Monthly Archives: August 2013

Ngurrumbang at the AFF

I’m thrilled to learn that Ngurrumbang is screening at the Adelaide Film Festival. It’s part of Australian Heat, a session of four short films at 9.15 pm on 15 october. The other films are River Water (written and directed by Sara West), Summer Suit (directed by Bec Peniston-Bird, written by Francesca Sciacca) and The Hunter (directed by Margaret Harvey, written by Cameron Costello).

The Festival blurb says:

Tough, wild, brutal or haunting these shorts pack punch and are as scorching as the land that spawned them.

Southerly 73/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination

1spiRoughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.

Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:

Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.

This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.

Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:

Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.

Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.

The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.

Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.

Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.

There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.

Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.

‘weapons of mass distraction’

The US politician Anthony Weiner outdid even Shane Warne or Peter Slipper in having sexting behaviour exposed to the harsh glare of public scrutiny. A recent issue of  New York City newspaper The Villager has an article by K Webster, ‘Wounded Weiner just a symptom of society’s isolation‘, that looks past the scandalousness of it all to what it means about men in our societies. Given that very few of my readers are likely to read The Villager, I thought I’d point you to it:

Men are set up to be isolated. Thus they are often plagued by a seemingly endless quest to staunch insecurity and loneliness through some version of sexual contact. Too often, the search winds up landing them in the arena of the sexual exploitation of women. Lots of guys are derailed by the billion-dollar sex industry (or by self-driven intrigues) while seeking the very real human need for touch. Usually it ends in settling for the illusion of contact — a numbing or briefly satisfying relief.

Anthony Weiner got busted for his oddly disconnected effort at connection. Although self-driven, it happened in the context of a highly sexualized society that keeps men manipulated and preoccupied.

Profit seekers deliberately and increasingly entwine sex with the hardwired need for closeness. It sells. It tantalizes. It promises excitement in a seemingly dreary landscape. But despite the ads, commerce really doesn’t belong in between two people’s liking/loving/wanting each other. And trying to use the act itself or hints of it to avoid loneliness is a bit of a dodge. In a better world, the use of sex as a weapon of mass distraction would be seen for the aberration it is. Sex can give us back our sense of closeness, the goodness of life and passion. But really, when the sex is good, it almost wasn’t the point.

The rest is here.

(Footnote: I accidentally uploaded this from my iPad when it was just a title. That minimal post provoked a comment about Syria: which makes me think that K Webster’s description of the porn industry as a weapon of mass distraction has profound implications. Imagine if the time and attention currently soaked up by porn was directed to, say, creating world peace, preserving the environment, ending racism … !)

Ali Alizadeh’s Ashes and Brendan Doyle’s Bicycles

Ali Alizadeh, Ashes in the Air (UQP 2011, 2013)
Brendan Doyle, Glass Bicycles (Ginninderra Press 2012)

I needed books to read on a long plane trip and in the interstices of the conference at the end of the trip. These two jumped off the bookshop shelves, Brendan Doyle’s because I knew a little of his work from a previous life, Ali Alizadeh’s because I’ve heard him read from his memoir and have found his critical writings bracing.

0702238724To be honest, I’ve found Alizadeh’s critical writing intimidating rather than just bracing: way out of my intellectual league. So I approached Ashes in the Air expecting to struggle with obscure (post-)modernist play. Instead, I got a human voice, plainspoken, generous, sometimes raw, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, and at moments piercingly lyrical. There is impassioned politics, childhood reminiscence, love lyric, a number of verse essays.

Though it’s not a memoir, a narrative emerges: Ali Alizadeh came to Australia from Iran in 1991 in his mid teens. He struggled with the cultural transition, was subjected to xenophobic bullying and humiliation in Brisbane high schools, became an alcoholic and – if I’ve pieced the chronology together correctly – found his way to sobriety and equilibrium through the influence of his elder sister, through his relationship with the woman who is now his wife, and through poetry.

