century, and we have had equal pay since 1969, but still (as Caro shows with statistics) women are paid less…

Our hesitation to put a value on ourselves, I believe, is partly because of all the messages we have unquestioningly absorbed, but it is also self-protective.  We know how the world reacts to women who ask for what they want.  Sensibly enough, we try to minimise the fallout.  When women act like women and put other people’s needs ahead of their own and when they are modest, self-effacing and submissive, they may win approval but they don’t get what they want.  When they act like men—put their own needs first, promote their desires, amplify their achievements and ask directly and forcefully for what they want—not only are they criticised, but they also don’t get what they want.  I had an epiphany a while ago when I realised there is no right way to be a woman.  (p.68)

Occasionally Caro weakens her argument with examples that IMO don’t apply.  In discussing the case of Hillary Clinton whose popularity waxed and waned depending on whether she was supporting a man in power (good Hillary) or seeking it for herself (bad Hillary), there is no recognition that the policies of Bernie Saunders represented widespread disaffection with the economy.  Clinton, (as Jeff Sparrow points out in Trigger Warnings) was singing the same old economic song that had led to mass unemployment and the rise of the working poor… when voters were looking for an economic alternative.  (Well, they chose Trump instead.  We’ll see how that works out, eh?)

Caro then goes on to apply the same dubious logic to Julia Gillard:

As long as she was deputy PM to Kevin Rudd, she was enormously popular; when she took the leadership of the ALP and so became first female prime minister, she was hated. How dare she do what so many men had done before her and ‘stab her leader in the back’? (p. 58)

This is nonsense.  Yes, there was a scurrilous misogynistic campaign against Gillard, but it was dog-whistle opportunism.  We know now from research that those shock-jocks influence politics a lot less than was thought. Feminists like me, who were initially delighted to have a female PM, were uneasy about how it was achieved, because there is a world of difference between ambitious disloyalty to a Leader of the Opposition, and replacing a popular Prime Minister in office for no apparent reason.  Since then, men who have done the same thing for more obvious reasons in the Liberal Party (Turnbull and Morrison) have suffered the same public opprobrium.  Electors just don’t like it when they have voted for a certain type of leader who then gets unceremoniously dumped while in office.  While it is true that in our system of government, we vote for a local representative, not the leader of the party in the house, it is the leader who represents the values of that party.  It is he or she whose authority within cabinet influences the directions of the government.  In a party system like ours, the values embodied in that person is part of what people vote for, and they don’t expect it to change on someone’s ambitious whim, whatever their gender.

This quibble aside, Accidental Feminists is a thoroughly engaging book that offers much to think about… and, yes, to act on.  For as Caro says:

Feminism, although it may as yet be incomplete, is a whole-of-society—indeed, whole-of-world project.  (p.170)

Feminism may be an incomplete project, but it has never been as influential or as powerful as it is today.  And things are beginning to change rapidly.  Enough women, including older women, now have an independence that few of us have ever had previously, and we are using that independence to make sure that the plight of older women, and all women, remains invisible no longer. (p.180)

Author: Jane Caro
Title: Accidental Feminists
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2019, 233 pages
ISBN: 9780522872835
Source: purchased from Beaumaris Books

Available from Fishpond: Accidental Feminists

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

If the prey do not produce their version of the tale, the predators will always be the heroes in the story of the hunt.

It was the Johannesburg Review of Books that alerted me to Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma’s new novel. They published an interview with the author before the book was released, the catalyst for me to pounce on it as soon as it hit the shelves at the library.  Since then it has been reviewed by Linda Jaivin at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can access one free viewing per week) and there’s an extract at The Monthly as well, for readers to sample the author’s style.

The extract — without any context — may confuse readers a little because the narrator addresses Chukwu, Egbunu, Ebubedike, Gaganaogw, and Agujiegbe as he tells his tale, and he also addresses a would-be suicide as his Mommy (when she isn’t).  Well, unless you already know that Chukwu is the supreme being in Igbo cosmology, you need to read Chapter One to understand that these names and honorifics are the old fathers of the spirit world, before whom Chinonso’s chi argues his case lest Ala raise her hand against him. Chinoso has broken a moral code that merits her retribution, and his chi (guardian spirit) is desperate to explain the circumstances.

This is why I have hastened here to testify of all I have witnessed and to persuade you and the great goddess that if what I fear has happened is true, let it be understood that he has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly—
Although I will narrate most things in my own words, they will be true because he and I are one.  His voice is my voice.  To speak of his words as if he were distinct from me is to render my own words as if they were spoken by another.  (p.4)

Obioma shot to international literary fame when in 2015 his debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker (see my review), and this novel has an idiosyncratic narrative voice as well.  The chi is discursive, fulsome, and very persuasive as he retells the story of a self-made man not good enough for the nouveau-riche of Nigeria.  When Chinonso is comprehensively insulted, shamed, and threatened because of his love for the wealthy Ndali who loves him in return, she tells him that it’s not because he is a lowly poultry farmer, because her father could easily buy him a business, a job, a property to make him acceptable.  What her father objects to is that he doesn’t have an education, in a society where a degree in something or other is a prerequisite that supersedes honesty, integrity, determination, compassion or hard work.  To her, his status doesn’t matter, but it’s an insuperable obstacle all the same.

That ‘deficiency’ is the one thing that Chinonso thinks he can change, so (#NoSpoiler as the back blurb tells us so) he sells most of his possessions to attend university in Cyprus.  The tragedy that unfolds there is perhaps a common story, but in Obioma’s novel, this love story-thriller is unputdownable.  Will Chinonso’s Penelope wait for him during the years of his unwilling Odyssey?

The chi tells us that he begun to try to make Chinonso forget Ndali, but realises that such efforts are often futile.

Love is a thing that cannot be lightly destroyed in a heart where it has found habitation. (p.386)

Almost to the very end of this bewitching novel the narrator withholds the truth of what Chononso has done, and focusses instead on what fate has done to him.

Obioma resists a heavy-handed expose of Nigeria’s social and political problems, but the title is instructive.  The ‘orchestra of minorities’ is a term used by Chinonso’s father.  Ndali understands it for the first time when a hawk steals one of Chinonso’s chickens and she hears the birds crying in a coordinated song, the kind they sing during burial ceremonies.  It is a song of sorrow, sung by defenceless birds which depend on humans to protect them.  And she cries with the chickens, because she and her lover are also powerless…  against her father who opposes their love:

…’I am sad for them, Nonso.  And I am sad for us, also.  Like them I am crying inside because we don’t have power against those who are against us.  Mostly against you.  You are nothing to them.’ (p.290)

We should all cry about snobbery, corruption, exploitation, and people preying on the vulnerabilities of the naïve and wickedness for which no restitution can ever adequately restore what has been lost…

Highly recommended.

PS One of the interesting aspects of this book is the setting in Cyprus with its ongoing sovereignty dispute between Turkey and Greece.  Chinonso visits Varusha, and it’s worth finding out about this abandoned modern ruin under the Turkish Occupation so that you can visualise it.

Author: Chigozie Obioma
Title: An Orchestra of Minorities
Publisher: Little Brown, 2019, 515 pages
ISBN: 9780349143194
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2019

Vale Mudrooroo (a.k.a. Colin Johnson) (1938-2019)

Cultural warning: Indigenous readers are advised that this obituary includes the names of deceased persons.

The Australian and Books & Publishing are reporting the news that Mudrooroo a.k.a. Colin Johnson, has died, aged 80.

Mudrooroo was born at East Cubelling (near Narrogin WA), and brought up in a Roman Catholic orphanage.  He lived in India for six years, including three as a Buddhist monk.  He was married to Sangya Magar and had three children, and since 2001 was living in Nepal.

He published as Colin Johnson between 1965 and 1983, and after he changed his name in 1991, as Mudrooroo (or Mudrooroo Narogin, Mudrooroo Nyoongah).  While his Aboriginality is contested by some, (see my summary here) according to the Danish academic Professor Eva Rask Knudsen his significance as an Australian author ought not to be.  See my summary of her position here, where amongst other things she writes:

It was hard if not impossible […] to think of contemporary Aboriginal writing as a distinct genre if Mudrooroo was to be excluded.  For every phase in the development of Aboriginal writing—from the formative years that were documentary and probing, to the consolidating years that were archaeological and re-constructive, and to the more recent years that were experimental and transformative—there is a seminal text by Mudrooroo.

His achievements were many: he graduated with a BA (Hons) in 1987, and lectured at the University of the Northern Territory in 1987.  From there he lectured at the University of Queensland in 1988 and subsequently in 1991 held the Chair of Aboriginal Studies at Murdoch University in Perth.  His awards included the the Wieckhard prize, 1979; the Western Australia Literary award, 1989; the WA Premier’s Book award for most outstanding entry and for poetry, 1992; and he was awarded an Australia Council Writer’s grant, 1994.  He was also the cofounder of the Aboriginal Oral Literature and Dramatists Association.

He was a prolific author.  His novels included:

  • Wild Cat Falling. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1965. (This first novel was reviewed in the NY Times, and the catalogue at the NLA shows that it was translated into a number of different languages.  Bill at The Australian Legend reviewed it here.
  • Long Live Sandawara. Melbourne, Quartet, 1979; London, Quartet, 1980.
  • Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1983. (See my review).
  • Doin’ Wildcat (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, HylandHouse, 1988.
  • Master of the Ghost Dreaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Wildcat Screaming. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1992. (A sequel to Wild Cat Falling).
  • The Kwinkan. Sydney, HarperCollins, 1993.
  • The Undying. Pymble, N.S.W., HarperCollins, 1998.
  • Underground. Pymble, Sydney, NSW, Angus & Robertson, 1999.

He published poetry:

  • The Song Circle of Jackie, Hyland House (Melbourne, Australia), 1986.
  • Dalwurra: The Black Bittern (as Colin Johnson). Nedlands, WesternAustralia, Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1988.
  • The Garden of Gethsemane. Melbourne, Hyland House, 1991.
  • Pacific Highway Boo-blooz: Country Poems. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1996.

and he wrote across a variety of other genres:

  • Before the Invasion: Aboriginal Life to 1788 (as Colin Johnson), withColin Bourke and Isobel White. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Writing from the Fringe (as Mudrooroo Narogin). South Yarra, Victoria, Hyland House, 1990.
  • The Mudrooroo/Mueller Project (a play). Sydney, New South Wales University Press, 1993.
  • Aboriginal Mythology. London, Aquarian, 1994.
  • Us Mob: History, Culture, Struggle: An introduction to Indigenous Australia. Sydney and New York, Angus & Robertson, 1995.
  • Indigenous Literature of Australia/Milli Milli Wangka. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, 1997

Memoir:

  • Balga Boy Jackson, 2017.  See my review.  This was to have been the first of three (?) books about his life, but there is no listing at the NLA for a subsequent book, though given the problems Mudrooroo had finding a publisher, and the possibility that he may have turned to alternative publishing without knowing the deposit rules, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sequel.

According to the Australian academic Chris Tiffin:

Colin Johnson’s novels deal with the displacement of modern Aborigines and their inability either to find a place in white society or to hold to the traditional ways. His first novel [Wild Cat Falling, 1965] was [like his memoir Balga Boy Jackson, 2017] concerned with the world he knew growing up in Perth—a world of the bodgie subculture often in trouble with the law—while subsequent novels confront events from the Australian past and their implications for Aborigines today.

His novels were sometimes absurdist, and explored the struggle to find a moral core by which to live.  His memoir Balga Boy Jackson (2017) reflects the same opposition between a directionless “modern” Aborigine and a decayed though still integral Elder, that was identified by Tiffin in Long Live Sandawara (1980).  Tiffin’s summary of the novel includes mention of a character called Noorak, who as a child saw the clash between an Aboriginal resistance fighter, Sandawara, and the whites.

Johnson treats the freedom fighters of the past with seriousness and dignity as true spiritual products of the soil. The sort of holistic integrity in Sandawara and his fighters contrasts strongly with the rootlessness of the modern characters.

