Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2017

Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns, read by Tom Parker

You know that painful gritty feeling in your eyes when you have hay fever?  *heavy sigh* It isn’t always hay fever.  If it transitions into feeling excruciatingly like iron filings in your eyes, take yourself off to the optometrist and get it treated.  Quick smart.  No mucking about.  It’s a disorder affecting the cells in your eyes, and you will need drops and sticky creams involving steroids and specially designed eye heat pads at bedtime to fix it.

And that’s how I came to listen to Sue’s gift of this Cold Sassy Tree audiobook at bedtime.  For the best part of the last fortnight I set up the next CD before glueing my eyelids together and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of Tom Parks reading this deceptively nostalgic story about a small turn-of-the-century town in the US state of Georgia.

The first few CDs focussed on the scandal engulfing the town.  Narrated by 14-year-old Will Tweedy, the story explains how the gossips had a field day when his grandfather E. Rucker Blakeslee, proprietor of the general store, eloped with his milliner Miss Love Simpson just three weeks after his wife had died. Will, too young to understand everything, but old enough to be a keen observer, soon discovers that this is no love match but rather a marriage of convenience for both of them.  It’s easy enough to deduce his reasons: Grandpa needs a wife the way that blokes did need wives in the days when women did all the home management.  But Miss Love’s reasons are more opaque…

As the story progresses Will has (innocent) adventures with a girl, and a hair-raising narrow escape with a train, and so the reader is swept along in what seems like gentle nostalgia for a bygone age.  But there is some careless racism involving African-American bit players in the story which made me wonder a bit… Olive Ann Burns published this in 1984, and it seemed surprising to my 21st century eyes that even in 1984 an author could be oblivious to the offence that must be caused by its indifferent representation of racial inequity.  There’s also a lot of heavy-duty Christianity which became tiresome – perhaps it was authentic, but I felt that the author was playing to a particular type of audience in the south.

Or was she?

I was suddenly jerked wide-awake when the novel took a much darker tone.  Will overhears the reason why Miss Love is content with an unconsummated marriage.  The novel wraps up soon after that, with an ending most readers will anticipate given the age difference between the pair, but the questions remain.  Is this a feel-good romance/coming-of-age story written by an author who was blind to the hypocrisy of the society she was representing, or did she create a very subtle story to expose those hypocrisies to an audience that needed to be lured in gently?

As Sue notes in her review, it’s not always easy to pick up on the details when listening to an audio book.  (Especially when you’re half asleep when listening!)  Sue also notes the representation of the ‘poor white trash’, the changing role of women and the signs of modernisation in the form of cars and so on.  It’s fascinating to see the divergence in Goodreads reviews, froma story that is a treasured friend… and … witty and touchingto … a long, boring soap opera about small minded, judgmental, gossipy people in a backwoods town that specializes in making a full blown scandal over every petty incident. It includes something for everyone: racism, sexism, chauvinism, religious prejudice, and “Yankeeism”…

I’m undecided about the author’s purpose, but I think that a modern reading of this book offers much food for thought.

Author: Olive Ann Burns
Title: Cold Sassy Tree
Narrator: Tom Parker
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005
ISBN: 9780786180486
Source: Gift of Sue from Whispering Gums, thanks Sue!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 28, 2017

One-Two, by Igor Eliseev

There is a terrible moment in Igor Eliseev’s new novel One-Two when the reader realises the reason for its strange title: Faith and Hope are conjoined twins who have been abandoned by their birth mother, experimented on at the Institute of Paediatrics and then the Institute of Traumatology, and finally dumped in a foster home where every child is given a degrading, insulting nickname.  The story is narrated by Faith, with only occasional interjections from Hope, but it is she who speaks up when confronted by the indifferent cruelty of their new ‘home’ where they are told they belong in a zoo:

‘Good afternoon, Inga Petrovna.  My name is Hope, and she is Faith.’

The principal gave us a sharp look that immediately accused us of all our past wrongdoings and of our future ones, too, including, first and foremost, the fact that we had had the audacity to be born, and chillily summarised:

‘That’s too long to keep in mind. You will be One, and you,’ she pointed at me ‘you will be Two.’ (p.27)

It’s heart-breaking to think of children being denied even their own names…

The resilience of these two girls who suffer appalling insults, neglect and exploitation in the Perestroika period in Russia is emblematic of the resilience of the Russian people and the suffering they have experienced during the 20th century.  In a chapter entitled ‘Injustice as a Standard of Living’, the girls have this conversation:

Suddenly an incredible thought came into my mind.

‘Hope,’ I started, ‘what if initially they had named you Faith and me Hope, but afterwards they forgot which was which and swapped our names around by mistake?  You always believe that everything is going to be all right, and your faith helps me.’

‘And you hope that it will be that way.  We have this close bond between us.’  After thinking a while, you added, ‘All people need hope, no one can live without it; and our hope is way stronger when it is warmed up by faith.  So it isn’t really important who is Faith and who is Hope; the main thing is that we are connected together.  (p.57)

The irony is that while these girls are inseparable because of their congenital deformity, the USSR is rapidly disconnecting itself, as one republic after another declares independence.

The story traces the girls’ eventual escape from the foster home, but things are no better in the capital (which I assume is Moscow).  Although they are highly intelligent and hardworking, there is no work for them and they become homeless, reduced to begging in one of the underground tunnels of the Moscow Metro – and handing over much of their ‘earnings’ to a pimp.

Their commentary in the chapter called ‘Tomorrow was the Country’ on the massive changes taking place in Russia is familiar to those of us who remember the stories of terrible hardships as the Soviet Union dissolved and a market economy was suddenly imposed.

By a twist of fate, we turned out to be a special environment, the special environment where things can be seen most clearly.  The tunnel was our auditorium, with daily classes in psychology and philosophy.  We secretly watched generations in pursuit of a better life: tearing former pictures, throwing out old books, changing erstwhile slogans – swearing off anything valuable in the country’s history.  Thoughts of survival became rooted in people’s minds so deeply and tenaciously that all principles of conscience were discarded as useless, and only “saving” alcohol could quench the thirst for oblivion and idleness.  Those ties we didn’t drink very often and exchanged vodka, which had became [sic] a principal means of payment, for food or services.  The prices rose daily, but life just kept getting worse the more alms we received.  (p. 199)

As you can see from these excerpts, there is an occasional clumsiness in the English used by this author, who is Russian, but writes in English.  I am curious about this decision: given the low rate of translation from other languages to English, perhaps it is a way of getting a wider circulation for his work?

The most tragic moments of this unremittingly sad tale come when the girls find a way to seek out their mother, but there is no happy ending.  The book is a wake-up girl for all of us to interrogate the way we respond to diversity, perhaps best summed up by this comment:

“People have no limits either in love or in hatred. But is it their fault? They despise us because they are afraid, for we remind them that getting crippled or sick might happen to anyone; or, perhaps, the true reason for their hatred lies much deeper inside, stemming from a hidden ugliness in their souls?”

Author: Igor Eliseev
Title: One-Two
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781911414230
Source: review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available from Fishpond: One-Two or direct from Glagoslav Publications, including as an eBook

Stu Allen, chair of the The Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury, has suffered a sad bereavement- his mother has just unexpectedly died – so the other members of the Shadow Jury have stepped up to help.  As a former Shadow Jury member and a supporter of Stu’s work in promoting translated fiction to the world, I’m going to help too, by harvesting the Shadow Jury’s reviews as they are published on the jury’s respective blogs, gathering the reviews together in one place for easy reference.

If you want to send condolences to Stu, this is the link.

Shadow Jury members, please alert me to any reviews that I might have missed.

 Combined reviews

The longlist names the author, nationality, the translator, the title and the original imprint.   You can follow the links on the title to a summary at the MBIP website.

Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell, Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Wioletta Greg (Poland), Eliza Marciniak, Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books)

David Grossman (Israel), Jessica Cohen, A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape)

Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), David McKay, War and Turpentine (Harvill Secker)

Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett, Don Shaw, The Unseen (Maclehose)

Ismail Kadare (Albania), John Hodgson, The Traitor’s Niche (Harvill Secker)

Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), Phil Roughton, Fish Have No Feet (Maclehose)

Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas, The Explosion Chronicles (Chatto & Windus)

Alain Mabanckou (France), Helen Stevenson, Black Moses (Serpent’s Tail)

Clemens Meyer (Germany), Katy Derbyshire, Bricks and Mortar (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Misha Hoekstra, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Pushkin Press)

Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange, Judas (Chatto & Windus)

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell, Fever Dream (Oneworld)

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The Shadow Jury

Stu Allen is returning to chair the second Man Booker International Prize shadow jury after hosting four shadow IFFP juries plus the first MBIP shadow award.  He blogs out of Winstonsdad’s Blog, home to 500-plus translated books in review.  He can be found on twitter (@stujallen), where he also started the successful translated fiction hashtag #TranslationThurs over six years ago.

Tony Malone blogs at Tony’s Reading List

Clare blogs at A Little Blog of Books

Tony Messenger blogs at Messengers Booker (and more)

Lori Feathers’ reviews can be found @LoriFeathers

Bellezza (Meredith Smith) blogs at Dolce Bellezza

David Hebblethwaite blogs at David’s Book World

Grant Rintoul blogs at 1streading

For more info about the Shadow Jury, visit Stu’s blog post about it.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 27, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #2 Chapter 1

It’s quite extraordinary, the sense of triumph I feel at having completed Chapter One of Finnegans Wake.  It’s daft, too, because there’s no way anyone can ‘complete’ Finnegans Wake.  Already I know that to do that I would need to take a course in Irish history, locate and read and internalise a Roman Catholic Mass missal, and learn half a dozen more languages than I’ve already toyed with.  Tindall in A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake says FW is tough if you only have one language (like he does) because the text is liberally sprinkled with Latin, French, German, Italian, Gaelic and Danish, plus ‘a little’ Russian, Czech, Finnish and Hebrew.  Oh, yes, and I should be familiar with the James Joyce bio as well.

And should I accomplish all that, even then, my Senior’s vintage memory will let me down… I was quite miffed to read in Campbell’s  A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork that:

Every reader of Ulysses will recall the ‘thirty-two feet per second, per second.  Law of falling bodies,’ which ran through Bloom’s thoughts of the entire day.  (Campbell, p.44)

Well, no, I’ve read Ulysses four times, most recently not so very long ago, and this snippet and its significance has passed me by.  I fear Joyce’s number games will pass me by in FW too, though Campbell has warned me that:

The number is now to run through the entire night of Finnegans Wake, usually in combination with eleven, the number of restart after finish.  (The old decade having run out with ten, eleven initiates the new.  See our discussion of the Kabbalistic decade for Bk II, chap 3).

Yes, it’s easy to feel intimidated by Campbell, and equally so by Tindall, but I am not discouraged yet.  Tindall, after all, had help.  He set up a bunch of graduate students to read it with him and to collaborate by sharing their languages and knowledge.  And Campbell, well, Campbell was just a genius.

I started off reading the text accompanied by the Finnegans Web wiki, but before long it departed from the words in front of me.  It was irrelevant to me whether this is because the wiki version is abridged, or just a different edition to the ‘restored’ Folio edition, (though I was surprised to see how that this site doesn’t seem to acknowledge which edition they’re using nor who their narrator is).  I gave up, and read the chapter out loud, myself.  Fortunately my library is soundproofed, or The Spouse might have thought that my incomprehensible babble presaged a stroke and sent for an ambulance…

From my pre-reading I already knew the outline of events. FW starts at Howth Castle and Sir Tristram (the invading Englishman who founded the castle) is returning from over the short sea to wage war.  There is a thunderclap signalled by a word with 100 letters (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun-awnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) This is the Word of God and it signals the restarting of history and the fall – of Finnegan the hod-carrier off his ladder, and the Fall of Man.  There is a wake, where a splash of Guinness brings Finnegan back from the dead.   But resurrection notwithstanding, the wake continues on anyway, following Finnegan (representing Everyman) throughout history and the landscape.

