Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 2, 2021

Mr Beethoven, by Paul Griffiths

I was always going to love this book. I was in love with Beethoven when I was a teenager: I was completely obsessed.  I listened to his music over and over again, I played as many of his piano works as I could manage, and I read everything about him that I could get my hands on.  (I have not entirely grown out of this obsession, as The Spouse can attest as I repeatedly work my way through my collection of Beethoven recordings.)

So Mr Beethoven, a novel in which he lives a little longer and writes another magnificent late work, kept me utterly absorbed.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmith’s Prize and the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize, and longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Mr Beethoven is playful fiction, which subverts the genre.  Its central—preposterous—premise is that Beethoven did not die in 1827, but lived long enough to travel to Boston in 1833 to produce a Biblical oratorio commissioned by the (amateur) Handel and Haydn Society.  This graphic via a review by Paul Fulcher at Goodreads reproduces a newspaper clipping that confirms the existence of the commission.

Beethoven’s hearing loss was severe by then, (and he was suffering from excruciating tinnitus too though this is not mentioned in the novel) but his task in the novel is eased by the presence of a young woman called Thankful, fluent in the sign language used extensively in Martha’s Vineyard.  (This was apparently because there was a high incidence of congenital deafness in Martha’a Vineyard at that time, because of intermarriage amongst people with a recessive genetic mutation. Like other aspects of this playful story, this is derived from historical fact.)  In no time Beethoven masters this sign language and communication is established. (Well, it is fiction.)  This enables him to tell the indignant librettist Ballou that his work is unusable, to fob off enquiries about how he’s getting on, and to indulge in mild intrigues with Thankful who doesn’t always translate exactly what is said to her.  ‘It’s more of the same’, she says, presumably keeping a straight face as she does so.

There are constant playful reminders that this is not your usual historical novel.  There are, for example, three different versions of one scene, which went like this, or perhaps like that, or no, it might have been this way—all of which of course could not actually have been any of the three because Beethoven died in 1827.  Some way into the novel the narrator—like the members of the society—is fed up with the apparent lack of progress and explodes into indignation.  Representing the frustrations of the reader, he lashes the author for an entire chapter:

We are not here now to dispute the virtues of fiction.  Let’s take that matter as read, shall we?  What we do dispute, however, is your right to hold back information.

You fill this book with information.  As if to taunt us, you tell us all kinds of things we do not need to know, such as the names and ages and trades of other passengers (the shipboard septet — oh, please) on the vessel that could have conveyed the great composer to Boston.  Remember that one?  And we know where you find all these annoyingly irrelevant details.  You even admit as much: on the Internet.  So what?

We have come this far largely in silence.  We have played the game.  We have done our part.  But we cannot go on keeping quiet when you continue to withhold what we most want to know, which is not the facts of the matter but the fiction.  Is Beethoven really stalling?  If so, why?  Or has he in fact (as it were) almost finished the score? Or has he hit a block? Most of all, what is the supposed subject of this oratorio.  You must know.  We have been patient long enough.  Over to you.  Get on with it. (p.127-8)

Another splendid aspect of this novel is that Griffith—who likes to play in the Oulipian sandpit—confines Beethoven’s dialogues (which, remember, are always in response to conversations he can’t hear), to authentic sources, from translations of his letters.  (Those so minded can inspect these sources in the appendix.)

Mr Beethoven is seriously good fun, but what I liked best was the very tempting idea that Beethoven was still innovating with a new style.  It would have been so wonderful if he had lived longer!

David at David’s book World enjoyed it too.

Image credit: Newspaper clipping from From Psalm to Symphony: A History of Music in New England By Nicholas E. Tawa, via Paul Fulcher’s review at Goodreads

Author: Paul Griffiths
Title: Mr Beethoven
Publisher: Henningham Family Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781999797492, pbk., 302 pages
Source: Bayside Library

 

 Indigenous Literature Week 2021 at ANZ Litlovers 

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

For information about ILW 2021, click here.

Reviews

Thanks to everyone who is participating in 2021 Indigenous Literature Week – I hope that hosting this celebration helps to make more people aware of indigenous writing!

You are welcome to add your review/s early (or late). I will be monitoring this page until the end of July.

When you are ready to share your reviews, please use comments below:

Include

  • your name & the name of your blog (if you have one) and the URL where your review is posted (your blog, or your GoodReads or Library Thing account).

(Please do not add Amazon consumer reviews because they generate intrusive Amazon ads and I don’t care to support Amazon advertising).

  • If you don’t have a blog or a GoodReads/Library Thing account, then please share what you thought about the book you read in the comments section at the bottom of this post.
  • Or, if you’d like to write a review of greater length, contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom about writing a guest review to be hosted on the ANZ LitLovers blog.

I will gather these links to generate a list which will be added under the headings below on this page. I will also add any new titles that crop up to the permanent Indigenous Reading List.

PS If you haven’t signed up to participate yet, or want to know more about ILW, click on the link at the top of this page.

2021 Reviews (in alphabetical order by author)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors

Robert Isaacs, an Aboriginal Elder from the Whadjuk-Bibilmum Wardandi Noongar language group, with Tanaz Byrami

Maori and Pacific Authors

And from elsewhere…

Further reading

Cultural warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some references in this blog include images or names of people now deceased.

2021 is the 10th anniversary of ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week:
a virtual event that has always been about encouraging Australians to read and learn from Indigenous authors and to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing.

This year ANZ LitLovers will again be hosting Indigenous Literature Week to coincide with NAIDOC Week, from Sunday July 4th to Sunday July 11th.

The NAIDOC 2021 theme – Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

I hope that many readers will join in and read a book by an Indigenous author.  But even if you don’t have time or opportunity to do that, at least you can read the reviews, because educating ourselves about Australia’s Black History and culture, and listening to Indigenous voices is a pathway to reconciliation.

Reading the reviews of Indigenous-authored books that have been featured during Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers every year is not the only place to start educating yourself, but it’s an easy place to start because the reviews lead to the authentic, authoritative voices of Indigenous authors.

While I would like Australians to participate by reading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, participants are welcome to join in reading indigenous literature from anywhere in the world, from Canada to Guyana, from Native American to Basque to Pashtun or Ixcatec. (For a list of indigenous people of the world, see this list at Wikipedia.) As to how we define indigenous, that’s up to indigenous people themselves.  If they identify as indigenous, well, that’s good enough for me, (and if you want to see how foolish it is to label people, see the first quotation here.)

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous years of ILW the reading list is now extensiveFor reasons of space and time and personal preference my reading list is mostly literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form —short story, memoir, poetry, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other useful reading lists) is on the ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List in the top menu. (There is a list of Indigenous Women Writers there too.)

Thanks to all those who joined in last year and have encouraged me to host the week again.

Interested?

  • If you’d like to participate simply say so in comments below.  Tell us what you think you might read in the comments box to help spread awareness of what’s available. .  You never know, you might encourage someone else to try the book too! (You can always change your mind later if you want to).
  • Bookmark the page for Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers 2020 so that you can use the comments box there either
    • to provide the URL of your review on your blog, your Goodreads page or your Library Thing page, or
    • to share your thoughts as a comment and then I’ll add it to the reading list.
  • If you would like to write a guest review of your book for ANZLL I will happily host it here too.

I have a wealth of reading on the TBR.  It’s unlikely I can read them all, but I’ve listed them here as an ambition.

  • Bitin’Back, by Vivienne Cleven, of the Kamilaroi people in Queensland
  • Living on Stolen Land, by Ambelin Kwyamullina, from the Palyku people of the Pilbara in Western Australia
  • Loving Country, a guide to sacred Australia, by Bruce Pascoe of the Bunurong people in Victoria and Vicky Shukuroglou
  • The Cherry-Picker’s Daughter, by Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019), a Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales.
  • Homecoming, by Elfie Shiosaki, a Noongar and Yawuru woman from Western Australia
  • Song of the Crocodile, by Nardi Simpson, a Yuwaalaray woman from New South Wales
  • Debesa, by Cindy Solonec, a Nigena (Nyikina) woman from the West Kimberley
  • Top End Girl by Miranda Tapsell, a Larrakia Tiwi woman from the Northern Territory and Tiwi Islands
  • God, the Devil and Me, by Alf Taylor, of the Nyoongah people of Western Australia
  • Born into This, by Adam Thompson, a pakana man from Launceston, Tasmania
  • If Everyone Cared, the autobiography of Margaret Tucker (1904-1996) a Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman from New South Wales
  • Where the Wild Fruit Falls, by Karen Wyld, with Pilbara heritage

I have two Samoan titles from New Zealand this year:

  • Scarlet Lies by Lani Wendt Young (Maori)
  • Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt

Most of the above titles can be purchased, but publishers don’t generally make it easy to find (or find out about) indigenous writing.  I find the most useful sources for indigenous titles are

  • UQP – use their Browse Books menu to find David Unaipon Award winners, titles from the Blak & Bright Festival, and Black Australian Writing;
  • Wakefield Press – choose browse by category from the top RHS side of the home page (under the search box).  Not all these titles are by indigenous authors so choose carefully;
  • and indigenous publishing houses Magabala Books and Jukurrpa/IAD Press

(There is, of course, AustLit’s Black Words, but there’s not much point in me supplying a link to a subscription-only resource.)