[For many Australian readers in the 1980s, this would surely be one of the first times they had ever heard of Aboriginal resistance to white settlement.]

But, Tiffin argues, the theme of glorious and inspiring resistance to the whites, shifts to developing a philosophy of survival in Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983). This is the only novel I have read, so I was interested to see Tiffin’s thoughts about it (which of course are more academic than mine) but were obviously written before scholarship about the continuing existence of Tasmanian Aborigines, see my review of Lyndal Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines).  So Tiffin writes (as ‘Colin Johnson’ did) that the novel is about  … the annihilation of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the first half of the 19th century. Well, they weren’t annihilated, and ironically, given the controversy about Mudrooroo’s identity, they have had a long struggle to have their Aboriginality accepted.

Anyway, (in part) Tiffin summarises the novel like this, reinforcing his thesis about Mudrooroo’s focus on the catastrophic impact on Indigenous life:

The controlling viewpoint is that of a learned man of the Bruny Island tribe who sees his land polluted by the aggressive practices of the whites. The focus of the novel is on Wooreddy’s attempts to understand the processes of change where there had been no change before. Wooreddy is obsessed with the belief that he has been chosen to survive to see the imminent end of the world. This insight comes to him as a child when he sees his first sailing ship which he takes to be a floating island drawn by clouds from the domain of the evil spirit, Ria Warawah. Wooreddy’s sense of being select enables him to avoid the worst pangs of outrage and regret as the dispossession of the Aborigines proceeds. He retreats into a fatalistic numbness which cannot be termed cowardice, for bravery and cowardice are no longer meaningful concepts.

[…]

Johnson uses historical events and characters in this novel to investigate the state of doomed suspension in which the Aborigines found themselves after the arrival of the white man. Since there never was any chance of the Tasmanian Aborigines resisting the invaders, their world effectively ended from the appearance of the whites. […] The whites are a force of history as much as a manifestation of the evil of man. Wooreddy is denied even the satisfaction of having someone to blame.

As was noted on Twitter, (thanks @nathanhobby) there is a curious silence about Mudrooroo’s passing.  At the time of writing, his death has been marked only in two paywalled sources.  Considering that there is a wealth of scholarship, here and overseas, about this Australian writer who was still publishing only a year or so ago, it seems rather shabby to me.

My sources for details of Mudrooroo’s life and career are those that are freely available online:

  •  Australian Studies academic Chris Tiffin’s Mudrooroo Biography at j.rank.org  which offers this rider to researchers: Content on this website is from high-quality, licensed material originally published in print form. You can always be sure you’re reading unbiased, factual, and accurate information.
  • Wikipedia (mainly focusses on the controversy)
  • Encylopedia.com (Includes summaries of some of the novels)
  • National Library of Australia (NLA) catalogue

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2019

The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow, by Matt Howard

Set in London, The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow by Australian author Matt Howard, is a tale of lives muted by loss yet it isn’t a dreary book.  Monica, whose car accident killed her brother Caleb on his 18th birthday, has become a hoarder, stuffing her flat with useless possessions; Diane, her sister has cultivated an abrasive personality (and a rare talent in droll one-liners); and her stepbrother Jamie the afterthought has almost obliterated himself as a presence.  In his case, it’s partly because the family was lumbered with him when Father couldn’t cope with the grief and debunked to his lady-love so that her son Jamie was surplus to requirements.  Mother is sliding into dementia, as if life is not worth remembering anyway.

The catalyst for change is Xavier, a minimalist so minimal that he signs his name with an ‘X’, prompting one of his co-workers to comment that people will think he’s illiterate.  Which would be droll, because Xavier is an editor at Wyatt Dean, a London publishing company.  He has but one author to nurture, the arrogant Tobias Balfour who churns out a bestseller each year, but Xavier acquires the task of editing Monica’s transition from self-publishing to print because Jacob, his boss, is Diane’s husband.  (Clearly, the author’s personal experience in the publishing industry provides authentic fodder for his novels!  In-house publishing politics seem fascinating… are they really like that, I wonder?)

Well, it turns out that Monica is not the only hidden talent, but to say more would be to spoil the plot.

Howard’s style is spare, but crafty in its allusions:

‘Is Monica a writer of literary fiction?’
Xavier knew this to be unlikely if she was indeed a hit on the Internet; that meeting place for angry folk and nitpickers.  A village square Xavier rarely visited.  It was one of the chief reasons, along with public transport, that Xavier had decided that people were not for him.
‘Commercial fiction,’ Jacob Meneksk said, then added, ‘Monica has several e-books for sale online already, but they’ll need serious editing to work in print.  She is currently writing another one which we will launch her with.  She’ll need help to keep the word count down.  That’s where you come in.’
Yasmin’s next remark was almost gushing.  ‘Monica’s female characters are central, however her male characters are also compelling.’
Something in the way she looked at Jacob as she said that caught Xavier’s attention, but it was quickly shuffled aside as the realisation hit him: ‘Romance fiction.’ (p.24)

Matt Howard has a great way with words: Monica’s kitchen is like the aftermath of an explosion at an Ikea store; her meeting with Xavier is like a whole Central Tokyo intersection of ways.  But what I really, really liked, was the moment of redemption.  A masterpiece of plotting without an ounce of schmaltz.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator makes a comment which attracted my attention:

Launches of books by mid-list authors — those for whom modest sales are expected and to whom the humblest of advances are paid — don’t attract media. (p. 254)

Perhaps if Xavier overcame his distaste for the Internet he might discover a worldwide media community of volunteer lit-bloggers taking up the slack? (With a worldwide readership and interactive commentary and — what’s more — staying power never achieved by newspaper reviews that land in the recycling bin).

This novel is more than just a wry look at the fad for offloading the detritus of life if it ‘no longer brings joy’.  Xavier takes it too far, so as to clear life, unscathed by the process of having lived it. Conversely, Monica finds that an unexpected gift had value and worth diminished by being but one of many such bowls her place harboured, most unused and rarely considered.  These extremes are more than merely comic: they represent psychological distress, as wise Aunty May knows:

Aunty May looked pleased that Monica had finally mastered her onerous drive for stuff.
‘I expect people see me as someone continually rewarding themselves.’
‘Huh,’ Aunty May mused.  ‘I reckon you as someone who deprives themselves.’
‘Of what?’ Monica asked.
Aunty May pondered.  ‘Real things — laughter, prospects, some well-deserved unencumbered joy.’  Then added, ‘A fair shot at future happiness.’ (p.247)

Sometimes, a frightened bird doesn’t know that it can fly…

Author: Matt Howard
Title: The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 282 pages
ISBN: 9781925760170
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: The Time is Now, Monica Sparrow, and direct from Transit Lounge (where there are also reading group notes).

 

In a (futile) pre-Christmas effort to rein in book spending, I had borrowed Jeff Sparrow’s latest book from the library but it wasn’t long before I realised that I wanted my own copy.  Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right isn’t a book to scamper through and return within three weeks.  It’s a ‘chapter-a-day sort of book, allowing time for thinking in between.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked if told by people not in the profession that teachers aren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas any more.  This anti-PC furphy went so far that the education department in Victoria had to put out a circular reminding us what had always been true: Christmas traditions are part of Australian culture.  While in government schools which have been secular since 1870 when education became free and compulsory, teachers can’t infuse the Christmas story with religiosity, they can certainly tell the Christmas story, decorate classrooms, sing Christmas songs, and of course have the students make presents and cards.  Clearly, in a multicultural society like ours, it would be crass for any teacher to ignore other cultural festivals such as Diwali, Eid, and the Chinese and Jewish New Year celebrations &c.  Likewise at Christmas my students were always free to make whatever kind of cards they liked.  For me, the issue always was about finding a way for the activities to have some educational value.  So we would study Christmas and other celebrations around the world (i.e. geography), and when I had Year 5 & 6 classes and they’d done that to death, we did Holiday Safety, at the beach etc.  That wasn’t being PC, it was to teach something useful at the end of the school year, when the older students were usually bored and restless.

The first chapter of Sparrow’s book is about how this term political correctness a.k.a. PC arose.  He reminds me that…

… right-wingers portray PC as an Orwellian scheme to end freedom of speech, a deliberate strategy to impose a progressive orthodoxy.  In reality, radicals coined the term as a joke.  The phrase first emerged within the American New Left as an ironic homage to Stalinist rhetoric, adopted by progressives to mock censorious comrades and to chaff the overly earnest. In Australia and Britain, the preferred term was ‘ideologically sound’ but the gag worked the same way. (p.12)

Yes, by the time PC had trickled down to usage by ordinary people like us, we used it to poke fun at our own lame efforts to Do The Right Thing.  Carnivores at the BBQ teased the vegetarians about ideologically sound ‘hayburgers’ and The Ex would ask if his tie was ideologically sound before setting off to work in the morning.  We still use it: asking friends if they would like some ideologically sound excess vegies from the vegie patch.  So it’s fascinating to read how in America, what was originally a satire on totalitarianism became, for the right, a signifier of totalitarianism. Key players in this transformation were Ronald Reagan, the Australian political commentator Nick Adams, the classicist Allan Bloom and NY Times reporter Richard Bernstein who wrote an article called The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct. (It’s paywalled, but you’re allowed one free visit each month, though I myself wouldn’t waste it on this article).

Chapter Two traces the history of 20th century activism in the great social movements of our time: feminism, the gay and lesbian rights movements, and the struggle against racism. While it wasn’t a neat progression, Sparrow characterises the activists of the 1950s and early 60s as ‘palliationist’, that is, middle-class, speaking on behalf of others, non-confrontationist, and ‘respectable’.  By contrast, ‘direct politics’, in the late 60s and 70s, had a focus on mass action, on grassroots mobilisation, on participation and self-organisation by workers, students and the oppressed.  Crucially, whereas palliationist politics distinguished between interests, direct politics drew connections between issues so that counterculture, black, women’s, student and anti-war movements were entwined and used the same (sometimes militant) tactics.  But by the mid 70s, radicalism had moved on to pragmatics, and a once-widespread commitment to revolutionary change had given way to ‘the practical pursuit of reforms’, with many former firebrands becoming what [Todd Gitlincalled ‘crisp professional lobbyists’ or devoted to winning local office.  This third shift into professional settings is termed ‘delegated politics’, (and in Australia, you can see it in feminist Anne Summer‘s career as a bureaucrat in the Hawke government’s Office for the Status of Women. See also my review of Damned Whores and God’s Police.)  It is this shift into delegated politics that makes it easier for conservatives to frame action to protect minorities as a bureaucratic measure imposed by an unrepresentative minority.

Chapter Three ‘Battlers and Elites’ explores the most baffling phenomenon of it all. As the blurb says (in part):

The man lives, quite literally, in a building serviced by a golden elevator. Somehow, he presented himself as the scourge of the elites. For decades, he built a persona based on the most conspicuous consumption and the crassest of excess – and then he won the presidency on an antiestablishment ticket. The unlikely rise of Donald J Trump exemplifies the political paradox of the twenty-first century.

In this new Gilded Age, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots could not be starker. The world’s eight richest billionaires control as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet – a disparity of wealth and political power unknown in any previous period. Yet not only have progressives failed to make gains in circumstances that should, on paper, favour egalitarianism and social justice, the angry populism that’s prospered explicitly targets ideas associated with the left – and none more so than so-called ‘political correctness’.

I remember being astonished when John Howard described teachers as part of the ‘elite’.  Me, with my mortgage, and my ordinary house in the suburbs, and my ordinary job as a primary school teacher.  What he meant was the contrast between the sound common sense of working-class battlers (whose children I taught) and the censoriousness of the progressive elites.  It was a weird way of thinking about class in Australia, but while there’s no mystery about how a fish-and chip shop owner like Pauline Hanson has captured this sentiment, it is baffling that Australian battlers support millionaires like Clive Palmer.  But as Sparrow explains, the argument depends on the assumption that ordinary people were traditonalist, repelled by the exotic notions expounded by the ‘new class’.  Or more exactly, it defined ordinariness by conservatism — and then defined elitism by radicalism.  

