The editor’s introduction to Issue #3 of Australian Foreign Affairs cues readers in with some interesting points on the first page:

  • Every day in Australia, about thirty-seven flights go to Auckland and thirty-four to Singapore, but just two – sometimes three, depending on the day – fly to Jakarta.  More people travel to Ho Chi Minh City, to Vancouver or to Johannesburg each year than to the capital of our largest northern neighbour.
  • Last year, Australia conducted more trade with Hong Kong (population 7 million, world’s 34th largest economy) than with Indonesia (population 260 million, world’s 16th largest economy).
  • Indonesian language study at Australian universities has declined, and there has been no increase in Indonesian students coming to Australia in the past twenty years, despite a fivefold overall surge in international enrolments.

and

  • Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is not that it has gone backwards from a very low base, but that these two nations, despite their proximity, have successfully made themselves invisible to each other.

and

  • Ultimately it will matter more to Australia than to Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth most populous country and most populous Islamic-majority nation, and is becoming one of the world’s strongest economies.

One statistic I like to quote to disbelieving Australians: 10% of Indonesia’s 260 million strong population is middle class, with a middle class income to spend.  That’s 26 million people, a potential market that’s more than the entire population of Australia.

There are four essays in this issue:

  • Hugh White examines why Australia should embrace the rise of Indonesia, which could be a valuable ally but also a dangerous adversary.  
  • Jennifer Rayner analyses Australia’s economic and political challenges as it struggles to keep pace with its northern neighbour.
  • Endy M. Bayuni reports on the Indonesian perspective on Australia and the misperceptions that hinder closer ties.
  • Tim Lindsey explores the growth of conservative Islam in Indonesia, reflecting on what this means for Australia and the world.

Indonesia has the potential to be a great power in Asia and influential throughout our region.  But Australians know next to nothing about it, and our perceptions, like theirs of our country, are mostly wrong.  We think of it as a poor, hot, hardscrabble place, bedevilled by corruption, beset by violence and natural disaster; a nation of skinny brown foster children who reach out to us with needy hands. And their view of us is equally outdated:

The prevailing view of Australia among Indonesians today has barely changed from the period when Australia had the White Australia Policy in place: just as then, it is seen as racist, arrogant, manipulative, exploitative and intrusive. (p.50)  Ouch.

The elites don’t think like this.  They know that the former white colony is now a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation.  But just as our media chooses to focus on any bad news coming out of Indonesia, theirs chooses to stay silent and leave the misperceptions in place. And whenever an issue arises (East Timor, beef export bans, the execution of the two Bali Nine members etc) their elites who could clarify these issues, don’t.  Still smarting over John Howard’s interference in the Timorese independence referendum they choose not to admit that they weren’t sorry to be leaving East Timor because they had been reluctant to invade it in the first place and only did so at Washington and Canberra’s urging in the context of the Cold War.  They didn’t explain that the beef bans were because of animal welfare concerns.  Their media did not report that Chan and Sukamaran had reformed while in prison.  Indonesia conveniently forgotten our historic and ongoing contributions to the wellbeing and prosperity.

And for our part, I remember only too well that when Indonesia celebrated its 50th year of independence, our news reports had not a word to say about their astonishing progress in literacy, health and nutrition –  but instead rehashed old conflicts between us.

This is an important issue.  It’s a long overdue wake-up call.

Authors: Hugh White, Jennifer Rayner, Endy M Bayuni and Tim Lindsey
Title: Australia & Indonesia, Can We Be Friends?
Series: Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #3
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, July 2018, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781760640675
Source: Personal subscription

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

The next issue is due in October: it’s called Defending Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2018

Aqua Spinach – Luke Beesley PLUS bonus poet interview

Another recent release poetry book, thanks to Tony from Messenger’s Booker

Messenger's Booker (and more)

AquaSpinach

It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.

Scrap that thought….start…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2018

The Word, by William Lane #BookReview and a giveaway

William Lane is the author of three previous novels, Over the Water, The Horses and The Salamanders, and by some lucky chance I have an extra copy of his new novel The Word for a giveaway.  Here is the blurb:

William ‘s Lane’s disarming new novel, The Word, brilliantly satirises the ways in which we use language to define our lives. Kenric is an oddball advertising eccentric who possesses an unusual gift for language. The brands he names, sell. Yet he comes to believe advertising uses language too cynically. He is inspired by Maria to abandon the corporate world and establish a small residential community called The Word. The idealistic community relocates from Pittwater to a warehouse in industrial Mount Druitt, gathering about it others concerned with the misuse of language.
The Word is both a charming ensemble piece of unforgettable characters, and an astute and humorous exploration of the ways in which language beguiles and creates connections, but also misleads. Lane understands the human tendency to seek answers and directions in the unlikeliest of individuals but is happy to show us the folly of doing so. As such the novel parallels current world trends while evoking with candour Sydney’s watery beauty and suburban harshness.

You know the rules.  The giveaway is open to anyone with an Australian postcode.  Express your interest in the comments below, and at the end of the week I’ll do the draw using a random number generator.  If you win, you must provide me with the mailing address by the date specified in the post announcing the winner, and if you don’t do it in time I’ll redraw.

Ok, so now to the book…

The Word seems very apt for our times.  It’s a novel of disillusionment.

The central character Kenric is an advertising man, but not like the smart, shallow types usually portrayed in fiction and film.  He is a man who loves words, and his gift is that he’s brilliant at coming up with one-word names for products that then become bestsellers and often iconic products as well.  (Like the adman who came up with the word Vegemite, I guess, or Dove, or Rinso).  But Kenric is quiet and unassuming and takes a lot of time doing quiet thinking before his genius comes into play, so of course he is vulnerable when a dynamic New Broom called Quick takes over the advertising agency.  The reader can see between the lines when Quick starts spouting corporate management rubbish at Kenric, but Kenric doesn’t see what’s coming.

Kenric has a depressing marriage with Janis, whose desire for human company breaks into his musings on The Word, so it’s not surprising when he leaves to set up a bizarre community in a grotty warehouse in Sydney.  Unlike the cults and hippie communities which it mocks, their group (which is called ‘The Word’) is devoted to exploring how words work.  They have sessions on grammar, the Greek and Latin roots of words, and even ‘tongue’talking’ which is like so-called speaking in tongues, i.e. it’s gibberish yet they conjure meaning out of it.

But humans being what they are, it doesn’t take long for the community to fracture.  The men vie for sexual favours, and the women complain because they get left with the unappreciated cooking and the washing up. Some people are there not because they are devoted to words but because they are escapees, from life or from the law.  The warehouse is about as far as one can imagine from the idyllic images of rural communes, and their leader is an abject failure at being charismatic, because he likes nothing better than silence in which to think.  And in a talkative word, that’s doomed to failure.

The power of words, in this community founded on an ideal, is soon exposed more often than not as a cruel weapon.

Peter Lo did the brilliant cover design.

***

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for your own copy!

Author: William Lane
Title: The Word
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018, 239pp
ISBN: 9781925760088
Review and giveaway copies courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond The Word and direct from Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2018

2018 Waverley Library Award for Literature shortlist

Now here’s an award I’d never heard of, which deserves a bit of attention. (Thanks, Barry Scott @transitlounge2!)

It’s the Waverley Library Award (known as The Nib) – which is not only quite substantial ($20,000 for the winner and $1000 for each of the shortlisted authors) – it’s also for something quite specific which I suspect might be unique. The award was set up in 2002 to recognise the role of research in fiction and nonfiction.

The Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award is Waverley Council’s annual celebration of the best in Australian research and writing. Established in 2002 as The Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature, this prestigious prize has so far distributed around $350,000 directly to deserving Australian authors*.

Entries are open to all Australian writers regardless of their experience, chosen subject matter or genre. Submitted works are judged against the specific award criteria of excellence in research, high level of literary merit, readability and value to the community. Winners are decided by an independent panel of three judges each of whom bring a wealth of experience from across the literary world.

What’s even more interesting is that the award is administered through a local government council.  (It’s Waverley in Sydney, not the suburb in Melbourne which belongs in the Monash council).   #Sigh I can’t imagine my local council doing that.   Are there other councils managing literary awards??

  • I can’t find a site that lists all the previous winners.  It would be interesting to see who they were, eh?

Anyway, the shortlist for the 2018 Waverley Library Award for Literature includes:

•Relatively Famous (Roger Averill, Transit Lounge), see my review
•The Trauma Cleaner (Sarah Krasnostein, Text)
•The Dead Still Cry Out (Helen Lewis, Text)
•Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, A&U)
•Call of the Reed Warbler (Charles Massy, UQP)
•The Suitcase Baby (Tanya Bretherton, Hachette).

The winner will be announced on 22 November. There’s also a People’s Choice Award with $1000 prize money. Voting for the People’s Choice Award is now open on the Waverley Council website.

For more information about the award, visit the Waverley Library website here.

Update, later the same day:

The senior publicist for this award, Annabel Rijks from DMCPR Media has been in touch and has kindly supplied the names of previous winners

2017 – Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness, by Kate Cole-Adams, Text
2016 – Who Bombed the Hilton? by Rachel Landers, New South Publishing
2015 – Acute Misfortune: The life and Death of Adam Cullen, by Erik Jensen, Black Inc. See my review
2014 – The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright, Text. See my review.

