Every Secret Thing

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing (UQP 2009)

I read this immediately after The Tree of Man. I’ll wait to post about the latter until we’ve discussed it at the Book Group  – enough for now to tell you that it was Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint that prompted me to follow White’s novel with one by an Aboriginal writer.

The books have more in common that you might expect – mainly a contempt for Irish Catholics and selected white middle-class people of whatever religio-ethnic background – but where White’s contempt is accompanied by patrician amusement, attacking from on high, Maria Munkara’s, behind its veneer of cheerfully knockabout calumny, is fuelled by powerful sorrow and rage at the damage done by missionaries.

In fact, scrap the word ‘cheerful’ in that last paragraph. The opening chapters have the form of rough humour as they introduce the people of ‘the Mission’  – the ‘mission mob’ of priest, brothers and nuns and the ‘bush mob’ whom they are out to convert. But from the beginning we are told of endemic sexual abuse and corruption, and  the humour comes with such heavy sarcasm that it’s hard to find it actually funny. For example, when some boys are disobeying the nuns while their parents are standing by, the nuns have an inkling that they may be encountering deliberate resistance rather than incidental lack of cooperation, ‘but they all knew that the bush mob were God-fearing people with a deep and abiding respect for the mission and its papally sanctioned quest to strip them of every vestige of their culture so they would never be defiant now, would they?’ The whites of the Mission are mostly presented in unforgiving caricature – closed-minded, arrogantly confident of their own superiority, sexually predatory (the men) or quietly lustful (the women). The Aboriginal characters aren’t treated much more kindly. They’re rough, pragmatic, disorganised, venal, and only slightly more fleshed out than the non-Aboriginal – but there’s no doubt where the book’s sympathies lie.

The book progresses mainly in a series of skits: the children ask the visiting Bishop curly questions about Christian teachings, the old man of the bush mob helps an anthropologist fill his notebooks with misinformation, a couple of French Hippies arrive in a shipwreck, a cyclone virtually destroys the Mission when the mission mob disregard the warnings of the bush mob, and so on. It takes a while for the narrative gears to mesh, and when they do it’s not so much that the sarcastic caricaturing lets up as that a deeper current asserts itself, and we begin to understand that we are reading about an appalling spiritual tragedy. The moments where the narrative voice tells it straight are incredibly powerful, as at the point when the bush mob have been ‘dying in droves’ from a flu that has only mildly inconvenienced the missionaries, and are persuaded to convert en masse not only to Christianity but also to Western materialism, mainly in the form of cast off clothes. The narrator comes out into the open:

The almighty God that most of the bush mob now believed in was nothing more than the grim reaper of human souls with the mission mob as his helpers and the cast-offs the sad compensation for the relinquishment of their own beliefs. And even though the tenth commandment mentioned that you shouldn’t covet your neighbour’s house or wife or donkey or anything else, the church must have decided that coveting someone’s soul was an entirely different matter. And even though the eighth commandment stated quite clearly that it was very naughty to steal, the mission mob ignored this too and stole the things that were dearest to the bush mob’s heart. They stole their resistance to change and they stole their belief in themselves and they stole their children. Because each black soul that was harvested and each child that was appropriated was another rung higher up the ladder to heaven for Father and his crew and another step closer to salvation from this cesspool of earthly temptation and sin.

In a chapter where a stolen child finds her way back to the community as an adult, the tone lurches from silly farce on a crab hunt to plainspoken desolation when the narrator again intervenes. The final moments of the book are as devastating as you’re likely to read anywhere.

Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award as a manuscript and then in February this year it won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award. In an interview on Awaye in February, Marie Munkara said her story had ‘little wisps of truth and huge bits of embellishment’. The book makes no claims to be a historical record, but the truths it tells are a far cry from wispy.

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