PS Please use the #IndigLitWeek hashtag on Twitter.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2021

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi

If this post raises any issues for you, help is available at Reach Out.

I recognised the author’s name on this remarkable novel when I was at the library collecting something else that I’d reserved… I’d previously read Freshwater.

The Death of Vivek Oji is an achingly sad book, bittersweet in its depiction of a trans adolescent in Nigeria.  The novel begins with his mother finding his naked, bloodied body on her doorstep, the silver charm missing from around his neck.  It is not until the end of the book that we learn the manner of his death and who it was who placed Vivek there.  It seems such a cruel mystery to inflict on his grieving parents, but it was done out of love in the belief that it was what Vivek would have wanted. Which is one of many sad aspects of this story.

Early chapters create confusion about what Vivek’s problem might be with childhood episodes of what appear to be epileptic blackouts and convulsions. It seems that perhaps the death has something to do with this untreated condition. But as the novel progresses the parents’ response to Vivek’s blackouts seems to signal their religious insensitivity to their only child’s real needs.  A devout Catholic, his mother Kavita prays to have Vivek cured, and in desperation even sends him to Aunt Mary’s for faith healing.  When he returns from what turns out to have been a brutal exorcism this causes an estrangement between the two sisters at a time when they really need each other.  But though Vivek is sent away for education, he is not taken anywhere for medical attention.  The point is, I think, to show that Nigeria is a long way off from being able to help anyone with gender identity problems if they can’t even get help for epilepsy because there are barriers of superstition, shame and secrecy.

Kavita tolerates Vivek’s long hair, but she will not face up to what it might mean.

In adolescence, however, Vivek finds acceptance and love from his cousin Osita and their friends.  In the privacy of their unsupervised home, he is free to enjoy his hair, to wear dresses and makeup, and enjoy loving sex with Osita.  But as in the Greenwood retreat of E M Forster’s novel Maurice this Eden is only safe and happy because it’s a private bubble, protected from any judgements, misunderstandings and threats of violence.  To be his real self, which is also her real self, Vivek always has to hide it from the world, including from the parents whose support he needs more than anything.  Although this idyll in his friends’ home is a loving atmosphere, it’s also a prison, from which Vivek yearns to break free.

It takes great courage to go out of this house dressed as a girl, but Vivek takes the risk.  The friends are beside themselves with anxiety because theirs is a society subject to sporadic bouts of rioting and they know the violence that anyone ‘different’ might attract.

Without sentimentality, Akwaeke Emezi portrays the overwhelming confusion and grief of the mother with great perception.  Kavita knows that the young people are concealing something from her, but she’s asking them the wrong questions.  But for them, the dilemma is that the truth will be devastating.  It brings to mind all the young people struggling with issues like this, and how hard it is for them to confront their parents with it.  The setting in Nigeria shows that it’s harder still in some societies though rigid religiosity and dogmatic opinions can made it harder anywhere.

Still, the attitude of the young people in this novel signals hope.  And novels like this one help to spread understanding…


I am conscious of having used gendered plurals in writing this review.  It doesn’t seem right for the character’s gender identity as portrayed.  Because the pronouns used in the author profile at the beginning of the book are the plural gender neutral pronouns they/their/them, I tried using they/their/them to write about Vivek even though for most of the novel, he/his/him is used.  But when I came to the paragraph beginning ‘In adolescence’ I couldn’t make it work.  Using they/their/them for Vivek up to that point, meant confusion in the sentence beginning ‘In the privacy of their unsupervised homes’.  It’s not Vivek’s home, it’s the friends’ home.  If you try it yourself you’ll see what I mean… the sentence needs a pronoun to differentiate between they/their/them meaning only one person (Vivek) or more (his friends).  I welcome suggestions for ways to resolve this dilemma to achieve clarity because I’m sure I’ll come across it again.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Title: The Death of Vivek Oji
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9780571350995
Source: Kingston Library

#4 House of Glass

House of Glass (Rumah Kaca) is the last of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, the series of four novels tracing Indonesia’s ‘awakening’ that Toer wrote while in prison on the island of Buru.  (See my review of Book 2 for the background to this).  The quartet is an early example of historical fiction as activism, that is, it was written by an author redressing the hidden stories and silences of colonised peoples in well-researched fiction.

House of Glass is the next phase of Toer’s novelised life of Tirto Adi Suryo, pioneer of Indonesia’s national awakening and of Indonesian journalism.  In Books 1-3 Minke is both the symbol of nationalism and the challenge to Dutch colonialism which emerged in the early 20th century but did not come to fruition until after World War Two.   Toer shows how educating the cleverest of the Native Indonesians led to the development of European ideas about freedom and equality, the irony being that those same Europeans did not bestow freedom and equality on the people they colonised.  Indeed, to forbid things is a colonial hobby that gives a pleasure of its own.  It makes you feel more important and more powerful. It becomes the norm within six months in the colony, away from European democratic ideas.

By the end of Book 3, Minke has launched journalism that brought him to the attention of the Dutch authorities and now in Book 4, he is in exile.

So, with the hero of the first three novels offstage, House of Glass puts aside his story which is instead narrated through the reflections of the Native* Indonesian policeman Pangemanann, whose job it was to monitor and suppress the emerging independence movement.  The ‘house of glass’ of the title refers to Pangemanann’s surveillance of the key activists who follow in Minke’s footsteps.  Pangemanann is a conflicted soul: educated in France, he has risen to high office and enjoys the status he has acquired, but he admires Minke and his ambitions for an independent Indonesia.  Nevertheless, to maintain his own position, he must corrupt his personal values and work with the Dutch authorities to sabotage the movement.  He delegates authority to beat up opposition figures; he spreads divisive rumours; he incites race riots; he tortures detainees; and — while he doesn’t get his own hands dirty — he is involved in murder too.

While the point of this is to show that the independence movement withered for decades because it was sabotaged from within by the very Native Indonesians that Tirto Adi Suryo was keen to unite, this doesn’t make for a very engaging novel.  Truth be told, I made heavy weather of it and resorted to reading a chapter a day to get it finished.  I didn’t abandon it despite the temptation because it was Book 4 of a significant quartet and I wanted to complete it.

Pangemanann enjoys dissecting the divisions within society which fracture the independence movement. He notes that Minke believes in ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ and he was on the side of the impoverished masses but he’s also dismissive of them because they have no clear philosophy.  Pangemanann also identifies the compelling problem of there being no common language.  The dominant Javanese try to assert the primacy of Javanese culture and language, whereas he recognises that for the movement to succeed across the archipelago, Malay is the language that will be understood by all and can thus unify the disparate ethnicities.

While Minke’s inheritors, Marko, Sandiman and Wardi argue about whether education for Natives is wise or not, Pangemanann has a grasp of the bigger picture.  He knows that the more European companies are set up, the greater the need for educated Natives.  But he worries about these ‘hybrids’ because they are ‘dangerous elements.’ Eastern brutality and viciousness could fuse with Western rational thinking, and suddenly we could have a frightening new devil.  His constant battles with his boss enable Toer to depict this quisling’s cunning public face sneering at the independence organisations as irrelevant, while at the same time also showing his private ruminations about how influential they are.

With World War One preoccupying the Dutch government, the colony could not expect any military reinforcements in the event of trouble, but Pangemanann sinks the proposal to expand the local defence forces.  He argues publicly that:

the increase in political activity in the Indies was a direct result of the government’s own Ethical Policy and therefore there was no case for the government to arbitrarily decide to eliminate this activity. It would be more appropriate for the government to hold out its hand so as to offer guidance, rather than attempt to destroy this activity. (p.219)

But his real reason is that he won’t stand for being dislodged from his position as an expert.

As was the case with Toer himself, the activists of this novel who are imprisoned use the time to influence the other prisoners.

The thing was that the nationalists came to think of jail as some kind of stopping-off station where they could expect to be visiting and leaving on a regular basis. They begin to look upon time spent in jail as no longer a humiliation but, on the contrary, a place where national dignity could be restored. (p.224)

It is easy to rein in the activities of the educator Siti Soendari.  Dismissed as ‘just a girl’ by the Dutch authorities, she was perceived as unladylike by the priyayi (the Javanese aristocracy); she was feared because she was too assertive by some educated Natives; as a woman, she was thought not to have her own ideas because she had merely been influenced by others.  But Pangemanann recognises that she is an important social phenomenon.  So he pressures her father to make her ‘behave’ and to marry her off. Her father had no choice but to comply because he was only a middle-ranking official and needed his official position.

While Pangemanann’s activities all focus on individuals, organisations and the offstage Minke, the real protagonist that he faced was the unstoppable forces of nationalism.  And while he succeeds in bringing down all his opponents, at the very end of the book his surrender to Minke’s mother shows that the struggle would not die.