In some respects, this might seem like poetry that’s ripe for the dubious success of being set for classroom study, a sure way to generate sales but not necessarily build a readership. (A young friend of mine loathes the poetry of Peter Skrzynecki, which he was compelled to study for the Higher School Certificate.) Individual poems may be seized on in this way as shedding light on the immigrant experience: ‘Us and Them’ juxtaposes two deaths – of ‘another working class adolescent / charred by another Iraqi chemical / attack’ in the early 1980s, and of a ‘promising Creative Arts student / who threw himself under the train / one sunny day, at Southport Station’ a decade later; ‘A Familial Renaissance’ charts the immigrant family’s traumatic path to some kind of well-being. And others, including the complex and discursive ‘The History of the Veil’, would stir animated classroom conversation on ‘hot’ topics.

But the book as a whole is unlikely to be taken up by curriculum setters. It’s a long way from being categorisable as ‘immigrant poetry’ or ‘culturally diverse’. Some of the sweetest poems, including the first in the book, ‘Marco Polo’, are about travel that’s closer to tourism than migration. And how would you pigeon-hole ‘Sky Burial’, in which the speaker who has eaten many birds in his life contemplates making atonement by having his body eaten by vultures after he dies? On top of that, there are too many swear words, too many references to Baudrillard and other high theorists, too much fierce politics, too much that can’t be put to straightforward instructive use – you might say too much that a certain kind of teenager will love but that will deter a curriculum committee.

I expect I’ll reread it many times.

1bdgbGlass Bicycles also has an autobiographical dimension, but though the poems travel to Cambodia and France, and reach out to events in Iraq, Bali, Bosnia and East Timor, the unifying persona has a stable home base in the Sydney region. He starts out, in ‘Newtown Boy’, ‘Sittin’ on the gas box, / waitin’ for me dad’, has a romantic encounter in ‘Nielsen Park’, is revived by the Blue Mountains bush.

I read somewhere recently that a common difficulty with first books of poetry is that they lack thematic or structural coherence. In this book, structure seems to have been deliberately avoided: it would have been easy enough to group these poems into, say, commentary on current affairs, travel poems, nonsense poems, nature poems and family matters, but there seems to have been a deliberate decision not to do so. For what it’s worth, I think this was a good decision: it has given us a book where each poem stands alone, responding to its own occasion, whether it be a political commentator’s callousness, the bitter-sweetness of a child-access arrangement, or ash from a bushfire falling on the Harbour. the result is a friendly feeling, suggesting subliminally that readers could make poetry from their own occasions.

Since by happy accident I’m talking about these books together, how would this be for an exam question: ‘Ali Alizadeh and Brendan Doyle have both written poems about refugees. Compare and contrast.’

By Brendan Doyle:

Refugee
I kneel before the boatman.
The price is far too high.

I kneel before the pirate.
Not my daughter, not my wife.

I kneel before the aid man.
The land’s no longer mine.

I kneel before the soldier.
Will you spare a father’s life?

I kneel before the policeman.
A permit, to buy some rice.

I kneel before the altar
and pray for an end to strife.

I kneel before the embassy,
its heavy doors shut tight.

By Ali Alizadeh:

Shut Up
So he’s shut up. Vilified:
an unpleasant recalcitrant,

gagged for penning
Imperialist turpitude, then

summoned, sentenced
to purgation in Tehran’s

Evin Prison. How the writer
finally escapes, his fingers

nearly crushed and chopped. Has
himself smuggled, his heart

simmering with a whim,
freedom of speech, democracy

etc. Then branded ‘illegal
immigrant’ and caged in a camp

in Australia for three years, before
Temporary Protection after

his wrists have been indented
by his own razor, a rib fractured

by an overweight guard. He wants
to return to writing, but anger

blocks the passage of language
from the heart to the page. So he’s

shut up.

Rumer Godden’s China Court

Rumer Godden, China Court (1960, Avon 1970)

chinacourt002 China Court is a dilapidated old house in Cornwall that has been home to four generations of the Quin family. It has witnessed their loves and compromises, triumphs and subterfuges, sacrifices and betrayals. Each generation has changed the building, its garden, and its relationship with the village.

After the death of old Mrs Quin in 1960 (the year of publication), we meet her loving servant, the reformed scapegrace who rents the farm attached to the house, her beloved granddaughter who arrives from Rome too late to see her grandmother alive, her sensible daughters and their even more sensible husbands, an old man who has been called in by Mrs Quin (at the insistence of the most belligerently sensible son-in-law) to evaluate the paintings and other artefacts that have accumulated over the decades, and of course the benign old family lawyer who comes to read the will. Events unfold pretty much as that list of characters suggests: the will surprises all the characters but not the reader, unexpected treasure is found that makes everything work out, young love blossoms, and China Court is saved: no rude shocks there for the readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal, where the novel first appeared as a serial.

