Monthly Archives: February 2013

Klaus Hagerup, Markus + Diana

Klaus Hagerup, Markus + Diana (1997, English translation by Tara Chase, Front Street 2006)

1932425594Klaus Hagerup is evidently a well known playwright, screenwriter and writer for children and teenagers in Norway. This book, whose original title translates literally as Markus and Diana and Light from Sirius, was the first of a popular series featuring 13-year-old Markus Simonsen. I don’t remember who recommended it to me, but I’m grateful to them.

The evocation of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet in the English title isn’t completely arbitrary: Shakespeare’s play is mentioned, but it would be a bit of a stretch to call this a tale of star-crossed lovers, or even a love story.

Markus and his friend Sigmund are fringe-dwellers among their peers, Markus because he is timid and awkward and a bully-magnet, Sigmund because he is supremely confident of his own genius and all-round superiority. As readers, we get to be deeply embarrassed by our association with them but – I’m sure Henry James said something about this being the purpose of fiction – we don’t have to suffer the consequences that association would have in real life. Markus writes highly imaginative (that is to say, lying) letters to celebrities cajoling their autographs for his vast collection. The Diana of the title is a glamorous Hollywood soapie star – Markus writes to her pretending to be a millionaire and things get weird when she writes an unexpectedly personal letter in response.

It’s very funny, carried mainly by the dialogue and the series of hilariously implausible letters. Teachers preside obliviously over a scene of mob cruelty; early teenagers struggle to master the arts of adult behaviour, and mostly fail ingloriously; boys on the cusp of puberty are fascinated by a glimpse of nipple in a photograph or through thin cloth. A lot of the time you don’t know whether to laugh at the characters or suffer with them. Mostly I did both, and in the end when – improbably expectedly, and cleverly – things turn out for the best, I wanted to cheer.

Anna Funder’s All that I Am

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Penguin Australia 2011)

1atia I read the first of this book’s three sections to the Art Student on the car trip from Airey’s Inlet in Victoria to Sydney. Given my proofreader past, this can be a punishing way to encounter a book – few things disrupt a book’s spell more than a reader-aloud complaining about misspellings, malapropisms, mixed metaphors, misquotes, or awkward turns of phrase. Embarrassing sex scenes will do it too (we may never get over The Slap). All That I Am stood up to the ordeal well, and we both enjoyed the trip. Mind you, the reading wasn’t disrupted by tears or cries of joy either. And I couldn’t tell at that stage whether hearing myself reading it all aloud made the different narrators’ voices sound much the same.

As everyone probably knows by now, the novel’s main characters were part of the left opposition to Hitler. Alternate chapters are told by Ernst Toller, a playwright and activist, dictating additions to his memoir in a New York hotel room in 1939, and Ruth Becker, a retired school teacher experiencing vivid memories in Bondi Junction in 2001. As both of them think back over their lives and their relationships, their shared story unfolds. Ruth, we are told in a note at the back, is based on a friend of the author. Ernst Toller was a real person, and so are the other main characters: Hans Wesemann, Berthold Jacob and the woman at the heart of the story, Dora Fabian.

Dora is a brilliant, charismatic, passionate revolutionary. She is Ruth’s adored cousin and intimate friend, and she is Toller’s assistant and the love of his life. Our narrators don’t have much to do with each other, but Dora has been central to both their lives. Through Ruth we see snatches of her childhood and later those parts of her activism that don’t revolve around Toller. Toller is very much the centre of his own world, both as the public figure Dora calls the Great Toller and as the private ma prone to depression and self doubt, but in 1939 he is acknowledging how important Dora has been to him in both spheres.

It’s a gripping yarn that takes us from the immediate aftermath of World War One to the brink of World War Two, with Ruth’s old age as a kind of integrated coda. I learned a lot about the resistance to Hitler in Germany and elsewhere, particularly  England. I can’t say that I was swept away by the story itself, but a slow burning emotional truth comes through about the importance of resistance, even in the face of apparently sure defeat: one of the characters says that they will all be forgotten by history, and it’s true that the Germans who opposed the rise of Hitler at huge cost to themselves tend to be ignored in popular versions of that history. The book captures brilliantly the gradual transformation of a group of revolutionaries who see their conflict with the Nazis, not necessarily as evenly matched, but at least on a scale that allows for cheerful awwbadge_2013derision, to their final condition as a dispossessed, demoralised group crying out from the margins and betrayed by those they held dearest. (I’m not giving you any spoilers there: most people know how that panned out.)

So that’s my second book in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. So far, so very good.

