What a joy for Ruby to discover this book. It combines three of her major sources of delight: a kookaburra, a crocodile and the song ‘Row row row your boat’. The uncredited author has added verses to the song that introduce a koala, a platypus, a bandicoot and a kookaburra as well as the crocodile that was already there (‘If you see a crocodile don’t forget to scream’).
I don’t care terribly for the illustrations, but they do a great job with the target audience.
We bought this from the shop at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, which is the setting for its story of a family of ducks. A song that Ruby requests interminably is ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. The Emerging Artist, in this context known as Nana, does some wonderfully dramatic quacks in that song, and this is a book that offers great scope for more – plus there’s a silly story about a little creature lost and then recovered, thanks to kindness and cooperation. Pamela Allen is fabulous.
This was read to us at Rhyme Time at the library – a total classic that takes us through a range of colours, each attached to an animal. It’s fascinating to read this after I Went Walking (Julie Vivas and Sue Williams 1996), which follows its format closely but does something quite different with the images and has a child observing the animals and in the end having what my mother would have called a love-up with them.
Macca is a sweet, kind, cute creature who meets a big, tough, bullying llama named Harmer, a very different creature from llama-llama-red-pyjama llama who all the same claims the affection, or at least the fascinated attention of our young reader. The bully gets his come-uppance, the skills of the smaller, more agile creature are established, and there is an implausibly sweet reconciliation at the end. As with ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’, Ruby likes this a lot more than I do.
Not really a Ruby Read, this one. The EA and I recently spent an interesting evening with a five-year-old boy while his mother was out. We listened to ‘Old Town Road‘ at least ten times and then on the way to sleep I read to him – his choice – an encyclopaedia entry about volcanoes, and this book. It’s the story of David Bowie’s life as a fable about a boy who felt he didn’t belong becoming very successful and widely loved through, in part, embracing his difference. (Also, I didn’t know what happened to his eye.) The round-faced images are slightly jarring, but it’s a lovely framing of Bowie’s story.
Alexander’s Outing is the thirty-second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Pamela Allen now lives in New Zealand, where she was born, but she lived and created books in Australia for many years. For a time she illustrated for that most Australian of institutions, the New South Wales Department of Education’s School Magazine.)
This book’s title, supplemented by a note explaining it before the title page, warns us what to expect. In 2012, the note says, an installation of 11,541 red chairs was set up in Sarajevo to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of that city by Bosnian Serb forces: one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the siege, and of them 643 little red chairs to represent children. Somehow, we are being warned, the horrors of that siege will feature in what we are about to read.
Yet the novel starts out in a tiny community in the west of Ireland that could almost be Ballykissangel revisited – or an Irish version of Doc Martin‘s Port Wenn or Hamish Macbeth’s Lochdubh, with a pub, a policeman, a nun, a refurbished castle. A tall stranger in a long dark coat comes to town, bringing with him a whiff of the exotic, some intrigue, some sexiness. He’s a practitioner of alternative medicines. All set for a cosy comedy except, even if you’re smart enough to have avoided the terrible spoiler on the back cover, you’ve been warned.
The stranger gives a new lease of life to Sister Bonaventure, and his healing hands and herbs do wonders for many of the villagers, especially the women. Fidelma O’Brien, whose older husband can’t give her children, and whose shop selling imported finery has gone bust because a new expressway has meant most of her customers can go to the nearest city, decides she wants to get pregnant by him.
Not unexpectedly, things go terribly wrong. Then, at about the midpoint of the book, when Fidelma is pregnant, the stranger’s past has caught up with him, and the reader is wondering where on earth the story can go now, there is a moment of extreme sexual violence which I for one didn’t see coming even one paragraph before it happened, followed by a deeply distressing, and equally unexpected by me, moment of moral violence. Suddenly, it is a completely different kind of book. It becomes, in effect, Edna O’Brien’s equivalent of a red chairs installation.
The novel moves away from the tiny village, to return only briefly towards the end, and its narrative through line almost disappears in a harrowing series of tales of abuse, dislocation, and refuge. It’s as if the small story of the first half was split open and the whole suffering world was allowed to flow in through the cracks. Edna O’brien is a masterful writer, and she takes the reader with her to some very dark places, to reach a resolution that is a long way from restoring the comfort of the beginning.
apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.