But Rumer Godden is a formidable writer. The present-time story unfolds in sentences filled with unexpected pleasures and strange twists and rhythms, using the conventional past tense. And intertwined with that narrative is what makes the book splendid: as if they are emanating from the stones and wood of the house, scenes from the past 120 years are told in the present tense. It’s a simple device, but it allows the narrating voice to switch without pause, explanation or any other signposting from a 1960 conversation in the kitchen to a rhapsodic account of how that kitchen has changed over the decades or to a completely different scene from 80 years earlier. Old Mrs Quin becomes Ripsie, the orphan girl from the village, childhood friend of the sons of China Court; the ferocious Lady Patrick who bullies little Ripsie becomes the aristocratic Irish beauty heartbroken at her husband’s infidelity; maiden aunt Eliza becomes a headstrong girl and a tragic figure as an old woman – at least five main stories, and any number of lesser ones, all woven together brilliantly, and the reader never loses track.

There are any number of reasons why this book and I are wrong for each other.

Gender: Not only are the main characters female but there is seemingly endless detail about flowers, clothes, household ornaments, cooking and domestic life in general, not to mention lots of pining after men in uniform.

Religion: I was brought up Catholic, and the book is high Anglican (though one character is ‘chapel’ and another Catholic). Key to the plot is a beautiful old Book of Hours, and the novel’s sections are named after the hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline and Matins – with a Latin phrase (and translation) from the relevant Hour at the head of each section. My inner Catholic youth was torn between pleasure at being reminded of a prayer cycle that marked out my days from age 18 to 23, and a completely unjustifiable distaste at having those prayers used primarily as decoration.

Politics: Not that the book is overtly political, but it’s shot through with a kind of conservatism we know well from TV’s Downton Abbey (there are a lot of similarities, though the Quins aren’t aristos like the DA family). Early in the book, a family member is described as ‘go[ing] out to his great-uncle’s business in Canton when it has settled down again after the Opium War’ – having just read an Amitav Ghosh novel about the lead-up to that war, I’m alert to the human suffering glossed over in this passing comment, and suspicious when told that that business in Canton was just about tea. An uncritical acceptance of the spoils of Empire is deeply troubling, but doesn’t ruffle the surface here.

Pedantics: As a copy editor I would have gone nuts. The use of run-ons in particular is maddeningly irresponsible. I doubt if Ms Godden and the Chicago Manual of Style had ever been introduced.

There are probably other reasons why we shouldn’t get on. But in the event, I loved it. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, I was eating out of Rumer Godden’s hands. She made me care about a dozen characters. She drives home the tragic effects of sexism and male domination on women, including women of the privileged classes. She fiercely opposes the creeping commodification of everyday life that was to blossom into neoliberalism. She may have cured me of my slavish devotion to the Style Manual.

The colonial past keeps changing

Brian Elliott and Adrian Mitchell, Bards in the Wilderness: Australian colonial poetry to 1920 (Nelson 1970)

1bwTo judge by pencil notes in the margins, I read Bards in the Wilderness 40 or so years ago, but – such are the joys of age-related cognitive decline – I didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up again recently, looking for information on how white settlers in New South Wales thought about Aboriginal Australians in the first half of the 19th century. The book’s title didn’t bode well – you can only refer to Australia as a ‘wilderness’ if you ignore millennia of prior occupancy: those ‘bards’ were actually living in what Bill Gammage describes as The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Elliott and Mitchell’s introduction explains that poems were selected for what they demonstrate about the colonies’ preoccupations – ‘political, social and moral’, ‘for what they contributed to the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’.