Daredevil, Batman and Sacco

Mark Waid, Paolo M Rivera, Marcos Martin, Daredevil (Marvel 2012)
Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke (©2008, deluxe Edition 2012)
Joe Sacco, Journalism (Metropolitan Books 2011)

It’s roughly 40 years since alcohol touched my lips, and booze is right at the top of my list of Boring Conversation Topics, but I was recently held spellbound by a conversation about wine making. My dinner companion was infectiously passionate on the subject. He described the effect of a vineyard’s microclimate on the colour and taste of grapes, and so of wine, discussed the qualities of different grapes, told me about a famous episode in which Australian vintners who had thought for years they were producing merlot were informed by experts that their grapes were actually a variety of cabernet. Wine may be boring, but the minds that make it aren’t.

The experience helped me with a confusion about superhero comics: clearly many of them are created by brilliant people, and I’ve been bemused by my own lack of response. Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602? Technically, wow! Otherwise, meh. Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men? Meh. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight? I couldn’t bring myself to read it because I’d been so repelled by the sensibility of Sin City. Superhero comics leave me cold, or worse: they embody an ethos I loathe, that divides the world into good guys and bad guys and offers vigilantism as the solution to the world’s problems. What I have finally realised is that I should no more enjoy even the very best of superhero comics than feel compelled to drink the finest of champagnes. I’m just not into the thing itself.

But I was given two excellent superhero comics for Christmas, so I was in duty bound to read them, and I did it with hope in my heart.

0785152385 Daredevil is a superhero with a disability: he’s blind, though all his other senses are of course incredibly acute, and he has one or two extras. He also suffers a lot – everybody, including other well-meaning superheroes, wants to attack him. He’s socially awkward and apparently sex-obsessed in a fairly harmless way. Apparently comics about him have been around for a long time, and this is a reboot. Much fun is had in finding ways to convey visually the world as perceived by a blind man. But in the end he’s a superhero, the story moves from violent confrontation to violent confrontation, and my world is not expanded by reading it.

1bkjAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is by all accounts one of the great Batman comics, often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and in this ‘Deluxe Edition’ the colours are printed as Brian Bolland intended them to be. Alan Moore is a brilliant story-teller (his Watchmen is the exception among superhero comics that has kept me reading them until now), and this may be the first Batman story where it’s explicit that superheroes and supervillains are two sides of the same coin – both, in the Joker’s words, ‘had a bad day and everything changed’. But the hallucinatory world of this comic, though brilliantly created and with added ‘psychological’ complexity, is still at base, to me, boring and even obnoxious.

0805094865I was going to blog separately about the third comic I got for Christmas, Joe Sacco’s Journalism, but Sacco belongs here because he is a bit of a real-world hero. He takes his pencil and notebook into dangerous places, asks awkward questions and keeps his eyes open, then turns what he has heard and seen and thought into powerful journalistic comics (the language is problematic – comics in this context have nothing to do with comedy, but what else can you call them?).

I haven’t read his most celebrated book, Palestine, but his Footnotes in Gaza deals with a 1956 massacre – not a footnote to anything, but an exploration of deaths and beatings that usually remain mere footnotes to history. Journalism collects disparate shorter pieces, so it doesn’t have the same concerted power, but it shines a powerful light in a number of dark and dangerous corners of the world.

Endnotes to each of the six sections – ‘The Hague’, ‘The Palestinian Territories’, ‘The Caucasus’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Migration’ and ‘India’ – give brief accounts of first publication in Time, the New York Times, the Guardian Weekend and so on, managing to hint at the uneasy status of this kind of journalism. The last two sections, consisting of one longer piece each, represent a blow struck for respectability, the first being published by the Virginia Quarterly Review, described on its web site as ‘a haven—and home—for the best essayists, fiction writers, and poets’, and the second in the French magazine XXI, which Sacco says is ‘the publishing industry’s greatest champion of comics reportage’. (The Indian piece, ‘Kushinagar’, has appeared in the VQR since its publication in this collection, and you can read excerpts on the New York Review of Books site, here. Part of the other longer piece, ‘Unwanted’, about ‘irregular immigrants’ to Malta, is available on the VQR site, here.)

Sacco is a journalist: he identifies his sources and is punctilious about giving more than one point of view. When he describes the appalling destruction being visited on Palestinian communities by the Israeli Defence Force, he seeks comments from Israeli spokespeople. The incredible hardships endured by Chechens in refugee camps are weighed against the policies described by the Russian authorities. In Kushinagar, we hear from the desperately deprived Dalits, but also from the Rajahs’ descendants who exploit them and a government official who cites the laws that are in place to protect them. But, even more than a photo essay or a TV documentary, both of which derive a dubious objectivity from our lingering belief that the camera never lies, comics journalism is unavoidably personal. IMG_0112Sacco may draw from photographs, but every image in the book is made by his hand and therefore personal. He makes no pretence at omniscient objectivity: a cartoony version of himself is omnipresent – awkward, responsive, questioning, dogged, alert, engaged.