It would be really great if someone with the requisite knowhow  set up a page for this award at Wikipedia, eh? (Not me, I hasten to add, I was always in trouble for mucking things up.)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2018

Milk Teeth – Rae White PLUS bonus poet interview

Winner of the Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize interviewed by Tony from Messenger’s Booker

Messenger's Booker (and more)

MilkTeeth

The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.

Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2018

The Pastor and the Painter, by Cindy Wockner #BookReview

This book was written by the Newscorp journalist who covered the story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the drug traffickers who were executed in Indonesia in 2015.  It’s not the kind of book I’d usually read but I bought it because my local bookseller at Beaumaris books is holding an event featuring its author to coincide with World Day against the Death Penalty, a cause I have supported ever since Ronald Ryan was hanged in 1967 when I was a teenager.

Cindy Wockner developed a friendly relationship with Chan and Sukumaran and the book was written to fulfil a promise to continue the fight against the death penalty and not wait until the next Australian is on death row overseas and about to be killed.

Everyone in Australia knows the story of these two men.  They were the ringleaders of the Bali Nine, the ones who coordinated the exchange of drugs from a Thai importer to the ‘mules’ who were to carry the drugs, strapped to their bodies, from Bali into Australia.  All of them received very heavy penalties by Australian standards, some of them subjected to the death penalty which was since rescinded, except in the case of Chan and Sukumaran.  Australia (still!) has no prisoner exchange agreement with Indonesia so the remaining seven will remain in gaol over there for a long time yet to come.

The book, though a bit repetitive, makes a solid workmanlike case for the exceptional circumstances that apply to Chan and Sukumaran.  There seem to have been irregularities in the court process and the evidence, and there’s the possibility that the Indonesian Presidential elections influenced President Widodo’s refusal of clemency.  Also possibly relevant is Australia’s poor relationship with Indonesia and then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ham-fisted hints of retaliation if the executions went ahead.  There was also a stupid intervention from an Australian radio station which claimed that Australians supported the death penalty, and the media circus that surrounded the entire proceedings probably only cemented anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia.  A great deal of the book focusses on the rehabilitation of the two men, both of whom made a remarkable transformation during the years of their imprisonment awaiting execution.  (Chan became an ordained pastor and Sukumaran became a painter (hence the title of the book) but they also initiated rehabilitation and education programs in the prison and were active fundraisers for fellow prisoners in need).

But this exceptionalism cut no ice in Indonesia.  Nothing was going to sway public opinion there, and the President had been elected on a promise to clean up the drug industry, and Indonesia had surely noticed that Australia’s inconsistent position on the death penalty.  Australia had not asked for clemency for the Bali Bombers who were executed in 2008.

And therein lies the problem, which is not emphasised enough in the book.  If Australians believe that everyone deserves a second chance and that the outpouring of support for Chan and Sukumaran is evidence that the court of public opinion thinks that the death penalty is abhorrent, then our position should be clear and unambiguous, not just limited to spasmodic emotional appeals for those of our own nationality and not just for lesser crimes or for people who have shown remorse and rehabilitated themselves.  Wockner does not emphasise enough what needs to be said: that Australia should campaign actively against the death penalty around the world.  This means confronting our ally the United States, and our trading partners, China and the Middle East, and our neighbours in Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention what’s going on in the Philippines under Duterte where extra-judicial killings bypass the their Senate’s refusal to reinstate the death penalty.

What Wockner does well is to capture the desperation of the situation and the horror of capital punishment for everyone involved.  She shows that it was not just horrific for the innocent families of the two men and for their friends, but also for everyone else involved.  It impacted on the lawyers, both defence and prosecution; on the prison guards who had come to like and admire the men; on their fellow prisoners; and on the anonymous members of the firing squad, specially selected to ensure that they had the fortitude to endure what they had to do.  There is also extensive coverage of the heroic spiritual advisers who were with the men throughout the last days of their ordeal, and had to be present at the hour of their death.

I was pleased to see that the author did not intrude on the grief of the families in the aftermath.

The book concludes with contact details for anyone who wants to help in the campaign against the death penalty:

  • Amnesty International who began campaigning 40 years ago and have seen the number of countries who have abolished the death penalty rise from 16 to 104
  • Reprieve Australia whose president is Julian McMahon AO who represented Chan and Sukumaran and also Van Truong Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005, as well as numerous other cases around the world.

PS You can also listen to ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program featuring this book.

Author: Cindy Wockner
Title: The Pastor and the Painter
Publisher: Hachette, 2018, 311pp
ISBN: 9780733636943
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Beaumaris Books
Available from Fishpond: The Pastor and the Painter

There is no doubt that this latest Quarterly Essay is deeply depressing to read.  Without America is unequivocal about the fading power of America and that we in Australia face the prospect of China becoming the dominant power in our region.  You don’t have to be xenophobic to fear this: it’s a straightforward matter of China not sharing the democratic values that we are used to.  We are used to having democratic elections, freedom of speech, freedom from censorship, the rule of law, judicial independence and the end of capital punishment many decades ago.  Chinese authoritarianism isn’t going to suit the larrikin Australian character at all.

But what this QE makes clear is that Australia has had its head in the sand.  Obama’s ‘pivot’ was a failure but we believed it because we liked and admired Obama. We’ve been backing America as a reliable ally when all along it’s been demonstrating that it its strategy in Asia is failing, while at the same time we’ve been relying on China for our economic survival.  The mantra that we do not need to choose between China and America is would be laughable if things were not serious: we often need to choose, and not having an intelligent, coherent and bipartisan strategy is not helping us to negotiate our way in uncharted territory.  Even before Trump, American foreign policy towards China was nonsense.

Instead of hiding our collective heads in the sand, what we need to do is to strengthen our ties in southeast Asia, and we need to ensure that Indonesia in particular becomes a strategic asset rather than a liability in the new Asia.  It will be the fifth biggest economy in the world by 2030, and still we send journalists there when they don’t have a word of Indonesian to interpret what’s going on.  (Indeed, I suspect that the last Australian journalist to speak a local neighbourhood language was Sean Dorney reporting on Papua New Guinea). Indonesia is our biggest and most powerful neighbour, and there are worrying signs of the erosion of democratic reforms and the slide towards authoritarianism and away from secularism yet it remains a mystery to us*.  India is also vitally important to us because it also has a vested interest in limiting China’s power, but the best we can do on Australian TV is repeats of Joanna Lumley’s excruciatingly Raj-ridden travelogues.

The only way the rise of China will be stopped is through outright and catastrophic war, and White asks the question of those who decry appeasement:

…is the prospect of an Asia dominated by China bad enough to be worth fighting a major [i.e. nuclear] war over?  Leaving to one side the practical question if whether enough countries with sufficient power would share our views and join the struggle, the answer depends on what is really at stake. Again, talk of appeasement suggests that the stakes today are comparable to the stakes in 1938, when it was no exaggeration to say that the future of liberal democracy, indeed of civilisation, was at stake.  People sometimes speak today in similar terms about China’s rise.  They say that China’s growing power and influence poses a direct threat to our liberal-democratic political system and the values that underpin it, and that our system and values cannot survive unless China’s power is curbed.

Plainly China’s values – or the values of China’s rulers – are different from ours, and there is much that happens there that we find disturbing or worse.  We would, I think, pay a very high price to prevent those values and the political system that reflects them being imposed on Australia.  Whether we’d pay the price of a major war is a question we might hope never to have to face.  But we do not face that question yet.  The question we should consider now, more carefully than we have so far felt the need to do, is what kind of threat China as the dominant power in East Asia would or does pose to the fundamental values on which our society is based, and the institutions that support them.  How seriously are our values threatened simply by the fact that China’s political system is based on different ones?  And how serious is the risk that China’s values and system might be imposed on us in Australia?

Answering these questions will require us to think about values rather differently from the way they mostly figure in our talk about foreign affairs.  That talk often presumes that values sit on one side of the argument and interests on the other.  That is sometimes true, but only when the stakes are relatively low.  When the stakes are high, the choices we face are not between interests and values, but between competing values on both sides of the argument.  In Asia today, as so often in international relations, the big choice we face is between justice on one side and peace on the other, and peace weighs heavily when the alternative is major war.  (p.67)

Lest we panic, White reminds us that while this situation is new for Australia because the countries that have had most influence over us have also been the ones we feel closest to, and whose interests and values have aligned most naturally with ours… world history shows that most countries have had to live with this situation and have been subject [to the influence of greater powers] much more than they would wish.  