There are many interesting aspects to this book, not the least of which is the extent to which the rhetoric in Australia has slavishly followed the American version.  We can see an example of this at the moment where an environmental disaster is attributed in some quarters to ‘greenies’ and unemployment is blamed not on factory closures due to neoliberal economics but on refugees.  The chapters about smug politics’ is instructive indeed…

But on a note of optimism in the conclusion, Sparrow cites the success of the grassroots movement for marriage equality, which showed our politicians that they were out of step with the views of the electorate.  I would like to think that after a long period of inertia, there is a groundswell of demand for action on climate change coming in the same way.

I would also like to think that Sparrow’s plea for people to get involved in social activism bears fruit.

I may yet write another post about the chapter on identity politics because it’s so useful.  But this review is too long already, so I would recommend you get hold of a copy for yourself.

The book includes acknowledgements, notes, but unfortunately, not an index.  (I say that because I know I’ll be referring to this book off and on in the future).

PS There are reading notes on the publisher’s website.

Author: Jeff Sparrow
Title: Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2018, 300 pages
ISBN: 9781925713183
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Available from FIshpond: Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right $26.72 or direct from Scribe where it is also available as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2019

The Storyteller: Selected Stories, by Serge Liberman

I have been reading these stories by Serge Liberman OAM (1942-2017) on and off ever since the book launch last year, but I am clearing the decks of books received for review in 2018 and it’s time to write about some of the most memorable…

‘The Promise’ comes to mind now because it covers similar territory to The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, which I read last month.  Both stories involve a fraught discussion about questions of faith between a man and his adult son, and both vividly convey the pain felt by both as the chasm between them widens.  But the context is entirely different.  Hasan in The Atheist is a symbol representing a secular future for a nation emerging from colonialism, but in ‘The Promise’ Shimen  — speaking with his father who perished — represents all those who lost their faith because of the Holocaust.  Distraught that he has been spared when so many others were not, his response to his father’s belief in God’s will is a passionate rebuttal:

‘If that which happens happens by His will, why then did He will it that you, Father, and you, Mother, and you, Shliomi, Soreh, Itzik, Rivke, Yankev and the children — the children, tell me, why the children? — all of you so gifted, so good and so mightily loving of Him, should be taken, and that I be saved instead, the least endowed and the least deserving, who in surviving has come not only to live every day joyless and with heartache, but also to repudiate Him as a fiction, an invention, a fable — and yes, a lie?’

The spectre of his father tells him that a Jew may repudiate God, but will never himself be repudiated. He says that until God’s purpose is known, it is for men to create their own purposes, and it is not too late for Shimon to do so.  But Shimon interrupts his father as he never would have if his father were alive:

‘For me, fifty years ago was already too late’, I say, ‘when I learned that there is none above, nor below, nor in the wings who directs dramas, comedies and farces down here.  There is only us, we as ourselves; mortal men all, some of us wise, others less so, some menschlich [humane], others brutish, some choosing well, others badly, some reaping justly what they have sown, and others shredded and dismembered, not by their own choosing but by the designs that others with names like Amalek**, Haman** and Hitler have cut for them.’ (p.206-7, Amalek and Haman were Biblical enemies of the Israelites)

This altercation reminds me of once reading that there were Jews who believed the Holocaust was another of their Old Testament God’s punishments for sin, and to me it seemed such a terrible thing that as well as all the other horrors of the Holocaust, these believers should think that they deserved it.  One flaw in this otherwise excellent book is that there’s no appendix providing the previous publication of these stories, so I can’t tell when this one was written, but ‘fifty years ago’ suggests about 1995, which makes every day joyless and with heartache even more poignant.

‘Two Years in Exile’ also speaks of the tension between parents and children.  Set in Melbourne when Northcote was on the suburban fringe, Mother finds it a wilderness. 

Five miles from the city’s heart, Mother feels as if she were in a country town, a Siberian sovkhoz, [a Soviet state-owned farm] or a displaced persons’ camp again.  Far away is High Street with its sprawl of shops, offices, arcades and picture theatres.  Further still, a light-year away, there is — she knows — a Jewish face, a Jewish word, a Jewish melody.  But at our end, her very existence is enshrouded in a pall of silence and loneliness, while beyond, past the next crossing, along the dry, cracked and dusty unmade road, stretches an empty nakedness that, for Mother, is worse even than the silence and the loneliness.  And more threatening.  (p.38)

But her son, tormented by a freckled neighbour called Colin, is trying hard to fit in, and he hates it when they move to St Kilda.  They move because he is forced to deny his identity, and his mother fears that betrayal:

‘Don’t ya’ like our Christmas songs, mate?’
[Colin] is over me.  As always.  I lie spreadeagled on my back, the grass beneath cold and moist and unyielding, his knees pressing down, a vice on my outstretched arms, my own legs achieving nothing towards liberation.  His face, freckles and all, scowls.  His nostrils, black pits, flare.  His mouth is a menacing crypt of fillings and carious teeth.
‘We kill Jews, do ya’ know?’
Words are his sole weapon, but the roots of my hair burn, as though he has set me on fire.  The throb in my arms is as nothing against this fire.
‘I am not a Jew.’ (p.43-44)

Both his parents hear this denial, but it’s his mother who is distraught:

‘We must move from here.  See what this wilderness, this wasteland is doing to your son.  Little brothers, blessed sisters.  How have we sinned?  Who is right in this world?  And who is wise? And who is safe?  Chaim to Siberia, Reuven to the gas-chambers, Sonia to America, Shimon to Israel.  Leaves, feathers, scattered and dispersed, while we, silly, blind, pitiful yiddelech [little Jews] sink to the bottom of a barren trough, in exile, without a Yiddish book, a Yiddish word, a Yiddish geist? [spirit](p.45)

There is the same sense of dislocation in ‘Home’: we learn that for a boy home was where the feet ran most freely; home, for Mother, object of hopeless and hungry hankering, was where she had been at her fleetest. But Warsaw as she knew it is gone:

There was no returning to the tumbling of Baroque, Gothic, Classical and Rococo, to the shimmering sun-splintering  Vistula lapping past her house, to the warmth of family and laughter, to the crucible in which contending ideologies and messianisms boiled and fermented and effervesced.  (p.117)

This theme, of children adjusting to a new life while a mother struggles with being isolated from a robust cultural life by language difficulties and a different way of life, also surfaced in Sofija Stefanovic’s memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia.  It is a common experience for newcomers in any country, and I think it is especially hard for mothers who see it as their duty to create a new home but don’t feel as if they have one any longer.

This inter-generational tension erupts as a real crisis in a family where the younger generation marries ‘out’, as in Liberman’s ‘Drifting’, though in that story it is the father who is inflexible about his son marrying a non-Jew.  A damaged soul, he uses emotional blackmail to try to sabotage the relationship.  ‘Is this what I lived through Auschwitz for? For my sake, give her up.’ 

The struggle to make sense of the Holocaust —when it was and still is an evil that makes no sense — is a preoccupation in these stories, but it is filtered through different perspectives.  In ‘Words’, Australian-born Nathan, though born of postwar refugees from Poland, is relentless.  He talks about the Holocaust as an abstract event, telling his future mother-in-law that experience when extreme […] can be a narrow-minded teacher.

How deeply the younger man had wounded, Shraga Sztayer never revealed.  But after that he stood back from Nathan Rubin and accepted him — tolerated him — only because Rita , in love with dour intellect, loved him in her way and he, the father, was unable to dissuade her. (p.259)

There’s a universality about these frictions.  Too often we hear that people who’ve suffered should ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’ but Liberman’s insights reveal the cost of ‘moving on’ when your own children don’t understand…

Equally hard is that others ‘move on’ too.  Shraga’s poems are rejected by his publisher because they are too abstract, too remote […] and too sterile.

…listen to me.  Europe, Auschwitz, Siberia — they’re behind us.  The people, yes the people are tired of the same reworked themes.  Your Ashes of Time ten years ago was appropriate.  They were good poems, substantial, sensitive, significant.  But today…’ He paused, then with his hand again cut across whatever Shraga Sztayer was beginning to say.  ‘Our reality today is Australia not Poland, Israel and not the vanished shtetl. [a small European Jewish village or town].  Our problems are of identity, belief, culture, affluence, of children turning away, of parents unable to reach them.  A poet who wants to leave his mark must adapt and respond to change, must progress in the same direction as society.  (p.261)

In articulating these painful issues in a sensitive and compassionate way, there is no doubt that Serge Liberman left his mark…

Posthumously published after Liberman died in 2017, The Storyteller, Selected Stories was completed with the help of friends Alex Skovron and Richard Freadman.

The cover painting is The Esplanade, St Kilda by Herman Pekel.

Author: Serge Liberman
Title: The Storyteller, Selected Stories
Introduction by Alex Skovron
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 432 pages including the glossary of Yiddish words and phrases
ISBN: 9781925272956
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

You can buy the book from Fishpond: The Storyteller: Selected Stories or the Hybrid Publishing website. or good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 13, 2019

Zebra, and Other Stories, by Debra Adelaide

There are 13 short stories in this collection I skipped straight to the last story in this collection, because I’d rather read a novella than a short story any day…

‘Zebra’ is an odd confection.  It’s a whimsical tale of a female prime minister well into her middle years and with a name as ordinary as the dust on her shoes.  She has been in power for several years, long enough to take as much pride in the garden at The Lodge as in her other achievements (which are a wishlist of reforms that have not happened in real Australian life).

Accused of not having a ‘real’ job by her irascible neighbour Kerr, this PM (oddly non-combative for a politician) muses to herself:

He could not boast about making company tax more equitable, about simplifying the paperwork for small business, about establishing a non-profit national telecommunications provider.  He had not implemented the quiet triumph of her entire term: people answering the phones again in government departments. He hadn’t found a way to keep manufacturers onshore and small schools open in small towns.  Nor had he ever got all six state premiers together without a single fight.  (p.234)

However, as the story opens the PM has a report to read in preparation for an overhaul of the national health budget.  It rejoices in the title Key Strategic Objectives: Minimising Negative Patient Outcomes, but it fails to keep her attention and sitting so long to read it (literally) gives her a pain in the proverbial:

The document she was reviewing, being a commissioned public service report, was woefully unclear.  Actual patients did not rate a mention.  Their specific health needs were smothered under bureaucratic jargon.  Thick clods of managerese fell upon the subject as if it were already dead, shrouded, and six feet in the ground.  She did not feel like a Health Service Stakeholder, and the report so far made her feel unenthusiastic about taking her right buttock, or any part of her anatomy, to medical facilities as they currently stood.  (p.204)

Her garden is the one project that really matters to her:

She knew that in the years to come, retirement years, the post-leadership twilight world of sitting on boards and running consultancies and working for international charities — the quiet morning-tea existence, as opposed to the nonstop sushi train that was life now — she could easily have regrets.  She would look back on this time in her life and never wish she had been to more briefings, overseen more committees, shaken hands with more delegations, attended more conferences, held more cabinet meetings.  Especially not cabinet meetings.  But she would regret it if she hadn’t made the most of the garden.  (p.205)

The truth is, she’s not interested in the slog of governing and she would rather delegate the stuff that bores her to her ministers.  What she wants is to generate ideas and indulge her well-hidden life of the mind, but she gets sucked into trivia which the media presents as evidence of fitness to govern:

All the accusations people levelled at elites being out of touch reached a crescendo when it came to parliamentarians.  But she was probably the first prime minister of the country who knew the price of a litre of milk.  At both the supermarket and the corner store.  Previous prime ministers had been crucified for less than that.
(p. 233)

If you’ve been around for a while and paying attention to politics in this country, these allusions will evoke a wry smile. You will remember those wishlist policies being sprouted by Howard and Rudd; you’ll have a vague recollection of Bob Hawke and John Howard on post-retirement boards; of Paul Keating’s Asian consultancy; and of the work Malcolm Fraser did for UNICEF.  The oft-denied plan to destroy Medicare and the weasel words used to conceal it will ring a bell; and you will remember the end of John Hewson’s political ambitions because he was ‘out of touch’ on the price of everyday groceries.  But while most people will recognise one of the ‘trouble-makers’ in the Senate, who remembers Brian Harradine these days?  The PM’s executive assistant with ambitions to be a policy adviser derides Harradine’s large Catholic family, and recommends dealing with the Tasmanian crisis by letting our smallest state secede because their excess of independents has made the state ungovernable:

‘Let them go, I say.  Place is only good for cheese and apple juice anyway.’
‘Is that your most professional advice?’
‘It’s caused trouble for years.  Ever since that Green fellow went into the senate.’
‘You mean Brown.’
‘Same thing.  Then before him there was that lunatic, the one with a hundred children.’
‘Harradine?’
‘Yes.  Just one extremist dictating to the rest of the country.  It shouldn’t be allowed.  But if we cut them off, it won’t.
‘Make the state secede?’
‘Why not? What do we get out of the place?  Really?’ (p.210-211)

(Women with long memories will remember that Brian Harradine’s ultra-conservative beliefs had such disproportionate power in the Howard government that they prevented access to pharmaceuticals for women’s reproductive choices across the country.  See the last sentence here.)