So, does comics journalism have more than novelty value? Well, Sacco takes as long as four years to create a book, and has spent years living hand to mouth in order to commit himself to this work, so clearly it has value for him. And it does for me too. I doubt if I would have read a conventional article on African asylum seekers in Malta or extreme poverty in the Kushinagar District of Uttar Pradesh in India – too far from home, too many other claims on my attention. Presented as comics, the stories become supremely accessible. It’s a lot easier to follow a complex analysis while keeping sight of details when the material is presented in what the French call récit graphique.

I found ‘Unwanted’ particularly resonant. Malta has a population of 400,000. By August 2009, 12,500 people desperate to reach Europe ‘have washed up on the island’s shore’ as ‘irregular immigrants’ from Africa, mostly sub-Saharan Africa. That’s three percent of the population compared, say, to the minuscule proportion of Australia’s population that arrive here as asylum seekers. The two situations are very different, but the similarities are striking.

Saccopage153

The strength of the piece lies in the stories told to Sacco by the African immigrants: stories of why they left home, of what they hoped for (mostly to make their way to mainland Europe), and the reality of what they faced in detention and then as ‘freedoms’, released into the community – and in the juxtaposition of these stories with the responses of Maltese people, ranging from virulent racism (a small minority), through degrees of intolerance and discomfort, to compassion and advocacy (another minority).

Sacco created this piece on Malta partly because he comes from there. It turns out he spent most of his childhood in Australia before moving to the USA. One can only wonder what he would make of the dark but not so hidden features of our landscape.

Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows

Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette Australia 2011)

1psI had three compelling reasons for fast-tracking Past the Shallows to the top of my TBR pile. Favel Parrett is a friend of my novelist niece, Edwina Shaw, and Edwina gave me the book as a Christmas present (‘Read it and weep,’ she said). I met Favel at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last year, for this book was shortlisted, and was charmed. And I’ve recently signed up with the Australian Women Writers Challenge to read a certain quota of AWWs in 2013. And there was an additional softener: it’s short.

awwbadge_2013 The book tells the story of three brothers and their father, who makes a marginal living as a dubiously legal abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. The action unfolds in the long shadow cast by the death of the boys’ mother in a car accident some years earlier, and is seen in alternating chapters through the eyes of the two younger brothers, Miles and Harry. It’s Tim Winton territory: brothers growing up with the splendour and terror of the sea, in a family racked by emotional turmoil. Maybe I shouldn’t put the mockers on a young writer by saying so out loud, but I found the people and the world of this novel more convincing, more demanding of my compassion, than I ever have Winton’s; and the writing is more direct, draws attention to itself less, and allows for broader sympathies. The father is violent, irrational and dangerous, but neither the boys nor we lose sight of the grinding forces and bitter blows that have made him that way. The ocean is a place of pleasure and exhilarating challenge – Miles goes surfing with the eldest brother, Joe, while Harry hunts for treasures in the tidewrack. But it’s also the site of hardship, as in Miles’s exhausting work on his father’s abalone boat, and terror, especially in a climactic storm scene. You could probably read the book as a meditation on the ocean, with the human story there just to keep us reading: Favel Parrett writes about surfing, seamanship and heavy seas with a kind restrained precision that manages to suggest, and – very occasionally – explicitly invoke something like awe.

I haven’t mentioned the boys’ ages. It’s a measure of the book’s fineness that we’re not told how old they are until maybe halfway into the story. Instead, we’re left to work it out for ourselves from their preoccupations, their different strategies or dealing with the poverty and neglect, and their different degrees of vulnerability and protectiveness, innocence and savvy, openness and quiet desperation.

Terrible things happen in this story, and there are a number of revelations about terrible things in the past, but for me the book’s emotional power doesn’t lie there so much as in the brothers’ mutual tenderness, and even then not so much in the big moments – which are operatic in scale, but not overblown in the telling – as in tiny, poignant gestures.

My copy has half a dozen stickers on the cover boasting of prizes and shortlistings. I concur with all those judging panels. It also has pages of notes up the back for book groups. I didn’t read them: does anyone really want to have a questionnaire waiting for them when they emerge back into the shallows from deeps like this?