*NB: My use of terms to describe different ethnic groups and social divisions are those that are used in the book.  ‘Indonesians’ would be anachronistic in the era of the Dutch East Indies, and the book uses terms like Native, Indo, Indisch, and regional descriptors such as Javanese, Moluccan and Balinese to indicate racial differences while also indicating social differences with terms of address in different languages, like Mas, Meneer, Mevrouw, and Princess. 

My reviews of the rest of the quartet are here:

Author: Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Title: House of Glass, The Buru Quartet #4; (Rumah Kaca, Tetralogi Buru #4)
Translated from the Indonesian and with an Introduction by Max Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books USA, 1997 (first published in English by Penguin Australia 1992, first published in Indonesian 1988)
ISBN: 9780140256796

Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond: Footsteps (Buru Quartet)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2021

Ein Stein, by Joe Reich

The inspiration for this remarkable book by Melbourne ophthalmologist Joe Reich AM was, he tells us in the Acknowledgements, his previous book, the biography of Zwi Lewin (My Sack of Memories, see my reviewand the difficulty of reconciling memory with history.  The result, in Ein Stein, is a cunningly constructed mystery which kept me reading long after I should have turned out the light.  This is the blurb:

Ernst Leitz II (“the photography industry’s Schindler”) not only designed and manufactured Germany’s most famous camera, but also saved hundreds of Jewish lives from certain death during the Holocaust. From the kernel of this true story, Joe Reich weaves an interesting – sometimes outrageous – blend of fact and fiction, historical and current times, drawing the reader into the fictional life and exploits of the protagonist elderly “survivor” Jack (Yaakov Stein) now living in Melbourne. After trying to pass off a false testimony to a young Catholic photographer, Ian Gross, he then relents and tells us the truth … Or does he? With false memoirs all the rage, this is clearly a fictitious story with some real characters, at once highly entertaining and deadly serious.

There are three narratives about the life of Yaakov Stein: the false video narrative told to cover his tracks; the subsequent more expansive and confessional account that he writes himself; and—after his death—the investigation by his granddaughter and her lover using all the resources of the Internet and DNA databases.

The novel raises all kinds of interesting questions about truth and history; about identity and politics, and about the ethical pressures that bedevil people in times of war, not just in Nazi Germany but also in the Cold War.  In this novel we see a man who made dubious moral choices, when really, at crucial times in his life, his only choices were whether, when and how to flee.  However, his reasons to flee were only partially to do with having Jewish antecedents.  I think that book groups will have a fine time unpacking the morality of the postwar decisions he made.

Ein Stein confounds glib judgments about guilt or honour.  After the war, Yaakov Stein retrieves an old identity to search in Wetzlar, Germany for his missing wife and son.  He visits the industrialist Herr Leitz whose Leica Freedom Train enabled his escape and the escape of many others, but is surprised to find that the business is in limbo and Leitz is being investigated for war crimes because of the Faustian bargain he made to be allowed to make a 35mm camera, a toy compared to the serious scientific microscopes my father built this company on.

“Perhaps we were criminals.  We had so few able-bodied men for our factory we needed forced labourers to complete our orders.  Over six hundred Ukrainians and others from Central Europe.  Nine hundred and sixty-two.  Let me be clear, they were slave labour, vital for the war effort.  So now the Americans who guard this building don’t know what to do with this old fool.  A major supplier of the Nazi war machine, a member of the Nazi Party, an enslaver of men.  They are talking of trials for the Nazis.  How would they do that?  There is, I believe, already a list of one and a half million cases to prepare and so few German-speaking American lawyers to prosecute them.  And if they succeeded and jailed us all, who would restart the factories, rebuild Germany, stop the Russians from taking over all of Europe.  So they don’t know whether to free me or put me in a cell for ten years.” (p.161

Despite Stein’s gratitude for the hundreds who were saved, Leitz struggles with the guilt of knowing that “If a Panzer tank has an accurate sight, each shell will hit its destination.  It will kill more.  There were thousands of tanks.  How many did I help kill?” 

Later in the novel, a character hurls a cruel insult, accusing a fellow-Jew of being a kapodespite knowing that any kapo who refused his wretched task in the Nazi camps faced death.  There are no easy answers to the questions surrounding collaboration.

Testament to the skill of the author, each of the three narratives are equally convincing, and it is not until they are interrogated by those who are supposed to believe them that the reader feels the same doubts.  What is finally revealed is astonishing, but it’s impossible to discuss it in a review without ruining this compelling reading experience for others.

The various settings both contemporary and historical have an authenticity that breathes life into the story, while the characterisation and dialogue (including some droll jokes) made Ein Stein a most enjoyable reading experience.

Author: Joe Reich
Title: Ein Stein, a novel
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2021
Cover design by Gittus Graphics
ISBN: 9781925736564, pbk., 290 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Hybrid Publishers (including as an eBook) and good bookshops everywhere.

The Australian Foreign Affairs journal only publishes three issues each year so there’s no excuse for neglecting it, but as usual, I am really behind with my reading of the journals I subscribe to.  But—six months after its publication—this issue is still very relevant because it raises the viability of our current foreign policy strategy, i.e. to counter the rise of China with new strategic partnerships instead of relying on the US. If Australia’s foreign aid cuts in our region have taught our neighbourhood to look to their own interests and dispense with their loyalties accordingly, where does that leave us?

In the Introduction, Editor Jonathan Pearlman makes the point that countries in the region hold differing views of China and vary widely in readiness to confront Beijing. 

In July 2019, for instance, Australia joined twenty-one countries in issuing a condemnation of China’s mass detention of Uyghurs; the only other signatory in the Indo-Pacific was New Zealand.  Among the more than fifty countries that, days later, issued a statement defending China, at least five were regional neighbours: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal and the Philippines.  Australia does not, like South Korea or Japan, stare at China across a sea; nor is it one of the many claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea.  Each country in the region has unique interests and qualities, which are likely to stretch the limits of the term “like-minded”.  (p.5)

Hugh White in ‘Great Expectations’ argues that building new alliances in Asia is destined to fail.  The language of our Defence White Papers have changed over time, from a policy of self-reliance when Indonesia seemed the most likely threat, to overt support for Any American Adventures (whether they were in our strategic interest or not).  But things have moved on.  The most recent White Paper acknowledges that Australian confidence in America has been shaken, and not just by Trump’s isolationism, his erratic diplomacy and his focus on China as an economic rather than strategic rival.  China is now the most powerful adversary America has ever faced. It is also determined to take America’s place as the leading power in East Asia. Washington still has no coherent plan to counter this, and not just because of Trump.

The reasons […] go to the fundamental  question of whether America needs to preserve its leadership role in Asia enough to justify the costs and risks of containing a rival as powerful as China in China’s own backyard. China’s strength and resolve means those costs and risks will be high.  (p.11)

The idea of an ‘Asian NATO’ has been around for about 20 years: a regional coalition of US-led Indo-Pacific alliances to contain China.  But it assumes that harnessing regional anxiety about China will lend itself to cooperation in our region.

Broad gestures of diplomatic support don’t thaw much ice in a Cold War.  China is determined to restore its position as the primary power in East Asia, and will bitterly resent and savagely punish those who oppose it.  It has the capacity to impose high costs on its weaker neighbours at relatively low cost to itself.  Asian countries will pay dearly if they dare to support US efforts to contain China.  So while they might like to see China contained, it is unlikely they will be willing to contribute towards this containment. (p.14)

(We in Australia already know about ‘economic punishment.’  40% of Australian exports to China have been affected by their trade bans.)

Whereas NATO, for all its flaws, was always clear about the security of its member states being contingent on a united defence against the Soviets, SEATO, (the Asian equivalent) never had a similar cohesiveness and most of its members were militarily weak and in no position to help each other much anyway.  The other difference is that the geography of our region means that until recently all that the US needed was bases in the region because dominance in Asia requires maritime strength, and the US learned in Vietnam that ground forces are doomed to fail. (LH: They knew that anyway from WW2: apart from wanting to demonstrate their overwhelming power in the new nuclear age, they A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because they did not want to fight, island-by-island towards Tokyo, with inevitable catastrophic American troop casualties.)

What about India?  By 2030 its economy will likely be bigger than the rest of Asia’s combined (excluding China) and approaching America’s. It won’t want to be dominated by China, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will align with the US nor that it will oppose China’s domination of East  Asia.  White says that if China moderates its ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, where India seeks preponderance, India will have little reason to challenge China’s ambitions elsewhere.  What he doesn’t say is that China may only defer those ambitions, though I have read elsewhere that China is not expansionist: it seeks to restore its historical position, not to augment it.

Proponents of an Asian alliance based on shared values, says White, haven’t looked around.  Think of Vietnam, with a communist government just as authoritarian as China’s, or indeed India, whose democratic political system nonetheless encompasses some highly repressive policies against minorities.