Anyway, for reasons I’ll leave for readers to discover, the PM ends up building a maze in the gardens of The Lodge for a zebra which was sent to her by Texan whose private zoo has gone bust.  It is a daft story, a fantasy about political power and how it is wasted in this country.  It is also about the loneliness of power and her bell curve of expectation and disappointment, an index of overworn emotions and fatigued hope. 

There are other reviews (of the whole collection) at The Saturday Paper (paywalled, but you can read one free article each week), and The AU Review.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title: Zebra and Other Stories
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019, 327 pages
ISBN: 9781760781699
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan, RRP $29.99

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by Amanda Curtin

I really like Amanda Curtin’s fiction, starting with my belated discovery of The Sinkings (2008) and then being bowled over by Elemental (2013), so I confess to a frisson of disappointment when I realised that her latest book was a biography of an artist I’d never heard of.  I shouldn’t have worried… Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is every bit as captivating as Curtin’s fiction.

It’s not actually true to say that I had never heard of Kathleen O’Connor.  I should admit instead that her name hadn’t registered with me, even though I had (of course!) visited the NGV’s 2013 exhibition ‘Australian Impressionists in France’ and seen a couple of her paintings.  What’s more, I even have the catalogue by Elena Taylor, which has a chapter on ‘Expatriates’ and beautiful full colour plates of ‘Luxembourg Gardens’ 1913 and ‘Two Cafe Girls’ c 1914.  (Neither of which, alas, are available online because the former is held at the Royal Perth Hospital Art Collection (!) and the latter is in private hands).

I shouldn’t really begin with the paintings, because, honestly, I read right through the whole book without ever venturing outside its pages, but I will mention here that this handsomely produced edition includes 13 full colour plates on gloss paper in the central section, and numerous B&W reproductions of O’Connor’s paintings and other memorabilia throughout the text.  But by the time I sat down to write this review it was too much of a temptation not to go searching with Google to admire O’Connor’s oeuvre on my nice big desktop screen.  (I have listed below the sources I found so that you can do this too).

The amazing thing about Kathleen O’Connor is that she was in Paris at all.  Like most young ladies of her time, she was expected to grow up and get married to some eligible chap from the social scene in Perth.  (Her parents had relocated there from New Zealand, for her father C.Y. O’Connor to take up a position as Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia.) With no independent income of her own, Kathleen set off with her widowed mother and sister for a trip ‘home’ to see the UK and Irish relations, and then refused to go home with them.  She knew what she wanted to do, and she was determined to do it.  And true to the stereotypes of the artist-in-the-garret, (though she negotiated a small allowance from her family) she lived in penury, moving from one attic to another and getting by on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

But she loved Paris. La Belle Époque was a wonderful time to be an artist in Paris, where the artists clustered in Montmartre and Kathleen claimed she could eat well on next to nothing in Paris in the years before the war: ‘five francs [about twenty-five cents] bought two good dinners.  She took lessons from numerous artists, visited galleries, and found subjects she could paint for free in the Luxembourg Gardens.  And although she was never financially independent of her family because sales of her art were never enough, she established a profile in the French art scene where her paintings were accepted for exhibitions and subsequently admired in the press.  Her emerging profile led her to submit her portfolio of designs for decorative items to Paul Poiret at Atelier Martine which led to work with Poiret, with la Maîtrise and with another of the grand department stores, Aux Trois Quartiers, on the boulevarde de la Madeleine. 

Galeries Lafayette Inside, from the 4th floor (Wikipedia*)

One of the aspects of this book that I really like is Curtin’s voice as she undertakes her research.  Here she is on the trail of Kathleen’s personal archive of textile designs:

The flagship Boulevard Haussmann store of Galeries Lafayette is one of Paris’ top tourist attractions.  Here, consumerism on a grand scale meets Art Nouveau palace.  I have to admit it’s breathtaking—the towering stained-glass dome crowning an atrium rising through three balconied floors of sparkling lights and sparkling merchandise, the grand staircase styled on the one in the Paris Opera House.  I become lost among the crowd on the ground floor, where paperbacks jostle with Birkin sacs and strollers and small platoons of tourists marshalled by flag-carrying guides.  I glance down at the instructions I’ve printed out, but I can no longer see the entrance I came in.  A friendly security officers takes pity on me and directs me to the staff elevator.

The opulence ends abruptly on the seventh floor, where the lift terminates. I check my directions again and locate the wooden staircase, and it’s up two flights to the ninth floor and a warren of utilitarian offices and my destination: the archives. (p.112)

(Compare that with my breathless naiveté in the food hall in 2005. We were wise to go in late autumn when the worst of the tourist season is over.)

I also loved Curtin’s rueful admissions that she has to resist the temptation to invent the missing pieces of Kathleen’s life.  An author of fiction can do this with impunity, but a biographer may not. (Well, as we know, they sometimes do, but I don’t like it, at least not when I can’t tell which is fact and which is invention.)

Anyway, as Curtin notes, however, Kathleen did—more than once—succumb to entreaties to return home, only to escape again as soon as she could rustle up the money for her passage.  So she was in Paris during WW1, and only just managed evacuation to London when the Germans occupied Paris in WW2.  The story of her escape with precious paintings in her luggage, only to lose the lot when the Germans bombed the ‘safe’ city of Bath, is sobering.  And these are not the only paintings missing: she sold numerous paintings that are unaccounted for, including the apocryphal ones that she chucked into the Fremantle Harbour when she couldn’t rustle up the import taxes on one of her trips home.  (See more about that, here).

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is a wonderful book on many levels: it brings an under-appreciated Australian artist to new prominence; it tells a captivating story about an artist’s life; it shares the pain and the gains of the biographer’s art; and it recreates a Paris that is long, long gone, swamped by the tourist hordes and new developments.

See also Nathan Hobby’s review.

You can see a selection of Kathleen O’Connor’s works at the NGA, including the gorgeous dress that Amanda Curtin enthuses over in the chapter about O’Connor’s departure into textile design. Art Gallery NSW has only two, but the NGV has six, including a parasol which *pout* hasn’t been digitised yet.  I know from the references in the book that the Art Gallery of WA has a good few paintings, but their search function is a bit laborious so you’ll have to content yourself with this one.

The book cover design is by Carolyn Brown. (The back is beautifully designed too, but I am not sure about the copyright status of the O’Connor painting reproduced there, so I haven’t scanned it.)

Amanda Curtin ©Miles Llowry

Amanda Curtin blogs at Looking Up Looking Down, a blog I recommend you follow if you are interested in Australian books and writing, because she profiles WA authors including emerging authors prior to publication.  (It’s how I discovered Louise Allan, debut author of The Sisters’ Song, recently chosen for Summer Reading at my library and no doubt at others too).  Amanda also shares book club questions for discussion about her books, including this one.

Image credits:

Australian Impressionists in France by Elena Taylor is published by the NGV, 2013, ISBN 9780724103720, and from what I can see online, it’s still available.
Author: Amanda Curtin
Title: Kathleen O’Connor of Paris
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018, 319 pages
ISBN: 9781925591644
Source: Greater Dandenong Libraries, Springvale branch

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Collected Short Fiction, by Gerald Murnane


Collected Short Fiction offers an entrée to Gerald Murnane’s fiction for the newbie.  I’ve been reading his books for years now, and am a confirmed enthusiast only too delighted by his more recent prominence both here in Australia and overseas.  But I’m no closer to ‘understanding’ Murnane, only more comfortable with the effect his writing has on me.

(This is what I wrote in a comment on my post about The Plains, back in 2009 when I was reading Inland:

I keep going backwards and forwards and re-reading…and then spinning off with thoughts and ideas of my own that seem to be couched in his kind of circular sentences, as if he has colonised my mind. It is a bizarre experience to read something like this, floundering around trying to work out what’s happening even though it seems unlikely that anything is actually happening.

These days I don’t flounder, I surf along whatever wave I can catch. And yes, it’s exhilarating.)

The blurb for Collected Short Fiction has this to say:

This volume brings together Gerald Murnane’s shorter works of fiction, most of which have been out of print for the past twenty five years. They include such masterpieces as ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’, ‘Stream System’, ‘First Love’, ‘Emerald Blue’, and ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, a story which holds the key to the long break in Murnane’s career, and points the way towards his later works, from Barley Patch to Border Districts. Much is made of Murnane’s distinctive and elaborate style as a writer, but there is no one to match him in his sensitive portraits of family members – parents, uncles and aunts, and particularly children – and in his probing of situations which contain anxiety and embarrassment, shame or delight.

When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ was originally published in the Autumn 1989 edition of a periodical called ‘Sport’ and then in Velvet Waters (McPhee Gribble 1990).   The excruciating depiction of the narrator’s childhood anxiety spills into what seems to be a deeply personal account of parental failings and guilty memories from a teaching career.  And it’s true: even if you’re Gerald Murnane and perhaps not temperamentally suited to teaching, it’s a career that’s like parenthood, it’s filled with guilt about the times you failed to meet a need, or weren’t prepared, or you lost your temper, or let a child down when they needed you most.  Those times do haunt teachers who care…

Guilt also seeps into ‘Stream System’ which was first published in The Age Monthly Review 8, no 9, December 1988-January 1989:

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground.  I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech.  I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother,  If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine.  If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six.  My brother never married.  Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother.  I was certainly never a friend to my brother.  On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.  (p.39)

‘Land Deal’ reveals an aspect of Murnane’s preoccupations that I haven’t recognised in his longer fiction.  It is prefaced by a quotation from John Batman about his notorious purchase of the land on which Melbourne was built, and is narrated in the first person plural.  These narrators regard the transaction as a bizarre dream:

Of course it was the wildest folly to suppose that the land, which was by definition indivisible, could be measured or parcelled out by a mere agreement among men. In any case, we had been fairly sure that the foreigners failed to see our land.  From their awkwardness and unease as they stood upon the soil, we judged that they did not recognise the support it provided or the respect it demanded.  When they moved even a short distance across it, stepping aside from places that invited passage and treading on places that were plainly not to be intruded upon, we knew that they would lose themselves before they found the real land.  (p.48)

(This piece was first published in Educational Magazine, no 3, (1980), which was issued to all government school teachers.  That means I almost certainly read it at the time, failing to see its significance.)

I learned something about James Joyce from an astonishing piece called ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ (first published in Best Australian Short Stories, Black Inc., 2002).  A narrator who had spent some time being a teacher of fiction at a college of advanced education which became a university, first explains his intriguing way of marking student work, and then remembers being fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences.  

