Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2022

Mortal Divide, by George Alexander

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1999, George Alexander’s Mortal Divide was first published in 1997 and has just been reissued as one of the great works of fiction on the relationship between migration and identity in Australian literature.

Subtitled The Autobiography of Yiorgos Alexandroglou, the novel (if that’s what I should call it) combines fiction, biography, memory and imagination in a narrative that purports to be written by both the author using his Greek name Yiorgos Alexandroglou, and his grandfather who has the same name.  The narrative begins in a seaside suburb of Perth where he is house-sitting, alone, for relatives while trying to regain his mental health.

His marriage is faltering, and so is his career as a writer.

His doctor suggests writing as therapy:

Writers, supposedly, with alternative realities available to them can push their better selves into parallel existence in print.

‘I am trying to get somewhere but the words keep pointing in different directions as I go.’

Each of us lives but one life,’ ‘the doctor says. ‘We choose it deliberately, along the way, and those excluded selves sometimes come back to haunt us with their repudiated possibilities.’ (p.28)

As a migrant to Australia, he is struggling to integrate his multiple identities, which derive from his childhood in Perth, Port Said where he was conceived, and the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which is where his forebears lived.  The narrative, mirroring his fractured selves, consists of thoughts, memories, conversations, phone calls, memories, and one of those hilarious answer-machine message strings that never connect the callers trying in vain to catch each other at home.  Much of it is in beautiful poetic prose.

It is sad to see his compromised relationship with his father.  His therapist says that the normative transitions from youth to maturity have been blocked.  Midway through the book there is a sequence which seems to be a malevolent interaction with an unforgiving Yiorgos.  At first (because time moves backwards, forwards and sideways in the novel) it seems as if it’s a memory of his father from real life:

That night the darkness came down, as full as the moon before the night has nibbled it. Yiorgos wore a fez and the moonlight was on it.  I could see his outline.  He came so quietly I didn’t know he was there.

‘So you’re George Alexander.’  He spat the name with contempt. ‘Have you murdered Yiorgos yet?’

‘Have a gin.’

A djinn?’

I poured the gin.  Handed it to him.  But he was gone.  I had a shooting pain in my left side.

I saw him cross the heath to the beach.  I followed.’ (p.110)

But then, an odd interlude.  He feels a blow to the head, and blacks out. When he comes round he digs a grave for Yiorgos, but after an hour’s digging, Yiorgos was still on the mound.

‘You might have saved me the labour.’

‘I spare you nothing.’ (p.111).

Is this unforgiving Yiorgos his father, or the self-identity that he has tried to bury by anglicising his name?

At the same time, his relationship with his wife is unravelling. He gets phone calls from his therapist, who unravels his tortured dreams.  On an impulse he hurtles towards Perth International Airport, and so he does not hear the message from Alys on the phone:

‘You’re all I ever wanted in a man.  You’re brave, sweet, smart…in some ways you’re a much better person than I am.  I’m tired…I’m just too tired to live with you anymore.  Even measured against your personal losses…you’re too complicated, you demand to much of me, of people…And you’ve become wall-eyed, always looking a bit to the left or right of where I’m actually standing.  Or think I’m standing. (p.117)

She concludes the message by saying that she loves him, but he never hears it.

In keeping with his mood, he has a jaundiced view of travel:

Nothing narrows a person more than travel, thought George.  Start out with grand plans and soon you’re bogged down with minutiae: passports, tickets, inoculations, schedules.  (p.115)

Every airport is the same.  Around him, people stammered in on another’s tongues, exchanged each other’s luxury goods, changed each other’s money and admired each other’s glamour. (p.119)

After his frenetic arrival in Cairo, he hopes that writing will calm him, but overlaid with jetlag and a double scotch, nothing in this section seems coherent.

His taxi drive to Port Said is enough to deter me from travel in Egypt for life!

The novel has to be read carefully because it documents a divided self:

Like a dream that wakefulness cannot explain, in which two houses exist, the one as a parasitical structure, and the other as its host, with odd entrances and doubtful passageways between them. Or like the projection of two films onto the one screen, with strange overlaps: now Port Said is buried under roads and buildings of Bondi; now Bondi is drained of colour and trembles under the biscuit light of Port Said. In this psychic force-field Yiorgos and I are returning, approaching something that has always been there. (p.134)

My approach with texts like this is to let them flow over me and to read on.  Sometimes things become clearer as they loop around, sometimes not.  The blurb describes it like this:

These places and others he has lived in are overlaid, like the figures from his past, his parents and grandparents, his wife and daughters and lovers, his own multiple identities and those he has drawn from films and books. The result is an intricate interweaving of connections, the associations doubling, tripling, proliferating, in proof that ‘elsewhere is inscribed everywhere’.

I liked this:

The strands of autobiography are endless.  Endlessly intricate.  I could wander around this labyrinths of puns and memories for the remainder of my life.  Until destroyed by old age, or thirst.  And before I got the total picture, the whole tapestry, I knew that before I began.  But it’s as if it’s the back of the tapestry—all those knotted and rooted threads—not the front, that I’m getting. (p.141)

That’s probably true for many of us.

Between the brief chapters there are moody B&W photos by Peter Lyssiotis.

According to George Alexander’s profile at Giramondo:

By birth an Australian, by heritage mixed Greek-Italian, George Alexander grew up in the working class Sydney suburb of Botany in a family that spoke five languages. He studied Italian at the University of Sydney before dropping out to travel Europe. He has worked in academia and was a coordinator of contemporary art programs at the Art Gallery of NSW for fourteen years. His books include The Book of the Dead (1985), Sparagmos (1989), Mortal Divide (1997), which won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and Slow Burn (2009).

Author: George Alexander
Title: Mortal Divide
Photographs by Peter Lyssiotis
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022, first published 1997 by Brandl & Schlesinger
ISBN: 9781922725295, pbk., 187 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing.

 


Responses

  1. I don’t know this work, let alone have it amongst my greats. But it sounds intriguing. How often, I wonder, are our lives changed irrevocably because we missed a message, especially during a marriage break up (of which I’ve had a few).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was puzzled not to know it too. I guess it predates the internet when what we knew about Oz Lit depended on what we read in the print media.

      Like

  2. An interesting and challenging sounding book that I don’t recollect at all. They were busy days-the late 90s, with work and famly, so I guess that’s why. (Good on Giramondo for re-publishing)

    Like

    • I don’t remember it either, but (as I think I’ve said before) back then we relied on whatever book reviews we had access to, and what we saw in the bookshops.

      Liked by 1 person


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