We can get a clearer idea of what [coming out from America’s wing] will mean by looking at other countries’ experience of the way great powers exert influence over weaker ones.  It is not as straightforward as we often assume, because even relatively weak sovereign states have a formidable capacity to control what happens in their territory.  Great powers cannot simply dictate to smaller ones unless they intervene with armed force.  Short of that, they exercise influence by offering rewards, or more often, by imposing costs.  In fact, a key measure of a state’s power is its ability to impose costs on other states at low cost to itself  China’s power over Australia will be reflected in its ability to impose costs on us to persuade us to do what it wants, and the stronger it becomes, the greater the costs it will be able to impose.  This means, however, that weaker states have choices about how they respond to pressure. Even a very weak state can defy a great power if it is willing to pay the price.  North Korea has shown this over many years: it has been able to defy US pressure to abandon its nuclear program because it has been willing to accept the costs that America has imposed.  (p.69)

But already Australia is choosing to acquiesce: we don’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we kowtow over independence for Tibet, and we have nothing to say about alternatives to the Chinese Communist party.  It’s our economic relationship that makes us vulnerable…

Would Australians be willing to pay more for consumer goods if China made demands that are more painful to comply with?  Already there are insidious forms of Chinese pressure: they want control of some forms of critical infrastructure, they attempt to influence media coverage, they are buying political influence from both sides of federal politics, and there is surveillance and harassment of Chinese students in Australian universities.

It is no good hoping that Beijing will stop doing these things if we ask nicely.  If we don’t want to live with them, we will need to take steps ourselves to curtail them, and pay the costs accordingly.  Some things are easy, like banning foreign political donations.  Others are more difficult: it is hard to see how we can prevent China using its money to promote favourable media coverage without curtailing the freedom of the press.  (p.71)

So there’s lots to think about.  What QE doesn’t say, presumably because it knows its readership is awake and paying attention, is that Australians voters – who are either totally disengaged or gazing awestruck by its navel-gazing politicians carrying on about internecine warfare, Section 44, and gender equity – need to sit up and demand a bi-partisan approach to dealing with critically important issues that are on the threshold.

  • The latest issue of the journal Australian Foreign Affairs (also published by Schwarz Publishing) is titled Australia and Indonesia, Can we be friends?  and it features an essay titled ‘The Jakarta Switch’ also by Hugh White. It’s on my TBR (because I subscribe to the journal) and I’ll be reading it soon.

Author: Hugh White
Title: Without America, Australia in the New Asia
Quarterly Essay 66, 2017, 107pp
Publisher: Black Inc, an imprint of Schwarz Publishing
ISBN: 9781863959636
Source: Personal subscription to Quarterly Essay

Available from Fishpond: Without America: Australia in the New Asia: Quarterly Essay 68

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 15, 2018

Beyond Survival, by Kenneth Arkwright #BookReview

I’ve always been a bit choosey about which memoirs I read, but I’m interested in those which have some form of wisdom to impart.  And while old age isn’t always a guarantee of wisdom, a memoir written by someone who’s had time to reflect on a tumultuous lifetime is usually worthwhile reading.

Beyond Survival is by a man now in his nineties, who has had many years to reflect on his experiences.  My father who died last year, would have been about the same age, and although his life experiences were very different, I cherish his wisdom, which was also about making the best of hardships so that you can still have a satisfying life despite whatever fate may do.  The wisdom of this approach to life is something that we witness every day in an immigrant society like Australia, where many people have come for refuge after enduring unimaginable suffering and horror.  We see these brave souls rebuild their lives to inspire us with their refusal to let the horrific past destroy their future.  Each of their stories is unique, and these are the memoirs that I prefer to read.

Kenneth Arkwright’s memoir is truly remarkable for its lack of bitterness.  His story of survival as a Jew in Nazi Germany is notable for his capacity to comment on his fortune in surviving, on the goodness of people when he encountered it, and on his own determination to transcend the shocking experiences of his childhood and adolescence.

It is surprising to read that anything of value could come from surviving concentration camps and slave labour, but Arkwright’s Opa Isidor Aufrichtig often quoted Goethe to the boy:

“To have character means to have the ability to discover good in everything and in every human being”.

Arkwright took this maxim to heart, despite his dreadful experiences.  He writes in his chapter ‘The Camps’:

In this camp, my bedfellows were a rather mixed lot.  A surgeon, an engineer specialising in the construction of catchment retaining walls, an opera singer, a butcher and there was I, not even a schoolboy, as school had been prohibited for me.  And yet, we had a lot in common.  We all owned nothing, except our working clothes and a shovel.  We shared the fact that our expert knowledge or the lack thereof and our status in life had become totally irrelevant. All that mattered was that we could dig anti-tank trenches all day long.  But in one way we differed.  Most of us supported one another, but there were a very few who were ready to steal the last piece of bread from their fellow inmates to increase their own chance of survival.  In this way camp life highlighted the difference between those who had remained a human being and those who had deteriorated into merely being a human animal. This experience has remained deeply ingrained in my psyche to this very day.  Whenever I meet people, I ask myself the question: “If all they own, know and stand for would be taken away from them, would they then be reduced to a human being or a human animal?”  The Holocaust teaches that we need to develop this elusive quality which determines good or evil in our actions and thereby gives hope to future generations. (p.110)

In the same chapter he writes about escaping, in the chaos of the collapsing Third Reich, to relations in Halberstadt who were living in a privileged mixed marriage. (There were some exemptions from deportation for some Jews in mixed marriages if that marriage had occurred before the Nuremburg laws prohibited it).  Realising that both he and they knew that his presence endangered their lives and that he could not expect to be sheltered in their home for any length of time, he left the next day, because he felt that he had no right to inflict [his] fate upon them. 

We parted with mixed feelings of affection, fear and disappointment, and on my part, gratitude for the few hours of respite from my life as a fugitive.  (p.117)

It is hard to imagine this sixteen -year-old boy sent on his way by members of his family, into a Nazi-held city being bombed by the allies… but the lesson of this book is that if he does not judge or blame, neither should we.

After the war, when he is back in Erfurt (in the Soviet Zone, which became the Soviet  GDR) with his parents, who – miraculously – also survived, he has to make decisions about how to rebuild his life.

At the time, I was sixteen-and-a-half years old; my schooling had stopped when I was thirteen.  I needed to pass my normal German Abitur (final high school examination) for entrance into university studies, including the “Latinum” and “Graecum” (high standard in Latin and Greek) that was required for the study of medicine.  I had eighteen months to achieve that objective to pass the Abitur at the appropriate age.  The time in labour and concentration camps had taught me how to manage with only five hours sleep per night and how to dispense with the luxury of weekends and holiday breaks.  The only diversion from my studies were violin lessons at the Thuringian State Conservatorium and acting as relief cantor for synagogue services.  (p.156)

Passing this Abitur was, he says, one of the biggest battles in life but he succeeded, and began medical studies at university, only to have to leave with his degree unfinished because of the emerging Cold War.  His family had left it too late to leave Germany, and he was not going to make the same mistake twice as the Wall went up.  Penniless, he went to Paris and waited for his chance to come.  And it did, and he made it here to Australia and since his medical studies were not accepted, made a new life as an accountant.

The memoir is illustrated with B&W photographs throughout, but the one that readers will be pleased to see is the one with his Australian family: his wife Judith, and sons Peter and Kevin.  It’s a  testament to hope.

Author: Ken Arkwright, OA
Title: Beyond Survival
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 194pp
ISBN: 9781925272949
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond Beyond Survival: A Holocaust memoir or direct from Hybrid $27.50

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2018

2018 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The Voss Literary Prize longlist was announced today, and I’ve read all but two of them!

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats  see my review

Michelle De Kretser, The Life to Come see my review

Richard Flanagan, First Person see my review

Eva Hornung, The Last Garden see my review

Sofie Laguna, The Choke see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

Catherine McKinnon, Storyland see my review

Gerald Murnane, Border Districts see my review

Bram Presser, The Book of Dirt see my review

Jane Rawson, From the Wreck see my review

Pip Smith, Half Wild see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers:)

PS I’m don’t have the dates for the shortlist and winner announcements.  We’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2018

The Forgotten Notebook, by Betty Churcher #BookReview

This is just a quick review to let you know about another one of Betty Churcher’s wonderful ‘notebooks’.

I’ve written about Betty Churcher (1931-2015) before.  She was an arts administrator, well-known and much-admired as the director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990-1997.  People flocked in their thousands to view the blockbuster exhibitions she organised, and she shared her love of art in a wonderful TV series called Hidden Treasures.

And she also published her notebooks, which are a delight for amateur art-lovers like me.  As she travelled the world organising loans for her exhibitions, she would sketch aspects of the paintings she admired in her notebooks, usually annotating them as well.  In published form, these notebooks contain her sketches and annotations, reproductions of the paintings and her own thoughts about them, written in her trademark unpretentious style.  The Forgotten Notebook is her third, and sadly, her last.  Using a notebook she’d forgotten about, it was written not long before she died, and published posthumously.

I think it’s the best of them all.  That’s partly because it is so beautifully produced – larger than its predecessors so you can see the paintings better, but also because the paintings in it are the paintings I love. Each one is set in context, there is a bit of history about the painting (who it was painted for, who bought it and so on) and then there is discussion about the painting itself.  Each one gets about ten pages, which include a full colour page reproduction of the painting, and a full page detail of the painting as well as her sketch.