On the evidence of this selection, the settlers didn’t think about Aboriginal people much at all. Up to 1850, which is as far as I read, there are exactly four references:

  • Charles Tompson’s 1826 ‘Black Town’ is an elegy for a failed attempt by Governor Macquarie, ‘the chosen Delegate of Heav’n’, to educate ‘Poor restless wand’rers of the wooded plain’ in the joys of tenant farming – the failure, it is strongly implied, being the result of the Natives’ fecklessness (rather than because, as Heather Goodall puts it in Invasion to Embassy, to take part in the scheme ‘would mean that they would lose control over their children and be denied access to other areas of their country’). Aboriginal people themselves are notably absent from the scenes portrayed in the poem.
  • John Dunmore Lang’s ‘Colonial Nomenclature’ rattles off a list of ‘native names’ as preferable to ‘Downing Street appellatives’, though again none of the people who gave the settlers words like Parramatta, Illawarra and Woolloomooloo are acknowledged.
  • Charles Harpur’s ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ does feature frontier violence and there are Aboriginal actors in its drama, but the poem tells of an unprovoked lethal attack by ‘stript and painted Savages’, who turn out to be terrible at bushcraft as well as mindlessly violent.
  • ‘Tullamarine’, by Richard Howitt, comes the closest to acknowledging a common humanity with Aboriginal people: the speaker is an Aboriginal woman who utters a distinctly Victorian lament for a child who has died – of natural causes, nothing to do with any dispossession.

So what some people these days consider the most interesting thing – politically, socially and morally – about the early colonial period is passed over in virtual silence, sometimes silence of a pretty aggressive kind, as in the common trope that this new land has no history, these plants and animals have never been celebrated in song.

Perhaps one has to look elsewhere than to poets to find the traces I was after: the notebooks of William Dawes (which hadn’t come to the attention of scholars when this collection was published), the journals of early settlers as explored by Inga Clendinnen (in Dancing with Strangers) and others, the journals of explorers like Eyre and Sturt, who had a lot to report. Forget the poets.

But hold on, maybe it’s not so much that the early colonial poets ignored Aboriginal people so much that these editors de-selected poems that didn’t ignore them. The book’s scholarly paraphernalia suggests this might be so. According to the note on ‘Tullamarine’, Charles Harpur wrote unsuccessful ‘poems on elegiac Aboriginal subjects’ (not included here because, presumably, the editors didn’t consider that they contributed to ‘the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’). And William Charles Wentworth’s long poem, ‘Australasia‘, of which no excerpt is included, is quoted in the Introduction as referring to ‘the mournful genius of the plain’, which, the editors gloss, may or may not signify ‘aborigines’ [sic]. ‘Australasia’, it turns out, includes a passage of 64 lines addressed to Aboriginal people. They may not be great poetry, they may include sentiments that make a modern reader of whatever heritage cringe, but they’re there, acknowledging the pre-colonial inhabitants, beginning:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift‐footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty,
Who hold all things in common, earth, sea, air

I can only surmise that in 1970 non-Indigenous literary scholars felt that the kind of verse written about contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians was best left undisturbed in its place of first publication.

A quick look at John Kinsella’s 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry suggests that times have changed: even though this anthology doesn’t have a particular emphasis on colonial times, it includes three poems by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop that indicate a level of awareness not even hinted at in the Elliott and Mitchell anthology.. ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ is similar in tone and form to Howitt’s ‘Tullamarine’ but the mother is lamenting the loss of her man and her firstborn in, according to the site I’ve linked to here, the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. Her other two poems are ‘The Aboriginal Father’, a transliteration of an Aboriginal song, and the translation of a poem by an Aboriginal man named Wullati.

I wonder if any scholars have taken on a 20-teens version of the Elliott and Mitchell anthology that reflects early colonial poets’ contributions to what we now see as ‘the Australian literary tradition’.

We don’t need another Abbott

Yesterday afternoon we went to our first demo responding to Kevin Rudd’s PNG solution to the asylum seeker problem. It was the third such demo organised by Sydney’s Refugee Action Coalition, and the plan evidently is to keep them up on a weekly basis until the policy is dead.

It was a smallish demo, but spirits were high, and speakers assured us that there were millions of people all over the country who shared our opposition to the policy. A young Hazara woman stood out, reading an eloquent account of the sufferings of her people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and, heartbreakingly, Australia; with a postscript on the contribution her refugee family is making to Australian society.

We marched around the block, carrying placards and chanting. The Socialist Alliance and Greens were strongly represented in the placards, but there were also Labor for Asylum Seekers and iamaboatperson.com, and a beautiful patchwork banner for a student women’s collective, as well as any number of individually crafted signs. Some art students handed out crayon and people were chalking slogans on the street and footpath (‘Refugees are welcome’, ‘It’s not illegal to seek asylum’ ‘We’ve boundless plains to share’ etc). The main chant was

Say it loud! Say it clear!
Refugees are welcome here!