People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.
First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).
Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain byBaroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.
Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.
Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:
I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.
‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.
The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.
In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).
In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.
The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.
Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.
* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go: Our smiling prime minister Morrison let cameras film him at orison. His 'How good's Australia' snatched victory from failure and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.
Before the meeting: This month’s Book Selector happened to be at a dinner party with Kate Evans of the ABC’s Bookshelf when he was casting about for a book for us to read. She recommended Disappearing Earth, and I’m grateful, both to our name-dropping Book Selector and to Kate Evans. I loved the book.
The book is set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in the far east of Russia, that juts down into the Pacific Ocean north-east of Japan. The author’s acknowledgements mention that she visited Kamchatka twice while researching and writing the book. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise, because the locality is beautifully realised, from the southern city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with its majority ethnic-Russian population to the tiny villages in the north and their Indigenous peoples.
The story is told in thirteen chapters, one for each month of the year from August to July, with a short one in the middle for New Year’s. In August two little girls are abducted from the seaside of the city. We follow them until we know that they are being taken north, and then, with the end of the chapter, we lose sight of them. In the following chapters, the abduction is mentioned, sometimes as a barely remembered newspaper story, always as an unsolved mystery that creates unease, especially in women and the parents of young children. There is no way off the peninsula except by sea, and in spite of the evidence of a woman who witnessed the abduction (who has a chapter of her own), the investigating police pretty much decide that the girls drowned and the case is closed. What the reader knows, and most of the civilian characters fear, that the girls have been abducted and have probably been murdered, hangs over the many fragments of narrative like stormclouds.
As the book progresses, each chapter focuses on a new situation, so that it’s not even clear if there is a through narrative line. Perhaps we are reading a loosely linked collection of short stories, forming a over-arching portrait of a place, its seasonal changes, the tensions between Russians and ethnic minorities (another girl, a teenager from an Indigenous family in the north, disappeared some time earlier and the authorities and press have paid very little attention, as compared to the fuss over these two Russian girls). There’s also a kaleidoscope of women’s relationships, beginning with the two little girls at the start – the older one resents having to look after her little sister, but when trouble strikes she is completely committed to protecting her – and going on to motherhood/daughterhood, childhood friendships, widowhood and a range of unrealised sexual desire. At the two-thirds point I realised I didn’t know what kind of book I was reading: a mystery to be solved, a portrait of a community, or a collection of short stories about women’s lives.
This is not a complaint. I still wanted the mystery to be solved, but if that was not to be I was prepared to accept it in the name of realism. I knew who had done the abducting by about the three-quarter mark, but didn’t know if the characters would ever find out. Even at the climactic moment when the two mothers – the distraught Russian journalist and the bitterly resigned woman who runs an Indigenous cultural centre – meet in the north during a traditional festival to bring back the summer, I still didn’t know, and solving the mystery seemed almost beside the point. At the same time, the suspense was huge.
Usually, the emails organising food etc for the group include some rumblings about the book. Not this time. The most we got was an apology from our host for not having a sauna we could meet in – thus proving that he had read at least as far as New Year’s Eve.
After the meeting: Well, not everyone was as keen on the book as I was. Given that much of the joy in it for me was not knowing what kind of book it was or how it was going to be resolved, there’s some difficulty in describing our differences. But here goes:
I thought the ending was completely unambiguous. At least one chap had a diametrically opposite reading from mine: one reading is filled with horror, the other of sweetness and light.
One man said he felt it as a book written by a young woman for young women readers. He read it all the way through but came away feeling there was nothing in it for him. (See my comments above about women’s relationships.)
Another who reads most books twice because of an occupational hazard – as a former Second Director for television, he compulsively reads the first time with an eye out for locations; he has to read a second time to get the story and characters – couldn’t be bothered reading this one a second time. Contrary to the cover blurb from Publishers Weekly which speaks of masterful landscape descriptions, he could never tell where he was. While I agree that the blurb is weirdly wrong – there’s hardly any description as such – I love the sense of place. Paradoxically, at least two of us felt compelled to go back and reread some sections.
One man enjoyed the mosaic of relationships and then was disappointed when elements of what he saw as formulaic genre fiction came to the fore; another wanted it to be a policier and found the mosaic of relationships irritatingly beside the point.