Major artists included are Leonardo Da Vinci, Piero Della Francesca, Bellili, Titian, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Poussin, Goya, Manet and Courbet and others as well.  I particularly liked the Vermeers she has chosen because they are the ones in American galleries that I haven’t visited.  I have seen ‘Girl with the Red Hat’ and ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ in other books we have about Vermeer, but Betty Churcher’s words bring them alive because she draws attention to the small details that one can usually only notice when looking at the actual painting.

For example:

Vermeer has opened one of the top windows to allow only one beam of light to fall down on this quiet, domestic scene.  And just as he did in the case of Girl with a Red Hat, where he set his model against the dull ochre of a tapestry, here he places the girl in front of a very dark religious picture on the wall. This allows the light to illuminate her hands, the scales, her fur-lined gown and her white cotton headscarf.  Vermeer is a master of tactile reality – whether it’s the touch of fingers on the tabletop, the delicacy of the fingers holding the scales, the imagined feel of a plaster wall under the hand or the sense of a fur lining.

However, she doesn’t seem to be weighing gold, because Vermeer always used lead-tin yellow when painting gold, and there is no trace of lead-tin. In the seventeenth century, gold and silver coins were sometimes shaved or ‘clipped’ and only scales could gauge their true value.  You can see three gold coins lined up on the edge of the table , front right.  If she is weighing minute gold shavings this might be why she is holding the balance so gingerly, steadying herself with her left hand on the table top.

What fascinated me was the hand holding the scales – that little finger poised horizontally.  If you let your eye run up the painting from the little finger, up the plaster wall, almost to the top framing edge, you will see that a nail has been driven into the wall – it casts a tiny shadow –  and to the left of that nail is a hole, where a nail has been pulled out, taking a tiny chip or plaster with it; this shows the influence of the Italian artist Caravaggio, who included every crack in the sole of a bare foot, every tear in a cloth jacket. And the miraculous things about Vermeer, like Caravaggio, is that no detail is too small to escape his attention, but never does such a small detail impose itself on the bigger picture.  (p. 115-119)

The Forgotten Notebook would make a lovely gift for anyone who loves art.

Image credits: Girl with a Red Hat (Wikipedia Commons) and Woman with a Balance (Wikipedia Commons)

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: The Forgotten Notebook
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780522868678
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2018

2018 Melbourne Prize finalists

The finalists for the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2018 were announced today. The prize, open to Victorian authors writing in any genre and based on a writer’s body of work, is worth $60,000 to the winner.
The finalists are below and links in the list take you to my reviews of the author’s work.:

I’m especially interested to see Alison Lester in this list.  Lester is an outstanding children’s book author and illustrator and I am very familiar with her work from my years as a teacher-librarian.  Do have a look at her website, and if you have small children in your life, make sure you include Lester’s books in the birthday and Christmas presents you buy!

The Best Writing Award 2018 is worth $30,000 to the winner and is open to Victorian authors for a work published between 2015 and 2018.

The finalists are:

  • Judith Bishop
  • Angus Cerini
  • Kate Cole-Adams
  • Briohny Doyle
  • A. Frances Johnson
  • Maria Tumarkin
  • Sarah Krasnostein
  • Louise Milligan
  • Jock Serong
  • Jeff Sparrow

In previous years it was possible to read these entries online at the prize website.  I can’t find any links there today but they may have been holding off until after the announcement so keep an eye on the site if you are interested.

The new Readings Residency Award 2018 is for emerging Victorian author and is open to all literary genres.  It includes a residency at The University of Melbourne’s Norma Redpath Studio and an affiliation with the School of Culture and Communication, plus $5,000 supported by Readings and a $2,500 Qantas travel voucher.

The finalists are:

There’s also a Readers’ Choice Award worth $4,000 and you can read more about that on the prize website too.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

 

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2018

Elza’s Kitchen, by Marc Fitten #BookReview

Elza’s Kitchen ought to have been a beaut book for a Masterchef tragic like me.  Set in post Soviet Hungary, it’s about an ambitious cook who dreams of getting a favourable review in Europe’s top gourmet magazine.   This is the blurb that enticed me:

For years, Elza has managed to get by. She has her own little restaurant in the Hungarian city of Delibab,  cooking quality versions of Hungarian classics and serving them with a smile. But lately her smile has become tired.  She is weary of cooking for the same customers and the loveless affair with her sous-chef is now an irritation.

With her country in a state of transition from communism to capitalism, Elza embarks on her own change.  She decides to woo The Critic, one of the harshest, most powerful culinary columnists in Europe.  But as relationships in the kitchen sour, the food threatens to turn with them, and not even Elza’s strained composure can prevent the chaos that seems fated to engulf her.

Serving up all the heat, sensual delight and rich atmosphere of the restaurant itself, Elza’s Kitchen is a wonderful celebration of culture and cuisine.  Resisting the comfortable pattern of her old life, Elza finds that true joy – and love – can be hidden in the most surprising of places.

You see?  It sounds like fun, right?

But it’s a disappointment, and not just a disappointment.  With its stereotypical representation of Roma (called gypsies in the novel) it’s an offensive disappointment.  Did it not occur to the Bloomsbury editor that portraying Roma relentlessly as beggars, thieves, greedy opportunists and scoundrels was just a tad inappropriate?  (Maybe the Bloomsbury editor grew up reading Enid Blyton stories where the ‘gypsies’ were always fair game for negative stereotyping).

The plot is mildly engaging so I resisted the temptation to turf it, but really, it turned out to be more like another limp episode of Mystery Diners. The characterisation is feeble.  I realise that the book is supposed to be a comic fable so most of the characters are stock types, labelled not by name but by their job (i.e.  Sous-Chef, the Line-chefs, the Dishwasher, The Critic, &c) but Elza is such a driven personality, with no redeeming features, that it’s just not ever convincing that the Sous-chef is so in love with her that he persists in trying to marry her for three years.  And her jealousy when he finds love elsewhere after she’s ditched him is pathetically sexist in conception and wholly unconvincing.   And even a fable needs to be convincing.

The setting is humdrum.  The story could be taking place anywhere, really, which is appropriate for a fable, and Delibab (délibáb) is (thank you, Google Translate) a Hungarian word meaning mirage, which I found out when I went searching to see what the town might look like.  But still there’s no sense of this as a fictional place in Hungary at all.  The concrete block-housing referred to here could just as easily be the Brutalist concrete blocks in London:

She turned off the promenade about half way to the train station. She turned down a street and decided to walk away, to walk out toward those pockets of the city where development had not arrived, where development might never arrive. These places still existed outside of the Centrum.  Out on the outskirts of Delibab, or out near the Great Forest and Park where a few cottages and villas stood.  There were also the pockets of concrete block-housing that had gone up during socialism—cities unto themselves.  (p.24)

The none-too-subtle moral of this story is meant to be that a transition to capitalism means competition within the domestic market, and Elza is brought down because (as the Critic tells her) just cooking family favourites isn’t good enough.  (They don’t sound too enticing, from a diner’s PoV). No, Elza was successful because hers was the only restaurant in the middle of nowhere when everyone else with talent had left.  And because she doesn’t have that sixth sense for noticing inefficiences and there’s no loyalty in a competitive market, the restaurant fails as soon as there is competition from the dynamic young couple who abandon her employ to set up their own place.  Young Dora, whose father has thrived in the post-Soviet economy because he exploited opportunities, (i.e. he’s just like those Russian moguls you’ve heard about) knows that #BusinessStudies101 being a good cook doesn’t necessarily make Elza a good businesswoman.

But it’s not just the weak characterisation, the bland setting and the clunky moral that spoils a good idea.  It’s the writing.  The rhythm of the sentences is all wrong and the writing doesn’t flow.

Author: Marc Fitten
Title: Elza’s Kitchen
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2012, 212pp
ISBN: 9781408821329
Source: Personal library, bought at Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99

Availability: Elza’s Kitchen

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 9, 2018

The New Ships, by Kate Duignan #BookReview

I am indebted to Elizabeth Heritage on the BooksellersNZ blog for her enticing review of this fine novel, and also to Sue’s most recent review at Whispering Gums for triggering the realisation that this is a Gen X novelist casting an observant eye on the Baby Boomer generation.

The New Ships is set just after 9/11 and concerns a lawyer called Peter Collie, a self-made man whose father was a blue-collar worker.  He typifies the demographic of Baby Boomers newly able to access tertiary education and join a professional class to which they do not quite belong.  The novel is told entirely from his point of view, and when it opens, Peter is grieving the recent death of his wife Moira who was an artist.  He is devastated because he loved her dearly, but also because the adulthood of their son Aaron is testing Peter’s identity as a man and as a father.  The themes of this novel make me realise that we need a new word analogous to ‘bildungsroman’ or ‘coming-of-age’, to represent the formative years of people in middle age when they belatedly experience psychological and moral growth, or to put it more unkindly, finally grow up…

Aaron is Moira’s child but not Peter’s, because he chose to marry the pregnant Moira and bring up the child as his own.  But prior to this in his feckless days as a backpacker in Amsterdam his French girlfriend Geneviève had a baby girl who died – during Peter’s brief absence – aged just six weeks.  So Peter, while he has been a very good father to Aaron, has not replicated his all important genes.  And now, we learn, it seems he has some longstanding doubts about whether that baby did actually die – but he has never investigated to be sure.  This man as father to a child not his own, who was rewarded, praised, applauded, more than most fathers, is ambivalent about whether he might have another child who is biologically ‘his’, on the other side of the world.