BTW There is an amusing page at Wiktionary about the thunderclap.  It correctly notes that the word is created from words meaning thunder in lots of different languages, but there is high level indignation about whether it should be included at Wiktionary as a word.  One of the complainants had never heard of Finnegans Wake and it seems that he and his pals were successful in having the entry deleted.  But the discussion has been archived, and *happy dance* it includes a list of the other 100-letter words from FW (though it incorrectly ascribes them to Ulysses).  I have copied these words here for fun and in case somebody deletes them from Wiktionary. BTW the last word has 101 letters.

  • Thunder: [[bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntro-varrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk]]
  • Thunder: [[perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthruma-thunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun]]
  • Clap: [[klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammi-hnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot]]
  • Whore: [[bladyughfoulmoecklenburgwhurawhorascortastrumpapornanennykocksap-astippatappatupperstrippuckputtanach]]
  • [[thingcrooklyexineverypasturesixdixlikencehimaroundhersthemaggerbykinkinkankan-withdownmindlookingated]]
  • Shut the door: [[lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphaln-abortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk]]
  • [[bothallchoractorschumminaroundgansumuminarumdrumstrumtruminahumptadump-waultopoofoolooderamaunsturnup]]
  • [[pappappapparrassannuaragheallachnatullaghmonganmacmacmacwhackfallther-debblenonthedubblandaddydoodled]]
  • Cough: [[husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdamandamnacosaghcusaghhobix-hatouxpeswchbechoscashlcarcarcaract]]
  • Norse gods: [[ullhodturdenweirmudgaardgringnirurdrmolnirfenrirlukkilokkibaugim-andodrrerinsurtkrinmgernrackinarockar]]

Yes, I digress…


Strangely, from page 4 Bygmester Finnegan has a coat of arms, and a different name: he is now Wassaily Booslaeugh of Riesengeborg, and he’s a giant.  This makes no sense until I remember the introductory stuff about the framing Joyce used.  Just as Ulysses is framed by Homer, FW is framed by a text from 1725 called La Scienza Nuova [The New Science] by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.  His philosophy of history “proves” that man’s history, created under the laws of divine providence, proceeds cyclically through three ages, the divine, the heroic and human.  (Tindall, p. 8)  Part I of FW (8 chapters) is framed around the Viconian Divine Age, and Finnegan a.k.a. Wassaily Booslaeugh in this part of the book conforms to its characteristics.

(Mind you, it’s a whole lot easier to recognise Homer when you see him, than it is to recognise the meanderings of some Italian chap from 1725.  Even if you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ve heard at least some of the stories, especially if you play video games).

#PressingOn.  This is my summary of the three Viconian ages, with Campbell’s names for them in brackets:

  • The Divine Age (theocratic) (Eden, Egypt and the darkness after the Fall of Rome) is signified by the language of mutes (grunts, gestures, hieroglyphs, coats of arms and fables).  Thunder announces it, and it produces religion and family.  It’s Part I of FW.
  • The Heroic Age (aristocratic) is signified by lords and vassals, wars and duels.  Its language is alphabets, metaphors and proverbs.  It produces marriage. It’s Part II of FW.
  • The Human Age (democratic) is signified by burial.  It produces cities, laws, civil obedience and eventually popular government.  Its language is vulgar speech, abstract discourse, and (in FW) radio and TV.  It’s Part III of FW.

A ricorso (chaotic) (period of confusion) occurs after the third age has destroyed itself until like a phoenix, it rises again.  It’s Part IV of FW.

My first laugh-out-loud moment came when it dawned on me that the ‘mourners’ were in a museyroom (i.e. a museum) dedicated to Wellington.  (Dublin has a massive obelisk dedicated to Wellington, in Phoenix Park.  This museyroom is a combination of the Magazine Fort and the monument).  An old woman is doing the guided tour, and she refers to Napoleon as Lipoleum, distorted by female lip and flooring, to be walked on by Wellington boots.  This excerpt is best read aloud, with the most authentic approximation of an Irish accent that you can manage.

This the way to the museyroom.  Mind your hats goan in.  Now yiz in the Willingdone Museyroom.  This is a Prooshious gunn.  This is the bullet that byng the flag of the Prooshious.  This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang the flag of the Prooshious.  Saloos the Crossgunn!  Up with your pike and fork! Tip.  (Bullsfoot! Fine!) This is the triplewon hat of Lipoleum.  Tip.  Lipoleumhat.  This is the Willingdone on his same white harse, the Cokenhape.  This is the big Sraughter Willingdone, grand and magnetic, in his goldtin spurs and his ironed dux and his quarterbrass woodyshoes and his magnate’s gharters and his Bangkok’s best and goliar’s galoshes and his pulluponeasyan wartrews.  This is his big wide hrase. Tip.  (p.7)

Things you need to know to get the joke:

  • the Prussians fought against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) too.
  • Napoleon had a two-cornered hat, not a tricorne, but he won power three times, by rigged plebiscite in 1799, by coronation in 1804 and by popular acclaim in 1815 when he returned from Elba.
  • Wellington had a horse called Copenhagen.
  • There is a bull on the Prussian coat of arms.
  • Wellington was a man who was willing and a man who got things done.  His nickname was the Iron Duke.
  • The repeated word ‘tip’ suggests that this old junk might just as well be taken to the dump.

Goliar?  Well, the Brits took all the credit for the victory at Waterloo but perhaps an Irishman might want to give the credit to the Prussians who turned up at the last minute and saved the day?

Another clever name play is Cromcruwell.  Well, he was cruel, especially in Ireland…

This made me chuckle too: junipery or febrewery, marracks or alebrill.  (Juniper is what gin is made from; and arrack is a kind of booze).

Some jokes are just plain provocative:  Having plodded through pages and pages of sentences with mostly made up words, there is a moment of relief for the reader when there appears to be one where every word is almost a real word.  But hmpf! it doesn’t make sense either:

In the ignorance that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.  (p.15)

The rhythm and the nested relative clauses of this sentence reminds me of the old English nursery rhyme:

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that killed the rat
That ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.  And so on….

I’ve read this chapter twice, and some bits of it three and four times, and  know I could read this chapter again and again and again… but I’ll never finish at that rate, so on to Chapter 2!


The 2016 annual edition of The Griffith Review’s Novella Project has six contributors but it was to meet one of my favourite authors, Stephen Orr that I made a rare excursion to the CBD for the launch of Issue #54.  It was a great night, hosted by The Hill of Content Bookshop: there was a tribute to Cory Taylor (who has a fiction piece in the edition) and there were readings from the collection as well. This is the blurb from the Griffith Review website:

Suzanne McCourt boldly ruminates on sexual taboos; Stephen Orr explores the nuances of the student–teacher bond; Graham Lang finds unlikely tenderness in a bleak ending; Melanie Cheng walks the line between inspiration and desire in life and art; and Daniel Jenkins plunges into the day-to-day negotiations of Westerners in the Middle East. Earthly Delights also features the final words of fiction in Cory Taylor’s wonderful and enduring written legacy.

Stephen’s novella ‘Datsunland’ is the standout story in the collection, and at just over 100 pages, it’s the longest one too.  (The others, IMO, are more like short stories than novellas since they range in length around only 30 pages.)

‘Datsunland’ is a story about distrust.  A disengaged music teacher and an equally disengaged guitar student think they have nothing in common until a chance conversation about the boy becomes a catalyst for the teacher to make a bit of an effort.  While the teacher still thinks that technique and scales are an important foundation he acknowledges that they are boring, and by relaxing a bit and opening up with the student he discovers that they share an interest in the same kind of music.  A relationship develops, one that makes the reader speculate, along with other students, the boy’s father, other teachers and eventually the school administration.

The novella length of this story allows Orr to explore these multiple perspectives, drawing the reader along in the trail of suspicion.  We have become so used to the narrative about exploitative relationships, that we are almost expecting this story to play out in a predictable way.  Eventually even the boy distrusts himself and the teacher.

It’s a thought-provoking story because as a society we have learned that we should be on hyper-alert about molestation, and yet there is something to be lost when adult mentors to teenage boys risk everything if their actions are misinterpreted.  Any mistake, any casual expression of affection, any careless remark can be a disaster.  I think the story also shows that teenage boys are chafing for independence and yet schools are still fussing about haircuts and other trivial things that have nothing to do with education.

I’ve read five of Stephen Orr’s novels and this piece shows yet again what a versatile author he is.  The characterisation is spot on, the depiction of family life is rich with authentic dialogue, and the school is compellingly real.

BTW The Editor Julianne Schultz has written an insightful introduction, discussing changes in the way we read and why deep reading is more important than ever before.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: ‘Datsunland’ in Griffith Review #54, Earthly Delights, The Novella Project
Publisher: Griffith Review in association with Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355543
Source: Personal copy, purchased at The Hill of Content Bookshop.

Available from Fishpond: Earthly Delights – The Novella Project IV (Griffith REVIEW)
Or you can subscribe and get 4 issues of the Griffith Review each year. (You can also get a digital subscription, which is significantly cheaper).


A new book is on my TBR: it’s called Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity and it’s by historian Rebe Taylor.  But as soon as I started reading it, I knew I wanted to read her first book, so I reserved that at the library… and lo! it was available the very next day.  This promptness made me think I could read the book at my leisure and renew it if necessary, but no, *pout* somebody else wants it now and I’ve ended up having to dash through the last half of it because it’s due back tomorrow.  So Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island is not going to get the review it deserves from me, because I now don’t have time to read it all.

(But actually what Unearthed really deserves is a proper review from a proper historian and there seems not to be one online, only an archived Hindsight program about it on the ABC, and one lonely 4-line review at Goodreads. How has this happened to a book nominated for the 2003 Dobbie, that tells such an interesting story?)

Maybe it’s because Kangaroo Island doesn’t seem so very important in the national consciousness?  Yet it’s our third-largest island (after Tasmania and Melville Island), and it’s a bit bigger than Majorca and Long Island.  It’s also the site of first European settlement in South Australia – a settlement which followed an Indigenous settlement that predates the loss of the land bridge about 10,000 years ago when sea levels rose, creating the body of water now known as Backstairs Passage, separating Kangaroo Island from the Fleurieu Peninsula.  Its Aboriginal name was Karta, ‘Isle of the Dead’ and there is a Dreaming story which tells the story of the people who did not get away in time from the flooding.

The fascinating aspect of this island’s settlement history is that modern day descendants of the sealers and Aboriginal women who re-settled Kangaroo Island in the early 19th century had – until recently – no idea of their ancestors’ existence.  The simplistic explanation for this seems to be that the sealers, their Aboriginal ‘wives’ and their way of life had been given such a bad press that their story was suppressed both by their embarrassed descendants and by the victors in the land-grab.  It was not until the 1950s and 60s that snippets of information made their way to contemporary descendants, and not until 1991 that the Kangaroo Island Pioneers Association unveiled a plaque to recognise the arrival of Nathaniel Thomas and his (unnamed) Aboriginal wife in 1827.   The story of the Aboriginal ‘wives’ and their children had to wait even longer.

Not all of the pioneers’ descendants appear to have been pleased about renewed interest in their family history.  Unearthed begins with the information that most of the names in the book are pseudonyms because descendants did not want their ancestors’ real names used.

Sifting complex layers of sometimes conflicting evidence, Taylor tells the story of a successful Islander society that was nevertheless vilified in contemporary sources of the time.  Taylor says that whatever the circumstances of the women leaving their original homes for life with the sealers (and perhaps not all of them were abducted, some may have been ‘traded’), there was cultural interchange between the sealers and the women.  The women soon learned to use the men’s tools and the men depended on the women to find water sources, to hunt for wildlife, and for the making of clothes and traps.  Both learned each other’s languages, and their children knew both.  Yet although the sealers were successful traders and soon established productive farms, they were described elsewhere as savages who had abandoned civilisation. And although there is no evidence that the men were escaped convicts, they were assumed to have criminal backgrounds anyway.