The Book Group, Paul Ham and Hiroshima Nagasaki

Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki (HaperCollins 2011)

1hnBefore the Group meeting: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book at Gleebooks early last year. He described it as narrative history, aiming to tell the story of what happened in the lead-up to dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the aftermath, paying attention to what the various players knew and understood as events unfolded, as opposed to their later accounts. He focused on the phrase ‘the least abhorrent alternative’ used by the US leadership after the fact. It encapsulates the official version of events that is not borne out by the records: in fact, he said, no other alternative was ever seriously considered. And, he said at that Gleebooks event, the record puts the lie to received wisdom that the atomic bombs saved as many as a million lives by bringing about an immediate Japanese surrender: the Japanese leadership in fact barely discussed the bombs at all, but were despertely alarmed by Russia’s entry into the Pacific War. Yet Ham dissociated himself from ‘revisionist’ histories that saw the US use of the bombs as knowingly unnecessary. I bought a copy of the book and was looking forward to reading it, so I was very glad that someone proposed it for the book group.

I finished it with days to spare before the meeting, but other demands on my time meant I didn’t get to write anything. I found it completely gripping – one night in bed, reading accounts of Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped, I gasped involuntarily at least three times, interrupting the Art Student’s beauty sleep.

The meeting: There were nine of us, including one of the Founding Fathers who had been away for more than a year while finishing a degree, and the other Founding Father who has more or less moved to Darwin, but managed to be in town that night. The book generated a lot of discussion over soup, salad and sausages, with a backyard pond full of frogs as background music. I think it made a deep impression on each of us: it confronted us with our ignorance /amnesia about the Allies’ ‘terror bombing’ of Hamburg and Dresden, and of 60 Japanese cities including Tokyo; one guy who always wants us, as an all-male group, to talk about masculinity, found plenty of grist for that mill; there was rumination on the ‘anything can happen’ theme. Basically, we reminded each other of what was in the book rather than getting into controversy. One of us confessed to having bashed people’s ears about it over Christmas meals. Another said that a friend who hadn’t read the book dismissed it as being akin to the sloppy macho war histories produced by a Household Name (unnamed here because I haven’t read any of his work) – but none of us felt it matched that description. We did discuss briefly the absence of any exploration of the US’s insulting treatment of Japan in the decades leading up to Pearl Harbor, and wondered if we would have responded any differently from the Japanese people who were in thrall to the propaganda urging mass honorable suicide, or from the US people who cheered with no misgivings the mass killing wrought in their name. Someone said that he enjoyed books that were beautifully written; I felt that this is such a book, but he meant something different.

It was one of the best nights we’ve had in the group.

After the meeting: Geoffrey McSkimming, creator of the much-loved Cairo Jim–Jocelyn Osgood books for young people, once told me he has a rule that there need to be three good gags a page (Geoffrey, if you read this, please correct me if I misremember). Hiroshima Nagasaki keeps this rule, except it does it with interesting/devastating details or revelatory flashes rather than gags.

When I mentioned the three-gag rule at the meeting, someone mistook me to mean I loved the accumulation of facts and statistics, which he said (and I agreed) did sometimes become onerous. I was thinking rather of the kind of moment that strikes a spark of emotion or insight, or sets you googling to find out more about someone or something mentioned in passing. I decided to do a little test. I chose a page at random by tossing coins: 2 heads, 6 heads, 3 heads – page 263.

263

This is a key point in the narrative. The Allies have issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ruin and destruction. The Japanese leadership consider it, but the hawkish, ‘samurai’ side carries the day, and the Prime Minister reluctantly issues a statement saying they ignore the declaration as beneath consideration – the Japanese concept is mokusatsu. This is interpreted in the West as a rejection of the ultimatum, and plans to drop the new bomb are greenlighted. All that is interesting in itself: the page is a good example of how the book’s narrative drive. But how about he three-gag rule? I think it holds up.

One: It may be idiosyncratic of me, but I find that parenthesis at the top of the page riveting. Arguably the most important meeting of the Japanese leadership and one of the two men arguing against suicidal defiance just happened to be absent. Can history really turn on such tiny hinges?

Two: Though the linguistic/cultural titbit about mokusatsu has been introduced on the previous page (along with the equally interesting haragei or ‘stomach art’), here the ‘gag’ is the tragic lost-in-translation effect of those US headlines hot on the heels of t he various literal versions of Suzuki’s words.

Three: The aphoristic punch of ‘The Japanese resolve to continue fighting was a depressing example of the triumph of hope over experience.’

It may not be up there with the page that tells us what the Hiroshima bombing crew did on their return to base, but it fits the rule.

It’s a solid book, with a hideous subject, based on original research and painstaking trawling through archives, and managing at the same time to be a lively, at times appalling read. It sits happily on my mental book shelf with Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the global Colour Line, which gives some perspective on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; Robin Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine, about Australian occupying forces stationed near Hiroshima after the war; and The Boneman of Kokoda, an example of an extraordinary individual’s way of living honorably with his part in Japan’s war history..