Aaron has an ambiguous identity too.  Guignan filters his responses to the cards he has been dealt, through Peter’s reflections and flashbacks.  While Moira has always been open about her son’s origins in a one-night-stand, Aaron in a moment of anger, refers to his ‘real’ father and would like to know more about him, but this isn’t possible.  (Or #TeenstySpoiler so everyone thinks.  Moira has secrets of her own). All Aaron and Peter know about him is that his name is Mark and that he was a person of colour because Aaron is dark-skinned.  Moira says he was conceived in Australia so Peter thinks the father might have been Indigenous, but in his teenage years Aaron joins a rugby team of Māori and Pacific Islanders and self-identifies as Raratongan. Peter doesn’t actually realise Aaron’s angst about any of this until Aaron takes off overseas and is lackadaisical about keeping in touch.  Peter, very anxious about his son, finds out only through other unexpected sources, where Aaron is, and what he’s been doing.

This scenario exposes the ‘free love’ of the Baby Boomers as a phenomenon that can have painful consequences for the next generation. Peter has been blithe about the boy’s mixed heritage and his acceptance of his parents’ arrangements, but it isn’t as easy as that for Aaron.  On a trip to Venice when he was fifteen, he became separated from his parents and the Italian police who found him thought he was Moroccan and didn’t believe he was a tourist with New Zealand parents.  He doesn’t tell his parents that he was handcuffed until some years later.  Belatedly, Peter realises that Aaron’s ambiguous ethnicity makes him vulnerable to post 9/11 suspicions about terrorism.  The novel also leaves open the question of whether this young man will be accepted as ‘marriage material’ in ‘respectable’ Wellington society: he has a grandmother who loves him because he’s her grandson but she is emblematic of the generation before the Boomers.  She is insular, snobbish and painfully racist.

Man Writing a Letter by Gabriël Metsu (Wikipedia)

Peter is, as Elizabeth says in her review, a flawed character.  Great art works play a role in his reflections, but Guigan uses Moira’s nude portrait of him as a striking symbol of her authorial intent.   He didn’t sit for the portrait, and he doesn’t discover the painting (along with many other of Moira’s enigmatic actions) until after his wife has died.  What’s more, he doesn’t understand what it means until it’s exhibited in a gallery.  As you read this excerpt, think of those sober Golden Age Dutch portraits you’ve seen, the ones of respectable middle class people in status-conscious clothes, surrounded by numerous props that symbolise their heritage, their successful business activities, their place in society and the inheritance they will leave to their children:

When [the curator] came to stand in front of Moira’s painting, I turned away and made an intense examination of a Goldie painting of a young Māori girl.

We might imagine that the artist here has chosen to peel off the man everything that defines him, she said.  Her voice was melodious, authoritative.  A person of this age must have a history, must have a role.  And yet here the figure is not father, not husband, not lover, not worker.  He has no context around him, only that bare white chair.  I see it as a thought experiment, she said.  I see it as the artist putting to the question to us.  What would happen to this man if he were stripped of all his titles?  (p.346-7)

Well, the author strips him bare.  Peter seems like a nice man, but he’s got well-buried history in his past and an impulsive streak in his present that will raise many an eyebrow.  It’s a really well-crafted book that held my attention to the very end and definitely made me want to read more of this author!

Author: Kate Duignan
Title: The New Ships
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781776561889
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $29.95 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The New Ships

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2018

Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang #BookReview

Some years ago, I read Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing and gained a glimpse into the sacrifices families make when parents are engaged in a cause greater than themselves.  Gillian Slovo’s parents were the exiled anti-Apartheid activists Ruth First – who was assassinated with a parcel bomb delivered by the South African security services, and Joe Slovo who after a lifetime in the ANC struggle became a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government.   Every Secret Thing shows that when parents sacrifice all in pursuit of a noble cause, the sacrifice affects their families, especially their children.

Born in exile from South Africa but now Perth-based, Sisonke Msimang’s memoir Always Another Country explores similar territory, but from a different angle.  She is acutely conscious of her privilege as a middle-class Black African: she was well-cared for, she had an excellent education and when she ‘returned’ from exile to live in the ‘new’ South Africa, she arrived with a good job, a comfortable income and a sense of mission to be part of the exciting reforms that were taking place.  The memoir traces her yearnings to belong, her excitement about the end of exile, and her disillusionment.

For Msimang, life in South Africa meant a sense of coming home, even though she had never been there, but she writes with disarming honesty about the unexpected travails.  In Canada – just one of many places she lived as a child, but the first in a predominantly white society – she had learned that the key to survival is blending in, in learning how to be just like everyone else as a first step to freedom.  The immigrant child must master the art of being normal so that she can stand out. But in South Africa, where she expected to belong, because multiracial, free South Africa was the dream her parents had worked for, she is like a love letter that has been torn up and put back together again.  Her experience of racial and feminist politics at university in America together with her broken heart after a failed relationship have fractured her sense of self and alienated her from her parents, especially her father who is behaving like a misogynist patriarch.  She is angry with her middle-class mother for being middle-class polite with the middle-class Whites who used to oppress them, but she is starting to realise that there are divisions within the newly-minted society into which she is blundering unprepared.

Her parents are busy becoming First Blacks.

Like everyone else of their age and social class, they are hard at work at nation building.  Their skills are in demand, and now that they are home they want to make up for lost time.

Baba is busy being a First Black CEO and First Black Director General and Mummy is busy making her mark in the community of returnees who are reshaping the business and cultural life of the new South Africa.  She is the First Black Woman to Open an African Restaurant, then she becomes the First Black Woman Table Grape Farmer, then she is named Woman of the Year in this Category and Runner-Up in Entrepreneurship in that Section. (p. 205)

But Msimang’s sister Zeng is a different kind of first black, an experimental kind, from the generation whose friends reflect the changing face of the country.  There are those like her…

who grew up in exile in Lesotho and Zambia and Uganda and Sweden and Russia and the UK and Canada and America and all sorts of other places. They returned as teenagers in the 1990s and tried to integrate into South African schools.  All of them were South African in their hearts but they had not encountered South Africa until after some pretty fundamental parts of their identities had been formed. (p.206)

And there are those who grew up in South Africa as the children of professionals who became middle-class as the Group Areas Act was relaxed a little.  Some are the children of activists who never went into exile, so they know what it’s like to be under constant threat but also to belong to a movement that is also a family.

And then there are the others whose parents aren’t anyone special.

These are the black kids bussed in to the suburbs from Atteridgeville township or Mamelodi to attend the high school down the street from our house where Zeng is initially enrolled at school. These kids can’t relate to Zeng and she can’t relate to them.  They think she is stuck-up because her English is perfect and her isiZulu is faltering and her Sesotho is non-existent. They think she is stuck-up because she lives in a house down the street and doesn’t need to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to be around white children who scorn them and laugh at their hair and their noses and the way they speak.  (p.207)

Msimang doesn’t mince words, not even when referencing a secular saint.

Like Zeng, they also grew up in the dying days of apartheid.  Unlike, Zeng, they do not live in middle-class comfort.  Stray dogs roam the streets and there are shacks and overcrowded schools in their communities. Nelson Mandela may be sleeping on fine sheets and soft pillows in Pretoria, but life has not changed much for them yet.  (p.207)

Language is a minefield.  Some friends speak five African languages and English.  Msimang struggles just as Zeng does with fluency in the everyday languages around her now.  She and her family regard Afrikaans as a pariah language and refused to learn it, which adds additional strain to communication with Afrikaners.

Those of us who watched South Africa’s transformation from afar will find this a fascinating memoir.  Sisonke shares not only our dismay at recent developments since Mandela’s death, but she also feels a passionate anger about the government’s failure to deal with the political, economic and social complexities of a nation in transition.  She mourns the loss of innocence:

There is a certain kind of innocence among black people—an innocence that will quickly be lost. In those early days, black people are bound together by a pride and a solidarity that underscores everything that we have collectively been through.  I don’t know it yet, but it will quickly fade.  A decade later it will all but disappear. (p.209)

Just one thing: Msimang couldn’t have known it when she wrote it but it seems singularly inappropriate in Melbourne where scurrilous politicians have been fomenting race hatred that she makes rather patronising remarks about polite white folks smiling at her in Perth because they seem pleased to see this tall, dark-skinned woman in their neighbourhood.  It adds a bit of chic to their suburb. She recognises these benevolent and inquisitive looks as kind, but also part of being defined by the superficial and yet all-important matters of the colour of my skin and the texture of my hair.  Fair point, but we here in Australia have been through successive waves of people who, yes, we at first notice as ‘different’ – from the postwar Europeans to the Asian refugees to those from the Middle East and now Africans… and some of us go out of our way to smile and be friendly because we want them to know that (whatever they may hear from a shameless media) the reality is that all nationalities are welcome here and that given a bit of time, they will no longer seem different at all.  Just part of our successful multicultural and multiracial society.