Since these Islanders had never had official authority to settle on Kangaroo Island, their community was not sanctioned by the Colonial Office.  Keen to establish a colony without convicts, the authorities made it seem like an urgent priority to sort matters out on Kangaroo Island so that they could continue with their sleight-of-hand dispossession of the Indigenous people in South Australia:

“The colonisation of South Australia by industrious and virtuous settlers, so far from being an invasion of the rights of the Aborigines, is a necessary preliminary to the displacement of the lawless squatters, the abandoned sailors, the runaway convicts, the pirates, the worse than savages, that now infest the coast of New Holland, and perpetrate against the defenceless natives crimes at which humanity revolts”.  (p.78)

Taylor demolishes this lands rights policy for what it was:

This is hyperbole whipped to its most ludicrous.  There were no hordes of pirates along the coast in 1836, only about eight middle-aged European men on Kangaroo Island.  If the Commissioners did not know the precise number and ages of the Islanders at the time of writing, they at least knew that the sealers had never formed a pandemic of pillagers.  (p.79)

Their source of information, a report from a Captain Sutherland, acknowledged that the sealers had never ‘molested’ Sutherland when he was there, and the report also includes a letter from Commissioner John Morphett describing the Islanders as intelligent, quiet men who were cultivating the land.   Taylor then goes on to say that:

The Islanders had become puppets in a game of textual borrowing.  The Commissioners’ First Report undoubtedly has a flavour reminiscent of the Hobart Town Gazette.  It is interesting how texts borrowed for new reasons can contradict their original uses.  Where the Van Dieman’s Land press viewed Kangaroo Island as the ‘ultima thule’, the furthest known and least desirable place, the Plan of a Company described Kangaroo Island as a ‘point of great importance’ and ‘a very desirable place.’  The colonisation of this ‘desirable’ place was justified in the same language that had made Kangaroo Island undesirable.  These textual contradictions were born out of geographically different perspectives.  From Sydney or Hobart, Kangaroo Island seemed habitable only to a savage, but from faraway London it seemed a fresh place for a civilised new settlement.  (p.80)

The new settlers on four ships who arrived to ‘displace’ the Islanders in 1836 had a mindset that justified their claims:

As the new, official settlers, they interpreted the Islanders’ lack of culture as a lack of legitimacy.

Although the settlers had known from Sutherland’s report that there were sealers and Aboriginal women living on Kangaroo Island, they still believed they were the first settlers in a new country.  They did not realise that this island had placenames and a known geography.  They did not seem to remember it had once been an important part of a prosperous industry, that it had older relationships with Bass Strait and other colonies, and with the indigenous communities of the mainland.  They did not regard this as a place that other people called home.  (p.77)

Well, of course there was trouble. Although the new would-be settlers received a hospitable welcome from the Islanders, the official settlement lacked the survival skills that the Aboriginal women had brought to the unauthorised settlements.  The new settlers couldn’t find water, and they couldn’t find food, and they were not best pleased to find themselves indebted for these basics to the black and white inhabitants that they’d labelled ‘savages’.   It wasn’t long before there were serious tensions.  Eventually the official settlement failed, packed up and went elsewhere, but some stayed.  Descendants of these people, interviewed by Taylor, still consider themselves the legitimate pioneers, (even though at least one of the original first settlers was eventually granted official title to his land.  These descendants are proud of their heritage and have passed on their family stories to the next generation.  Taylor found that descendants of the original first settlers didn’t even know their family stories…

Elsewhere the myth of Trukanini as the ‘last Tasmanian Aboriginal Australian’ was peddled, swamping the story of indigenous businesswoman Fanny Cochrane Smith who died in 1905 and left numerous descendants, and ignoring the Aboriginal women living on Bass Strait Islands and Kangaroo Island, at least one of whom, Suke, was still drawing rations from the Destitute Board of South Australian in the late 19th century.

The book goes on to tell the stories of the descendants of those very first settlers: Mary Seymour, the elder daughter of Nat Thomas and Betty; and Emma Barrett and Hannah Simpson, Mary’s daughters. Taylor notes the unedifying story of male descendants who despite achieving many middle-class distinctions in Kangaroo Island society, could not marry any of the local girls – and the reason was said to be their part-Aboriginal heritage. Eligible white males from the local ‘gentry’ chose not to marry at all, rather than marry Aboriginal women.  And so Aboriginal ancestry came to be hidden, and kept secret.

The Kangaroo Island story, it seems to me, is a microcosm of the Australian story.  And even now Rebe Taylor felt she couldn’t use the real names of some of the people involved…

Author: Rebe Taylor
Title: Unearthed, the Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2002
ISBN: 9781862545526
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Unearthed: The Aboriginal Tasmanians of Kangaroo Island or direct from Wakefield Press.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 24, 2017

After the Bombing, by Clare Morrall

After the Bombing is a deceptive novel.  At first I thought I was a bit disappointed by it.  I picked it up at the library because the author’s name was familiar to me: Clare Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour was shortlisted for the Booker (in 2003) and I remembered liking it very much.  But while I enjoyed After the Bombing enough for bedtime reading, it seemed to be ‘just a story’, if you know what I mean.  But as that story percolated in my mind over the next day or so, I began to see more of its merits.

Wikipedia tells me that Morrall was born in Exeter in 1952, well after the Exeter Blitz that frames her story, but like me, she would have grown up hearing family stories about the German bombing from those who experienced it.  Stories abut the terror of the raids, and then ”getting used to it.  Stories about lucky escapes, and about family members killed or injured by the bombing.  She would have seen streetscapes like those I saw as a small girl in London: gaps between the houses with weeds growing over remnants of rubble.  For us they were places to play in a city where large play spaces were at a premium, but for the adults around us these gaps in the streetscape were where a neighbour had lived, a place reduced to rubble overnight.  It wasn’t just the large-scale loss of homes, it was the destruction of community: if the occupants had survived, they had to find a home somewhere else and move away.  My father, an evacuee who returned to London because of ill-treatment by his hosts, has spoken of his street and the gang of kids he played with, gradually disappearing – one house after another, one child after another – until finally his house – almost the last one in the street – was bombed, leaving only the back of it standing.  That was when he had to move away from everything he had known to his grandparents’ house in a different, unscathed suburb…

Morrall has set her story in two time frames: the story of teenage girls at an Exeter boarding school damaged by the bombs, and then in the same school in the 1960s when one of the girls has grown up to become a music teacher there.  This structure enables her to show the long-term impact of the war on the generation too young to fight but old enough to understand.

The wartime scenes are vivid.  Exeter was not an industrial city and although there were the usual precautions no one expected it to be bombed. Parents had evacuated their children there from London because they expected it to be safe.  The first, unexpected raid sees the boarders in a terrifying dash to the newly-built air-raid shelter where they shiver with cold and fear because they did not have time to bring blankets.

This bombing is different from anything they’ve experienced before.

It starts again, more terrifying in the shelter than outside because the sound is magnified, booming across the roof, echoing in all directions.  Every bomb seems to be exploding directly above them or just outside the door, threatening to split them open and burn them up.  Alma curls herself into a tight ball and stuffs her fists into her ears, but nothing can stop the reverberations.  She tries to think about the people out there, those whose homes are going up in flames, the ones who didn’t get to a shelter on time, but her thoughts keep returning to her parents.  Are they in a safe place?  (p.11)

When they emerge in the morning, the boarding house has been damaged, and four of the girls have to be billeted at a local university, because there is nowhere else for them to go.  There are interesting young men there, who teach the girls dances like the Lindy-hop.  And they are under the care of Robert Gunner, a solitary, scholarly man twice their age, who comes back into the story again when his daughter attends the same school. 

But the novel is not a romance.  While the girls are attractive, they are too young for anything serious, and when the story switches to the 1960s the reader finds that there is a lost generation of women not unlike those after WW1.  Too many young women, not enough men, and the emotional damage makes it hard for some people to form relationships anyway. Alma Braithwaite, the central character, has lost too many people at a crucial time in her life to take any sort of risks.  She lives her life in a kind of stasis until an assertive new headmistress arrives and starts changing the way things have always been done before.

What Morrall captures really well is the anxiety of the adult Alma, stubbornly clinging to the way the redoubtable Miss Cunningham-Smith always did things.  At a vulnerable age in her psychological development, Alma has invested her sense of security in this formidable, unflappable headmistress.  When on the day after the bombing the girls’ temporary host Mrs Bates opens the door expecting the ARP warden with instructions on where to send the girls, the relief is palpable when

Instead, Miss Cunningham-Smith, headmistress of Goldwyn’s High School for Girls, sweeps past her and into the drawing room, tall and solid, her large teeth protruding slightly and her short, straight hair as neat as always.

The atmosphere changes in an instant.

‘Miss Cunningham- Smith!’ cries Miss Rupin, with delight.  You found us!’

‘Of course I did,’ says Miss Cunningham-Smith.  ‘I cannot believe you would doubt me.  I’ve been to Goldwyn’s, assessed the damage and followed your trail here, with the help of a somewhat pedantic ARP warden who kept muttering about not being able to share information with anyone.  Infuriating man.  Do I really resemble a German spy.’ (p.29)

As the two strands of the story takes shape, Morrall gradually reveals the reasons for the adult Alma’s fear of change, and the irrational lengths to which she is willing to go to prevent it.  The reader – initially invested in Alma’s perspective against her new headmistress but gradually made aware of the flaws in both characters – also sees that the new headmistress Miss Yates has demons of her own:

She hasn’t been a girl since she travelled from Oxford at the news of the bombing of Coventry, hurtling into the nightmare of the ruined city.  Her train dropped her on the outskirts – most of the centre had been destroyed, including the cathedral – so she’d had to walk for several miles.  She’s never been able to forget what she saw on that first day.  The raids hadn’t finished until six fifteen in the morning, and Coventry went on burning until nightfall, when the bombers came again, their path lit by the fires of their previous raid.  She didn’t know at that point that all of her family were dead – it took nearly a week to sort through the confusion – but she soon discovered her life could never be the same again.  (p.334)

This is the generation just a little bit younger than my parents, and I’m not aware of any other novels that have told the story of the war from their persepctive.  The characters of After the Bombing are not heroic, nor even particularly stoic in the way that we have come to know from stories of the Blitz, but for the generation that lived through the bombing at a crucial age, it blighted many lives irrevocably.

Author: Clare Morrall
Title: After the Bombing
Publisher: Sceptre, 2014
ISBN: 9781444736427
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: After the Bombing





Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2017

Wow! It’s Italian, by Hilda and Laurie Inglese

Yesterday I went to a pasta cooking class, an event organised by the Kingston Library at its Clarinda branch.  The presenters were husband-and-wife team Hilda and Laurie Inglese who used to run a cooking school in the Yarra Valley.  I learned why our ravioli fall apart, and I learned a few tips for making great pasta – the most important of which is that you should roll the pasta at least 20 times, maybe more, and that you should always, always, always weigh the ingredients so that you get the ratio of flour and liquid right.  (Did you know that in a packet of a dozen, eggs can vary by 6 grams from smallest to largest?  If you’re working with only 100g flour and the 50g egg is only 44g, that’s enough to spoil your pasta.)

And I bought the cookbook: it’s called Wow! it’s Italian, because that’s what Hilda’s cooking students used to say when they got to taste what they’d cooked.

You could be forgiven for wondering why I did that, when you see my existing collection of Italian cookery books…

I learnt to cook Italian from the Leggo’s Italian cookbook back in the 1980s.  It’s a commercial publication, produced by the manufacturers of tomato paste and pasta sauces, but only a small section of the book involves ready-made sauces; the rest of the book taught me how to make the classic dishes from scratch, apart from using the tomato paste.  From there I went on to acquire the other books, learning all kinds of interesting recipes from various different regions, and I make a superb Mushroom, Red Pepper and Ricotta lasagne from The 90s Vegetarian.

Wow! It’s Italian is a collection of really simple recipes, with ingredients all available at the local supermarket.  It’s a book that’s perfect for beginners because (quite apart from the fact that Italian cooking is pretty easy anyway) it sets out instructions step-by-step with lots of photographs. I don’t really need a beginner’s cookbook these days, so that’s not why I bought it…

It’s because these recipes are from a little village called Roccacaramanico in the Abruzzo region, high in the Italian alps, and the recipes are unique to that place.  They are Laurie’s mother’s recipes, adapted for an Australian context.  These days their little village is cultivating a tourist industry and many of the houses are just  seasonal holiday homes owned by wealthy lawyers and doctors, but when Laurie left there as a boy aged four the village had a barter-based agricultural economy.  Because the climate is very, very cold, and the village is abutted by a national park, land for farming is limited, and so is firewood.  Rather than light an oven every day the villagers shared a communal oven and were rostered to have a turn once a fortnight.  The women would get up at one in the morning on the day it was their turn, and prepare the dough for thirty loaves to get them through the fortnight.  They were huge loaves so that they would have a very thick crust which kept the bread fresh for the full two weeks. (Though they also had some great bruschetta recipes for if it did get a bit stale!)