Having analysed the prospects of an Asian alliance at the strategic level, White goes on then to analyse the operational level, i.e. the realities of military strength in the region.  The difficulty of fighting land wars for China’s mainland neighbours means that only maritime powers could help one another, though these days it’s easier to find and sink ships than to defend them.  Countries with a nuclear capacity such as Japan and India can defend themselves, they don’t need America or each other. So they don’t need to take on commitments to risky alliances that may offend their powerful neighbour.  China’s maritime power in the region means that any conflict in the Pacific would not deliver a swift, cheap US victory whether Asian allies join in or not.

This analysis leads White to conclude that Australia needs to step up its own self-reliance and to build the strongest links possible with countries in maritime South-East Asia that offer strategic value, such as Indonesia, which would in turn benefit from Australia’s military help.  And, he says, Australia should rethink its military strategy and its defence budget to build capacity to achieve maritime denial in our own defence while at the same time make a major contribution to defending the islands to our north as well.  He stops short of suggesting that Australia should have a nuclear deterrent as Japan and India do.

The remaining contents of this edition of AFF include essays:

  • Rory Medcalf considers the potential of multilateral forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the ‘Quad’).
  • Karen Middleton examines how foreign aid and diplomacy can strengthen ties with our neighbours.
  • Patrick Lawrence calls on Australia to bid farewell to US influence in the Asia-Pacific and embrace an Asian-led regional order.
  • Allan Behm proposes a bold new Pacific aid donors’ conference led by Australia.

There are also reviews of new books by

    • Primrose Riordan details the rapacious effects of China’s new security law in Hong Kong.
    • Timothy J. Lynch examines the challenges ahead for the United States.
    • Renée Fry-McKibbin surveys capitalism’s failure in the midst of COVID-19.
    • Sophie Chao reports on the West Papuan struggle for independence. (Source: the  the AFF website)

The most interesting one of these, IMO, was Patrick Lawrence’s essay ‘Goodbye America, The remaking of Asia’.  He calls a spade a spade, to the point of being blunt, and that’s refreshing.  Commenting on Congress deliberations about more money to expand its East Asian operations, he writes that America’s nostalgic view of its role in the world is unrealistic:

This is all about China, to state the obvious.  More to the point, it is about prolonging American primary in the Pacific as the People’s Republic emerges as a regional and global power.  This is a forlorn project by any balanced reckoning.  Yes, America will remain a Pacific power.  No, it can no longer presume pre-eminence.  The compulsion to insist otherwise arises out of longing for the once-was, anxiety in the face of change and an appallingly poor grasp of China’s aspirations and intentions. (p.69)

Lawrence is derisive about the US commitment to a ‘new Cold War with China’.

This one is almost certain to remain cold by design: only fools imagine a hot conflict with the mainland could be won, and while there seem to be fools aplenty at the Pentagon, it is unlikely there are enough of them to carry the day on this point.  But Cold War II will nonetheless prove as divisive and ruinously wasteful as the first.  In the matter of friends, allies and enemies, Asians and their southerly neighbours will have some serious sorting to do. (p.70)

I am reminded that this journal is the October 2020 edition.  Writing his essay now, Lawrence would surely mention ‘fools aplenty’ sprouting warmongering rhetoric in Canberra too…

BTW at Inside Story, there’s an interesting review of Stan Grant’s new book With the Falling of the Dusk: A Chronicle of the World in Crisis.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Friends, Allies and Enemies, Asia’s Shifting Loyalties
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 10, Oct 2020
ISBN: 9781760642051
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2021

No Document, by Anwen Crawford

The curious title of this short prose work remains obscure until about halfway, when—as throughout the book—empty space is used to emphasise with devastating impact, the concept of the void.  On page 38, there is this:

No collectables, no commodities.

There is nothing else on the page. On page 52, there is this:

                                                                                        from our
hands, our fumbling and clumsy hands, you write.

But on page 67:

no document can make you manifest.

And it’s true.  Nothing we can keep or create will bring back the dead.

This is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

No Document is an elegy for a friendship cut short prematurely by death. The memory of this friendship becomes a model for how we might relate to others in sympathy, solidarity and rebellion. At once intimate and expansive, Anwen Crawford’s book-length essay explores loss in many forms: disappeared artworks, effaced histories, abandoned futures. From the turmoil of grief and the solace of memory, her perspective embraces histories of protest and revolution, art-making and cinema, border policing, and especially our relationships with animals. No Document shows how love and resistance echo through time.

Anwen Crawford is best known for her writing as a critic, but here she draws on her background as a zine-maker and visual artist, and her training in poetry, to develop a new way of writing about the past, using a symphonic method of composition and collage. No Document is an urgent, ground-breaking work of non-fiction that reimagines the boundaries that divide us – as people, nations and species – and asks how we can create forms of solidarity that endure.

Neither an essay nor poetry and yet both, this book is filled with shards of grief.  It is rebellious, and sometimes angry, recalling shared moments of activism in protests and marches, blockades and picket lines amid the deliberate conflation of dissent with terrorism by the ruling class that still exists:

what might it be
to live

without the wage / without the state / without
the penitentiaries /to be

unafraid / to be / freely
indebted to each other. (p.64)

Images of blood and slaughter are references to Blood of the Beasts (Le Sang des bêtes), a 1949 French documentary by Georges Franju. It contrasted the suburbs of Paris with scenes from a slaughterhouse.  This violence is also threaded through the references to the deliberate impermanence of the art they made.

When the bombing of Iraq began some dolt with a megaphone admonished a bunch of us for jumping up and down as we stood outside Town Hall waiting for the protect to begin to move / on Gadigal country. This march will be disciplined, they said, and we said — we taunted — discipline’s for armies.  Nothing we made was meant to last.  Nothing we made has lasted for as long as what we made by making together.  (p. 85)

There is some hope:

Do I think that art can change the world?  No and yes.  We can’t end work — or war — with pencils, or by arguing for better television shows.  But there are not movements towards freedom without what must be imagined, and perhaps can only be imagined: I believe that. Another way to put this would be to say that I believe in all of us because of all who have imagined like this in the act of remaking a street or a room through some gesture of their hands, by writing or painting or playing, no matter how tentative the gesture or how ephemeral the evidence. (p.113)

This work is dense with allusions to artists, writers, film-makers and musicians, and no doubt I have missed many of them, so I found this review by Alix Beeston at the Sydney Review of Books illuminating.

There is also this review by Cher Tan at InDaily, which speaks to the frustration of incompleteness in the text.  I don’t share that frustration, but I like the way she has summarised the treatment of history in No Document.

Author: Anwen Crawford
Title: No Document
Designed by Jenny Grigg
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781925818611, pbk.,151 pages
Source: Giramondo Prose subscription

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 21, 2021

On Charlatans, by Chris Bowen

Every time I read one of these Little Books on Big Ideas (now rebadged as the On Series, by Hachette who seem to have taken over the series from Melbourne University Press), I want to read the whole lot.  There’s currently 35 of them listed at Dymocks and so far I’ve only read:

On Charlatans could be a (much, much shorter) companion volume for The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz because it explores the same phenomenon of people voting against their own best interests.  If you subscribe to the view that progressive parties tend to be on the side of working people while conservative parties tend to look after The Big End of Town, then you will accept ALP MP Chris Bowen’s starting point:

It has become the central question of modern social democracy: why have working-class communities become less supportive of our cause?  Our sister parties around the world are grappling with the same question.  The social-democratic project can recover but social democrats have to face up to why populist charlatans are succeeding and what we have to do to regain the initiative in rebuilding trust between urban, suburban and regional Labor communities. (p.6)

Bowen’s diagnosis is perhaps a bit simplistic but the format of this series means this is not a book that attempts to unpack all the complex reasons for an election loss.  He argues that battlers and people being left behind in the economy were convinced by charlatans who claimed to have the answers, when actually they had a false product.  He writes that political charlatans—right-wing populists— are willing and able to tell people who are struggling that they have the solutions.  Actually, their policies make those same workers worse off. These people are not only disrupting politics, they are disrupting their own parties, as we can see in America and elsewhere.

Right-wing parties have been taken over by effective politicians who make a virtue of being ‘non-politicians’.  This is part of the contrivance.  Baseball caps, ruffled hair and a false bonhomie are deployed in various guises by millionaires and professional political operatives to present the picture that they are somehow new, different to the political class and in touch with the working class.  They have constructed a narrative that they have better solutions to improve the lot of ordinary people who have been buffeted by stagnant wages growth and growing inequality.  (p.17)

Bowen identifies four key tactics of the charlatans:

  • dishonesty is the best policy;
  • identity politics on steroids;
  • hyper-partisanship all the time; and
  • fear and loathing on climate change.

And he has has key points to make about a ‘roadmap’ to defeat them.  He says it’s essential to recognise that:

  • The charlatans are a symptom not a cause [LH: which is where Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is useful].  People are legitimately angry about job insecurity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, inequality, dying towns and hollowed suburbs. 
  • An ongoing focus on social mobility and meritocracy runs the risk to great swathes of the population thinking that they are forgotten.
  • There is power in the suburbs.  It’s where most Australians live, and it’s where a party needs to be in touch and strong if it wants to win.
  • The divisiveness of the charlatans needs to be rejected.  Unity through a national compact between all Australians is what’s needed.