(And I hope you noticed that I said ‘we here in Australia’, even though I’m an import myself, with a Pommy accent that I still get teased about!)

PS Do watch Msimang’s TED talk!

Author: Sisonke Msimang
Title: Always Another Country, a memoir of exile and home
Publisher: text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603798
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2018

Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward #BookReview

The announcement this week that this year’s Seizure’s Novella prize has for the first time ever been won by New Zealanders Avi Duckor-Jones and Anna Jackson reminded me that I hadn’t yet read Welcome to Orphancorp which won the prize in 2015 – and also the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA…

Welcome to Orphancorp is a chilling read.  It’s a semi-futuristic dystopia in which the central character Mirii negotiates slavery in a brutal system designed to achieve compliant child workers.  These are the opening lines:

I twist my hand at a weird angle to get to the itch on my wrist below the shackle.  I mean, they call them ‘the Consequences of movement violations’, but shackles is what they are. When I forget to refer to them as such I get ‘the Consequences of speech violations’, which is pretty much just a gag. No one cares what I call that because everything sounds the same with a mouthful of rubber, doesn’t it?

The bus is ancient and jammed with kids, skinny bums jammed onto the bench seats. (p.1)

But as you can tell even from these brief lines, Orphancorp has failed to suppress Mirii’s personality and she has an engaging recklessness which serves her well.  Yes, it is risky to break the rules when, at almost eighteen years of age, she is so close to release but she has an irrepressible spirit.  It is that spirit that makes this otherwise grim novella bearable to read.

Compliance at an Orphancorp facility is achieved with punishments that escalate in severity to include solitary confinement with bread and water, and vividly depicted physical torture.  But – beyond the sardonically named Aunties and Uncles who administer the institution – someone in charge has decided that the littlest kids – babies to four year olds – need human love and affection if they are to mature into usable workers.  So the older orphans are assigned as nannies to care for them.  But after that, physical contact consists only of punishment until the kids take matters into their own hands and have secret cuddle sessions.  But they are obviously not so secret because it’s part of the grand master plan that the emerging sexuality of the adolescents will produce more babies in due course…

The system’s fatal flaw is its heartlessness:.  Transferred from one facility to another because of her ‘colourful file’, Marii looks the place over on arrival:

…I’m not sure why I bother.  Every Verity House is the same – a big grey box straddling an entire city block.  It’s like they knock them together off-site and heli them in or something.  Maybe they do, I don’t know. Broome or Blacktown, Albury, Cairns, or the one they say is on that island down in Tassie, it doesn’t matter.  The dining-room is always to the right of the dorms; the watch quarters have those thick double-brick walls that mean they’re easy to sneak past if the door’s closed; the bathrooms are sweet little Kidcam blind spots where I can read a non-reg book on my tab, have a cry or a quick-and-dirty interlude up against the wall without facing any of the related Consequences. In their hurry to manufacture heartless functionality, they’re made me a home. (p.3)

So, bleak and inhumane as it is, this environment allows for Mirii to grow and learn, to form relationships and to have some fun.  Inmates can acquire benefits through ‘trades’ – legitimate in the case of working extra hours to earn a tablet and enrol in educational courses, and covert in the case of trading extra rations for the services of a lookout, or a co-conspirator in thefts from the medicine cabinet.  It’s nice to see that the human spirit ultimately prevails, as it must.

My only concern is the YA tag.  Orphancorp has the usual YA tropes, but while maturity levels vary, IMO it’s definitely one for older readers.  The nightmarish depiction of torture is not something I’d recommend for kids in the early years of high school.

Author: Marlee Jane Ward
Title: Welcome to Orphancorp
Publisher: Seizure by Zoum, 2015
ISBN: 9781921134586
Source: Personal copy, bought direct from Seizure $14.95.  Their current edition has a new cover, equally compelling.

I can’t quite believe that I almost didn’t read this book.  I had read a rather discouraging review and decided not to bother even though I had read HHhH and really liked it.  And then someone among my blogging friends (who? I can’t remember!) Michael from Knowledge Lost reviewed it very favourably and so I brought it home from the library.  And loved it.  It’s been a while since I read anything that’s so much fun.

The novel is a spoof on the crime novel because there is no crime – except for the murder and mayhem triggered by the investigation – and it’s also a playful romp through the arcane conflicts that bedevil philosophy, reducing it to the status of a tennis match.  And along the way, a whole heap of famous intellectuals and politicians are cheerfully mocked in a way that explains why the novel is set in 1980-81.  (They’re mostly all dead, and can’t sue!)

The story begins with the death of Roland Barthes, who was, in real life, knocked down by a laundry van and died from his injuries a month later. In Binet’s hands, however, this event triggers a police investigation because Barthes was a famous French philosopher specialising in semiology (the study of signs) and he had just had lunch with the Presidential candidate Mitterand.

Superintendant Jacques Bayard is assigned to investigate.  Bayard is a would-be Maigret whose modus operandi is more like Inspector Clouseau.  He bumbles around not noticing the presence of two thugs in a menacing black Citroen DS, he misses clues that are right under his nose, and the crims are always one step ahead of him.  He also has no idea what semiology is but he has fixed opinions about the value of what goes on in French universities:

Courses open to all, but of interest only to work-shy lefties, retired people, lunatics or pipe-smoking teachers; improbable subjects that he’s never heard of before .. No degrees, no exams. People like Barthes and Foucault paid to spout a load of woolly nonsense. Bayard is already sure of one thing: no one comes here to learn how to do a job. (p17)

Still, he buys a copy of Roland-Barthes Made Easy.

Lesson one: The basics of conversation.
1 — How do you formulate yourself?
French: What is your name?
2 — I formulate myself L.
French: My name is William.

Puzzled (why L, why not W?), Bayard presses on.

3 — What ‘stipulation’ locks in, encloses, organises, arranges the economy of your pragma like the occultation and/or exploitation of your egg-zistence?
French: What is your job?
4 — (I) expel units of code.
French: I am a typist.

Bayard is smart enough to know that all this is a parody, fun stuff for intellectuals (whom he despises).  But he reads on:

5 — My discourse finds/completes its own textuality through R. B. in a game of smoke and mirrors.
French: I speak fluent Roland-Barthes. (p.22)

It’s no good.  He doesn’t get it.  So he takes himself off to the Sorbonne and barges into a lecture about semiology, where he meets his reluctant conscript to the investigation, Simon Herzog, who’s a tutor in semiology at the university.  He likes Simon because Simon explains semiology using references to James Bond movies.  It is Simon who applies Sherlockian skills of deduction to suss him out:

Your manner of dressing signals your profession: you wear a suit, which indicates an executive job, but your clothes are cheap, which implies a modest salary and/or an absence of interest in your appearance; so you belong to a profession in which presentation doesn’t matter, or not very much. Your shoes are badly scuffed, and you came here in a car, which signifies that you are not deskbound – you are out and about in your job. An executive who leaves his office is very likely to be assigned some kind of inspection work. (p.32)

Simon does not want to be Bayard’s translator, and especially not to help out the incumbent President Giscard because he loathes conservative politics, but in a neat inversion of Smart Sherlock Holmes and dopey Dr Watson, the duo set out to solve the mystery.

And why is Giscard involved?  Well, because it is thought that the ‘accident’ was a deliberate attempt to acquire a precious document that Barthes had on his person. The document is about the mysterious 7th function of language, which confers enormous power on anyone who can use it.  (There are actually only six functions, and you can, if keen, read what they are here).  Giscard and Mitterand want to have this 7th function, and so do other people, including some Bulgarians who want to best the Soviets; philosophers from both sides of the Atlantic who are engaged in mortal combat over their fixed positions; and also intellectuals who joust for the title of Grand Protagora in esoteric debates which have provenance dating back centuries.

I suspect that I have failed to convey just how witty this sparkling novel is; how it made me laugh out loud; how I earbashed The Spouse about it (because he’s majoring in philosophy in his BA); or even to explain why I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end.  But it has won a swag of awards, including the Prix Interallié (2015), the Prix du roman Fnac (2015), and was nominated for the Prix des prix littéraires (2015) and the Man Booker International Prize (2018) once it was, thank goodness, translated into English.  So my advice is, ignore the naysayers who think everything should be dumbed down, and find out for yourself.

PS (Five minutes later) From reviews I now see at Library Thing, I note that readers who have studied semiology and/or philosophy think that you need to have studied them in order to appreciate this book.  Lighten up, ye scholars!  You are wrong.  I knew nothing about semiology and nothing at all about the disputes between Continental Philosophy and the Analytics in the UK and the US.  Binet explains anything you need to know, painlessly, and in ways that will make you laugh.