The cold weather was no joke.  The photo of Laurie’s house in the book shows that the houses had balconies on the upper storeys so that when they were snowed in on the ground floor, they could use the doors on the upper storeys to get in and out. A really bad winter meant that they had to use the third storey doors.   So they cultivated staple foods that they could store, like potatoes and borlotti beans, and they kept a pig on the ground floor, the people living in the upper storeys.  (They didn’t just use the pork meat, they used pork fat to preserve foods until the next harvest).  Their recipes were hearty but simple, but they ate only once a day.  They were, Laurie said, slender people.  Not malnourished, but they went to bed a little hungry all the same.

It was from Laurie’s mother that Hilda learned to cook, and their cooking school and this cookbook was the result…

Well, today I tried making their Napoli sauce. It’s a bit different to how I usually make a sauce, mainly because there’s a lot more olive oil in it, including a tablespoon of extra EV stirred into the completed sauce.  The onions had to be cooked for 8 minutes, and a roasted red capsicum for four more, and (I’ve never done this before) the tomato paste had to be stirred into and cooked with the onions, garlic and capsicum for a whole minute before adding the tomatoes.  The recipe says that gives the sauce a lovely sweet taste, and it’s true, it does.  I departed from the recipe at this point because I have tomatoes harvested from the garden and didn’t want to use tinned tomatoes, and I also used vegetable stock instead of stock cubes because I think stock cubes are horrible salty things and I never use them.  I also used fresh herbs from the garden (basil, parsley and oregano) instead of dried, but while I usually add a glass of whatever red wine is open, this recipe doesn’t call for it so I left it out.  It’s a beautiful sauce.  I’ll be making this recipe again.

We still have pumpkins left over from last year’s harvest, so I’m going to try their Roasted Pumpkin and Onion Pizza, and next summer when we are drowning in zucchini I shall try their Zucchini Fritters.  Their minestrone is interesting: the protein is borlotti beans, not meat.  It looks nice but I’ll use spinach not silverbeet, I think.

We have a zillion cherry tomatoes from the garden, so I’m going to try the Pappardelle with Roasted Cherry Tomato and Zucchini, and yes, I’m going to have a go at making the Pappardelle myself.  And I’m definitely going to make the ravioli, because that’s why I went to the cooking class in the first place!

Desserts include Nonna’s Apple Pie, Zia Mary’s Lemon Cheesecake, Pears poached in Marsala, and (oh, yum!) Nonna’s Ricotta Cake. There are also recipes for Biscotti, including one with fruit, nuts and chocolate.

The 101-page book is divided into sections for Entrée; Sides, Soup, Sauces, Pasta, Mains, Desserts and Biscuits. It has an index and full colour, full page illustrations for every recipe, something I really like in a recipe book.

The only disappointment is that there aren’t any recipes is only one recipe with potatoes, (gnocchi) which is a bit strange considering that potatoes were a staple in the village diet!

Update 26/3/17 I was wrong, there are potato recipes, they are just not indexed separately.  I’m going to try these ones

  • Roast veg and Baby Spinach Salad
  • Minestrone (I should have realised this, Minestrone always has potato in it’!)
  • Pasta e Fagioli soup, and of course
  • the gnocchi.  I love gnocchi!

BTW I used the Napoli sauce to make a Bolognese sauce and we had it for our Sunday night dinner with home made pasta using Hilda’s recipe.  With a glass of shiraz, crusty bread from the Europa supermarket and a salad using tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum fresh from the garden, it was divine.  I’m going to use up the rest of the Bolognese sauce in ravioli tomorrow night. Will try to remember to take photos…

PS 27/3/17 I have permission from Hilda to share this extra recipe using potato with you:)

This is a good vegetarian option with meat as the chickpea is the protein.

Serves 6

Cube vegetables approximately the same size.

200g pumpkin,  300g potato, sliced 180g brown onion, 1 large red and green capsicum, 1/2 medium eggplant and 1/2 large zucchini, 1 tin rinsed  chickpeas, 1/4 cup evoo, season to taste (chilli optional).

Place in baking dish.  Toss vegetables with oil to coat and bake for 30 minutes at 220C. After 15 minutes turn vegetables over to cook evenly. Season to taste. Vegetables should be golden to maximize flavour.

Serve with couscous and feta. Enjoy!

Authors: Hilda and Laurie Inglese
Title: Wow! It’s Italian
Publisher: self-published, 2013
ISBN: none
Source: Personal recipe book collection, purchased at the cooking class, $35.00

Only available from the author’s website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2017

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

I know, I know, everybody else read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names ages ago when it was shortlisted for the Booker and won a swag of awards in 2013.  I meant to read it then but other things got in the way.  Since there are now a zillion reviews out there already, I should keep this brief, but this book bothers me…

I did not like this book, but it was not until after I had written most of my review and went looking for a positive one to balance mine, that I discovered that it’s been the subject of an interesting debate.

Nigerian author Helon Habila (whose Waiting for an Angel I reviewed in 2013)  in his review of We Need New Names has suggested that there is a current trend of ‘poverty-porn’ writing coming out of Africa:

I was at a Caine prize seminar a few years back and the discussion was on the state of the new fiction coming out of Africa. One of the panellists, in passing, accused the new writers of “performing Africa” for the world. To perform Africa, the distinguished panellist explained, is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense. We are talking child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside. The result, for the reader, isn’t always catharsis, as Aristotle suggested, but its direct opposite: a sort of creeping horror that leads to a desensitisation to the reality being represented.

The question to be asked then is whether this new writing is a fair representation of the existential realities of Africa, or if it is just a “Caine-prize aesthetic” that has emerged in a vacuum created by the judges and the publishers and agents over the years, and which has begun to perpetuate itself.  (We Need New Names – Review by Helon Habila, The Guardian, 20/6/13.  I haven’t been able to track down who the ‘distinguished panellist’ was.)

Two years later, fellow Nigerian Taiye Selasi (among other things) took issue with Habila’s criticism of Bulawayo’s book:

Of course, at no point in his review did Habila argue that Bulawayo is wrong about the ills plaguing Zimbabwe. His issue is not with her accuracy but what he imagines to be her animus, a “palpable anxiety to cover every ‘African’ topic; almost as if [she] had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa”. I share Habila’s contempt for western depictions of Africa; the news coverage of the Ebola epidemic is just one recent infuriating example. I understand that it is not enough to say, simply, that a story is true; a work of art exists in context and the context here is a culture that habitually promotes demeaning portrayals of Africa. What I don’t understand is what Habila and others would have the writer do. If poverty and violence exist in the country in which a novel is set, should the African novelist simply Photoshop them out? More than 50% of Africa’s population lives in poverty. Should their stories be erased from Africa’s literature? (Taiye Selasi, ‘Stop pigeonholing African writers, The Guardian, 4/7/15)

It seems to me that this is an argument best left to the participants, but for me, We Need New Names raised a related question.   Whether We Need New Names is a fair representation of Zimbabwe or not, this novel of the African diaspora has shown a catalogue of horrors that will distress most readers.  But what should the reader make of the relentlessly negative way this novelist has depicted the refugee’s new ‘home’ in another country?  What is this ‘work of art’ trying to make us understand?

It seems to me that the sleazy catalogue of American life at its very worst, is intended to shock and confront the reader just as much as the first part of the novel set in Zimbabwe. You think it’s terrible that an eleven-year-old girl is pregnant by her grandfather in the ironically-named ‘Paradise’ in Zimbabwe?  She’ll show you teenage girls watching internet porn in Detroit and describe in nauseating detail exactly what they are seeing.  You think it’s shocking that children are stealing guavas from the rich suburbs because they are starving?  She’ll show you a scornful portrait of anorexia close up, and remind you that no, unless you’ve lived it, you do not know what real hunger is, so don’t you dare say anything.

The kind of resentment portrayed by Bulawayo’s character – that America does not live up to the dreams perpetuated by iPhone films and television – is being played out all over the world as desperate people come to terms with the fact that a place they have risked their lives to reach does not, and possibly never will, give them the kind of life they anticipated.  It is distressing to see very angry young men on the streets of Calais resentful that they are being housed in refugee camps without opportunities for work while an overwhelmed Europe works out what to do with the current unprecedented influx.

I am not suggesting that writers of a diaspora cannot critique the place to which they have fled in hope of a better life.  There is no perfect society anywhere, and all societies have their flaws.  I have never been to America but even so, I feel uneasy about and don’t understand the purpose of the unremitting negativity portrayed by Bulawayo.  It seems to be written for its shock value.  And some of the claims that Zimbabwe does it better are risible.  I don’t like, for example, the disrespectful way that American children often behave towards adults in television sitcoms, but I was quite unnerved by the corporal punishment dished out by Bulawayo’s character Darling, who says that the Zimbabwean tradition of hitting a child on the head is a better way of instilling discipline.   And I didn’t like the arrogance of the claim that the American education curriculum is easy because it’s stupid. 

Bulawayo’s writing is vivid, and the characterisation of ‘Darling’ in Zimbabwe is fresh and bold.  Her wry black humour is often powerful.  Her deadpan way of depicting the devastation in the wake of Zimbabwean independence heightens the reader’s realisation that whereas parents who had had high hopes for Black Rule are helpless and bitter, children have come to accept the destruction of houses, appalling poverty and social upheaval as the norm.  As one who sometimes struggles to keep to my commitment to apportion part of my income to Oxfam, I did not like to see the mockery of NGOs doing their best, but I can understand that this kind of charity may feel demeaning and I am among those who say that the world economy needs equitable reform not bandaid solutions.

However IMO the sour tone of the second part of the novel set in America diminishes it.  I did not expect a Pollyanna ending – I have read other books that explore the way the West is romanticised to the disillusionment of literary protagonists, for example from India, in The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, (see my review) or The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (see my review).  I didn’t need to read DBC Pierre’s biting satire Vernon God Little to know that America is no Paradise, and I know about immigrant displacement and nostalgia from my own experience.  But the unyielding portrayal of America as a disappointing, deluded society made me wonder what kind of cynical and hypercritical adult this coming-of-age novel is offering its readers…

As well as Helon Habiba’s review (above) see also Claire’s review at Word by Word and ‘Difficult Terrain’ by at the NYT.

Author: NoViolet Bulawayo
Title: We Need New Names
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Co, 2013
ISBN: 9780316230810
Source: Kingston Library

Available from We Need New Names

I am listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 130 as I type this because David Greetham in my beautiful Folio Edition of this (in)famous work reminds us that this composition confounded critics and audience alike, and that the smartest ones said at the time that they needed to listen to this ‘monster of a work’ more than once to make sense of it:

‘… we do not want to judge too hastily: perhaps the time will come when what appeared to us at first to be obscure and confused will be recognised as being clear and well constructed.'(the music critic (un-named) for the Leipzig Allgemaine Musikalische, 10 May 1826).

Finnegans Wake is not a book for the faint-hearted, but it has been beckoning me ever since my fourth reading of Ulysses, and – inspired by Tony at Messenger’s Booker and his painstaking reading of Bottom’s Dream, and further prompted by Irish Reading Month at 746 Books – I have made a start…

I have come to the book prepared.  I have listened to a lovely abridged Naxos audio book edition read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, which gave me a sense of the musicality of the work, and I have acquired two useful guides:

  • A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and
  • A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

So far, I have read

  • the Introductions in the Folio edition, comprising:
    • a note on the New Edition by Seamus Deane
    • the Preface by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon
    • the Introduction by David Greetham, and
    • (surprisingly useful) the Introduction to the Illustrations by John Vernon Lord;
  • the Introduction to Tindall’s Reader’s Guide; and
  • the Introductions in Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key, comprising
    • A Foreword and Editorial Note to the Collected Works Edition
    • the Foreword by Campbell and Robinson
    • the Preface to the Compass Edition 1961
    • the Introduction to a Strange Subject, and
    • the Synopsis and Demonstration.

Campbell tells me that some allusions can be deduced from a detailed map of Dublin, so I went hunting at Google and found

And I’ve read page one!

