Billy Sing is a novella from Ouyang Yu, a multi-award-winning Chinese Australian author and poet whose work I have read and (mostly) enjoyed before. Ostensibly the story is based on the real-life story of the famed Gallipoli sniper, William Edward Sing who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ and the Belgian Croix de Guerre for his service on the Western Front.
As in much of his other fiction and poetry, Ouyang Yu in this first-person narrative focusses on bi-racial identity in this fictionalised version of Sing’s life. Born in the late 19th century to a Chinese father drawn by the gold rush to Australia from Shanghai, the fictional Sing has a complex identity forged by two cultures. His mother was English, proud of the fact that she was born ‘near’ Shakespeare’s home town, as if that conferred some kind of prestige on her own birthplace. His father’s stories – and his frequently cited advice – derive from his ancestry, and are passed on orally. His mother’s stories come from the rich tradition of English literature, but Sing is not interested in reading. Bookended between the accounts of racist incidents in his lonely childhood and adolescence, and a brief account of his post-war life and a troubled marriage, is Sing’s account of his war service.
Appropriately for a story that is focussed so much on the death and destruction of WW1, Sing lives between a world of ghosts and of nightmare. He finds that he is accepted on the battlefield, because he is so skilled at killing and so blasé about the lives he has taken. The author Ion Idress makes an appearance (though I wouldn’t have recognised the allusion if I hadn’t come across ‘the old fraud’ Idress in Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran). It wasn’t until I read Peter Pierce’s review at The Australian (paywalled) that I understood the significance of this:
Idriess’s notebook describes the sniper as ‘‘a picturesque looking mankiller’’, whose story he eventually published as Lurking Death in 1942.
It isn’t always easy to follow what’s going in terms of reality, especially in the latter part of the book when in an apparent delirium Sing makes a surreal journey to his ancestral village in China. Accompanied by his wife Fenella who is disgusted by the superstitious behaviour of the villagers, he finds that although there are numerous members of the Sing family, he still doesn’t have the acceptance he craves. He is shamed when, through a medium, the voice of his grandfather calls him a demi-devil, one who had lost half the content of his original Chinese blood.
Sing’s relationship with the Scottish Fenella suggests a different kind of racism. Fenella is scornful about Australia, not wanting to go with him to a place full of convicts. (This is in the early 20th century, well after transportation ended.) Nevertheless he persuades her to come home with him to Prosperine, but his post-war life is not a success, partly because he is in ruins, my body riddled with wounds and partly because his role as a spectacularly efficient killer has no currency in post-war Australia. So his life reverts to the old racism.
Yu includes three Chinese recipes that Sing acquired from his father’s recipes, signalling that for many Australians, multiculturalism just means exotic food…
I’m open to correction on this, but I have a quibble about Yu’s twice-stated reference to the corpses brought home from the battlefields. My understanding is that the dead were not repatriated, because of the numbers involved and the costs.
Update: 17/4/17 Janine has reviewed Billy Sing at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.
Author: Ouang Yu
Title: Billy Sing
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 201y
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge
Available from Fishpond: Billy Sing