We had barely laid out our range of initial responses when someone, perhaps bored with talking about books in general or just this one, asked, ‘What do we all think about Andrew Hastie’s intervention then?’, and we were embroiled in an animated conversation about China, Australia’s foreign policy, the politics of transgender, the vast unexplored terrain of what it means to be a man, and on to solve the problems of the world like twenty-somethings. Some grandfather talk was had, a house sale was announced, travel plans were tabled, the dressing on a removed melanoma was displayed, an excellent cauliflower and potato soup with fresh grated truffle was demolished.
This is Colleen Z Burke’s twelfth poetry collection, published like many of the others by her own Feakle Press. When I blogged about her 2013 collection, Splicing Air (blog post here), I wrote:
Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren … Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland.
The same is true of Sculpting a Landscape. Many of its short poems are like verbal snapshots of a moment observed around the inner city, or of a moment of insight, or something learned in travels or seen on the news, or something one of the grandchildren said. These poems create an impression of artlessness, as if they were jotted down in the moment.
That impression isn’t necessarily accurate – there’s often a subtle play of imagery, an unexpected word or a stinging implication. The title poem is a good example:
Sculpting a Landscape
In a small clearing amidst a huddle of skeletal gumtrees a rusted burnt out ute fuses into the eroded earth sculpting a definitive Aussie landscape.
At first this looks like a slightly sentimental, familiar image of rural Australia. I’m typing this beside a Carol Ruff painting of a red desert landscape that has a rusted vehicle as a detail among stunted vegetation and scattered rocks: the land has outlived and assimilated the incursion of settler technology. By contrast, if you sit with this poem for a little while, you realise that something different is happening here. It’s a small clearing, so the vehicle is a larger presence. The trees huddle, and are skeletal: to my mind, but the only gumtrees that look skeletal are dead ones. And the earth is eroded. This is not a cosy picture: ‘Aussie’, the affectionate diminutive for Australian settler culture, is definitively attached to an image of death and destruction.
Most of the ‘snapshot’ poems aren’t as harshly unsettling as this, but there is often something just a little off kilter: an ibis is seen ‘meandering’ across an empty street, ‘gum / trees lilt air’, coastal limestone is ‘spliced with / slivers of pink / and white’, mountain skies are tetchy, ‘raindrops / savour summer’s intensity’, trees ‘pierce / luminous / clouds’.
The conversations with grandchildren are less compelling than in previous books. Perhaps this is because the children are older. (I recently heard David Malouf say that three-year-olds are the most interesting people he knows, and Colleen Burke’s four grandsons, beautifully photographed by the poet at the front of the book, are substantially older than that.) But the opening to ‘Running free’ is irresistible:
I want to go to the cemetery and dance on graves, said Emmett, my eight year old grandson.
There are speeches put into the mouths of women in harsh situations: ‘My Country’s Embrace’ in memory of Palestinian poet Fadwa Tugan (1917–2003), ‘Agnes’s story, Malawi’, ‘One less mouth’, about a young woman in an unnamed third world country. There are poems about mistreatment of animals – the slow loris, the pangolin, a kangaroo in a Chinese zoo. Re-reading my earlier posts about Colleen Z Burke’s poetry, I see recurring descriptions like ‘straightforward’, ‘unadorned’, ‘No traditional forms, no high rhetoric, no decorative figures’. So yes, this is plain-speaking poetry, filled with a sense of place, that place being just up the road from where I live, and with a concern for the underprivileged.
I’m on holiday, and this was a birthday present. I knew from the start that it wasn’t my cup of tea. The cover is clever. Jock Serong’s back cover blurb makes me ashamed. He says:
What held me close in this novel was not the idea of a hidden population of drifters and addicts, but the writer’s reassurance that dignity and small kindnesses have a place in that world.
It makes me ashamed because I just didn’t believe in the drifters and addicts, and found the dignity and small acts of kindness as unconvincing as the rest. The narrator is a homeless young woman addict who has grown up in foster homes, at least some of them sites of sexual abuse. She has a good friend and protector in an older man, who doesn’t exploit her sexually and tries to find ways for her to avoid turning tricks for cash. They fall in with a very unpleasant character and it goes seriously downhill for both of them. There are no surprises in the plot,and the characterisation is minimal.