Author: Laurent Binet
Title: The 7th Function of Language (La septième fonction du langage)
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2017, first published 2015
ISBN: 9781910701591
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The 7th Function of Language

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston #BookReview

Time to read another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die…

1001 Books has this to say about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston (1903-1960):

Hurston was the mayor’s daughter in America’s first incorporated black town, where her social and political experience of African-American autonomy afforded a unique perspective on race.  She eventually trained as an anthropologist, researching African-American folklore and oral culture in her native Florida. The dialogue in Their Eyes Were Watching God is written primarily in the strong Southern African-American dialect (framed by a standard English narrative), the pronunciation, rhythm and playfulness of which Hurston renders in rich detail using almost phonetic spelling.  (p.388)

Well, I did find the dialogue difficult in this story of Janie Stark’s journey through life, determined to find love.  For example:

‘You got mo’ nerve than me.  When somebody talked mah husband intuh comin’ down heah tuh open up uh eatin’ place Ah never dreamt so many different kins uh black folks could colleck in one place. Did Ah never wouda come. (p.209)

I stumbled over kins, reading it first as rhyming with wins, and then had to reread to realise it meant kinds. I had to reread the whole passage to make sense of Did Ah never wouda come, i.e. to realise that there were missing words, as in If I had, (dreamt there were so many different kinds of black folks in one place) I never would have come. But I persisted, and it was worth it.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is a spirited, confident novel which while not ignoring the racism that made all-Black incorporated towns attractive to people of colour, sets it aside. Racism does not define these characters.  Dealing with the struggle against it is not the focus of the novel.  Instead it tells the universal human story of a woman who has a vision of love that she will not give up.

When the story opens Janie has had the love of Tea Cake Woods and lost it, and the local women are sitting in judgment on her.  Her friend Pheoby goes over to the porch to suss out the gossip, but Janie says there’s no point in telling her story without also telling de understanding to go ‘long wid it. What follows is Janie’s story of her life, beginning with her soulless marriage at sixteen because her old grandmother sees her fooling around with shiftless Johnny Taylor and sets her up with an older man in the hope of forestalling the burdens that black women typically have to bear.  Nanny marries Janie off to Logan Killicks for protection, for when she is no longer around to look after her.  What Nanny says is heartbreaking:

‘You know, honey, us coloured folks is branches without roots and that makes thins come round in queer ways.  You in particular.  Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and do.  Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothin’ can stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will.  Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did.  Ah even hated de way you was born.  But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance.’ (p.31)

Her ‘chance’ is Janie, and she wants a different future for her.  But within a year, Janie’s husband is no longer attracted to her, and is ordering her about like a workhorse.  So when Joe Starks turns up, a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts, Janie’s vision of love resurfaces, and off she goes with him.  He’s an ambitious man, who’s saved up money workin’ for white folks so that he has the cash to buy into an incorporated town.  And he’s not satisfied with the easy-going ways he finds there.  He sets up things the way he thinks they should be, and he becomes the mayor. Along with this change in status comes a different attitude to Janie, who now has to live up to his ideals of what a mayor’s wife should be.  And he’s very critical of her somewhat unenthusiastic management of their store.

Once again, Janie’s dreams of love lie in the dust, and when Joe dies, she settles into widowhood, not expecting much more of life than the store and her nest egg.  And then along comes Tea Cake.

Their joyous courtship is the best part of this book.  He’s ten years younger than her, and he’s a frivolous gambler, but he’s fun. She tries to push him away because she can’t quite believe that he might want her, but he won’t take no for an answer.  And even though old Nanny might have had a word to say about some of Tea Cake’s follies, Janie is blissfully happy.  They experience great trials, almost Biblical in ferocity, but they and their love survive, only for disaster to strike afterwards.

There are two scenes that I found disturbing in this novel: one is where Mrs Turner who is of mixed race launches into a tirade against the Blacks (that’s not the word she uses) because she wants to identify with her own white heritage rather than the Black. The other is where Tea Cake slaps Janie around, not to show her who’s boss, but to show his mates, who then admire him for being able to raise a bruise.  Their wives are so tough you can’t see it when they get beaten up.  My guess is that if this book is a set text for students, that teachers would have to tease out the reasons why Hurston included these scenes in the novel because both are profoundly offensive.

My Virago edition has both an introduction and an afterword, and it’s clear that the book was controversial in its day and not recognised for its intrinsic worth until much later.

The cover art – always a feature of the original editions of Virago Modern Classics – is a detail from ‘Carolina Morning‘ by Edward Hopper: widely acknowledged as the most important realist painter of twentieth-century America. But his vision of reality was a selective one, reflecting his own temperament in the empty cityscapes, landscapes, and isolated figures he chose to paint. His work demonstrates that realism is not merely a literal or photographic copying of what we see, but an interpretive rendering.  (See Edward Hopper website here).

Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Introduction by Holly Eley; Afterword by Sherley Anne Williams
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 1985, first published 1937
ISBN: 9780860685241
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind.

Available from Fishpond: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Virago Modern Classics)

 

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 31, 2018

2018 Queensland Literary Awards shortlists

The 2018 Queensland Literary Awards shortlists were announced today.

And I’m pleased to see that some prizes have increased from $10,000 to $15,000, with a total prize pool of $240,000.  (But $15000 is still a bit paltry IMO.)

Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance ($25,000)          

  • The Saltwater Story (Cairn Tor Books) by Benjamin Allmon and David Kelly
  • Please Explain (Penguin Random House) by Anna Broinowski
  • White Woman Black Heart: Journey Home to Old Mapoon (CreateSpace) by Barbara Miller
  • We’ll Show the World: Expo 88 (UQP) by Jackie Ryan
  • Brisbane Houses with Gardens (Beth Wilson) by Beth Wilson

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award (two awards of $12,500)

  • Anna Jacobson
  • Ella Jeffery
  • Bri Lee
  • Emily O’Grady
  • Yen-Rong Wong

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award ($15,000)

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award ($15,000)

  • The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing) by Judith Brett, see Nathan’s Review at A Biographer in Perth
  • The Year Everything Changed: 2001(Penguin Random House) by Phillipa McGuinness
  • Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth (UQP) by Charles Massy
  • Korea: Where the American Century Began (Hardie Grant Books) by Michael Pembroke
  • Tracker (Giramondo Publishing) by Alexis Wright, see my review

Griffith University Children’s Book Award ($15,000)

  • The Storm Whale (Allen & Unwin) written by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner
  • The Elephant (UQP) by Peter Canarvas
  • Go Go and the Silver Shoes (Penguin Random House) written by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Anna Walker
  • The Shop at Hoopers Bend (HarperCollins) by Emily Rodda
  • Swan Lake (Allen & Unwin) by Anne Spudvilas

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award ($15,000)

  • In the Dark Spaces (Hardie Grant Egmont) by Cally Black
  • The Dream Walker (Hachette) by Victoria Carless
  • Sparrow (Allen & Unwin) by Scot Gardner
  • Amelia Westlake (Hardie Grant Egmont) by Erin Gough
  • Because of You (UQP) by Pip Harry

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award ($10,000)

  • The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing) by Judith Brett, see Nathan’s review at A Biographer in Perth
  • Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc) by Billy Griffiths
  • Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians (NewSouth Publishing) by Jayne Persian
  • We’ll Show the World: Expo 88 (UQP) by Jackie Ryan
  • The Battle Within: POWs in postwar Australia (NewSouth Publishing) by Christina Twomey, see Janine’s review at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

University of Southern Queensland Short Story – Steele Rudd Award ($10,000)

  • Bird Country (Text Publishing) by Claire Aman
  • Common People (UQP) by Tony Birch, see my review
  • Habits of Silence (Finlay Lloyd Publishers) by Stephanie Buckle, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums
  • Pulse Points (Text Publishing) by Jennifer Down
  • Trick of the Light (UQP) by Laura Elvery

QUT Digital Literature Award ($15,000)

  • Our Cupidity Coda by Mez Breeze
  • A Place Called Ormalcy by Mez Breeze
  • Core Values (Australian Poetry) by Benjamin Laird
  • Little Emperor Syndrome by David Thomas Henry Wright, with Chris Arnold

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award ($10,000)

  • click here for what we do (Vagabond Press) by Pam Brown
  • Chatelaine (Giramondo Publishing) by Bonny Cassidy
  • I Love Poetry (Giramondo Publishing) by Michael Farrell
  • The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo Publishing) by Oscar Schwartz
  • Lost Lake (Vagabond Press) by Bella Li

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award ($15,000)

  • The Making of Ruby Champion by Kirstie Parker
  • Why Worry Now by Melanie Saward
  • Jilba’s Song by Wendy Somerville
  • Song – the story of a girl, a bird and a teapot by Waiata Telfer
  • Destinations Past Present Future: Diving through timelines by Teila Watson

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer ($15,000)

  • fate, revenge and chipburgers by Karen Herschell
  • On Either Side by Laura Kenny
  • Garrison Town by Melanie Myers
  • Hidebound by Christopher Przewloka

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award ($10,000)

Earlier this month there was horrible news about the demise of Melbourne book distributor, Dennis Jones and Associates, which has gone into voluntary liquidation.  Eagle-eyed readers will have seen Dennis’s occasional contributions to comments on this blog, and may have noticed his assistance to me in identifying Indigenous authors who I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, for feature during Indigenous Literature Week.  I’m putting it on record here that he was a great help to me and to the authors and publishers who got publicity here because of his interventions.