At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce.  Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel.  Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive.  The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful.  Joyce would not listen to such talk.  If a book of prose was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader’s mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. (p.450)

It will come as no surprise to readers of Murnane that there is a link to horse-racing in this story…

It’s interesting to see another review at a site Music & Literature, which offers an entirely different perspective on ‘Stream System’.  It just shows how Murnane can be many different things to different readers.  I tend to get distracted by segments that tug at the heartstrings, but the reviewer Timothy Aubry is right, there is, in these fictions:

…. a geography of thought that is recognizably Murnane’s. Over and over we encounter real and imagined landscapes, maps, horse races and racing colors, forgotten and discarded books, adolescent sexual anxieties that persist longer than they should, objects and people repeatedly referred to as those “mentioned in the previous paragraph,” images that have passed through the supposed author’s mind while writing the very text we are reading, which summon other images, which demand description, which provokes further thoughts about further images, and so forth. Things do often happen to his characters and Murnane occasionally tracks these developments chronologically, but more often his fictions splay out in atemporal fashion, becoming a web of discrete moments all connected to each other through multiple strands of association.

This is a superb collection.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Collected Short Fiction
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2018, 20 stories, 468 pages, also available as an eBook.
ISBN: 9781925336641
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo and Fishpond: Gerald Murnane: Collected Short Fiction

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2019

The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

I bought Lloyd Jones’ new novel The Cage as soon as it was released so I was pleased when it was nominated for the Ockham’s New Zealand Literary Awards.  I have other appealing nominees on my TBR too but I wanted to read this one first of all.  But The Cage is such a devastating, confronting novel, I found myself not wanting to continue, yet unable to stop reading.

I knew Jones to be an author who writes about outsiders, most recently for me in Hand Me Down World. But The Cage is something else again.  This is the blurb:

Two mysterious strangers appear at a hotel in a small country town.
Where have they come from? Who are they? What catastrophe are they fleeing?
The townspeople want answers, but the strangers are unable to speak of their trauma. And before long, wary hospitality shifts to suspicion and fear, and the care of the men slides into appalling cruelty.
Lloyd Jones’s fable-like novel The Cage is a profound and unsettling novel about humanity and dignity and the ease with which we’re able to justify brutality.

The treatment of the strangers is puzzling in the way it hints at events and motivations — yet it seems to be uncomfortably familiar.  These two bedraggled men do not—cannot—respond to expectations, which soon morph into requirements.  And when those requirements are not met, the men are tricked into entering a cage and kept there in conditions too appalling for me to describe.

A group of townsmen form a committee to ‘manage’ the situation, and Sport, a young man living in his uncle’s hotel after the death of his parents, is assigned the role of ‘observer’. He nicknames the older man Doctor, and the young man Mole, recording everything these they do in his ledger.  At first the reader feels some hope that he represents some kind of humanity:

What have we learned so far?  This is the most persistent question the Trustees ask.
So far, I would say we have learned to overcome our revulsion and shame. (p.61)

But he is only too easily slides into blaming the strangers:

So much depends on patience.  The strangers are like cattle that dot the hillsides.  They are so still they could be mistaken for porcelain.  Few thoughts to share ever surface on their faces or leave their mouths.  If they truly care about us, they would make more of an effort. (p.67)

Sport visits the town zoo because it helps [him] understand life in the cage, and he recognises the suffering of a rhino in its pen:

And when I lock eyes with it I see that I am part of its problem—that I am implicated in its suffering. (p.68)

But out of sight means out of mind:

In their first days of captivity they rushed back and forth across the cage in panic.  Bashing themselves against the mesh.  The young one scraped his nose.  When he wiped it, the blood spread across his face, and we all thought, briefly and inescapably, thank God he’s inside the cage.  The blood and wild eyes and that crazy mane of hair.
In his charge across the cage, Doctor went more slowly, like an old-fashioned cab, holding up his hands to appeal their circumstances.  It became irritating to hear the same thing yelled up at our windows.
Then night removed them from view and we didn’t have to think about them until the next day. (p.73)

Sport does not entirely acquiesce in his role:

I put my pen down.  Some moments, I have decided (without wider consultation) deserve their privacy.
Besides, so far our awareness of their misery has not led to anything changing.  What is the point of sympathy that does not produce a change of circumstances?
(p. 88)

Yet he does not rebel:

Last night, sitting on the windowsill listening to Mole’s attempts to console Doctor, I began to sob.  I could not stop sobbing.  My eyes filled with tears until I could not see the rules lines on the ledger open on my knee.
Then a voice spoke in the dark.
Sport.  can you hear me?
It was Mole.
Sport, he said.  You are not like them.
I closed the window—ashamed to know I’d been heard. (p.93)

The sense of horror grows as one reads on, wanting something to change, yet fearing that, as in real life in our cold-hearted world, it will not…

*****

By coincidence, I read Daniel Finkelstein’s review this morning of Deborah Lipstadt’s new book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, and that triggered the thought that the way people in Germany learned to overcome their revulsion and shame over actions that morphed into the Holocaust is more universal than we like to admit.  Every day on the news we see and hear about terrible suffering but we have learned to adjust.  War, poverty, natural disasters, the misery of refugee camps (including our own on Manus and Nauru) mostly don’t attract more than fleeting attention.  Sure, some individuals and organisations take action, but most of us don’t.  Some of us might make a donation to an aid organisation, but most of us don’t adjust our consumption habits and we don’t harass our politicians into action on long-term solutions.

I wish they could be made to read The Cage.

For more about this book, visit Radio National, Alys on the Blog, and Booksellers NZ

 

The cover design, the genius of which you’ll discover as you read the book, is by W H Chong.

Author; Lloyd Jones
Title: The Cage
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 262 pages
ISBN: 9781925603224
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham, $29.99

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2019

2019 Stella Prize Longlist

The 2019 Stella Prize Longlist was announced today:

Little Gods by Jenny Ackland, see my review

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop, on my TBR

Bluebottle by Belinda Castles, see Theresa Smith’s review

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo, see my review

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, see my review

The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, see Amanda’s review at Whispering Gums

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee, see Kate’s review at Books are My Favourite and Best

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright

The Shortlist will be announced on March 8th, and the winner on April 9th.

See the Judges report here.

PS I’m very disappointed that Shell isn’t listed.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 6, 2019

The Year of the Beast, by Steven Carroll

This gorgeous novel is the final title in Steven Carroll’s award-winning Glenroy series.  The series, set in the Melbourne suburb of Glenroy, began with the story of Vic, his wife Rita, and their only son Michael in The Art of the Engine Driver (2001), and continued with The Gift Of Speed (2004), The Time We Have Taken (2007), Spirit of Progress (2011), and Forever Young (2015). Now, going back in time to the origins of the family we have The Year of the Beast (2019).

The story begins with Maryanne walking in the streets of Melbourne.  She is forty years old, unmarried and seven months pregnant with the child who will become Vic the engine driver.  It is 1917 and the second conscription referendum is in full swing.  Carroll, evoking recent memories of the divisive Marriage Equality plebiscite, notes correctly that this so-called referendum was actually a plebiscite, but, checking this, I found that it’s not just popular history that has it wrong by referring to it as a referendum:

All of the historical documentation refer to the ballot as a referendum, even though it did not involve a proposal to amend the Australian Constitution. Because it was not an amendment to the constitution, it had no legal force, it did not require approval in a majority of states and residents of federal territories were able to vote.  Such a ballot is now usually referred to as a plebiscite to distinguish it from a referendum to alter the Constitution. (Wikipedia, viewed 6/2/19)

This distinction points to a significant aspect of the story: a plebiscite, as a powerful indication of the people’s will, evokes passion in a way that never happens with Australian referenda to amend our uninspiring and bureaucratic constitution.  As the blurb says:

Melbourne, 1917: the times are tumultuous, the city is in the grip of a kind of madness. The Great War is raging, and it is the time of the hotly contested second conscription referendum. Fights are raging on the streets, rallies for ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ facing off against each other on opposing corners. Men, women and children, jostling, brawling, fighting and spitting.

Maryanne, on the edge of the crowd, perceives the maelstrom as a beast, a terrible world for her baby to be born into:

She has just stepped off her tram and is moving slowly, labouring towards the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke streets.  The centre of the city on a grey spring day: late afternoon, slipping into twilight.  Spring! Ratty spring.  She pauses before the intersection.  Her heart sinks.  Normally thick with carriages, trams and the occasional motor car, it is now thick with people.  Clouds in the sky swirl; on the ground the crowd sways.  This way and that: a single organism, with thousands of arms, legs and eyes, emitting a continuous hum.  A giant thing.  A beast. All those faces, eyes, mouths, hats, ears, arms and legs surrendering themselves to this thing they have become.  This mass.  This agglomeration, now still, now swaying, and all the time emitting a continuous hum and occasionally erupting into a roar as if the beast were suddenly stirred for action.  Or wounded.  A groan that subsides into a hum, then erupts into a roar.

It is as if some fantastic metamorphosis is taking place in front of her.  And a storybook beast is coming to life before her eyes. As if each of those faces has reached into the depths of its darkness and brought forth the beast that lurks there. Always lurks there, waiting patiently.  Sometimes years, sometimes centuries.  But always there.  And now, its hour come, the beast roars, groans and writhes into life.  The very worst of humanity has risen and become this collective thing to which each of those massed faces gives the gift of its darkness, so that the beast may slouch into life and the world hear its groans.  For it has waited a long time, brooding in its cave, alone and forgotten, but always there.  And now, its moment come, the world will pay. (p.4)

This excerpt is a good example of Carroll’s style.  Rhythmic, pulsing and richly evocative of its beast metaphor, repeating some elements to give them added force and solidity, and revealing the thoughts of the usually reticent main character.  This is the Yes crowd, demanding more young men for the death factory.  Maryanne has other priorities in her life right now, but she is appalled by what she sees, especially when she sees a peaceful women’s demonstration for the No vote being manhandled by vicious police.

The back story reveals Maryanne’s almost accidental career as a teacher in a small town, and the character of the man whose baby she carries.  This is not a plot-driven novel, but there is enough narrative tension to propel it along.  Maryanne is being pressured to hand over her unborn baby to the nuns for a likely vocation in the priesthood, and she needs the support of her fiercely independent but still religious sister Katherine.  (Who is one of the best, most dynamic characters in the whole Glenroy series.  A character like those indomitable women in the novels of Kylie Tennant, she doesn’t cave in to what others expect of her, and I want her to have a novel of her own!)  Looking ahead to the man that the baby will become, Maryanne also wants her child to know that he did have a father even though his behaviour makes him a despicable man that she doesn’t want in her life.

A small gripe: Early in the story, Maryanne tells Katherine that she has been to a suffragette meeting.

‘I get restless.  Confined. I have to get up and go out or I feel like I’ll go mad. I have to go … somewhere.  And today I went to a suffragette meeting.  Oh, they don’t go around calling themselves that.  What do they call themselves?  Women’s Peace Army? I think that’s it…’ (p.59)

No, Maryanne hasn’t been to a suffragette meeting. The Suffragettes were on the other side of the world in London.  What the author means is a suffragist meeting, and a one-word Google search would have told him and his editor so.  This isn’t a mere matter of semantics: suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods to gain votes for women, while the Suffragettes in the UK used direct, militant methods.  (See here). The distinction needs to be made because the Women’s Peace Army, using the suffragist colours of purple, white and green and led in Melbourne by Vida Goldstein, (characterised in the novel as Vera),  was committed to peace and peaceful campaign methods.  They sang songs and distributed pamphlets.  They were never militant.

The book cover? Hmm, it’s not one of the Harper Collins Design Studio’s finest.  It’s a variation on the naked-back-of-a-woman cliché, the red hair presumably meant to be shorthand for ‘Irishwoman’ because the central character has a Roman Catholic background.   This design is misleading, because the image of the crowd from Getty stock images makes it look as if she is the focus of their attention, as if she might be addressing them, when she’s not.  Steven Carroll deserves much better than this for his books and it’s not the first time I’ve thought so.