PS Another find! Waywords and Meansigns: an unabridged Finnegans Wake, read to music.  I couldn’t stand Edition 1, but I like the second edition!  There’s no doubt that hearing words aloud helps to make sense of them…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2017

Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

I’ve always liked the dark humour of Hilary Mantel, and this early novel from 1989 is seriously good fun.

Fludd is set in 1950, in the dreary Northern mill village of Fetherhoughton  where the brutish inhabitants have little to recommend them…

From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed.  They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them.  They lived in hope of seeing a passer-by with a hunchback, knock knees or a harelip.  They did not think that it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing and unforgiving about any aberration, deviation, eccentricity or piece of originality.  There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy.  (p.14)

The one advantage of this unprepossessing lot, as far as the parish priest Father Angwin is concerned, is that they leave him alone.  This suits Father Angwin because he has lost his faith and since he can’t imagine any other kind of future, he is content to go through the motions with desultory masses for the local convent and his dour housekeeper Miss Dempsey.   But alas for the priest, there is a new bishop full of enthusiasm, and when he turns up on a parish visit he is not best pleased by the statuary in the church.  He takes exception to the tongs held by St Dunstan (who was working in a forge when the devil came to tempt him) and the pliers brandished by St Appollonia, (whose teeth were pulled out by the Romans, making her the patron saint of dentists) and St Agatha, carrying her breasts on a dish.  She is the patron saint of bellringers because a little mistake was made with the shape.  The bishop decrees that the statues are idols pandering to superstition and that they must go – and so there is a macabre little ceremony where the parishioners help with the burial in the church graveyard…

Before long, a rather handsome curate arrives.  Father Angwin assumes that he is a curate sent by the interfering bishop to spy on him, but Fludd turns out to be a congenial fellow, with an unconventional attitude to church lore.  Producing a cheroot for Father Angwin, and building up the sitting room fire to an unaccustomed warmth as hot as hell, Fludd settles in to share a whisky, asking in his light, dry voice:

‘In considering the life of Christ, there is something that has often made me wonder; did the man who owned the Gadarene swine get compensation?'(p.45

Meanwhile, at the local convent where Sister Perpetua presides over her nuns with wicked ferocity and a savage cane, there is a rebellious young nun called Philomena who was shunted off to the nunnery by her over-pious mother who wanted her whole family to ‘serve the lord’.  Like Miss Dempsey, she feels that something in the atmosphere has shifted, but much as she longs for liberation from her incarceration, she fears the unaccountable heat she feels in Fludd’s presence.

You must choose,’Fludd said, his tone practical.  Í cannot tell you what to think.  If you think I am bad for you I will not try to talk you out of it.

”Bad for me?’She was aghast at his choice of word.  Man or devil, she thought, devil or devil’s pawn, you’ll only damn my immortal soul.  That’s all you’ll do.

‘But if I were a devil, ‘Fludd said, Í would have a relish for you.  It is strange that though you would think the devil a man of fiery tastes, there is nothing he likes better at his banquet than the milk-toast soul of a tender little nun.  If I were the devil, you would not be clever enough to find me out.  Not until I had dined on you and dined well.'(p.110)

Mantel brings the threads of this story together with a little sorcery, leaving her readers to ponder whether the enigmatic Fludd – who admits to being in the business of transformation – is an angel, or a devil, or whether the mischief is done by the tobacconist McEvoy instead!

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: Fludd
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2005, first published 1989

Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Fludd

The name of Australian-born translator Will Firth will be familiar to readers of this blog who remember his guest post on ‘The Perils of Translation’ and more recently his piece ‘Change is the Only Constant’ about writing in Macedonia, published in Words Without Borders.  Now based in Germany, Will is the translator of A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koščec, which I reviewed back in 2013.  He has the distinction of having his own Wikipedia page which includes an impressive list of books that he’s translated from Russian, Macedonian, German and Serbo-Croatian into English. His own website is here.

Will is also an accredited translator from Croatian, German, Macedonian and Russian, and – significantly from the point of view of his latest book, Quiet Flows the Una, he worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2005-07.   I suspect that this experience has contributed to his sensitive translation of Quiet Flows the Una, by Faruk Šehić, a Bosnian author born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and a veteran of the savage war which carved Yugoslavia into separate ethnicities.  The novel won the 2013 EU Prize for Literature, and has since been translated into multiple languages, becoming available in English in 2016.

Quiet Flows the Una is a melancholy work. Narrated by a former soldier called Mustafa Husar, it tells the story of a man haunted by his past.  Survivors of trauma, he tells us, have two choices, to suppress the past or to make a narrative of it, but the latter takes courage that he does not have.

The catalyst for him to finally confront his past is a fakir at a sideshow, whose hypnosis allows Mustafa’s memories to surface, enabling him to become a chronicler of a lost, sunken, incinerated age.  Almost the first thing that he admits to is that he killed:

I have to tell you this: I’ve killed a man, and not just one but several. When you’re firing, all your worries vanish.  Not every bullet finds its mark, of course, but some certainly do. When you’re shooting, you’re light as a feather, and that pleasure could make you lift off the ground and hover for a moment, but you’re in cover, lying belly-down in the churned-up soil, flattened grass and wet leaves, because that’s what your instinct tells you to do.  When I shoot, I feel like Jesus Antichrist. I deliver the very opposite of compassion.  There are no pangs of conscience, and no one is going to whisper in your ear that the enemy is human too.  (p.11)

Interspersed among the horrors of war, Mustafa lingers over his memories of what had been lost.  In the beautiful ruins of his town Bosanska Krupa, he does not even have any photos, except those found in deserted Serbian ruins where there might be old school photos of classmates who became enemies.

Why would there be nothing left in our flat but bare walls and gaping holes where the sockets and the toilet bowl used to be?

Who would steal all my photos, and on which of the countless heaps of rubbish would they shrivel in the sun like autumn leaves?

Who would read my copy of Zvonko Veljacic’s novel about a space-travelling boy hero?

Who would take the Super 8 cinema projector and the tapes in the great cardboard boxes with film posters and credits on the lids?

Where would the black and white tape of War of the Worlds go?

Who would make all the things from our flat vanish ‘just like that’?

Who would vacuum away our family history and make me think of the past as a gathering of amiable ghosts?

Would I be allowed to blame anyone, and whom would I accuse?  (p. 40)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of the ruins of Aleppo… and the misery being inflicted day after day in our own time. The media focusses on the deaths and the injuries and the historic artefacts, but Faruk Šehić reminds us about the loss of the quotidian, the pop culture, the children’s books and other elements of a culture that the enemy sought to annihilate.

What cannot be destroyed is memory.  In lyrical prose, Mustafa shares his love of nature and remembers a wonderful boyhood spent beside the river Una: fishing, making paper planes, eating his grandmothers’ recipes. His nostalgia is not just for an idyllic childhood, it is for the culture from before the war.  Even his identity has been lost:

I felt like a stranger in my own town when I realised we weren’t all brothers and sisters not because I didn’t want us to be – but because there was no good will among most of the local Serbs and Croats.  Not to mention the ridiculous situation when I did my compulsory military service in the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’ and had to state my ethnicity: since I came from a Bosniak family, the Serbs and Croats tried to persuade me to write ‘Bosnian Muslim’ because Yugoslavs didn’t really exist, they said.  Yes, I lived an identity that was marginal in the very country that was named after it. (p. 13)

The fractured narrative includes scraps of poetry and also B&W illustrations, some of which are quite unnerving.  One (on page 141) depicts an urban landscape of apartment blocks, one of which is teetering, with a monstrous crumbling black hunchback creeping away.  It is astonishing how vividly the artist Aleksandra Nina Knežević has portrayed the horror of his facial expression with just four white spaces in his black visage.

There is much more I could say about this book, but Joe at Rough Ghosts has written a superb review of it, so do visit to read it.

Author: Faruk Šehić
Title: Quiet Flows the Una
Translated from the Bosnian by Will Firth
Publisher: Istros Books, 2016, first published as Knjiga o Uni in 2013 by BuyBook, Sarajevo
ISBN: 9781908236494
Source: Kingston Library (who acquired this book because I asked them to via their suggestion service, thanks Kingston!)

Available from Fishpond: Quiet Flows the UNA

The Underworld doesn’t often make it into the books I read. I used to read Charles Mikolaycak’s exquisite illustrated version of the story of Orpheus and his doomed quest for Eurydice to my students, and of course there is Dante’s Inferno which tells the story of the poet’s journey through Hell, guided by the shade of Virgil.  But as Professor Provolone remarks in this novel, the modern world regards such ideas as insane.

Laurent Gaudé’s Hell’s Gate – with its allusion to Dante’s concentric circles of suffering on the cover – is a story of parents driven mad by grief when their eight-year-old only child Pippo is shot dead in the crossfire of a gangland shootout in Naples in 1980.  But the story begins  in 2002 with an adult Pippo on a vengeful quest.  He is a barista par excellence who makes coffee that is just right for however his customers are feeling, but he’s about to abandon his growing fame because he’s going to take his revenge on Toto Cullaccio, the man who shot him and got away with it scot-free. And he’s not afraid of what he’s about to do…

I sip my coffee slowly as the steam rises off it. I’m not afraid. I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to fend off are my own nightmares.  At night, the bloodcurdling cries and groans of pain come flooding back.  I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur.  The forest of souls surrounds me.  At night, I become a child again, begging the world not to swallow me up.  (p.6)

This narrative is interrupted by the story of Pippo’s father Matteo and the dreadful day his son was killed.  In one moment the happy family life of Matteo and Giuliana is destroyed.  Then the story switches back to the macabre: Pippo deals with Cullaccio and then sets off to deliver a memento of his deed to his father and to the woman he thinks of as his mother, a transvestite prostitute called Grace.  We learn later that Pippo has no memory of Giuliana because she decided that the only way she could deal with her grief was never to think of him again.

Although I experienced nothing untoward on my brief transit through Naples in 2005, the city has a reputation for vengeance.  It’s said to be how the Mafia keeps control.  But in this novel, it’s ordinary people who are overwhelmed by a desire for it.  Giuliana demands that Matteo bring back either her son or the man who killed him, and she takes vengeance on what she sees as Matteo’s contemptuous failure by leaving him.  (Whereas I, a reader opposed to all forms of retaliatory violence, admired his moral revulsion about taking the life of another man, even one who had so grievously wronged him).  Ironically, Pippo grows up to take on the values of the mother who has wiped him from her memory.

Matteo learns to live with his terrible loneliness and guilt.  He drives a taxi in the dreary night time streets of Naples, and he finds companionship in a café in the underbelly of the city:

For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy.  He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.  He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.

From here on, the reader has to enter into the world the ancients believed in.  The professor is the expert who knows where the portals to Hell are, and the mad priest Mazerotti is a latter-day Virgil who has, (metaphorically speaking), the ‘key’ to the entrance.  Pippo (an innocent, after all) turns out to be poised between annihilation and rescue, and as we know from chapter one, the rescue takes place, though not without theatrical plot twists which will come as no surprise to those who know the story of Orpheus and the implacable rules of the Underworld.

Gaudé explores revenge and redemption in this short novel, but I felt uneasy with the accusatory depiction of Giuliana, a woman destroyed by grief who ultimately takes her revenge on another innocent, her own husband.  I am not sure what Gaudé was aiming for, when he chose a transvestite to show what a mother’s love ‘should’ be.

PS Is it a new trend to have two translators at work on a book together?  Whatever, this is a very smooth translation indeed, and I suspect that most readers would never know it was a translation at all, if they were not told.

Author: Laurent Gaudé
Title: Hell’s Gate
Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
Publisher: Gallic Books, 2017
ISBN:  9781910477328
Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books

Available from Fishpond:Hell’s Gate

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2017

2017 ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) Longlist

The 2017 ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) Longlist has been announced.  There are a lot of categories and I’m only covering three where I’ve reviewed some of the titles, so you’ll need to visit the ABIA website to see the others.