Now, as my readers know, I am just a book reviewer, with no formal connections to the Australian publishing industry.  Some of them send me books for review, and I’ve met a couple of publishers here and there, but I had no idea and (until now) not much interest in the details of how the industry works as long as there are plenty of beaut books to read.  However, as this article at the SMH explains, and a subsequent email from the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) confirmed, the demise of Dennis Jones and Associates is going to affect those of us who love to read Australian books, especially since it’s the small publishers who are most affected, and they’re the ones who publish the most interesting and innovative books.

So I was pleased to receive a press release today from Louis de Vries about how Melbourne’s Hybrid Press is weathering the storm.  I love Hybrid’s books: there are twenty-one of them reviewed on this site, I have two more on the TBR, and I happen to know that there is one coming out soon which I am very much looking forward to reading.  I have permission from Louis to quote slavishly from his press release, which amongst other things explains what it is that book distributors do, and why it matters so much:

As some of you know, after an association of almost two decades, our distributor Dennis Jones & Associates recently went into voluntary liquidation – a fresh sign, if that were needed, of how challenging and commercially hazardous the publishing business has become. (Over the past decade, numerous publishers, booksellers, and distributors have gone out of business because they were no longer viable.)

We at Hybrid Publishers were affected in a number of ways, the most obvious being that temporarily we had no representation and distribution to booksellers. Also, our ebooks and print-on-demand titles – which had also been distributed by Dennis Jones & Associates – were immediately removed from sale.

Anna [Anna Rosner Blay, Managing Editor] and Louis had to make a quick decision. Should we walk away from a business that had been bringing out books for more than twenty years, or would we establish new business associations and keep doing what we love doing?

It wasn’t an easy decision. For those who don’t know what book distributors do, here’s a quick outline of the process. After the author has written the manuscript and been accepted by a publisher, the publisher organises editing, proofreading, cover design, typesetting, printing, marketing, and administration before sending the printed books to the distributor. The distributor stores the books in one or more warehouses, prepares a catalogue for the trade, sends representatives to bookshops around the country (as well as digital communications), receives orders, sends out orders, administers those dreaded returns, and much more. Without a distributor, most publishers might as well close up shop.

There have indeed been modern developments such as print on demand, where books are only printed and sent to booksellers in response to actual orders (so no warehousing is necessary), and ebooks, which require no physical warehousing either.

While we happily use modern technologies, we were not ready to call it a day on traditional publishing. We still delight in physically handling books. Ebooks are great for vacation and travel reading – and we all know people who prefer to ready everything on their phones – but we believe there is still a market for printed books.

We are delighted to announce that after whirlwind negotiations, we have signed up with the highly regarded New Holland Publishers for our future distribution throughout Australia and New Zealand. MD Fiona Schultz showed herself to be “on the same page” in publishing philosophies and values as Hybrid, and we look forward to a fruitful and mutually satisfactory association.

Our ebooks are expected to be available again within a week. Management of ebooks will be with Andrew Farrell’s company Ebook Alchemy. We have long been associated with Andrew, and are confident he will enhance our ebook offerings.

There have been significant disruptions, and there will be challenges ahead. The new distributor will not have warehouse space for all quantities of older titles. Also, some of our stocks have most regrettably gone missing in the old distributor’s warehouse. So there will be changes ahead.

However, Anna and Louis have made their call, and look forward to continuing to publish quality books for the years to come.

Louise de Vries, Director at Hybrid Press 30/8/18

As ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’ I’m relieved to hear this news, but – scan the list of Australian publishers in the Categories in the RHS menu and once you eliminate the conglomerates, you will see just how many small publishers are potentially affected by this situation.  Our lively and distinctive industry has been dealt a huge blow and it remains to be seen how it will all pan out.

PS Individual authors who are affected should contact the ASA who have been brilliant in rescuing stock and other initiatives.  Another reason to belong to the ASA!

I’ve read a few of Yan Lianke’s satirical novels now, each one seeming darker than the last.  But even though there was always a sense that the black humour had a tinge of desperation about it, there were always moments of comic absurdity to lighten the tone.

Links here are in order I read the novels, and also (as far as I can make out) in order of their English translation.

But The Day the Sun Died is relentlessly bleak.

At first I was puzzled by the title.  After all, when our sun dies, it will be long after our demise.  All living things will be burnt to a crisp beforehand without the opportunity to see the lights go out.  So of course the title is allegorical.  It refers to the irretrievable end of everything we hold dear…

The story is framed around a surreal night in the Balou Mountains when mass somnambulism occurs in the village of Gaotian.  Narrated by a 14-year-old boy called Li Niannan who observes the chaos, the phenomenon – known as dreamwalking – results in acts of malice, revenge, vandalism, looting and murder as people act out their rivalries, greed, depravity and despair.  There are multiple deaths because people hurl themselves into the canal, are assaulted during the lawlessness, are deliberately killed in order to satisfy some murky desire, or die in the culminating battle between rival factions and out-of-towners keen to exploit the situation.  The complete breakdown of law and order sees the Village Chief trying to enlist Niannan’s father in a murder he wants to commit; the police literally asleep on the job; and the town government cadres acting out their fantasies of power in the ‘good old days’ – under an emperor who brought them peace, prosperity, bountiful harvests and unrestrained power over the lives and deaths of others.  And ultimately, out-of-towners take advantage of the situation, and all hell breaks loose.

Lianke uses the Chinese government’s insistence on cremation over burial as a symbol of irretrievable loss.  Like many cultures, Chinese culture has a long tradition of reverence for the dead being expressed in burial customs.  The government, however, (perhaps mindful of past famines and its expanding population) insists on every bit of arable land being used productively and burial is outlawed.  Niannan’s uncle makes a lot of money out of running the town’s crematorium, and his father – not satisfied with his business selling funerary paraphernalia such as paper flowers – has a profitable sideline informing about covert burials so that the authorities can exhume or blow up the bodies and have them cremated as decreed.  He also stores the corpse oil which Uncle says can be onsold profitably for industrial and possibly other more dubious uses, but the connotations of potential cannibalism offends Father’s scruples so he just stores it in a cave.  (As far as I know body fats and oils combust along with everything else during cremation, but this is not something into which I want to enquire too deeply.)

Anyway, the ancient customs, like the bodies, are gone forever.

Reading a Lianke novel always requires an awareness of metaphor.  The death of the sun is an obvious metaphor for the cataclysmic effect of political corruption and excess in China.  But there are other allusions to particular aspects of Chinese history.  Niannan’s father, for example, while dreamwalking, suffers a crisis of guilt during the night.  Having successfully concealed his activities for a decade, he goes round the town confessing his sin and pleading for robust punishment.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by the sanguine reception to these confessions – it’s as if Lianke’s characters are all so resigned to corruption and greed that yes, they might be satisfied by an apology because that’s all they might realistically expect.  But I think it’s also an oblique allusion to the failure of successive Chinese leaders to take responsibility for the wrongs of the past.  Though there is still much unfinished business, including here in Australia, some Western governments have at the very least acknowledged past wrongs with apologies, treaties, truth and justice commissions and so on.  But as far as I know, there’s never been any attempt at healing within China for the excesses of Mao’s disastrous policies which led to the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen Massacre).

Yan Lianke himself makes an appearance as a neighbour in this novel.  Niannan, perhaps representing an indifferent reading public, tells him in no uncertain terms that his novels are too ‘chilling’ and have too much yin; that no one likes them; no one reads them from beginning to end; that any classic book is better than any of them; and that they are completely worthless.  While the fictional Lianke is dreamwalking, he suffers from the agonies of writer’s block, and only his mother understands how desperate he feels about it.  He ends up playing an important role in the final redemptive scene, but overall he seems like an intrusive character not really intrinsic to the story and its purposes.

BEWARE: MINOR SPOILER (about something that seems to have no significance) 

The novel has other flaws too. There are clumsy similes, such as when a shadow goes round a wall as if a log had fallen into a gully, or when a voice sounds like dust falling from a brick and flying everywhere. There are also odd little fragments that make no sense at all.  For example, at one stage, Father straps to his leg, a sole, a knife and some bamboo strips.  Why?  We never find out what this is for.  We learn from a snippet at the beginning that the narrator is searching for Little Juanzi who has gone missing; in the middle of the novel we discover that she works at the crematorium (so she’s not a little kid as first thought) and that this bookloving boy fancies her but disdains her buckteeth and illiteracy.  Then at the end there’s a reunion amongst a carpet of flowers.  What’s that about?

I was also not best pleased to read, when the parents are confronted by scenes of depravity, that Mother yells out that there are plenty of Western-style women available for that elsewhere in South Street, presumably the red light district.  When I was at university in Indonesia I encountered this attitude that Western women are always sexually available to any man that wants them, and I find this stereotyping highly offensive.

Still, flaws notwithstanding, this is an interesting book that held my attention from beginning to end.

And *wink* Lianke might be pleased to hear that!

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Day the Sun Died
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, first published 2015
ISBN: 9781925603859
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

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