Trap, by Peter Mathers (1931-2004), is not an easy book to read. Published in 1966, it won the Miles Franklin award, which is why I have it in my collection, and why I chose it as a title for the 2010 Classics Challenge, which I like to do with all-Australian titles. However (and it pains me to say this) I did not enjoy reading it at all.
Mather’s landscape is an Australia familiar and yet remote. In 1966 Robert Menzies had finally retired (my mother wept!) and Australia had its first new Prime Minister since 1949. There was conscription of boys too young to vote yet there was electoral support for the war in Vietnam. Aborigines had yet to be recognised in the Constitution, much less as the indigenous owners of any land because of the bizarre legal fiction that prior to European settlement Australia belonged to no one (terra nullius) . Post-war migration had brought European migrants, but they were expected to assimilate rather than retain any aspects of their culture. Asian, African and Pacific Islander immigration was restricted by the White Australia Policy. Australia was insular in more ways than one.
Into this claustrophobic society comes Jack Trap, an enigmatic figure about whom the narrator, David David has been assigned to compile a dossier. An urban mixed-race Aboriginal, Trap is both dispossessed and powerful because he refuses to conform to expectations. He is notorious, but unknowable.
His name, of course, is symbolic. He is entrapped himself but he also traps others and there also is a particularly horrid sequence where he takes a job engineering the gallows trapdoor for a judicial hanging. (The last man hanged in Australia was Robert Ryan in 1967, a hotly contentious issue that led to the abolition of the death penalty.)
The narrator is tasked with finding out about Trap because he is an obstacle to a significant development project. He is feared because he has penetrated the veneer of respectable Melbourne and with occasional bursts of violence he terrifies its citizens – though more often he uses lechery and deceit to express his contempt.
The slums and pubs of sleazy of pre-slum-reclamation Melbourne are contrasted with the glittering world of society. (Well, glittering for 1967 Melbourne, that is. Not a patch on society glitter of the 21st century). There are sour portraits of all types of rapacious industrialists and crooked politicians complete with darkly comic exposés of their shallow, fruitless lives. The exclusionary policies of labour unions are exposed; the pioneer history of Australia consists of the violent exploitation of Aboriginal women and massacres of Aboriginal communities as a deterrent. Racism is all-pervading, both subtle and overt. Women are objects but they are also complicit in the complacency of their society. The pessimism is unrelenting.
All of this is expressed in terse, staccato prose. Here’s a sample:
Two women’s magazines spread coloured photographs over their centre pages. The daily papers were generous. Sally’s dark skin went well with her fawn linen dress and lots of guests envied her. She was pleased to read of herself as Mrs S. Coffs of New South Wales. The Steels didn’t like this for it suggested that Sally was a family friend and not merely an employee invited out of motives both generous and democratic.
The general regretted the lack of colour television. He resolved to mention the need for colour channels to the Prime Minister the next time they met. The glories of country life should be well advertised in order to stop the drift to the cities. (p142)
I found this prose style wearisome after a while, and the plot is hard to follow. Mathers is so busy having a go at the objects of his scorn that he leaves the hapless reader floundering in a morass of characters and sub-plots from Trap’s sordid family history. The book was probably innovative in 1967 and it had an important message for its time – but it hasn’t worn well, in my opinion.
Some aspects of Trap’s story draw on Mather’s varied background. According to Wikipedia he studied agriculture at Sydney Technical College and worked in a variety of occupations including clerical work, gardening and landscaping, jobs in the wool and chemical industries and as a researcher in the UK before becoming a writer of plays, verse and novels. These experiences give Traps’s travels around Australia authenticity.
After the success of Trap, Mathers spent a year in the US on a writing fellowship but returned to Australia the following year and published his second novel, The Wort Papers in 1972. It was apparently also a satire.
I think Mathers’ work is long out-of-print. I bought my copy of Trap through Biblioz but there are also some at AbeBooks where – although the book is obviously rare – you can pick up paperbacks for a song or (if you are so minded) the occasional first edition for a modest price.
I can’t find any reviews of this book online.
Author: Peter Mathers
Publisher: Cassell Australia 1966
Source: Personal copy, purchased via AbeBooks.