Bowen expands on all these themes as the book progresses,  providing Australian and global examples of the tactics he’s identified, noting the common threads in right-wing populism.  It’s division, dividing the worlds into the good guys, the real people, the worthy versus the out of touch, the immigrants, the Chinese, the urban elites, the winners of globalisation.  If you pay attention to politics, you’ll recognise many of the examples being exploited in our own society.  Clive Palmer comes in for special attention:

The plutocrat Palmer takes the definition of a charlatan to a new level.  In 2016, a company which he effectively controlled left a trail of unpaid wages behind it, which had to be paid in part by the federal government [LH: i.e. the taxpayer] under its Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme.

Ironically and gallingly, the equivalent of those unpaid wages and many more millions of dollars were spent on advertising, effectively in favour of the Coalition.  At first, Palmer’s ads contained an annoying jingle and inane clips of Palmer parroting the Trump lines about ‘Making Australia Great Again’ and ‘Putting Australia First.’

But as the campaign progressed, his copious advertising became more and more focussed on specific lies.  There were spurious claims about Labor selling off airports to the Chinese (a classic populist charlatan play).  Increasingly, there were false claims about Labor’s tax policies, claiming Labor would increase taxes by a trillion dollars (our entire economy is only $1.9 trillion). Presumably because he was dismissed as part of a sideshow, no mainstream media bothered to counter this blatant misinformation with the truth.

Palmer spent $55 million in the last fortnight of the campaign alone, dwarfing the amount the Labor Party (or the Liberal Party) could ever hope to muster. (p.39)

[LH: Just imagine if he had put that money into a philanthropic project like building social housing, or medical research.]

Bowen does not agree with those who lament the defeat by blaming voters. Passionate as these Labor supporters are, this is wrong.  It’s like saying the play was a success but the audience failed.  The party has to listen and learn, and do better next time.

They do indeed, for all our sakes.

Author: Chris Bowen
Title: On Charlatans (On Series, previously Little Books on Big Ideas series)
Publisher: Hachette, 2021
ISBN: 9780733645235, pbk., 130 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2021

Where the Line Breaks, by Michael Burrows

Shortlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award and picked up for publication by Fremantle Press, Where the Line Breaks is an utterly absorbing novel by debut author Michael Burrows.

(Supported by the Fogarty Foundation, the newly established Fogarty Literary Award is a biennial prize awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35 for a work of fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction.   The inaugural award in 2019 uncovered a number of engaging manuscripts and Fremantle Press offered publishing contracts to three additional authors: Michael Burrows for Where the Line Breaks, Emma Young for The Last Bookshop and Mel Hall for The Little Boat on Trusting Lane. The winner was The History of Mischief by Rebecca Higgie which is a YA novel.)

The design of the Where the Line Breaks is intriguing from the very start.  It begins with two quotations, one from CJ Dennis (War aint no giddy garden feete) and the other from a poem called ‘Out Back’ by The Unknown Digger, (Hell, I’ve taken all the Turk can throw at me). 

Then there’s a short sequence, beginning Always the same dream.  It recounts the horror of line after line of men stepping up and over the trench, men he joked and drank and swore and dreamed with.  

And then, signalled by a change in page colour from off-white to grey, there’s the cover page of a PhD dissertation. That’s followed by the Abstract, setting out the PhD author’s thesis, a Table of Contents, and an Introduction, with footnotes…

Ignore those footnotes at your peril.  The bemused reader thinks she has stumbled into a PhD, until footnote 5, referencing a book called The Anzac Legend by Brian Bishop (which turns out not to exist) but continuing with…

In year three I dressed up as Alan Lewis for Book Week, arguing that there were enough books about him in the library to justify my choice.  I wore my grandad’s medals, and spent the day picking up litter on the playground and telling kids off for not wearing their hats, because ‘it was the right thing to do.’ (p.18)

The author is having a laugh, right? What’s this childhood memory doing in a PhD thesis?

As in The Weaver Fish by fellow WA author Robert Edison, the footnotes are part of the narrative.  There are in fact three narratives:

  • printed on grey paper, the thesis of PhD candidate Matt Denton in London, which argues that he has identified The Unknown Digger, his hero — the Australian war poet who belongs in the canon of WW1 Soldier poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke;
  • printed on white paper in a different font, the story of Lieutenant Alan Lewis, decorated for bravery (the soldier claimed by Matt to be the poet); and
  • within the footnotes, the story of Matt’s life unravelling as he tries to model his behaviour on his hero, but falls short of the ideal, just as Lewis is revealed to do too.

This unconventional narrative interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend.  Matt, for all his academic pretensions, is as dogged in his belief about unalloyed heroism as any flag-waving young ‘patriot’ taking Anzac Day hostage for patriotism.

But there’s a naïve charm about young Matt and his obsession with Lewis.  His ambition is for his hero, and he wants recognition not just for him but for Australian poetry.  (Mind you, while I have no idea about what passes for academic discourse about poetry these days, it does seem to me that Matt’s idea of magnificent poetry, as espoused in his thesis, is not quite the same as mine.) And, just as his hero is leading his girl/s up the garden path, Matt is being betrayed by his girl, and by the academic for whom he works.  It’s hard not to feel rather sorry for him when in her personal life he tries so hard to be the kind of young man that modern feminist discourse demands.  He wants to respect her autonomy when he thinks she’s been assaulted, but he also wants to man up and confront her abuser.  He’s read the cues all wrong and misread the situation completely.

And in his intellectual life, Matt can’t quite take the step of recognising that his hero has not only betrayed his men and failed every leadership test he faces, he’s also lied about it and blamed his mates.  It’s a measure of how well this book is constructed that the reader brakes hard when this scene is revealed, and scampers back over the previous pages because it seems as if it can’t be true.  These competing narratives force difficult questions that make uneasy reading in the light of current investigations into the behaviour of Australian soldiers valorised for their work in Afghanistan.

Highly recommended if you like books that make you think.

The novel is also reviewed at Westerly and at The AU Review, and there’s an illuminating interview at Amanda Curtin’s blog ‘Looking Up Looking Down‘.

Author: Michael Burrows
Title: Where the Line Breaks
Design by Nada Backovich
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925816341, pbk., 218 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2021

More Than Halfway to Somewhere, by John Burbidge

Travel […] opens doors, challenges stereotypes. builds bridges and expands the mind.  As travel writer and guide Rick Steves put it ‘It moves around your furniture.’ It also taps into something more fundamental in our lives, as author Bruce Chatwin — who rejected the label of being a ‘travel writer’ — said, ‘The act of journeying contributes towards a sense of physical and mental wellbeing, while the monotony of prolonged settlement or regular work weaves patterns in the brain that engender fatigue and a sense of personal inadequacy.’ (More Than Half Way to Somewhere, p.174)

Well, after a year of travel restrictions that prevent all but a privileged few from leaving the country, Australians don’t need to be convinced about the monotony.  Even when my next trip is a year or more away, I’m still buoyed by the saving, the planning and the dreaming about it.  The absence of any trip anywhere on my horizon makes me feel very fed up.

However, it is what it is, and all we can do is enjoy a good travel book every now and again.  But such books must be chosen wisely or else they just make me gnash my teeth in frustration.  Last year I read six, though two of them were only about destinations in Australia, which—I’m sorry, Tourism Australia — simply doesn’t count as travel.

More Than Halfway to Somewhere is a fascinating glimpse into the kind of travel I’ve never done.  While The Spouse and I are flexible and adaptable independent travellers, we plan our itineraries meticulously.  We know in advance where we’re going, where we’re staying, what museums and galleries we’ll visit and sometimes even which restaurants we want to go to.  But John Burbidge’s travels have been much more adventurous and infinitely more serendipitous.

John’s decision to make his career working for an NGO that doesn’t pay salaries has allowed him to travel the world, but it’s been on a very tight budget.  Taking those super cheap flights that are super cheap for a reason, and relying on grace and favour accommodation from hospitable folks who support the organisation’s aims.  The scariest journey seems to have been with Nigerian Errways, though he also had a narrow escape taking the train across the Nullarbor.

His most far flung destination was Tierra Del Fuego.  In a chapter aptly named ‘Uttermost Part of the Earth, it’s clear that such remote places do have their drawbacks indeed.

Assuming we would find somewhere to stay the night we kept driving, but  after checking two more locations without success we grew concerned.  Our only option was to head back to Tierra del Fuego via the narrow crossing at Purita Delgada.  Once back on the island we headed for the only town in the entire northeast, Cerro Sombrero (Hat Hill), operated by the Chilean national petroleum company. According to Lonely Planet there was accommodation in this town, but what this meant didn’t sink in until we arrived at the Hosteria Tunkelen.  Not only was this the only place to stay in town, its restaurant was the only place to eat.  Moreover, the restaurant had a set menu, mostly for company employees.  Next morning when we went to fill up our car for the long drive south, the only gas available was at a single pump operated, of course, by the company. (p.171)

From the US to India, across Africa and the West Indies where he assumed the role of reporter in order to get into a cricket match, John travels with good humour and respect for the people he meets.   It’s people, he says, that makes travel worthwhile.  He’s not a man to entertain the foolish notion of having a bucket list of places to ‘tick off’ as he goes.  While I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his adventures, what I liked best was his afterword where he talks about cultures that value hospitality and really welcome visitors, not least because a guest can play many roles, as the bringer of news, the teller of stories, the curious outsider, the interested listener and more. 