So don’t be misled by the cover.  This is a wonderful book, richly evocative of its time and with unforgettable characters.  I haven’t found many other reviews yet, but there is this one from Readings.

Image credits:

Author: Steven Carroll
Title: The Year of the Beast
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2019, 305 pages
ISBN: 05943605
Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2019

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

A long time ago when I was bored brainless by teaching in a complacent, over-privileged school, I started a law degree part-time as an escape route.  But before long I realised that even though I loved studying law, I didn’t want to spend my working days with other lawyers and I didn’t want to work in academia.  A chance conversation with a writer was the catalyst for me to chuck the law degree, and shortly afterwards fate intervened.  I was promoted to a school where I felt I could actually achieve something purposeful with my career.

I never regretted my decision but I still like the intellectual effort of untangling the principles of law, and that is why I really liked Ian McEwen’s The Children Act.  It’s a book that humanises the law and the people who apply it, defying the ease with which John Smith and the tabloids decry the law ‘as an ass’.

In this novel, a High Court judge has to make a difficult decision while her long marriage is falling apart.  She is sixty, and has devoted her life to her career, but now her husband wants to have an affair.  Outraged, she watches him go and changes the locks.  All credit to her, she does not proceed at work on auto-pilot, but instead applies her mind to the very difficult legal problem before her.

The principle upon which her decision must rest is clear: McEwen quotes the relevant section at the start of the book:

When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.
Section 1(a), the Children’s Act (1989)

Our Australian Family Courts work under an identical principle.  It seems so obvious, and easy…

In McEwen’s story, Judge Fiona Maye has to rule on whether a hospital can overrule the parents’ decision to refuse a blood transfusion to a dying child. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses so this decision is based on their religious beliefs, but its consequences are that he will die a gruesome death when he otherwise would probably recover.  The complicating factor is that the ‘child’ is three months shy of turning eighteen.  In adulthood, the decision would be his entirely, but he doesn’t have three months left.  Already the delay in his treatment means that he is suffering breathlessness.  The matter is urgent.

It’s not a long book, but McEwen unpicks the complexities of this case so that the reader shares the dilemmas.  Because he is so close to adulthood, Adam’s state of mind must be considered.  Is he old enough, intelligent enough, self-aware enough to understand fully what his choices entail?  Is he influenced unduly by the religious views of his parents and the Elders who visit him to shore up the certainty of refusal?  Has his education been sufficiently rigorous to enable him to make decisions like this? Does his agreement with his parents’ beliefs arise from his fear of being ‘disassociated’ (i.e. excommunicated and excluded from the community)?

Is there some factor she hasn’t thought of?  And is it humanly possible, in a brief bedside interview, to break through adolescent reserve and bravado to arrive at the truth?

At any time, in any country, in numerous different contexts, there are people invested with great power to whom we, the people, entrust critical decisions.  They are the ones whose job it is to make the difficult decisions, on our behalf.  This novel asks, is it humanly possible to keep a clear head when one’s personal life is in turmoil?  Who bears the responsibility when common sense and reason fails, and an appointed Solomon makes a choice that has unanticipated consequences?

There’s a strand of literary criticism which is never going to forgive Ian McEwen for being middle-class, and especially not for his novel Saturday.  Nevertheless, The Children Act was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2015), the Goodreads Choice Award  for Fiction (2014), and the International Dublin Literary Award (2016).

I liked it.

Author: Ian McEwen
Title: The Children Act
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House UK), 2014, 216 pages
ISBN: 9780099599630
Personal library, free from a giveaway table

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2019

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

There’s only one thing to do when it’s too hot to venture outside, and that’s to loaf around with books. I’ve read two today, and I’ve finished William Boyd’s novel that’s been on the bedside table for a day or two.

Boyd (b.1952)  is a Scottish writer with 15 novels to his credit, and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of St. Andrews, Stirling and Glasgow, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for services to Literature. And while he doesn’t seem to have won any major awards, his early novels in particular attracted attention.  This is the list from his Wikipedia page:

So it was about time I read one of his books!

Love is Blind is a straightforward historical novel, set at the turn of the 19th century.  The narrative is chronological, starting in 1894 when young Brodie Moncur escapes from his tyrannical father to take up an opportunity as a piano tuner in Paris.  This era was a golden age for piano manufacturing and Brodie’s employer Channon wants to compete with Steinway pianos, so he sends Brodie, his most able employee, to set up the branch there, second in command to Channon’s son Calder.  Through a clever scheme to promote the pianos via concert pianists, Brodie meets John Kilbarron (the Scottish Liszt) and fatally, falls for John’s lover Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian soprano. When things go wrong in the Paris branch, Brodie strikes out on his own, and ends up in St Petersburg where John Kilbarron has a wealthy patron who doesn’t seem to mind paying for a piano tuner with not much to do except have assignations with the lovely Lika.

The novel is basically a twin study of obsession.  Brodie is obsessed with Lika, and Brodie’s rival/s are obsessed with vengeance.  Despite his background as the son of a preacher, Brodie’s love life has consisted of transactional sex with prostitutes but he falls passionately in love with the enigmatic Lika.  Everything he does from this point on is predicated on what is obviously a doomed relationship.  The reader can see what Brodie cannot, which is that she is evasive about her past, flirts with Brodie behind Kilbarron’s back, but obviously isn’t as keen on Brodie as he is on her.  And #SpoilerAlert it all ends badly.

IMO Love is Blind is a little long for itself, yet some elements seem unexplained.  I never worked out why Brodie is berated by his father Malky for his dark skin, and kept waiting for a revelation about parental infidelity which (unless I missed it) never came.  I also didn’t understand why Malky’s tirades in his sermon were drawn from biblical passages that didn’t exist.  And where was the explanation for Brodie’s brother turning into a violent drunk?  OTOH some segments were unnecessarily drawn out, and there’s some rather gratuitous writing about the sex habits of people on the Andaman Islands.

These quibbles don’t really matter because the interest lies in Brodie’s passion for Lika and the travails of their relationship.  In this fin-de-siecle period, music and madness take the characters all over Europe, with Brodie trying to escape his father, his employer’s betrayal, his vengeful pursuer and the TB which threatens to kill him if he doesn’t live a stress-free life in a congenial climate.  It’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s the point, I think, to show that obsession is melodramatic.  No one in their right mind would behave the way these characters do, but then, they’re not in their right minds!

There are numerous literary references, but they’re mostly overt, as for example when Brodie reads an article in Harper’s Bazaar about Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. So even if a reader doesn’t know that this is a brilliant book about the exploitation of migrants in turn-of-the-century America, Google will reveal all so that it can be seen that Boyd is linking that book with the exploitation of convict labour on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Empire.

See Alexander Larman’s review at The Guardian and also Tony’s  review at Tony’s Book World. 

Author: William Boyd
Title: Love Is Blind, The Rapture of Brodie Moncur
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House UK), 2018, 371 pages
ISBN: 9780241295946
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia

In June last year, ANZ LitLovers reached its ten year anniversary, and among the kind wishes from around the world came a very special gift to mark the occasion, from Kim at Reading Matters in London.  The book is Shatila Stories, a slim novella of interlinked short stories which was written in a most unusual way.

Meike Ziervogel explains its genesis in the Introduction.  Founder of London-based Peirene Press which specialises in translated fiction, she undertook this ambitious project in Lebanon, where she worked with an NGO called Basmeh & Zeitooneh (“the Smile and the Olive”) to create an authentic story from the Shatila Refugee Camp which was set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949 after the formation of Israel, but is now swollen with refugees from the war in Syria.  Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and with the help of London-based editor Suhir Helal, the project ran a three-day creative writing workshop to teach basic story-writing skills to a pre-selected group of participants.  The individual stories which resulted were to become subplots woven into a narrative structure devised by Helal and Ziervogel.

The nine participants, aged 18 to 42 wrote under enormous difficulties.  The Shatila camp is chaotic, and lawless, governed by opposing Palestinian groups.  Attendance was patchy for some participants…

One participant’s niece was killed by the low-hanging electrical cables, a grandmother slipped badly in one of the camp’s muddy alleys and someone else’s father died in Syria. (p.18)

The writing space at the Basmeh and Zeitooneh community centre was cramped and stuffy, shared a wall with a dancing class, and there were no computers, only pen and paper. Some of the writers had never completed formal schooling and quite a few had never read a novel in their lives. 

Ziervogel’s confidence waned in the face of these difficulties, but she persisted and after the workshops, the participants had six weeks to complete a 4,000 word draft, queuing up at the centre to use WhatsApp on the centre’s sole computer to confer with Ziervogel and Helal back in London.  The results were four good stories and five interesting drafts and Helal and Ziervogel then returned to work with the writers on these stories and integrate them into a single narrative.

Switching between first and third person narratives, the linked stories provide a vivid picture of life in the camp.  Reham’s story begins her arrival in Shatila from Damascus.  We then learn about her marriage to Marwan and the difficulties that arose when she gave birth to a disabled child and he rejected it.  The narrative then switches to the third person to tell the story of Youssef a standover thug preying on the people in the camp.  He comes back towards the end of the story as a predator wanting a child bride, and the child’s parents marry her off to a frail old man in order to protect her from much worse.  There is a love story too, between Reham’s son Adam and a young musician called Shatha, who faces down her father’s objections to take up a scholarship in Canada, only to fall victim to the everyday perils of living in Shatila.

While the plot is engaging and it’s easy to become invested in the characters, it’s the depiction of life in a refugee camp that is most powerful.  We tend to hear about flight stories, or stories of refugees in their resettlement phase, often making good in their new homeland.  But though people can’t get jobs, basic infrastructure is an unfunny joke, and the squalor is breathtaking, Shatila is a place of permanant refuge.  Shatha’s father doesn’t want her to leave home because to be in Shatila is to be part of the Palestinian movement.   People have been there for a lifetime…

My eyes latch on to a large iron key fixed to the UNRWA water tower opposite the building we are sitting on top of.  This key symbolises all the keys that our Palestinian families took with them in 1948 when they had to leave our homeland, believing that they would soon be able to return and once again unlock their front doors.  Every family I know still has their old house key.  (p. 98)

Each writer received an advance, and will be eligible for royalties; 50p from each book sale will be donated to the Basmeh & Zeitooneh charity.

Authors: Omar Khaled Ahmad, Nibal Alalo, Safa Khaled Algharbawi, Omar Abdellatif Alndaf, Rayan Mohamad Sukkar, Safiya Badran, Fatima Omar Ghazawi, Samih Mahmoud, Hiba Marei.
Writing project leaders: Meike Ziervogel (founder of Peirene Press) and Suhir Helal
Title: Shatila Stories
Translated by Nashwa Gowanlock
Publisher: Peirene Press, (Peirene Now No 3), 2018, 125 pages
ISBN: 9781908670489
Source: Gift from Kim at Reading Matters, thanks Kim!

Our politicians are back from holidays and busy trading barbs with each other in preparation for the election due later on this year.  At this stage, neither of the major parties have anything on their websites about foreign policy or defence, but you can bet that (apart from securing the defence vote with a shopping list of weaponry), the campaigns are going to focus on the domestic hip pocket nerve and the culture wars.  If any of our politicians are seriously thinking about our changing region and the policy changes that are needed, then they’re not telling voters about it.  (Yet.  A good scare campaign is a useful campaign weapon if the national mood veers towards a change of government).

What kind of issues should our government be tackling?

This is the blurb for the most recent issue of the Australian Foreign Affairs Journal:

The fourth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the challenge of defending Australia at a time of regional uncertainty and fast-changing military technology. It explores the nation’s main vulnerabilities and the capabilities needed to secure against them, including the consequences of a nuclear arms race in Asia.

    • Michael Wesley examines the state of Australia’s security as Asia’s power balance shifts.
    • Patrick Walters probes the overhaul of Australia’s expanding intelligence agencies.
    • John Birmingham analyses Australia’s weapons capabilities as the military expands its reach.
    • Stephan Frühling explores Australia’s options for developing nuclear weapons to protect its maritime approaches.
    • Jane Perlez discusses the West’s misjudgement of Xi Jinping, China’s leader for life.
    • Matthew Thompson examines Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous rule in the Philippines.
    • Tess Newton Cain reports on mining in the Pacific region.