Literary Fiction Book of the Year 

  • An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia), see my review
  • Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain (Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Crimes of the Father, Tom Keneally (Vintage Australia, Penguin Random House), see my review
  • Goodwood, Holly Throsby (Allen & Unwin)
  • The Easy Way Out, Steven Amsterdam (Hachette, Hachette Australia), see my review
  • The Good People, Hannah Kent (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith (Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Where the Trees Were, Inga Simpson (Hachette, Hachette Australia)

Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year

  • Fight Like a Girl, Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin)
  • Goodwood, Holly Throsby (Allen & Unwin)
  • Music and Freedom, Zoë Morrison (Vintage Australia, Penguin Random House), see my review
  • The Dry, Jane Harper (Macmillan Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Island Will Sink, Briohny Doyle (The Lifted Brow, The Lifted Brow)
  • The Midnight Watch, David Dyer (Hamish Hamilton (AU Adult), Penguin Random House)
  • The Paper House, Anna Spargo-Ryan (Picador Australia, Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane, Elspeth Muir (Text Publishing)

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

  • Damned Whores and God’s Police, Anne Summers (NewSouth, NewSouth Publishing), see my review
  • Offshore: Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru, Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth, NewSouth Publishing)
  • Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories, Kim Mahood (Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Poum and Alexandre, Catherine de Saint Phalle (Transit Lounge, Transit Lounge Publishing)
  • Saltwater, Cathy McLennan (University of Queensland Press)
  • The Australian Native Bee Book, Tim Heard (Sugarbag Bees)
  • The Island Will Sink, Briohny Doyle (The Lifted Brow)
  • The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh, Leigh Straw (NewSouth, NewSouth Publishing)

International Book of the Year

  • Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Commonwealth, Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury)
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling & John Tiffany & Jack Thorne (Little Brown, Hachette Australia)
  • The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, Michael Mosley (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer (HarperCollins, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben (Black Inc., Schwartz Publishing)
  • The North Water, Ian McGuire (Scribner, Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (Fleet, Hachette Australia), see my review
Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2017

2017 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

The Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced late last night Australian time, and I was very pleased to see that local publisher Text Publishing has released Australian editions of two of them so they are easy to get here.  They are the ones which I’ve reviewed…

The press release tells me that:

The prize is awarded every year for a single book, which is translated into English and published in the UK. Both novels and short-story collections are eligible. The work of translators is equally rewarded, with the £50,000 prize divided between the author and the translator of the winning entry. In addition, each shortlisted author and translator will receive £1,000 each. The judges considered 126 books.

The longlist names the author, nationality, the translator, the title and the original imprint.   You can follow the links to a summary at the MBIP website.

The press release also says:

The longlist was selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and consisting of: Daniel Hahn, an award-winning writer, editor and translator; Elif Shafak, a prize-winning novelist and one of the most widely read writers in Turkey; Chika Unigwe, author of four novels including On Black Sisters’ Street; and Helen Mort, a poet who has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize, and has won a Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award five times.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on 20 April and the winner of the 2017 prize will be announced on 14 June at a formal dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Stu from Winston’s Dad will be chairing the Shadow Jury under the tag ‘Man Booker International 2017’ so if you want to keep up with reviews of this enticing list, that’s your starting point.

I started reading German Literature, a Very Short Introduction during my recent reading of Bernard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs, but unlike the other VSIs I’ve read,  I struggled with it a bit even though it’s a very short book of only 171 pages.  Although there are thirteen German language Nobel Laureates and Germany today hosts the world’s largest book trade fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair, German Lit was largely unfamiliar territory to me.  19th century German classics weren’t on my radar when I first began to read the classics, and to this day the only 19th century German novelist I’ve read is Goethe.  I read quite a few of the well-known 20th century German language novelists at university, and I’ve reviewed a fair few on this blog, (notably Hans Fallada and Thomas Mann) but in reading this VSI I was on a learning journey.  I wanted to make sense of why I didn’t know the names of German classics.  I wanted a reading list.

What worked best for me was the introductory chapter called ‘The Bourgeois and the Official: a historical overview’ and the last one ‘Traumas and Memories’.  In between there is

  • The laying of the foundations (to 1781)
  • The age of idealism (1781-1832) and
  • The age of materialism (1832-1914)

I’ll be honest, as every reviewer should be: I read these three chapters dutifully, but I didn’t find them very interesting.  Apart from Goethe, I didn’t find anything that made me want to embark on a German reading journey from those eras.

However, the VSI did explain why, in the author’s opinion, German Lit excels in poetry but not so much in the novel.  (Wikipedia is frustratingly vague about 19th century German Lit when the novel came into its own so I can’t tell whether this is a common opinion or not).  It seems somehow counterintuitive, since the printing press was invented in Germany and you’d think that led to mass literacy and thence to the novel, but ironically it was the Reformation that was to blame.  When the power to transmit faith was transferred from an Emperor (i.e. the Pope of the Holy Roman Empire) to self-sufficient princes (because of Luther), that led to the rise of the clergy who were not just independent of a central ruler (i.e. the Pope) they were also cut off from each other.  Literature at this time was mostly academic (and in Latin) or it was trivial, to entertain the middle classes without giving rise to any social or political intent.

As the 18th and 19th centuries rolled around and the middle classes in Britain, France, Holland and Switzerland got frisky and achieved some political reforms, Germany stagnated politically and economically because power was concentrated in absolute rulers, (princes until Napoleon, and an all-powerful bureaucracy after that).   And that meant there was no market for a realistic novel like the English novel written for its self-confident and largely self-governing capitalist middle class.  It was not until the Second German Empire was founded in 1871 (i.e. the unification via Bismarck which we learned about at school) that a revived bourgeoisie took on the establishment of the officials and romanticism was born.

All this is complicated and confusing, and there is in this VSI much more about Germany’s history, religion and politics than there is about books that you or I might want to read.  This is true too about the last chapter ‘Trauma and Memories’ which is about Germany’s tumultuous 20th century.  Trying to make sense of literature in this period seems an impossible task,  but the preoccupation with philosophy, and the problem of left/right politics makes this chapter difficult too.

Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is much more useful here.  Where Boyle takes over 100 pages to get to the 20th century, Orthofer starts there with this simple statement:

French and Russian fiction dominated nineteenth-century Continental European literature, and German fiction came into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century. (p.84)

Ah.  That suggests that there’s not much fiction to pursue in German Lit of the 19th century, right?  Over four pages, Orthofer then goes on to name the champions of the 20th century.  He lists Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, and names The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch (neither of whom get a mention in the VSI) as among the peaks of twentieth-century fiction. He also suggests Robert Walser and Alfred Döblin.  (Yes, I know, they’re all men.  He does mention Gert Hofman’s fine, restrained novels…)

And while Orthofer, in a book about contemporary world fiction, is not trying to offer a comprehensive analysis of German Lit, he summarises the essential problem clearly:

Few of the best German writers stayed or survived in Germany after the rise of Nazism and through World War II.  With the country then split into West and East Germany, its citizens having to come to terms with its recent terrible history and vast numbers of writers dead or dispersed abroad, German literature was slow in re-establishing itself after the war.  (p.85)

He then goes on to devote two pages to the Nobel laureates Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass; a whole page about Arno Schmidt (whose massive 1300-page Bottom’s Dream is currently being read and eloquently reviewed by Tony at Messenger’s Booker); three pages about authors from the GDR (including Uwe Johnson and Christa Wolf) and four pages of suggested authors from the Reunification era, amongst whom I’ve read W.G. Sebald, Herta Müller, Bernhard Schlink and Daniel Kehlmann, as well as others that I have yet to read like Jenny Erpenbeck and Gerhard Köpf.

OTOH, 20 pages into the VSI chapter about 20th-century literature, Boyle explains the reason why German literature was slow in re-establishing itself after the war.  In a book called The Inability to Mourn (1967) psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich argued that Germany’s collective reaction to the trauma of 1945, the ‘zero hour’ in German history when the past was lost, the present was a ruin and the future was a blank was because

there had been no reaction: Germany had frozen emotionally, had deliberately forgotten both its huge affective investment in the Third Reich and the terrible human price paid by itself and others to get rid of that delusion, had shrugged off its old identity and identified instead with the victors (whether America in the West or Russia in the East) and had thrown itself into the mindless labour of reconstruction.  (p.143)

Boyle argues that this analysis has since been very influential and that ‘coming to terms with the past’ has become a major task for contemporary literature, but he also thinks that …

…there was a good deal more to mourn than unacknowledged Nazism, repressed memories of Nazi crimes, the horrors of civilian bombardment, the misery of military defeat, or the uncomfortable fact that in the four years before the foundation of the two post-war German states in 1949 the prevailing mood was not joy or relief but sullen resentment both of the Allies and the German emigrants.  There was the further complication that the past calling out to be reassessed did not begin in 1933, it was potentially as old as Germany itself, while the present, for all the talk of reconstruction, had no historical precedents. (p.143)

(The emigrants he’s referring to are those who fled from the east into the west to escape the Soviets.  The allusion to a problematical pre-1933 past only makes sense if you’ve read, understood and internalised the whole VSI and its analysis of German identity since the Middle Ages).

Boyle goes on to say that the world powers that had divided Germany for their own realpolitik reasons, did nothing to encourage assessment of the past or the present.  So it wasn’t until after 1990 that German writers were released from this imposed and misleading confrontation between East and West and were free to address their own history.

KrusoWell, I am not sure that I am now any better equipped to respond to German contemporary literature – and I didn’t end up with a reading list of classics to pursue, but I think it’s partly because of the style of this VSI.  This series is meant to be a bridge between academic study and a general interest in a topic, but this one strays too close to the academic IMO.  Within chapters it’s not always chronological, and it ranges widely across so many different areas that it’s hard to get a grasp of anything.  It’s not as helpful as the other VSIs I’ve read so far and definitely not as easy to read.

BTW I am about to read the winner of the 2014 German Book Prize, Kruso (published here in Australia by Scribe) which will be the first book I’ve read from the former GDR.   This is the blurb:

The lyrical, bestselling 2014 German Book Prize winner. It is 1989, and a young literature student named Ed, fleeing unspeakable tragedy, travels to the Baltic island of Hiddensee. Long shrouded in myth, the island is a notorious destination for hippies, idealists, and those at odds with the East German state. On the island, Ed stumbles upon the Klausner, Hiddensee’s most popular restaurant, and ends up washing dishes there, despite his lack of papers. Although he is keen to remain on the sidelines, Ed feels drawn towards the charismatic Kruso, unofficial leader of the seasonal workers. Everyone dances to Kruso’s tune. He is on a mission – but to what end, and at what cost? Ed finds himself drawn ever deeper into the island’s rituals, and ever more in need of Kruso’s acceptance and affection. As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it!

PS There’s a good (and fair) review of this VSI from Rob at Goodreads which is worth reading.

Author: Nicholas Boyle
Title: German Literature, a very short introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199206599
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


the-puzzleheaded-girl‘Girl from the Beach’ by Christina Stead is the last of four short stories collected under the title ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’ in the Text Classics edition published late last year, and IMO the most interesting of them.  (The blurb calls them novellas, but at 70 pages, I think that ‘Girl from the Beach’ is a short story, even if is separated into two chapters named to indicate the era).  The others in this collection are ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’, (see my thoughts here), ‘The Dianas’, and ‘The Rightangled Creek’ but ‘Girl from the Beach’ offers the clearest example of the dilemma in which Stead’s central characters find themselves:

Linda muttered, ‘The trouble is, I do what people want me to, I can’t say no.  I never do what I want to do.’ (p.220, emphasis mine)

Fiona Wright, in the introduction, encapsulates Stead’s central preoccupation:

In each of these stories, Stead is making a forceful and sometimes brutal point, about the claims and the kinds of knowledge, patronising and paternalist, that these men assume they have over women – and girls.’ (p.18)

Wright also notes the disquieting way in which Stead makes her point:

… Stead’s portraits are subversive and defiantly political.  They are drawn from many angles at once, much like Cubist paintings, and are never stable, never definitive, but riddled with uncertainties, half-truths and secrets that conventional knowledge can never capture or contain. (p. x)

As in ‘The Puzzleheaded Girl’, the reader of ‘Girl from the Beach’ discovers the central female character through the opinions of others.  The story opens in New York in the late forties, with a rant from a man called George Paul, who’s descended on a bewildered couple called Martin and Laura to complain about the girls in his life, and about Renee who is refusing to marry him in particular.  By ‘girls’ George means young women. He calls them ‘girls’ because a woman can’t be, until a girl dies.    He’s not a paedophile, he’s a man to represent many, because he likes them while they are sprites… so different from us, all their fancies, their illusions, their flower world, the dreams they live in.  (p.247) Gradually revealing Paul’s immature, resentful and patronising view of women as he rants away for page after page, Stead shows us who this man really is, and how Laura and Martin’s lame marriage is never a meeting of the minds either.  Renee is Paul’s fourth attempt to capture what he desires. He has been married three times and is not only paying alimony to these girls who turned out to be women with minds of their own, but is also (in the dynamic characterisation of Barby) fending off their refusal to have their reputations slandered.