A different conception of tourist, eh?

You can buy the book, print-on-demand from a range of booksellers around the world.  They’re listed on John’s website here.

Author: John Burbidge
Title: More Than Halfway to Somewhere, Collected Gems of a World Traveller
Publisher: Wordswallah Publishing, 2020
Designer: Robert Lanphear
ISBN: 9780578698144, pbk., 216 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of the author

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2021

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

The 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist was announced today.  I’ve only read three of them, and if you look at the (same old) morbid themes that the judges are enthused about, you can see why.

  • Amnesty by Aravind Adiga, see my review
  • The Rain Heron was Robbie Arnott, on my TBR
  • At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood
  • Our Shadows by Gail Jones
  • Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna
  • The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey see my review
  • The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
  • Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
  • Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe, on my TBR
  • The Fifth Season by Philip Salom, see my review
  • Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson, on my TBR
  • The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

“The 2021 Miles Franklin longlist is a rich mix of well-established, early career and debut novelists whose work ranges from historical fiction to fabulism and psychologism. Through an array of distinctive voices these works invite their readers to engage with questions regarding the natural and animal worlds, asylum, sexual abuse, colonialism, racism and grief. These are stories about trauma and loss, and also about beauty, resilience and hope,” said Richard Neville, State Library of NSW Mitchell Librarian.

How can anyone take these judges seriously when they don’t even longlist The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, by Richard Flanagan?

PS, the next day: Those in the know, which most of us are not, tell me that Flanagan’s book was not entered. The judges, IMO, could and should have ‘called it in’ as a significant book that deserved recognition, and if they found themselves unable to do that they could and should at the very least have made mention of it in their press release.


It was Day Three of the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, and after lunch out with a friend I came home to catch the last part of the irrepressible Jane Caro in conversation with Donna Mazza, (author of Fauna), Toby Walsh and Kate Mildenhall on the topic of AI (artificial intelligence).  I think my ticket enables me to replay the session later on, so I’ll be doing that because it’s a topic that interests me.

Then there was a session featuring environmental activist Bob Brown, and authors Jonica Newby, and Adam Thompson and poet Caitlin Marling.  It was surprisingly hopeful because all the panellists were convinced that there’s more people who care than not.

At 2 o’clock my time, and 4 o’clock in WA there was ‘The View from Country’: Storytelling is a strong cultural tradition in the Indigenous community, a way of teaching knowledge, honouring Country, and reinforcing community bonds. Storytelling has also been a powerful tool for sharing testimonies that have been historically silenced. It was presented by Noongar woman Cassie Lynch in discussion with Indigenous authors Dr Robert Isaacs, Karen Wyld, Evelyn Araluen and Adam Thompson to discuss how Indigenous-authored works are a vital part of truth-telling.  I really like the way this festival has made Indigenous storytellers front and centre in the program.

Robert Isaacs is a Noongar Elder and a member of the Stolen Generations, and asked how he was able to tell his story, he answered that he could do it because it was his lived experience.  He was actually there in the Clontarf Boys Town and really saw what went on, just as he later on as a senior bureaucrat in Aboriginal Housing, he witnessed what was actually happening.  He used his education to rise to the top of organisations that had never had Indigenous input into their decision-making.  I reported on yesterday’s session with this most interesting author here.)

Karen Wyld’s multi-generational novel Where the Fruit Falls (on my TBR) is set across multiple time periods that enable her to weave in the different programs that impacted on Indigenous people.  This involved a great deal of research and subsequently a lot of editing — she cut out 40,000 words! She wants people to think more about the land, such as being aware of the inland sea, now gone, but which is part of a story from one of her characters.  Karen Wyld is of Martu descent (people of the Pilbara region in Western Australia)

Goorie-Koori Poet Evelyn Araluen talked about her book Drop Bear.  (I’ve read some of her writing in Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.)  She attributes her storytelling in part to the wealth of books she was exposed to as a child and the way her parents helped to deconstruct it.  The Australian literature she read then did not include any representation of her people, and she found ‘some really dodgy stuff’ in it when she studied AustLit at university.  She says she doesn’t want to ‘cancel’ May Gibbs, but Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, for example, are stories of sweet little white babies terrorised by scary black creatures in the Australian bush.  It also appropriates a lot of Indigenous culture which takes no account of what it was actually like in those days.  So it’s not a book we should be sentimental about.

Adam Thompson, whose short story collection Born into This is on my TBR, is the first book I’ve come across that is by an Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania.  Like Evelyn, he was wary of the label ’emerging young writer’ because it’s so important that Indigenous authors are supported to tell their stories at whatever age they feel ready to write them.  He’s not afraid to tackle difficult topics: one of his stories is about the divisive identity politics that are a feature of Indigenous Australian life in Tasmania.

The final session featured Andrew O’Hagan who is one of those writers whose books I buy and then don’t get round to reading.  So I haven’t bought Mayflies yet… but I am very tempted!  (Especially by Brona’s review here).

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible.

 


It was Day two of the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival today, and I’ve ‘zoomed’ it to listen to all day, while doing other things.  The highlights of the day for me were revisiting Pip Williams talking about her novel The Dictionary of Lost Words with Gillian O’Shaughnessy; hearing Julia Baird talking about her work Phosphorescence with Will Yeoman; and the conversation between Jane Caro, author of Accidental Feminists and Dr Robert Isaacs OAM, talking about his new memoir Two Cultures, One Story.

Jane Caro began by listing the achievements of this extraordinary man, and then he read from the opening pages.  We heard that, as a member of the Stolen generations, he began his adult life at seventeen when he was shown the door of Clontarf Boys Town and told never to come back — a life event that would have seen many young men go dreadfully stray — yet this treatment was followed by years of dedicated work on behalf of his people, and despite brutal treatment by the church, he still retains a strong faith.   He spoke very little about the hardships of his life, and credited Clontarf with giving him an education that has enabled his achievements.  He became one of the most influential bureaucrats in West Australian Aboriginal affairs, with an indefatigable determination to achieve his aims, starting ‘at the top’ whenever he had to!

Isaacs is now retired, but among his achievements include working in Aboriginal housing, establishing the state’s Aboriginal Medical Service, and becoming the first Aboriginal person elected to local government as a councillor for the City of Gosnells, eventually serving as deputy mayor.  He was named West Australian of the Year in 2015 and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016.  Isaacs is an Aboriginal Elder from the Whadjuk-Bibilmum Wardandi Noongar language group.

I have ordered the book and will write a proper review when I’ve read it.

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible.

One of the interesting aspects of the way readers have responded to the pandemic is that some were so discombobulated that they said they couldn’t read at all; some resorted to ‘comfort reading’; some devoured books about plagues such as Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and The Plague by Albert Camus; and others like me went out of their way to escape into other times and places where pandemics had no place.  So I am not quite sure what motivated me to buy a recent release from poet, novelist, academic and artist Véronique Tadjo from Côte d’Ivoire…

In the Company of Men is, in the words of blurber Christopher Merrill:

A spellbinding narrative about the roots and ravages of an Ebola outbreak and a reminder that deadly new diseases spreading from humankind’s encroachment on the natural world recognises no borders, political parties or faiths…essential reading.

Anyway, the book arrived from Readings, and it went on top of the T pile that has burst its banks on the shelves, and in a feeble attempt to stave off the threat of the pile toppling onto the floor, I took the first book from the top and started reading without really intending to read it now.

Sometimes, it’s really good to be wrong about things, and I’m glad I didn’t defer reading In the Company of Men.  Yes, there are distressing scenes, but they are not the entire focus of the novel, which is more about the issues that arise when highly transmissible diseases spread out of control.

Still, it’s confronting to read in Chapter II about the innocence of two boys larking about in the forest, who hunt and kill a bat and eat the bushmeat over a log fire, and are at death’s door a month later.  Most confronting of all is the response of the nurse:

He said to the father: “Whatever you do, stay away from your children.  Don’t touch them, don’t dry their tears.  Don’t take them in your arms.  Keep your distance from them. You’re in serious danger.  I’ll call in my team.” He scribbled a brief report in his notebook and hurried away to alert his superiors.  But the mother didn’t budge from her children’s bedside.  She wept as she caressed their faces and gave them sips of water to drink. (p.6)

This novella was first published in 2017 in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-16).  Although there had been outbreaks of catastrophically infectious diseases such SARS (2003) in China and MERS (2012) in the Middle East, for most of us the horror of this scene is something that happened somewhere else.  But now we are all familiar with reports of people dying alone, or nursed without human touch by people shrouded in plastic.  We have seen the grief of those unable to hold their loved ones and comfort them as they die.  We have learned that risking infection is not a matter of personal choice; preventative behaviours are mandated by law.