Although I think it’s generally a mistake to personalise these things, I liked:

Kevin Rudd’s a racist coward!
We don’t need another Howard!

and propose a variant:

Kevin Rudd’s a racist rabbit!
We don’t need another Abbott!

Given that both major parties are looking for quick political fixes rather than a solution to the problem of desperate people risking their lives in unsafe boats to seek asylum here, and given that both major parties seem to think it’s political suicide to have anything remotely like Australia’s response to the ‘boat people’ who came here from Vietnam in the 1970s, I was thinking it was probably futile to take to the streets about this policy. But something happened to make me think that it may actually be important.

About three quarters of the way around the block, we noticed a deeply unhappy looking man in a grey suit filming the march. As we were about to turn back into George Street, I saw him stop behind a traffic control box and put on an identifying badge. He was fairly obviously a policeman of some sort. A little later I saw him talking in a threatening manner to two young women with chalk in their hands, then approaching another young woman who was writing on the road. He took this young woman aside and was asking her questions, close to a uniformed policeman, filing her answers and filming the ID he evidently asked to see. I approached and asked what was going on. He siad it was a private conversation. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him why he was filming a private conversation and if he had the young woman’s permission to do that. She told me later that he had said writing on the road constituted malicious damage to public property and that she would be hearing from the police department within three or four days.

From this I deduce that the NSW Police consider these demonstrations to be potentially a serious problem.

I do wonder if a policeman asking someone for their ID while filming them and threatening them with legal action in the middle of a street can by any stretch be called a private conversation. I also wonder if writing on asphalt with crayon can by any stretch be called malicious damage. I have photos of this unpleasant, deeply unhappy looking individual if anyone is reading this and needs a record of his behaviour.

And meanwhile, the protests will continue, every weekend at Sydney Town Hall and I expect all over the country. The Refugee Action Coalition have an excellent web page.

Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (Sceptre 2012)

1444756133Kevin Powers served in the US Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and this novel draws on that experience. It’s a story about combat told by someone who was there. It needs to be approached with respect. And I did. I was repelled by some callous and/or confused anti-Islamic imagery in the first paragraph (‘The war tried to kill us in the spring … While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’). But I read on.

The anti-Islam thing was clearly not deliberate. The narrative follows a small group of soldiers in Iraq – really just three characters. They do vile things, but they’re not triumphalist about it: this is what soldiers have to do, and they are pretty much as numb to the deaths of their comrades as to the enemies and the innocent bystanders they kill. There are flashbacks to home in rural Virginia. A terrible fate for one of them is foreshadowed. There’s a nasty scene in a brothel, a colonel who does what the narrator calls a ‘half-assed Patton imitation’, some clueless embedded journalists.

I had trouble believing any of it. I don’t for a moment think Powers is misrepresenting things. Certainly, there’s a fierce rejection of the sort of crypto-glamour of something like The Hurt Locker (I mean the movie – I haven’t read the book it draws on). I’m pretty sure he tackled some material that was unimaginably hard to face, and I admire him greatly for that. But nothing came alive for me, everything felt painfully constructed. I stopped reading at about page 90 when an embedded journalist was being a complete idiot.

So The Yellow Birds may be all the things that the distinguished writers quoted on its back cover say it is: ‘inexplicably beautiful and utterly, urgently necessary’, ‘born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence’, written ‘with a fierce and exact concentration and sense of truth’. It may, as one of them proclaims, be the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars. Please don’t take my word against the combined judgement of Ann Patchett, Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín. Alice Sebold and more. As far as I read, I thought it was pretty good first novel on a very important subject, and hope Kevin Powers has a great writing career ahead of him.

The Book Group goes up Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (John Murray 2011)

0719568986 Before the meeting: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn. Someone proposed the sequel to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which we’d all enjoyed. There were no dissenting voices, so River of Smoke it was.