The narrator is not stupid, though she is extraordinarily obtuse at key moments, but she’s uneducated and very limited in her experiences. And very often in the writing, one has a sense of the writer pushing against her ignorance and limitations to say something that’s beyond her. Sometimes she quotes her friend (using the word ‘osmosis’, for example) and says she doesn’t understand what it means. Other times, it just feels as if she has become pretty much a ventriloquist’s doll for the author. Here’s a taste, from a passage early on where she’s describing what it’s like to use heroin:
I don’t want to make it sound romantic. Except it is romantic. And it’s just about the most wonderful thing there is. I love it. And it’s something I’ll always love, probably as long as I live. I suppose it’s a bit like smokers – maybe that’s a good way for people to think about it. Smokers might quit smoking because of all the other shit that goes with it, but the actual smoking part is something they enjoy – something they might always love. But they just make a rational decision, I suppose, that the downside isn’t worth it.
But for me, the downside is worth it. Because downside is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Getting high is my only glimpse of the upside, if that makes sense.
To be fair, the unadorned narrative has an occasional meta touch that works well, if the reader is feeling forgiving): the main pair occasionally sneak into movies, and their tastes run to art-house features like Dogville and Pan’s Labyrinth. The narrator pours scorn on Hollywood’s need for happy endings, and there’s some discussion of whether the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth is meant to be real or just the girl’s fantasy. So when we come to the book’s ending (not to be too spoilerish), there’s a big doubt cast over what is actually happening. And in a clever postmodern way, the opening pages only make sense if read after the ending.
That said, it may be that it was a mistake to read The Rip so soon after two superb books: Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which treats the world of ‘drifters and addicts’ with so much passion and complexity, and Elie Wiesel’s Twilight, which never tells the reader what to think and is never predictable. Whatever, it didn’t really touch the sides for me.
Elie Wiesel, Twilight (1987, translated from the French Le Crépuscule, au loin by Marion Wiesel 1988;)
I was given this book as a birthday gift some years ago. I was finally spurred to read it by a moment in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam when he says that Holocaust survivor Frieda Menco became an international activist ‘after hearing fellow Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel discuss his experiences’.
Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Nobel Committee described him as ‘one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression, and racism continue to characterise the world’, and his Wikipedia entry offers ample justification for that description. His writing of memoir and fiction about the Holocaust is just part of his extraordinary activism; it’s the part I’m interested in here..
His first book, published in 1956, was a memoir in Yiddish of his Holocaust experiences, And the World Remained Silent. Night (published in French in 1958, then in English translation in 1960) was a shorter version, focusing on his relationship with his father in the camps. According to Wikipedia, Night ‘now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature’. In the next years, he wrote the novels Dawn (published in French in 1960, and in English translation in 1961) and Day (1961/1962), making a trilogy that marked (again I’m quoting Wikipedia) ‘Wiesel’s transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall’.
It’s reasonable to suppose that Twilight (especially in its original French title, which translates as ‘Twilight, at a distance’) is meant to be read as a footnote to that trilogy, an extra phase of the diurnal sequence. Not having read those earlier books, then, I’ve come to this one at a disadvantage: I suspect it picks up lines of argument from the trilogy, either amplifying them or refuting them. So bear in mind, if you read on, that I’m writing as someone who came in late. (Imagine reading only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and none of the first six HP novels.)
Raphael Lipkin was a young Jew in Poland during the Second World War. His entire family is wiped out, mostly by the Nazis but some by the Soviets, but he survived thanks to the intervention of a character known only as the madman with veiled eyes, and Pedro, a heroic member of Briha, the underground organisation that helped Holocaust survivors escape Europe. The novel tells the story of his traditional Jewish family as the reality of the Nazi threat becomes clearer and eventually overtakes them. Intertwined with this narrative is the story, some decades later, of Raphael’s time spent in a New York psychiatric hospital where all the patients believe they are characters from ancient history. He goes to the hospital on the pretext of learning from the patients in his academic field of Jewish mysticism, but he is actually trying to find out what happened to Pedro.