The novel, however, is not just a melancholy narrative about suffering and grief.  It explores the way people respond to events like this.  Part of the novel is narrated by Baobab, the first tree, which keeps the memory of centuries gone by, whether bruised or blessed by the gods.  It witnessed the damage done to nature and the way mankind has altered the equilibrium of the world.  It witnessed the way the rest of the world did it best to stay away while the epidemic wreaked devastation on Africa, a cradle of untold suffering.  It saw courage too, men, women and children determined to fight for their own survival and that of others […] people who did not think twice about offering help. The narratives also include an exhausted doctor, haunted by the death of a child; and a nurse who recognises that it’s women who are the worst affected […] because it usually falls on them to care for the sick and they’re the last to leave home and seek treatment.  She makes the connection between government choices and her ability to practise her profession:

I can’t say exactly how it happened.  How it was that my colleagues and I slowly, gradually, let our standards slip.  We started to compromise.  We began turning a blind eye to negligence.  We had no choice but to let our patients know that there was no more cotton wool, no more alcohol disinfectant, no more syringes, no more suturing thread.  It was up to them to buy those things, to send their family members to the nearest pharmacy in order to get what was needed.  At the same time, we knew perfectly well just by looking at them that they’d never be able to pay for even half of it.  They’d go to the pharmacy, but once they got to the cash register, they’d end up buying just the minimum, or just the cheapest items.

We took to the streets, staging public protests in order to force the government to adopt reforms.  All in vain. (pp.47-8)

Here in Australia at the advent of C_19, we were shocked to learn that we did not have enough ventilators and that we might not even have enough beds.  We no longer had the capacity to manufacture vaccines.  We were unprepared, we did not have what we needed, and there were delays in getting supplies.  After years of economic rationalism, it was the same all over the world.  The death rate in America, the richest country in the world, shocked us too.

In the Company of Men shows us that it’s not just rich, arrogant populist leaders who make decisions that exacerbate the crisis.  The gravedigger’s narrative shows us that India’s problems with cremation were foreseeable. It also shows us that there are men of great courage risking their own lives to try to protect the lives of others.

After the epidemic was officially declared, burials were undertaken by teams from both the government and the Red Cross.  But there was never enough manpower.  Sometimes it took several days before the bodies were picked up, increasing the risk of infection for the family members.  I heard that staff was being recruited and trained.  When the centre opened in this neighbourhood, I didn’t hesitate, I applied and got the job.  My mother didn’t approve.  I reminded her that I was available because the university had closed.  I explained to her that if we young people didn’t answer the call, the epidemic would never end.  I made it clear that it wasn’t because of the money I’d be earning that I had offered my services.  I love my country.  (p.52-3)

The novel shows the fierce desire to die at home; the panic; and the refusal to believe or cooperate with government messaging.  It shows the fear of contact with victims — and ostracization even after they have recovered. It explores the ethics of prioritising frontline workers for treatment; the problem of science versus traditional medicine and the need to use any strategy to persuade the reluctant to comply. And all the reactions we’ve seen in the media are foreshadowed: denial of the danger; downplaying the risks; delays in action; and faulty assumptions about the virus.  Closed borders and health checks and a slow and clunky bureaucratic response.  Lockdowns and outrage about the loss of personal freedoms.  Politicians obfuscating, taking credit for things they haven’t done, and making political mileage out of the situation.  The fractured families and the orphans.  The pleas for euthanasia.

And then there’s the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development unless there’s an actual market, in other words money to be made through the research and development of all these scientific methods.  

We continuously have various epidemics breaking out in one part of the world or another.  Which areas of research are the most promising?  For financial reasons, certain vaccines that have been developed have never made it to the crucial trial phase.  We have the ability to prevent Ebola from resurfacing, but does humanity truly have the will to make this happen? (p.109)

There are various initiatives to encourage university students and parliamentarians to read significant books.  I wonder what the impact would have been if In the Company of Men were mandated for reading by decision-makers.  Less complacency perhaps?

Author: Véronique Tadjo
Title: In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes)
Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen
Cover design by John Gall
Publisher: Other Press, 2021, first published 2017
ISBN: 9781635420951, pbk., 146 pages

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

2021 ALS Gold Medal Longlist

I’m delighted to see books I loved on this longlist!

The ones I’ve reviewed are Revenge; The Labyrinth; and The Fifth Season. The Rain Heron and Song of the Crocodile are on my TBR.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly some LitFests have abandoned the digital option.  Forgetting altogether that digital options make festival attendance possible for people living with disability, festival organisers have rejoiced in the joy of f2f attendance and jettisoned accessibility for others who can’t attend in person.  While this is disappointing for booklovers like me who enjoyed 2020 festivals in Edinburgh, Auckland and Adelaide, it’s more than disappointing for disabled people.  I did not realise how much this mattered until I read Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay.  I would like to see funding bodies make it a condition of the grants they make to festivals, that virtual attendance be routinely offered…

The Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, however, offered a 3-day Virtual Pass to all their events on their main stage.  This option meant that there were a couple of events that I couldn’t attend, but the compensation was a wealth of interesting sessions that I might not have selected if I had had the choice.  It would not have occurred to me to buy a ticket for book club discussions of a book, but it was excellent.

The book under discussion was Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on Stolen Land.  This is a call to and a guide to action for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.  This is the blurb:

Living on Stolen Land is a prose-styled look at our colonial-settler ‘present’. This book is the first of its kind to address and educate a broad audience about the colonial contextual history of Australia, in a highly original way. It pulls apart the myths at the heart of our nationhood, and challenges Australia to come to terms with its own past and its place within and on ‘Indigenous Countries’.

This title speaks to many First Nations’ truths; stolen lands, sovereignties, time, decolonisation, First Nations perspectives, systemic bias and other constructs that inform our present discussions and ever-expanding understanding. This title is a timely, thought-provoking and accessible read.

There is no part of this place
that was not
is not
cared for
loved
by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation
There are no trees
rivers
hills
stars
that were not
are not
someone’s kin

The panel was ably hosted by Megan McCracken and consisted of five members of book clubs (including one who called herself a ‘lapsed’ book club member).  They were invited to share their responses to a book which directly addresses non-Indigenous people and is deliberately confronting.

They began by considering Kwaymullina’s artwork on the front cover, which is critical to the first words of the book:

This story begins
with the tree on the cover
which shows futures

The roots go deep
down into the ground
because just futures
must be grounded in respectful relationships
with Indigenous peoples

The panel suggested that it’s not just that visual culture is important for Indigenous people, it’s a political statement, and it’s beautiful.  (So that encourages people to pick up the book and look at it.) It shows the connection between heaven and earth and there’s also a human form behind the tree.  But the title with the word ‘stolen’ on the cover is direct and confronting, and it is indicative of the book which is deliberately declarative.  One panellist said (in contrast to a reviewer who was quoted by Megan, who described the book as “gentle”) it felt like ‘a slap’ — not a violent one, but a wake-up call that sets the tone from the outset.  There is no ‘wriggle-room’, if you are not Indigenous, then you are told who you are, you are a ‘Settler’.

Those who are not Indigenous to this land
are Settlers
This does not mean
being part of peaceful settlement
It means
being part of settler-colonialism
a form of colonisation
where invaders came
and never left
Not like the places
where the colonising nation-states of Western Europe
established outposts
upended ancient governance structures
oppressed the peoples
stripped the land of wealth
but ultimately
went away (pp.3-4)

Settler-colonists never went away.

The panellists were unanimous that the manifesto is all true and uncomfortable to read and you can’t escape from your own racism. This is achieved partly by the verb tense: it directly addresses the individual reader, not a collective, and it repositions the power, taking it from the Settler and giving it to the Indigenous speaker (who is also a woman).  The structure of the lines that travel down the page to one word, shapes attention to the politics of it.   One panellist  felt that some people would reject it, and refuse to read it.

Asked if they thought the book achieved its aims, panellists agreed that it would, because it’s short, and the message is not lost in a longer narrative.  Every word has weight.  It’s also very suitable for younger readers who might be used to shorter texts and wouldn’t wade through something longer.

The poem titled ‘Behaviours’ describes common Settler behaviours:

  • the ones who talk the talk but don’t actually do anything;
  • the saviours who like to ‘rescue’ but are not interested in decolonisation
  • the discoverers, for whom Indigenous worlds only exist once they are recognised and/or appropriated by Settlers; and
  • the changemakers, who are unobtrusive supporters who step off stages and out of spotlights to offer support to Indigenous people to enter the places from which they’ve been excluded.  They don’t claim credit for Indigenous success because it doesn’t belong to them.

Change-makers understand
that colonisers occupy space
and decolonisers yield it (p.47)

Megan asked the difficult question here, and as you’d expect, all the panellists wanted to be changemakers, but there was a lively discussion about how to do it.  The last poem is titled ‘Ask how not what’ which offers guidance for respectful processes but as one of the panellists noted, this is about Indigenous ownership of projects and initiatives.  Unlike one of the panellists who worked with Indigenous women in prisons, we’re not all involved in such activities, and may not ever have the opportunity to have responsibility for, or input into them.

