Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup (©1974, Nelson 1977)
I mooched this because it’s on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What list, her personal selection of Australian works ‘that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis’. It’s a great list, including movies, short poems, a long poem, a biography, short stories, novels … and I’m willing to be guided.
I feel warmly towards Thea Astley because she contributed indirectly to a lovely moment in my family. In the 1970s I heard her tell of a conversation with Patrick White. ‘Thea,’ she wheezed in what we young ones understood to be an impersonation of the Great Man, ‘if you’re going to write about a shit, you have to make him a monumental shit.’ I don’t know what possessed me, but some months later in north Queensland I relayed that line to my parents, in whose presence the word ‘shit’ generally created at best a shocked silence – maybe I thought the highbrow context would excuse the crudity. This time, it provoked my father to a rare moment of reminiscence and the only time I can remember him ‘swearing’ in my mother’s company: ‘When I was at school, the football coach would tell us the day before a big match, “Tonight I want you to have a big shit, and when I say big I mean twice around the pan with a curl on top,”‘ and he cackled like a naughty schoolboy. He was in his sixties, as I am now.
So I was warmly disposed to this book. The warmth soon evaporated: it’s not a book that asks for affection. Yet, oddly enough, an erasure of my first paragraphs is suggestively relevant:
… her personal selection of … Patrick White … I don’t know what possessed … north Queensland … a shocked silence … provoked … reminiscence … ‘swearing’ … in his sixties
That is to say, Patrick White’s magisterial presence is tangible from the opening sentence (‘This world is the unreality, he thinks between smiles and frowns over the letter’); the novel is set in north Queensland, and the main characters are sexagenarians raging, or keeping silent, about horrible events from 2o years earlier.
In the book’s present time, early in the twentieth century, people are returning to a small NQ town for a ‘Back to the Taws’ celebration. One of the returning townsfolk, Dorahy, was the teacher in the one-classroom school in days past when a number of Aboriginal people were murdered – or ‘dispersed’, to use the weasel word of the time. Dorahy was outraged back then, both by the massacre itself, which he had tried to stop, and by the magistrate’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to hold anyone to account. The men responsible for the massacre are now leading citizens gladhanding their way to an election of some sort, and Dorahy is determined to shatter the complacent silence about the past.
The massacre, which occurs at the book’s midpoint, is shockingly real, not with Tarantinesque buckets of blood but with a horrible frozen moment of realisation. The book’s real interest, however, is in how such an event is to be remembered. In a way, it prefigures the History Wars of the John Howard years, though Thea Astley’s imagination wasn’t up to inventing a Keith Windschuttle who would survey the evidence and then deny the history, or a slogan as pernicious as Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’. When the voices that try to recall the history are silenced here, it is with ruthless brutality.
As an honourable attempt to face up squarely to white Australia’s black history, this makes an interesting comparison to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Both books have good whites and bad whites; in both, the bad whites are less well educated, though in Astley’s they are pillars of society where Grenville’s are a ruffianly lot; in both, the good whites who aren’t victimised along with the massacred Aborigines either collude or are ineffectual. Strangely, in Astley’s book, although we are shown the massacre very clearly, all the fuss twenty years later is about the hideous treatment of the one white who actually raised a finger to protect the threatened Aborigines. Perhaps this is a matter of being true to the times – perhaps a hundred or so years ago even people of conscience felt the torture of one white man to be a greater outrage than the massacre of eight Aboriginal men and women. Perhaps it was just not possible to look a genocidal incident full in the face in a novel.1 Or perhaps the chilling effect of the book’s last line is no accident. (Stop reading now if you hate spoilers.) The three men who have sought to reveal the truth from twenty years before are lying outside the town hall, battered, perhaps dead or dying, while ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is being sung inside ‘in nostalgic untruth’, as a deliberate turning of a blind eye to the ugly history:
Full-throatedly, the audience joins in the singing and roars chorus after chorus.
___It has almost forgotten the victims already.
In the immediate moment, ‘the victims’ are the three men. The way I read the phrase, though, it’s a brilliant piece of authorial restraint: the reader is left to ponder the phrase’s wider, deeper reach, with a sickening sense that the narrative voice, too, has ‘almost’ forgotten. It’s the opposite of being lectured at.
1Interestingly enough, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell takes the dislocation a step further, dealing with a massacre by North Queensland Aborigines.