Linda doesn’t turn up in the story until the next chapter, set in Paris in the early fifties.  She is a lost soul, whose recklessness (like Lydia’s in ‘The Dianas’) is a little reminiscent of Marya in Jean Rhys’s Quartet (1928).  Having escaped at the last moment the marriage her parents wanted to shoehorn her into, Linda is racketing about, short of money and with no capacity to earn any except with singing and dancing.  Paul, arriving in Paris at the same time as Martin and Laura, falls for her at once.  Her mother, tellingly, approves of the jilting:

[Linda] opened her purse and took out a creased letter.  ‘My mother wrote to me.  She wants me to be happy.’ She began to read, ‘Don’t worry about anything; leave the worry to us; we’re here for that.  We can always send you the rent.  Don’t worry about politics.  Be a vegetable.  Everyone is turning into a vegetable. Leave it alone.  Have a girl’s life.  Remember everyone’s proud of you.  You gave us a big surprise, but we adjusted to that; and we’re on your side.  We’re here for that.’ (p.221)

Those references to politics and the need to be a vegetable are an oblique reference to McCarthyism.  But the trouble that Linda is in has nothing to do with Left-wing politics, but rather to her habit of stealing from hotels.  As an American, she feels entitled to do this because (she thinks) the French owe their liberation from the Nazis to US troops…

‘… If I go into a bathroom in a hotel and they’re not nice to me or the place is dirty or anything like that, I take a towel or a napkin or a fork from the table.  It’s to make them pay.  Because they ought to be nice to us; they owe us everything, don’t they?’ (p.227)

She has the same cavalier attitude to the homeless homosexual she’s been sheltering in her hotel room.  They’ve been faking an affair so that no suspicion attaches to him, but when it suits her to take up George’s offer of a cheaper hotel elsewhere, she simply abandons him.  She disappears off to Spain with the keys to George’s car too, leaving him in a pickle when he has to travel for a journalistic scoop.  These acts of increasing panic are because she has found a couple of grey hairs, and she knows there is no alternative for her but to marry, and the thought makes her feel desperate:

‘I guess I’m a sort of black sheep.  People like me, and then they – ‘  She began to laugh. ‘I don’t know what it is.  It means nothing to me here.  It must be me.  Everyone likes it here.  But if I go home I don’t know what to do.  How do you find out what to do?  I don’t believe in things, that’s the trouble.  They all say there’s something wrong with me.  They fixed up a marriage for me.  I couldn’t sleep with him.  I thought of having my womb taken out, then I’d have no troubles.  I wouldn’t have to like men and no one would want to marry me.’ (p.233)

Linda, just like Lydia in ‘The Dianas’, is so constrained by the sexist expectations for women in that era that she has no alternative.  The reader knows that, again just like Lydia, soon Linda will find that it was as if her old life had never been [ … ] and it was many years before she thought about their union or found anything in it extraordinary. (p.98)

‘The Rightangled Creek’, subtitled ‘A sort of ghost story’, is similar in theme but more focussed on the exigencies of the writer’s life and how that impacts on a wife.  Sam Parsons, a writer, visits old friends Ruth and her husband Laban, also a writer.  They have chosen to live in a remote farmhouse to keep Laban away from the temptations of alcohol, and they scrimp and save to provide everything for their son Frankie who they think is a genius destined for Princeton or Harvard. (The reader is more likely to think he’s an opinionated and prejudiced young man).  As in ‘Girl from the Beach’ a horde of unwanted guests arrive and cause havoc, Laban goes back on the booze and Ruth has to pick up the pieces.  It’s a savage portrait of what wifehood is about.

There are, however, elements of the plot in ‘The Rightangled Creek’ that *chuckle* are even more ‘Cubist’ than the other three stories – and I remain a bit mystified as to their purpose.  Unlike the other Stead fictions I’ve read, the story has a rural setting which turns out to be malevolent.  There are spooky noises, invasive small creatures, weeds threatening to overwhelm the garden and a creek which floods the hapless tenants – who are aren’t told about it by the landlord.  Perhaps someone else who reads this story can enlighten me…

Author: Christina Stead
Title: The Puzzleheaded Girl
Publisher: Text Classics, 2016, first published 1965
ISBN: 9781925355710
Source: review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Puzzleheaded Girl

Or direct from Text Publishing where you can also buy it as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2017

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, by Sebastian Barry

One of my dearest friends lives not far from the iconic shopping strip in Maling Rd Canterbury, which is a most congenial spot for ladies who lunch and need a bookshop nearby.  Over the years I have amassed a considerable pile of books from Tim’s Bookshop, and so it was that I had no shortage of titles to choose from for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy from 746 Books.  It was easy to choose The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry because I had just read his latest novel Days Without End (see my review) and couldn’t help but love it despite its confronting moments and unexpected setting in the American Civil War.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) is the first in a series about the McNulty family of Sligo, and is followed in chronological time (if not in publication history) by The Temporary Gentleman (2014) and The Secret Scripture (2008), which I read in 2008, the year it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  I realise now that The Secret Scripture would have resonated differently if (like everyone else!) I had read The Whereabouts first… and I also now realise that I read The Whereabouts with knowledge of the fate of one of its characters too.  Ah well, I don’t think my reading of either was compromised by reading the books out of order, and I can’t wait to read The Temporary Gentleman as well.

The Whereabouts is a story of a lost man, his life destroyed by the tortuous politics of Ireland.  It seems ironic now that the book was published in the same year as the Good Friday Agreement (1998) negotiated by Mo Mowlam, (a remarkable woman to remember on International Women’s Day).  It seems ironic because the finale to the novel suggests that old scores are always going to be settled one way or another, and peace in Ireland is a very fragile thing indeed, though the Agreement has held so far for almost two decades…

Eneas as a boy feels an affection for France in peril from the Kaiser.  He is too young for the trenches so he ‘takes the King’s shilling’ and joins the merchant navy, only to find himself rejected on his return, when the war finishing was only the signal to the hidden men of Ireland to brew their own war.  Eneas finds that it’s a sort of sorrow to him that Jonno Lynch will not greet the old going-about companion of his boyhood. 

But there’s worse to come in all manner of things.  A long year passes, a long round of weather and eating his mother’s grub.  Eneas roams the town asking everywhere and anywhere for a job and finds oh, kindness here and there, but mostly indifferent no’s and even aggression.  And gradually Eneas understands that the little rebellion that took place just recent in Dublin and other points, with barely a flare-up in Sligo, barely a flash of fire on the hill, has done nonetheless a great altering in the hearts and minds of the townspeople.  (p.54)


In the face of this hopeless unemployment, Eneas compounds what is seen as treachery by then joining the British-led Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC):

Eneas looks at it all with simple eyes and having no desire to loiter the rest of his days, joins at the hint of his Pappy the Royal Irish Constabulary.  He’s not a complete eejit as Jonno may believe, he’s not the last innocent on earth.  He knows why there are places in the peelers when there are places nowhere else.  The RIC is composed no doubt of lost men, ordinary fellas from the back farms of Ireland, fools and flotsam and youngsters without an ounce of sense or understanding.  And the legends of the RIC are all evictions, murders and the like, though many an Irish family was reared on those wages, and many a peeler was a straightforward decent man.  Still, the word Royal is there before all, and they carry arms, and the top men are all out-and-out Castle men.  But no matter.  He can’t live a life to please Jonno Lynch, much as his heart is grateful for the adventures of his youth. Or he would lead a life to please Jonno Lynch if Jonno still had a grá for him, a friendly love for him.  But he does not, clearly.  And a fella must work, must toil in the dry vale of the world.  (p.55-6)

Most of what Eneas does in the RIC is to mop up after reprisals.

Reprisals are daily sorrows, daily sad persons are found in ditches of a morning and no matter what allegiance was in their hearts at any daybreak.  Because they are broken, bloody, vanished hearts, auxiliary and guerrilla alike.  Eneas’s principal duty is the finding and motoring of these remnants back to the coroner’s premises in Athlone town. (p.58)

But when he witnesses the murder of a fellow-policeman called Doyle, and the King of the Auxiliaries … the man called the Reprisal Man despatches the executioners so promptly, Eneas is suspected of having identified them to the RIC.  And he is a marked man after that, with no recourse but to flee his homeland.  He leaves behind not only his parents and siblings, but also the love of his life, a girl called Viv.  And it is Jonno who comes to deliver the message that unless he delivers the Reprisal Man to the guerrillas, the death sentence will be passed.

The novel then traces Eneas’s lonely life.  Dreary work in the industrial north of England is followed by enlistment to fight the Nazis.  In the confusion of Dunkirk he misses rescue, and miraculously serves out the rest of his war unmolested in a French vineyard.  But his mental health is ruined by what he has witnessed and he’s fit only for labouring work in Nigeria, of all places, where an independence movement is wreaking similar havoc on long-held loyalties.  He makes a friend, a ‘Negraman’ called Harcourt, and using a windfall they build a simple life together, bound by their shared loss of family and the possibility of ever having a family and children of their own.

Twice Eneas tries to go back home, to see his parents, to catch up with the adult lives of his brothers.  But the hearts and minds of Sligo are intransigent.  It is unbearably sad, and emblematic of the struggle to reconcile the combatants in the Irish Peace Process.  My mother used to tell me that every Irish family had its tale of hatred and revenge, and ours does too.  She didn’t want these stories passed on, because she knew the damage that can be done by hatreds stored from long ago.

Sebastian Barry’s Irish lilt is irresistible, but he evokes this tragic story without being judgemental or maudlin.  He uses the imagery of plant growth and repair to great effect:

It is tasty work, the endless breaking of the soil along the rows of vines, the tying of new growth so there is no cramping or snapping, the quenching of the thirst that is like a star of need in each new grape.  It is not like the growing of potatoes in the dark seams of lazybeds at home in Sligo.  And Eneas feels his own father’s hunger for the health of flowers and plants in the old garden in Finisklin in his own blood now, giving a strength to his arms that is both tireless and tender.  With everything changed about it, it is not unlike the fishing it seems to him, the same stopping, the same peering and care.  The clay drinks the water he brings to it with almost a sigh, with almost words of thanks.  (p.152)

Can there be redemption for anyone in a story of Everyman in Ireland?  Reading The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty has made me wonder what kind of reconciliation processes have been put in place, in a country where any of us may yet sit next to someone with blood on his hands…

Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 1998
ISBN: 9780571230143
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop (Maling Rd Canterbury) $22.95

Available from Fishpond: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (where it now costs only $16.35!)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2017

Damned Whores and God’s Police, by Anne Summers

damned-whores-and-gods-policeI tend to be slow at re-reading books I’ve read before, so I’m still only half-way through re-reading Anne Summers’ 772 page Damned Whores and God’s Police, The colonisation of women in Australia – but on International Women’s Day 2017 I think this moment in history is a really good time to share what’s in the introduction to the reissued 2016 edition…

For those too young to have read the original edition when it was first published in 1975, this classic work of influential feminist thought analysed the stereotyping of women as

virtuous mothers whose function was to civilise society, or bad girls who failed to conform and were spurned and vilified as a result.

It’s a long book, even without the introductions and author’s notes to successive editions in 1994 and 2002; the ‘Letter to the next generation’ in the 1994 edition, and ‘the March of Women’ in the 2002 edition and the ‘Timeline of achievements by and for Australian women 1788-2015’.  But despite so much societal change since 1975 much of the book is still relevant and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the obstacles to real gender equality.  (Which should be everyone, IMO).  If you need convincing, I recommend Susan’s review at Goodreads.