The issue begins with a striking piece of information:

Australia’s military has fought almost continuously since the nation was founded in 1901.  More than 100,000 soldiers have died in more than twenty-five separate conflicts, and 2400 are currently on active duty in at least seven countries.  These various wars and operations are, with one exception, linked by a convenient thread: they have all occurred elsewhere. (Editor’s Note, p.3)

(The exception is the Japanese bombing of Australia’s northern coastline and the submarine raids in Sydney Harbour in WW2.  Neither of these involved landing enemy troops here.).

We send our defence forces overseas, and we spend lots of money on lethal weaponry, but can anyone born after WW2 remember even a rudimentary air raid drill in a major city? We haven’t a civil defence program since WW2 because we haven’t feared being attacked.  We haven’t feared being attacked because of our geography: we can’t defend our landmass, but Australia has been difficult to attack effectively:

…its major population centres, economic heartlands and government infrastructure are hard to strike and occupy.  Australia has ‘strategic depth’ unlike that of any other country on earth, in that an attack that comes from its northern or western approaches would have to cross thousands of kilometres of uninhabited and inhospitable territory before reaching its goal of the continent’s south-eastern corner.  A direct attack on Australia’s south-eastern coastline faces no less daunting logistical challenges: water-borne forces are vulnerable to defensive action by opposing navies and to shore-based firepower.  Any hostile country intending to mount a direct amphibious attack on Australia’s south-eastern coast would need to establish sea control and command of the air, while suppressing shore-based defence systems, an almost impossible task in waters thousands of kilometres from possible bases of supply. (Michael Wesley, in ‘Dangerous Proximity’, p.12)

Add to that Australia’s history of relying on alliances with great and powerful nations (the UK till WW2, and then the US) and it’s easy to see why domestic defence has long been a low-key political issue in this country.

But things are changing.  Long-range precision-strike capabilities mean that geography is no longer the deterrent that it was.  And it’s not just that there are challenges to US authority in the region, it’s also that an unpredictable president doesn’t make any of its allies in Asia and Southeast Asia feel confident about the extent and durability of Washington’s commitment to their security. Though for a long time, Australia’s military capabilities have been superior to those of countries in our neighbourhood, that’s not true any more either.  Though all eyes lately have been on China, the rise of India and the growth of the Indonesian economy mean Australia needs to rethink its complacency.

According to Australia’s 2016 White Paper (the most recent), half the world’s submarines will be operating in the Asia-Pacific region within the next two decades, as will at least half of all advanced-combat aircraft.  Meanwhile, changes in technology, such as the development of cyber capabilities and drones, make it cheaper and easier for weaker countries to attack those with superior weaponry.  (Editor’s Note, p.5)

Australia, says Michael Wesley, has lost its technological edge.  And the logic of the US alliance has shifted too: from whether they will come to our aid if we need it, to whether Australia will come to America’s aid if there’s a stoush with China in the South China Sea.

It is even distinctly possible that if what is required to defend Australia impedes Washington’s efforts to preserve its strategic influence in the Pacific, the opacities of the ANZUS alliance will come to the fore.  (Wesley, p.19)

What Wesley suggests is that Australia ought to develop new strategic partnerships with India, Japan and Indonesia, to complement the US alliance.  And crucially, we must get past our current dialogue-of-the-deaf with China, engaging Beijing in a sustained conversation about the emerging power balance in the region.  (p.23)

Patrick White’s chapter about “Spies, China and Megabytes’ is a seriously creepy chapter, as it reveals aspects of intelligence operations that — while aiming to protect Australia, for example, from cyber-attacks to steal intellectual property, especially defence-related intellectual property — also have a Big Brotherish feel to me.  The spurious claims made by scurrilous politicians to link counterterrorism operations with refugees make me uneasy too.  Yes, there appears to be evidence that China has been engaged in highly dubious activities, from penetrating the Bureau of Meteorology and the ANU computer network to a sophisticated strategy for influencing the views of the Australian body politic via the media, government and the Chinese diaspora here, but must we have the Home Affairs behemoth? The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review apparently didn’t include that in its recommendations, and nor was the shift of ASIO from the Attorney-General’s department to Home Affairs.

John Birmingham’s chapter ‘Weapons of Choice’ depressed me with its analysis of the eye-glazing defence expenditure that, in an ideal world, could be better spent on improving people’s lives.  Even more depressing is his concluding paragraph that suggests that all this military spending…

… does nothing to protect the infinitely vaster and immeasurably more vulnerable non-military infrastructure, which is more likely to be targeted in the opening micro-seconds of the next war.  (John Birmingham, ‘Weapons of Choice’, p.70

I note Birmingham’s advice that simply installing software update patches as they are released by providers such as Microsoft does go a long way towards securing IT systems.  But if my experience of penny-pinching reactive-not-proactive IT support in schools is typical, then there’s not much hope of timely updates in government departments, universities and the like, not to mention small business working with intellectual property that foreign sources would like to steal.

Stephan Frühling’s chapter ‘A Nuclear Armed Australia?’ puts a finger squarely on the issue:

Ultimately, the role of nuclear weapons in the defence of Australia is inseparable from questions about the nation’s identity, and the kind of country Australia wants to be in the new world order.  (Stephan Frūhling, “A Nuclear Armed Australia’, p.73

Indeed.  Things are bad enough as they are, with the suspension of the nuclear weapons treaty this week, (blame attributed to Russia on the ABC website and to the US at the Guardian) without contemplating a nuclear arms race in the geologically unstable region to our north if Australia joined the nuclear club…

(It’s only a week or so since I visited the Black Mist Burnt Country exhibition which …

… is a national touring exhibition concerned with the British atomic tests in Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. It revisits the events and locations through the artworks of Indigenous and non-Indigenous contemporary artists across the mediums of painting, print-making, sculpture, photography, video and new media.

Even the testing of these weapons is a danger to future generations, even if the weapons are never used.)

Much food for thought, as usual, but nothing in this issue makes me feel confident that anyone is on the ball.

There also book reviews (see the last three dot points above) and the usual correspondence about the previous issue.

The next issue, which will land in my letter box this month, is called Are We Asian Yet? History v Geography

Authors: Michael Wesley, John Birmingham, Patrick Walters and Stephan Frühling
Series editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title: Defending Australia
Series: Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #4
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, October 2018, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781760640774
Source: Personal subscription

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2019

Vale Andrew McGahan (1966-2019)

The Guardian is reporting that the award-winning Australian novelist Andrew McGahan has died today, aged only 52.

Born in Queensland but a long time resident of Melbourne, McGahan was the author of 10 critically acclaimed novels.  His debut novel Praise won the 1991 Vogel Literary Award and it went on to became an Australian bestseller.  Wikipedia tells me that this book is

often credited with launching the short-lived Grunge Lit or Dirty realism movement – terminology that McGahan himself (along with most of the writers to whom it was applied) rejected.  In 1995 McGahan followed up with 1988, a prequel to Praise, partially based on time the author spent working at a lighthouse in the Northern Territory during Australia’s bicentennial year.

Praise has been on my TBR for ages but I haven’t read it yet.

McGahan’s third novel was a venture into crime fiction.  Last Drinks, (2000) explored the fertile ground of political corruption in Queensland in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. It won a Ned Kelly Award.

Major success came with The White Earth, (2004) a first edition of which lives among my Miles Franklin Award winners.  My book group read it in 2006, so there is no review here at ANZ LitLovers, a situation which I shall rectify as I work my way through reading (and re-reading) all the winners of this award.  The White Earth also won The Age Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and it was a bestseller too, an unusual feat for a literary novel in Australia.

Underground, (2006) is on my TBR as well, described by Wikipedia as

an absurdist satire attacking the more extreme manifestations of the War on Terror in Australia. It received mixed reviews and caused conservative commentator Andrew Bolt to declare McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”.

(Which IMO makes McGahan an author worth reading, as is any other book attacked by Bolt).

Wonders of a Godless World, which won the 2009 Aurealis Award for Science Fiction, joined my TBR in 2009 and this is one that makes me really cross with myself that I still haven’t read it.  It is, apparently, a work entirely without dialogue or proper nouns and delving into such topics as geology, weather and immortality and madness.  I don’t read much SF but this is one that appeals.

Other books to look out for include the Ship Kings fantasy seafaring series

  • 2011 The Coming of the Whirlpool, (Book 1)  This was shortlisted for the 2012 Indie Awards (Children’s category), and the CBCA Book of the Year and was a finalist in the 2011 Aurealis Awards for Children’s Fiction.
  • 2012 The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice (Book 2)
  • 2014, The War of the Four Isles (Book 3)
  • 2016 The Ocean of the Dead (Book 4 and the last of the series).

McGahan also wrote for the stage and screen and won an AFI award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the screenplay of Praise; it won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; and the Queensland Premier’s Award, Best Drama Script.

As I write this, I am conscious that I have read only one of this major novelist’s works, and so I have to confess that it was McGahan’s versatility in writing across genres that has always made me hesitate, even after I’ve bought his books.  Clearly, I need to redress this deficiency because McGahan should be represented here…

ANZLitlovers extends condolences to the friends, relatives and colleagues of Andrew McGahan.  He was a significant literary figure and will be sorely missed.

Oh my, this starter book for #6Degrees is a challenge!  I haven’t read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and unlike our host for this meme, Kate from Books are My Favourite and Best and Sue from Whispering Gums I didn’t even know there was a film, (and now have no inclination whatsoever to watch it).  So it was off to Goodreads where I read my friend KD’s review so that I could latch onto some idea or other, and I found this quotation from the author in the introduction to the book, thanks KD!

…bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt. These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives.

Ah ha!  Books about masculinity I can do!  There are a few reviews on this blog of what KD has shelved as ‘guy-lit’ but I’m going to choose a recent award winner, Dancing Home by Paul Collis who is a Barkindji man, from far western NSW on the Darling River. This book not only won the 2016 David Unaipon Award but also won the 2018 ACT Book of the Year Award.  It’s a tough but rewarding read exploring the tender side of toxic masculinity… see my review here.

From there it’s an easy link to Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip.  I love the way this Bundjalung author portrays her central characters as tough Indigenous women with a tender side.  Lucashenko’s women have to be tough because they can’t afford to give up on the struggle for justice, but they’re also loving women, and they are often very funny.

From Lucashenko’s blackfella du jour on a stolen Harley, I’m going way back to an early review on this blog for a link to another motorcyclist.  8 States of Catastrophe by Karenlee Thompson traces the picaresque adventures of MV (Mozart Vincent), a motorcycle-riding psychic poet, and his sidecar companion, a black Labrador named Rider, as they travel around Australia.

Karenlee is also the author of my 2017 Book of the Year Flame Tip.  Loosely themed around the catastrophic Black Tuesday Bushfires in Tasmania in 1967, it’s a collection of short fictions which wring my heart given the current fires in Tassie. Today ABC Online is showing satellite images of the desolation, and Tasmanian Pam at Travellin’ Penguin has written a moving piece that pays homage to the firefighters and the volunteers working to rescue wildlife. Her photo of a kangaroo with his burns patched up is a tribute in itself.

Another book with the same word in its title is Flames by debut Tassie author Robbie Arnott.  Recently shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, this cunning novel offers a whole new mythology that builds on the idea of vengeful reincarnations who use flame to deal with unfinished business, old grudges, forgotten choresSee my review here.