We’d forgotten that in his own way Ghosh is just as given to piling on the detail as Knausgaard. Especially in the first half of River of Smoke, hardly a paragraph is without its cluster of glittering facts or shiny words. A glossary would have to define a seemingly endless variety of boats, buildings, functionaries, items of clothing, financial processes, scientific equipment, dubious activities, plants, religious rituals and so on as they are named in Bengali and other Indian languages, Cantonese, Portuguese, Farsi, regional Englishes, Cantonese pidgin, Mauritian Kreol, and so on. And then there’s a wealth of historical anecdote: we see Napoleon at Longwood on St Helena; we hear of escaped slaves on Mauritius who committed mass suicide when they saw troops approaching their hiding place, unaware that the troops were coming to tell them that slavery had long since been abolished; we learn the origins of chai, and much much more. The effect isn’t intimidating: Amitav Ghosh is like a child let loose in a linguistic and historical lolly shop, and wants us to share his delight. The writer he most resembles in this love of the source material is Neal Stephenson.

As you would expect, River of Smoke starts out putting us back in touch with the main characters from Sea of Poppies. But pretty much as soon as they’ve been reintroduced most of them drop out of the picture, some never to be mentioned again, and those who remain gradually withdraw from centre stage to become relatively minor figures – the munshi (secretary cum newsgatherer) to a major character, the recipient of letters from another. The characters we engage with most strongly are new: Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader, and Robin Chinnery, artist, homosexual romantic and writer of long, flamboyant letters. Possibly the main character is fanqui-town, the brilliantly evoked, exhilaratingly diverse Babel on the edge of Canton where foreign traders were allowed to live and work in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The opium trade, whose viciousness was graphically evoked in the first book, is the most profitable activity of the fanquis, and the novel traces events leading up to the First Opium War in 1939: the Emperor is no longer turning a blind eye and a new, incorruptible man arrives in Canton to take definitive, dramatic action. According to Google the historical war didn’t turn out well for the Chinese and the trade continued for decades, but River of Smoke ends just before the war proper begins and that outcome isn’t at all obvious.

At the group meeting about Sea of Poppies, someone said he enjoyed the ripping yarn and learned a lot of history but wasn’t engaged in the way he wanted to be by a novel. For all its delights, River of Smoke was like that for me. The tension is real, the stakes are high, and I trust that I’m being told a true story – but sometimes it’s as if the novelist was swamped by his research and forgot that he cared about his characters. There are longish extracts from actual documents issued by the Chinese authorities and the fanqui opium traders, for example, which are fabulous to read, but leave our characters with little to do but react or comment from the sidelines.

Maybe the book suffers from the Middle Book Syndrome – in the first book the world and characters were new. In the third book we’ll find out how everything is resolved. In this one, we just have to get from Book One to Book Three. It’s a bridge rather than a stand-alone, and so not completely satisfying.

After the meeting: There were seven of us, of whom five had read the book.

Two people reported being on holiday and experiencing a powerful resistance to submitting to the world of the book – one ploughed on despite the resistance, the other followed his bliss after 20 pages or so.

The man who liked the book most described it – accurately – as very visual. At a level of simple pleasure it was the linguistic fireworks that appealed most to me. Someone else was most moved by the painful sense of history.

None of us were wildly enthusiastic about the epistolary chapters, tending to find the flamboyant Robin Chinnery a bit on the tiresome side.

Someone arrived with multiple tabs open on his iPad web browser: paintings of Canton’s foreign factories in the 18th and early 19th century, maps of historic Canton, etc. It turned out that a number of us had been to Wikipedia to look up the Opium Wars, and to see if various characters were real (many were). Amitav Ghosh’s web site has the Chrestomathy, mentioned in passing in the book, which is an odd linguistic document compiled in old age by Neel, the zemindar turned munshi who may well turn out to be the central character of the trilogy.

Attitudes to the as yet non-existent third volume ranged from eager anticipation to ‘meh’. I’m close to the eager anticipation end of that continuum.

[As I was about to upload this, I checked and found that Amitav Ghosh is on Twitter, which prompts two remarks. First, I hope Twitter isn’t distracting him from his writing, and if it is I apologise for adding to the distraction. Second, I was delighted to see that someone on Twitter actually drew the world’s, and Ghosh’s, attention to something that I kept to myself all through our meeting – ‘fanqui-town’ sounds very like ‘Funky Town’. Ghosh’s response was three exclamation marks.]