However, it is the call to arms in the introduction to the 2016 edition which is so pertinent now.  Summers begins by addressing young people who simply do not know what it was like.  (All women of my generation have stories of discrimination and patronising behaviour that draw gasps from anyone under 30.  You mean, you were not allowed to apply for a job you had been doing for three months anyway, because it was classified as a man’s job??  You mean, you got paid substantially less to do exactly the same job as a man?? You mean that you had to leave your job if you got pregnant and start again at the bottom of a promotion-by-seniority ladder when your children were grown?  Really, you were told you had to graduate in a long white (!!) gown??

This is how Summers puts it:

The Australia I wrote about in the early 1970s has not changed totally beyond recognition, but I expect young people today might be astonished to learn what life used to be like for women.  Even as late as 1975, when this book was first published, there were so many things women were unable to do. Some of these restrictions were self-imposed, cultural restraints, but in many cases they were underpinned by an absence of laws to enforce equality.

Even though in 1975 we were three years into the Whitlam government – the first federal government to commit to and legislate for women’s equality – there was still no federal anti-discrimination.  Nor were there any state laws outlawing discrimination.  It seems almost unbelievable today, but until the late 1970s it was perfectly legal for women in Australia to be treated as inferiors.  Jobs were classified by sex and advertised as being for ‘Men and boys’ or ‘Women and girls’.  There was rarely any overlap between the offerings, which meant that women were excluded from even applying for many positions.

And there were certainly no laws governing how women were treated in the workplace.  (p.2)

There wasn’t even a word for the sexual harassment that was a daily embarrassment when I worked at Myer as a sixteen year old, and if there had been, it would have done me no good to know it since there was no redress.  I could leave their employment, and I did.  But if all seven of us had left, a replacement seven would have had to put up with it just the same.  And in leaving, I might have been jumping out of the frypan and into the fire, again with no redress.  So when public figures snigger and call this ‘locker room talk’ as if to legitimise it, and when voters think this kind of attitude doesn’t matter much, it shows that we have a long, long way to go. And we’d better get busy because the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.

The words we use matter.  It is unnerving to think how Summers might write this paragraph now, just a few short months after publication of this new edition.  She is addressing women, but implicit in her words is the assumption that our present understandings weren’t gendered.  Did we realise how fragile these gains might be?

…reading the book also reminds us how different much of our language is now.  We can reflect on attitude changes of course, how we have enlarged out understanding of things, but our shift in language also represents our progress in identifying, through naming, issues and forms of oppression that we did not fully grasp 40 years ago.

It is almost disconcerting to realise how ill equipped we were back then to talk about many key issues.  We now understand the importance of language in political struggle.  Once you have a name for something, you can start to understand it, and to address it. …[…]…

There are many instances in the book of archaic language and usage. ‘Gay’ meant something else then.  We used the word ‘domestics’ to refer to violence in the home. It was standard to use the term ‘Blacks rather than Indigenous Australians.  …[…] … It seems extraordinary today, but in the mid-1970s we did not use terms like ‘domestic violence’, ‘sexual harassment’, ‘date rape’ or ‘glass ceiling’ – let alone ‘same-sex marriage’ – because they had not yet been coined.  We had not yet given names to some things even though they certainly existed. (p.4)

Summers rejects today’s arguments about feminism – who is, who isn’t, what it is, what it isn’t:

I think our energies would be better directed towards addressing the issues of inequality and actually changing them, rather than worrying about what people do or do not call themselves.  We would do better to measure women’s representation – be it in boardrooms or on bookshelves – and to concern ourselves with the substance of women’s equality and how we can accelerate its pace. (p.5)

And while she agrees that we need to measure ‘how far we have come’ and ‘how far we have to go’ , she also counsels against a preoccupation with measuring merely the easily measurable forms of progress.  She says that the reason her book has lasted so long and still resonates today is because of an uncomfortable truth:

But today we do not talk so much about what in the book I called the ‘invisible barriers’ – the ways women limited themselves and collaborated with the culture of oppression. We need to resume that conversation because while we might have made major changes and mapped a path to full equality, I am not sure if we have sufficiently reinvented ourselves. (p.7)

She expands on this:

Many, if not most, women still accept, deep down that it is their role to be God’s Police.  They believe they are responsible for the emotional, as well as the physical wellbeing of the family; it is their job to manage and monitor and, where necessary, censor the behaviour of their husbands and their children.  And there is wide consensus, in Australia and elsewhere, that this is the way things should be.  Many women today want to add to, and modernise the God’s Police role rather than redefine, let alone abandon, it completely.

I am struck by how many young women today, aged in their 30s and 40s with big, full-time jobs and two or three children, have chosen to take on additional domestic roles such as baking, sewing, preserving or other time-consuming (and, I would argue, unnecessary) tasks that once fully occupied women who had no choice but to be what we today like to call ‘domestic goddesses’.  Why do these women feel the need to do this?  Is it atonement for not being full-time mothers?  Is it to demonstrate their economic role outside the home does not come at the cost of domestic accomplishments?  Is it to head off criticism that they are neglecting their nurturing roles?  How to explain the often torrid criticisms of working mothers by their stay-at-home counterparts over such issues as tuckshop rosters?  Why on earth do so many women feel so compromised or defensive simply because they are exercising their option to pursue equality?  (p.9)

I hear what she says about these additional domestic roles.  I actually like cooking so for me these tasks that she has characterised as unnecessary chores were never burdensome, not even when I was a full-time working mother and studying part-time as well.  I found it relaxing to switch off my brain and potter about with a mixing spoon.  But yes, I did (and still do) feel a pressure to have a clean and tidy home as if (a) it’s my responsibility and (b) it is I who will be judged for it not The Spouse.

I hadn’t realised until I read this Introduction that there are forces in Australia, and globally, that would strip away what we have already won.  Summers explains that there hasn’t been a UN conference on women’s rights since 1995 because of the fear that some principles – especially to do with reproductive rights – might not be reaffirmed.  Summers articulates what many of my generation discuss with alarm:

that young women are going to have to take up that fight, and keep it going.  They are going to have to fight to keep what we already have – what they grew up assuming was unassailable and irreversible – and they are going to have to fight to enable us to keep moving forward.  (p.15)

Summers cites the shocking increase in violence against women as one reason why the fight has become urgent.  Already the statistics she uses about the number of women murdered each week are out-of-date, but she contrasts the lack of action on this national crisis with the immediate political and legal response to random acts of violence resulting in the deaths of two boys in Sydney in 2014.   More contentiously she also contrasts the practice of Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition attending the funerals of soldiers killed on active service, but not the funerals of women killed as a result of domestic terrorism.

When are we going to treat this as the national emergency it is?  Or are we in a continuing state of deep denial about the true causes of this violence?  No amount of political window-dressing or emergency packages of the kind we saw from federal and state governments in the latter part of 2015, will end the violence until we end the inequality.  The two things are deeply and inextricably linked and we have to accept this – and act on it. (p.17)

Re-reading this book – for all that some parts of it are dated – is a powerful reminder of the mindset that underlies the problems that persist today.  I’ve written nearly 2000 words just about the introduction!

Author: Anne Summers
Title: Damned Whores and God’s Police
Publisher: NewSouth, 2016
ISBN: 9781742234908
Source: Personal copy, purchased at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival $39.99

Available from Fishpond: Damned Whores and God’s Police and make sure you check the prices using Booko if you are considering buying from any of the global behemoths because the prices vary enormously.

There have been some distractions on the domestic front chez moi, so this review may not do this marvellous book justice…

Jeff Sparrow’s biography of Paul Robeson is great reading, even if you have never heard of Paul Robeson.  The blurb actually says that Robeson is one of the 20th century’s most accomplished but forgotten figures – but surely not?  Could this voice really be forgotten?

His performance of ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman’ is electrifying:

But Paul Robeson, superstar of the early 20th century that he was, was not just an extraordinary bass singer.  His father the Reverend William Drew Robeson had been a slave and he was ambitious for his son.  He saw to it that Paul transcended the institutional racism all around him under the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in America until 1965.  Paul became the third ever African-American student at Rutgers University, and he graduated with both academic and sporting distinction.  He then went on to enrol at Columbia university, supporting himself with football coaching and – with the encouragement of the girl he married, ‘Essie’ Goode – also with an emerging career as a performer.

Paul’s father did not live to see his son qualify as a lawyer, nor to see that his destiny lay elsewhere:

… [Paul’s] legal career ended after a few weeks, when he asked a stenographer to take a note for him.

‘I don’t take dictation from a nigger,’ she said.

Paul put on his hat and marched out, leaving the office and the profession.  (p.65)

(My apologies for the offensive word, it’s in the text).

Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson is fascinating: he travels to the places Robeson went, and talks to people who remember the frisson that accompanied his tours.  It’s not a hagiography but the reader can sense his awe at the events that marked Robeson’s life and his respect for the man’s achievements. He charts the course that shows that Robeson became a singer and an actor almost by accident.  He shows how Robeson struggled with the slave song repertoire he was expected to sing because it reinforced racism, and acknowledges the role of Paul’s wife Essie who saw the possibilities in building a career that would enable him to be a role model and spokesman for his people. By distinguishing himself in the arts, Paul went on to travel the world and found that there was an international movement to improve the lives of working people… like many intellectuals of the era, he recognised the possibilities of communism.

As an international advocate for international peace, workers’ rights, and racial equality, Paul Robeson also performed at fundraisers for the out-of-work coal miners and for the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  The chapter about the Spanish Civil War is excellent: it’s a very complex piece of history but Sparrow writes so clearly and cogently, I now understand what happened and why better than I ever did before.

I found this clip about Robeson’s visit to the Scottish miners in 1949:

As many Australians will know, Jeff Sparrow is a writer on the left of the political spectrum, but he is troubled by Robeson’s decision to become a committed communist and not to resile from that even after Stalin was denounced.  In Russia, Sparrow sees a different Moscow to the one I saw as a tourist in 2012.  He traces a ‘topography of terror’ that took him to the Lubyanka Building that housed the NKVD and the KGB; and he visits a museum at a gulag called Perm-36.   He connects a Russian father’s refusal to discuss his incarceration in the gulag with Robeson’s father’s refusal ever to discuss his enslavement with his son Paul.

But the obvious comparison raised the issue posed by everything I’d seen at the museum: how could Paul, the child of a slave, a man who dedicated his life to battling oppression, have supported the system responsible for Perm-36?

The question had gnawed at me ever since I first read the Robeson story.  And the shadow it cast felt particularly dark, because I knew how tragic the final chapter of Paul’s story had been. (p.253)

Paul Robeson certainly suffered for his principles.  His magnificent international singing career gave him fame, great wealth and a celebrity lifestyle but he lost it all during the era of McCarthyism.

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person’s real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that were later declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute. (Wikipedia, viewed 7/3/17)

This clip shows Robeson singing for the workers on the Sydney Opera House site in 1960.  He had been invited to Australia by the Australian Peace Council in 1950 but was unable to come because his passport had been confiscated by US authorities.   The Australian visit was one of a number of singing and speaking tours after his passport was restored in 1958, to recoup his fortunes after years of being unable to work because of the blacklist.

Despite his achievements, as the final chapter makes clear, Robeson was a deeply troubled man in the last years of his life.  He suffered from chronic depression and delusional paranoia, and the primitive treatments for mental illness were not much help to him at all.  He felt he’d failed and that he wasn’t worthy of the adulation he received.  But Sparrow summarises the merit of Robeson’s life work and relates it to contemporary politics like this:

Paul’s illusions about Soviet Russia had been used, it seemed to me, by those who defended the structural injustices of the United States to obscure his extraordinary presience about some of the most profound questions about American politics.

The Soviet Union that Paul had championed was grotesquely different in reality from the claims he made for it.  But that didn’t mean that he was mistaken to agitate against the evils of the America he had known.  It didn’t mean he was wrong to suggest that ordinary people could unite against racism and oppression.  And it didn’t mean that a better kind of society wasn’t a worthy goal for which to fight. (p.267)

I may not have conveyed in this review how the book gripped me.    I read excerpts to The Spouse over breakfast; I neglected the ironing, forgot to water the vegetable patch, and once or twice poor little Amber had to forego her walk because I was busy.  Now that’s a book well worth reading!

Author: Jeff Sparrow
Title: No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson
Publisher: Scribe, 2017
ISBN: 9781925321852
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: No Way but This: In Search of Paul Robeson
Or direct from Scribe (with links to buy the eBook as well).


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