We do however, have other opportunities and responsibilities.  ‘Humility’ means taking responsibility for your own learning/doing your best/to be as informed as possible; ‘Listening’ means understanding silences and to call out barriers/of settler-colonialism/that prevent/Indigenous voices from speaking.  ‘Bias’ tells us to…

Seek out the works
of Indigenous authors
playwrights
dancers
singer
Elders
communities
Not one story
not two
all of them
It will take
hundreds of stories
many years of listening
to create change  (p.41)


One way to do that is to join Indigenous Literature Week here at ANZ LitLovers during NAIDOC Week in July.

Many thanks to the festival for making this excellent session accessible, and congratulations to the panel!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe

If you’re about my age, you’ll remember the brouhaha* over the purchase of the Jackson Pollock painting, ‘Blue Poles‘.  It was purchased by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam for $1.3 million dollars, now only the price of an ordinary suburban house in Melbourne or Sydney, but back then in 1973 it was an enormous sum of money.  The National Gallery of Australia hadn’t even been built, but it had a budget for collections, and Gough himself had to authorise the purchase because the cost was over the $1 million threshold.  And #understatement there was uproar…

Blue Poles (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia tells me that

The painting has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, for both its value as a major work of 1950s abstract expressionism, and its significance in Australian politics and history. Estimates of the painting’s present value vary widely, from $100 million to $350 million, but its increased value has at least shown it to have been a worthwhile purchase from a financial point of view.


This painting, a potent symbol of our cultural history, now has another claim to fame: it’s the narrator of a strange, mesmerising novella by Sydney author Angela O’Keeffe.

The book is an amazing feat of imagination.  Consider: how can an author tell the story of a painting, narrated by that painting?  (Assuming you can conceptualise the idea of a painting having the capacity to narrate its own story anyway).  What does it know, in order to relate its story? The first conception of itself in the artist’s mind?  The gradual emergence of the work from the materials used? Its exhibition, its storage, its transportation, the places where it hangs before it reaches its final destination?  Scraps of information about its owners, the people who view it, the guards and the guides who say things in its presence, or whose behaviour enables inferences to be made?

But then there’s the indefinable essence of the painting, the question of what it means to the artist who created it, and the ones who trade in it; finance and buy it; think it’s important for Australians to have it and those who think that Whitlam should have bought Australian art instead.  There’s its place alongside Indigenous art which has a history going back for millennia.  ‘Blue Poles’ is a huge painting, 2.1 m x 4.86 m.  It’s not possible to ignore.  But what does it say about us, that it has such a prominent place in our national gallery?

Part 2 of the novella is narrated by Alyssa, who is an assistant restorer of the painting.  She’s too young to comprehend the sense of betrayal, loss and lifelong disillusionment that The Dismissal caused, but she does understand that her father was hurt by the ousting of the man who made such a profound statement about the importance of art.  She also understands that politics is not as irrelevant as might be supposed by some.

Alyssa is doing her PhD on the women in Pollock’s life: Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Alyssa is a feminist, who’s convinced that these women, like other women artists throughout history, were overshadowed by Pollock’s fame.  She thinks he wasn’t worthy of that fame, and she’d like to find something that ‘proves’ that.  She knows that there are footprints visible in the first layers of paint. In her narrative, she addresses the painting…

Are you aware of it?  It is mostly obscured by layers and lines of paint.  My friend told me about it when I first got the job in the storage room.  She knew exactly where in you it was situated, but I would never let her tell me.  I wanted to find it for myself.  But in all the times I visited you I never did.

I believed that finding that footprint would prove that Jackson was unfit for the status he’d acquired — prove it to me, that was.  You see, the new freedom that I carried around was underpinned by a belief that women artists were historically undervalued, under-recognised.  It’s impossible to deny it.  But just because a thing is true doesn’t mean that the way you go about proving it — that is, the dogged obsession that becomes like a tic — is the best way.  I knew all along that finding that footprint was no proof of anything other than that Jackson painted shoeless.  From the start, there was nothing rational about that search. (p.73)

These meditations on art, artists, gender, politics, the purpose and meaning of her research, and her personal life have an intimacy that is irresistible.  One of her disappointments is conveyed so vividly that readers will feel her devastation too.

Night Blue is one of the most interesting works of fiction that I’ve read so far this year, and it’s a real treat for those who love fiction about art and artists.

*I had never heard the word ‘brouhaha‘ until Margaret Whitlam used it (in a different context).  It’s one of my favourite words to express my opinion of the tabloid journalism which plagues our news services these days.

Author: Angela O’Keeffe
Title: Night Blue
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760675, pbk., 141 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and good bookshops everywhere

Image credit: Blue Poles (digitalization of Blue Poles (original title: Number 11, 1952), an abstract painting from 1952 by the American artist Jackson Pollock, Wikipedia) “By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35971938”

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2021

From a Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan

This stunning novel was recommended to me by Becky from Becky’s Books and it was only after I’d read it and sorted my thoughts that I discovered that Kate from Books are My Favourite and Best had reviewed it too…

Written in three entirely separate narratives brought together in a concluding chapter, From and Low and Quiet Sea tells the story of three men unknown to each other.  Farouk is a doctor who fled ISIS in Syria; Lampy is troubled young Irishman with a broken heart; and John is a chancer who made an art form of bearing false witness against his neighbours.  His narration is told first person, as a penitent seeking absolution for a wicked life.

The author’s choice to place Farouk’s tragic story first makes Lampy’s heartbreak seem initially to be less calamitous.  Being dumped by a girlfriend and having a lack-lustre job with no future is a commonplace, but in Ryan’s compassionate hands the reader sees that grief, no matter how it’s caused, is devastating.  Both Farouk and Lampy struggle to articulate their feelings and can’t ‘move on’ at the pace that life so heartlessly seems to demand.  Their losses and the hopes they refuse to discard are always in their thoughts.  In Lampy’s case, this failure to attend to the here-and-now is catastrophic; for Farouk, it impacts on his chances for resettlement and his relationships within the refugee camp.

Are there readers who feel compassion for John?  It’s hard to do that when reading his narrative, noting that his repentance is triggered only by thoughts of his impending death in the confessional fine and wide, not like the upright coffins sometimes used.  Even though he had his travails, not the least the unexpected death of his much-loved and admired brother, John is a low-life, one who takes what he wants, with violence if it suits him.  It is only in the concluding pages when the threads of this narrative come together that the horror of his death is revealed… and no one deserves a death like that.  Even Lampy would not have wished it on him.

This is not a book to read in haste, and it bears re-reading well.

Author: Donal Ryan
Title: From a Low and Quiet Sea
Publisher: Transworld, Penguin, UK, PRH, 2018
ISBN: 9781781620304, pbk., 182 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 

To be honest, as I always try to be here, I don’t know what the fuss is about this novel.  Carofiglio is apparently a best-selling author in Italy.

This is the blurb:

Antonio is on the cusp of adulthood, trying to work out who to be and what to do. His father, once a brilliant mathematician, hasn’t figured much in his son’s life since the divorce from Antonio’s mother, a beautiful and elusive woman. A diagnosis of epilepsy and hope for a cure takes father and son to Marseille, where they must spend two days and two nights together, without sleep. In a foreign city, under strained circumstances, they get to know each other and connect for the first time.

Elegant, warm and tender, set against the vivid backdrop of 1980s Marseille and its beautiful calanquesThree O’Clock in the Morning is an unforgettable story about illusions and regret, about talent and the passage of time and, most of all, about love.

Three O’clock in the Morning is just another *yawn* relationship story, about a father and an adolescent son reconnecting when they’ve been somewhat estranged after the marital breakdown some years before.   Over a 48 hour period without sleep (for a ridiculous reason) they have deep-and-meaningful conversations.  They eat, they go to bars, a party and they visit a porn shop in a Marseilles for which some might feel nostalgia.  It’s not entirely plotless. Other things happen that I won’t mention in order to avoid spoilers.

It’s another book with the central message is that it’s a good idea to communicate.

It’s another book that shows that, no, we’re not very good at it.

It’s possibly a fantasy depicting the author’s yearning for a similar kind of father-son relationship, either as a father himself or as a son.  A could-have-been— should-have-been— so different version of his own or his father’s failures.

Is that all there is?  Have I missed something?

(I did notice the inclusion of a character making racist remarks about the advent of people of colour in Marseilles. Unnecessary, IMO).

(I also noticed the shame attributed to the initial diagnosis, and that there is no need to address this shaming because lo! the boy is cured.)

The reviewer at Kirkus Reviews thinks differently:

Here those dark nights arrive with shimmering, unforced beauty, filling the pages with jagged moonlight like the finest neorealist film.

A journey by foot: crisp, lean, yet quietly mournful.

You can read an excerpt here, to see what you think…

Onto the next book!

Author: Gianrico Carofiglio
Title: Three O’clock in the Morning (Le tre del amttino)
Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2021, first published in 2017
ISBN: 9781922268792, pbk., 212 pages
Source: Kingston Library

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