And that leads me to my final title, Nyarla and the Circle of Stones, (The Fethafoot Chronicles #1) by Pemulwuy Weeatunga.  Pemulwuy Weeatunga is the nom-de-plume of John Wenitong, of Kabi-kabi Aboriginal, South-Sea-islander, Nepalese and Indian/Sri-Lankan descent, and this series is based on storytelling from the oldest living culture in the world. Wenitong wrote the stories for teenage Indigenous readers so that (without revealing cultural matters which are sacred) they can enjoy a mythology of their own, to rival the epics of Greek and Roman mythology.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a book I do not want to read at all, to one I’d like to see being read in classrooms across Australia and beyond…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2019

The Atheist, by Achdiat K Mihardja, translated by R J Maguire

The Atheist is the February choice for our Indonesian bookgroup.  First published in 1949, this novel is recognised as a masterpiece of modern Indonesian literature and was included in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works before that translation project (1948-2005) was defunded by the UN.  Interesting too — considering its subject matter and the Indonesian hostility to atheism because of its association with Communism — is that the novel received an award from the Indonesian government in 1969*, not long after the Indonesian Communist Purge of 1965-66 with an estimated death toll of between 500,000 to one million deaths. Perhaps, given his membership of the Socialist Party of Indonesia, it was just as well that in 1961 Achdiat Mihardja took up work as a lecturer in Indonesian Language and Literature at the ANU, and Canberra remained his adopted home until his death in 2010, aged 99.

It’s interesting to me that this book remains in print and well-known, if the pages and pages of reviews at Goodreads are anything to go by. The significance of this book is that, in 1948-9, with the possibility of the creation of a new independent nation clearly in sight, an Indonesian intellectual was imagining what kind of society the Dutch East Indies might become if/when it became free of the colonial masters who had ruled it for centuries.  Indonesia had declared its independence in 1945 two days after the Japanese surrender, and it was fighting a bitter war with the Dutch who were determined to hang onto their colonial possession. Mihardja knew that independence was inevitable and he knew that decisions made about a constitution and government would be critical to its future.

So The Atheist explores the ethics and consequences of a capitalist or a socialist future; and through its main character ponders the possibility of an Islamic or a secular society.  By contrast, books exploring Australia’s possible post-colonial future, have lapsed into obscurity.  In 2018 I went to a Rare Books Week event here in Melbourne presented by scholar Zachary Kendall: it was called ’19th Century Visions of Australia’s Future’.  Zachary showcased a collection of books written here in Australia at the turn of the 19th century, and how in the leadup to Federation, in utopias and dystopias, writers were contemplating what kind of society we might have.  The themes that Zachary identified in his collection were Socialism, Federation and independence, Foreign invasion, Women’s rights, Secularism, Christianity, and Spiritualism.  Unsurprisingly, these themes are also present in The Atheist. 

This is the blurb from the back cover of The Atheist:

Using three narrative voices, the novel tells of the spiritual and intellectual crisis of Hasan, a young Muslim who is raised to be devout but comes to doubt his faith after becoming involved with a group of modern young people: Rusli, his Marxist-Leninist childhood friend; Anwar, an anarcho-nihilist artist; and Kartini, a beautiful young divorcée.

Upon publication, Atheis caused considerable discussion.  Religious thinkers, Marxist-Leninists, and anarchists decried the novel for not explaining their ideologies in more detail; but literary figures and many of the general public praised it.

The structure of the book is unusual.  Wikipedia is helpful here:

The plot of Atheis is non-linear. A. Teeuw, a Dutch scholar of Indonesian literature, models it as below, with A representing the time frame covered in Hasan’s manuscript (from his youth until splitting with Kartini), B representing the time frame in which the narrator meets with Hasan and receives his manuscript, and C representing the events around Hasan’s death.

[C {B (A) B} C]

A very brief Chapter 1 by an unnamed narrator [C] tells us that Hasan is dead, mourned by his friends Rusli and Kartini.  Hasan had been unable to withstand torture by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, because his body is weakened by TB.  (The Atheist is full of symbolism: here Hasan’s TB and torture represents the physical and psychological weakness of a people who have been subjected to years of malnutrition and maltreatment under its Japanese occupiers who invaded in 1942.  Hasan’s death is both an observation and a warning.)  The surrender of Japan less than a week ago sets the date as August 1945, but the Japanese Occupation is still in force because the Allies bypassed Java and Sumatra when fighting their way north to Japan. The pompous, florid style of the narration suggests to me that this narrator is Anwar, the anarchist.

It is the second unnamed narrator {B} in Chapter 2, who tells us how the book should be read.  (I think he’s Rusli, the Marxist-Leninist).  He’s an unemployed black marketeer during the Occupation, and he is in possession of Hasan’s manuscript because Hasan was seeking some feedback about it.  This narrator explains that the story isn’t chronological and that names have been changed to protect identities.  He justifies this, as if he knows authorities may find this anonymity suspicious, by alluding to it as a Dichtung und Wahreit story […] where it is common practice to use pseudonyms. That is to say, Hasan’s narrative which forms the central section of the book is modelled on Goethe’s autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth; 1811–1833).  Wikipedia offers some relevant points about that too:

  • Goethe held that “the most important period of an individual is that of his development,” and
  • He wrote from the point of view of a scientist (observing the stages of development like a botanist); an historian (describing the conditions of the times); and an artist (not bound to facts, but selecting significant elements and forming them into a work of art).

Chapter 3 launches into the main narrative (A), Hasan’s first person autobiography, which traces his childhood, his religious doubts, the breach with his devout parents and the break-up of his marriage due to jealousy.  Narrator {B} comes back in Chapter 13, explaining that in the wake of Hasan’s death, he has decided to finish the story, based on what he can find out about Hasan’s recent life, but he will write these final chapters in the third person.  Chapter 14 seems to be by the same narrator {B} recounting some scurrilous behaviour by Anwar the anarchist, but Chapter 15, three-and-a-half years later, has a different tone: there are scornful remarks about the behaviour of frightened people in an air-raid shelter and Hasan’s ‘return to God’ when he fears he’s going to die. Hasan’s rage when he finds out about his wife is recounted almost with glee.  I think this chapter is by Narrator [C] i.e. Anwar, but no doubt we will discuss this in the book group meeting!

The book raises many interesting issues.  Hasan has never doubted his religion, but in adulthood he moves to Bandung and by chance meets up with an old school friend called Rusli, who had had to skip the country for Singapore because of his activities with a Marxist-Leninist group.  Through Rusli, a critique of religion is mounted, and Hasan is initially shocked and decides to try to bring his friend back to religion.  But things are complicated by the presence of the beautiful Kartini, who resembles Hasan’s first love who he wasn’t allowed to marry because of class differences.  Kartini is Westernised.  She flashes a bit of flesh, smokes, and wants to go to the movies (which is forbidden in Hasan’s strict form of Islam).  For Hasan, even shaking her hand is forbidden, but his puritan beliefs take a back seat when she stumbles against him in the dark one night and he makes contact with more than her hand!

Whatever the reader concludes about the author’s position on religion, the book clearly critiques it, with arguments that are familiar.  Rusli points out that there is a multiplicity of religions and they can’t possibly all be right, and he says that despite religion’s longevity, there are still institutionalised class differences that perpetuate terrible poverty and hardship.  Fanaticism, he says, prevents people from working to improve injustice and inequality.  The triumph of science over religion is cast as man’s ingenuity bringing progress and benefits that supplant God’s creation. But the book also critiques strict religious practice, and Islam in particular.  Rusli asks why Christian countries are more progressive than Islamic ones, and he shows how Islamic piety impacts on the social fabric: Hasan won’t shake hands with a woman; he makes a scene when he thinks (wrongly) that he’s eaten forbidden foods; his parents isolated him from children who didn’t meet their pious standards, and they reject their own son when he challenges their faith.  Rusli, who is protecting Kartini from an unwanted suitor after her divorce, has to tell lies about her being his sister to prevent unjustified damage to her reputation.  Islam also causes discrimination because no Muslim will buy from a Chinese food stall or restaurant, and it’s also sometimes a trigger for violence, as when intolerant Muslims physically attack a speaker at a meeting because he takes a sip of drink and thus breaks the Ramadan fast.

The critique of capitalism includes the argument that it cements the feudal power structures along with a bourgeoisie while the underclass is trapped in poverty.  The economic system is not open to debate: Rusli has to flee to Singapore when he joins a political party.  (It’s interesting to see Singapore described as cosmopolitan and a refuge open to political debate!) Capitalism, Rusli says, also oppresses women because both of the women that Hasan loves had to marry according to their parents’ wishes to acquire more capital.  It’s also, he says, the cause of prostitution because women can’t earn an independent income any other way.  The differences in access to transport that Pramoedya Ananta Toer ascribed to racism and colonialism in This Earth of Mankind are attributed to the capitalist system in The Atheist, and Hasan’s narrative begins with a snapshot of a village economy:

On a mountain slope of the White Lake, amid the beautiful Priangan ranges, lies a village called Panyeredan.  Surrounded by green citrus trees, whose rapid growth stems from the fertile soil and the cool, pleasant climate, the village contains about two hundred houses, most of which are small and belong to impoverished farm labourers. The few large ones, built of stone, are owned by farmers considered wealthy (that is, they own about ten hectares of land) and who also work as middlemen in citrus fruit and other produce.  There are, too, a number of “half-stone” houses: the floors are tiles, and stone walls extend a quarter of the way up while the upper portions consist of the usual woven bamboo.  These houses, which are more numerous than the stone ones, are owned by people who possess one or two hectares of land.  (p.13)

Any Indonesian reading this in 1949, would be aware that under the Dutch Cultivation System 20% of village land had to be set aside for export crops.  And they were no better off under the Japanese: despite the fertile soil and the cool, pleasant climate about 2.4 million people died in Java from famine during 1944–45.

The framing of the novel as the coming-of-age of Hasan was not only an engaging way of presenting these ideas to a wider readership, it was also a way of evading censorship (in much the same way that Yan Lianke is able to critique China in his novels without running foul of the authorities). The characterisation of Hasan as very impressionable works in the same way.  In Hasan’s indecisive reflections, he considers the arguments, rejects them, finds them appealing, and surrenders to them because of Kartini’s charms and the unavoidable influence of Westernisation.  At the same time, the author urges the reader to retain ideals even in the face of grave difficulty.  Through Hasan’s instinctive dislike of Anwar — his pompous speechmaking, insulting behaviours and lack of respect — Mihardja exposes the selfishness, amorality and hypocrisy of Anwar’s anarchism, making it clear that nihilism offers nothing for the future.

I am really looking forward to teasing out my ideas about this book with the book group!

The cover image is a detail from ‘Depth’ (2003) by Putu Sutawijaya.

*Wikipedia and the book cover blurb both mention this (unspecified) award in 1969, and a government Arts Award in 1971, but both Mihardja’s obituary in the (English language) Jakarta Post and the Editor’s afterword about the author mention an Indonesian national literary award in 1956.  Whether this is a different award or the same one with a possible mistranslation of the date, I don’t know.

Author: Achdiat K Mihardja (1911-2010)
Title: The Atheist (Atheis)
Translated by R J Maguire (First English translation 1972)
Edited by Diana Darling
Publisher: Modern Library of Indonesia Series, Lontar Foundation, 2015, 214 pages (first published 1949)
ISBN: 9786029144161
Source: Personal copy, purchased courtesy of Halina from my Indonesian bookgroup – thanks, Halina!

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2019

2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

The 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced tonight.

It was an epic fail for ANZ LitLovers: the only book I’d read and reviewed was by Taboo by Kim Scott. which won the Prize for Indigenous Writing.  I did better on the shortlists, see my post about those titles here. There is some excellent reading among them.

Victorian Prize for Literature ($100,000) and Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Non-Fiction,($25,2000)
No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison, by Behrouz Boochani, translated by Omid Tofighian

(Ironically, I’m writing this post late at night, because I’ve just been to see a great play called Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. There are two more performances in Melbourne, and some tickets are still available.  Get there if you can.)

Prize for Fiction
The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

Prize for Drama
The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver

Prize for Poetry
Tilt by Kate Lilley’s

Prize for Writing for Young Adults
Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

Prize for Indigenous Writing
Taboo by Kim Scott

Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript
Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

People’s Choice Award
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee.

 

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