The Holocaust narratives they are mostly stories of richly diverse Jewish life – there are Judaic scholars, historians, young people in love, Communists, Zionists. The focus is on the rich culture and community life that was being destroyed rather than on the horror of the process (though there are moments of horror). In the modern story, Raphael speaks constantly to the absent Pedro, whose name he seeks to clear, but though Raphael’s main motivation is to do with Pedro, that story becomes secondary to his engagement with the hospital inmates. He has substantial conversations with Adam, Cain, a prophet, a dead man, the ‘Messiah of mad people’, and finally God himself. As I read it, in all these conversations, Wiesel is addressing the question of how the Judaic religious tradition can deal with the fact of the Holocaust – is it possible to still believe that God exists, that life has meaning. I suspect that as a confirmed atheist, and from a Christian tradition to boot, I missed a lot of the nuance, and if a conclusion is reached it passed me by (though there is a revelation in the final pages that may amount to Wiesel’s theological conclusion, and that revelation is foreshadowed in the epigraph from Maimonides, ‘The world couldn’t exist without madmen’).
The passion and intelligence of the writing held me captive the whole time. As a for-instance, here’s part of a monologue from the mad Adam, early in the book, which states an extreme despairing response to the horrors of the 20th century:
Listen, God. What I am about to tell you is for your own good. Stop! Yes, God: Stop this senseless project. Believe me, even you who are omnipotent cannot succeed n this. You thought man would be your glory, the jewel of your crown. You make me laugh. Man is your failure. Face it. Give up your illusions. Wake up. Be considerate. Close the book before you turn the first page. Does it shame you to admit that I’m right? The forget it’s my idea. Let it be my gift to you. Legally, philosophically, you will have fathered it. And you know what? Theologically too. All you have to say is: I tried, I was wrong. And, luckily for the world, I realised it in time. Thus, even if your dream will have lasted but one day, one lifetime, you will be applauded. By your angels and seraphim.By the countless souls who will escape the curse of being born inly to die. By the trees that will not be felled by man. By the animals that will not be slaughtered. By the earth that will not be despoiled. And all of Creation, pure and resplendent, will say: Look how great is God, how admirable His honesty. He does not shrink from admitting His error. And yes, He can manage perfectly well without man …
As you see, this isn’t a book that offers easy answers. It’s not a comfortable read. But (and remember, I’m a man who said last week that I need his novel to be fun) it’s kind of exhilarating.
Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).
It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version of liberalism.
Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.
Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.
The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago =, for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.
And so on.
One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:
There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because “it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’
Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Just when I was beginning to think I’d become that typical older white man who doesn’t enjoy fiction, along comes Boy Swallows Universe and demonstrates that if anything my taste is reverting to that of a much younger demographic. It’s depressive fiction that I don’t enjoy. I want my novels to be fun, and this one is fun. (Come to think of it, it’s not so long since I read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, and some bits in that keep coming back as unbidden memories that make me laugh, so Boy Swallows Universe isn’t an anomaly).
This is a novel full of odd characters, vivid villains, plenty of colour and movement, twists and turns, silliness and tears, something new and diverting on every page. Eli Bell, the narrator, is thirteen at the start of the novel. His brother August/Gus hasn’t spoken since their parents split up years before, but communicates by writing in the air. Their mother and de facto stepfather are recovered junkies, now dealing heroin, precariously involved in organised crime. The story that unfolds involves terrible violence, of the out-of-control domestic variety as well as the spine-chillingly calculated kind. It involves deep betrayal, and at least one moment of abject self-abasement more horrible than any of the violence.
But it’s also a love story. The boys’ babysitter, Slim, is a notorious criminal, who once served time for murder. Whether he did the crime is left an open question – as it must, because, we’re told in an author’s note, the character shares the name and the history of a real man was actually the author’s babysitter. Slim is Eli’s mentor: he helps him develop his remarkable powers of observation, and offers profound philosophical advice – usually with a half smoked durrie hanging from his lip: ‘The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’ There’s no doubt that he loves the boys. No doubt either that their mother, stepfather and even the father who turns up much later in the book, that they all love them in their wounded ways, and are loved in return. Eli knows that all these people have done bad things, and more, worse things are revealed as the novel progresses, and he wrestles with the question – not, How can you love a person who does bad things? but, What is a good person?
There’s a story early in the book that beautifully foreshadows some of this complexity. The school bully tells Eli to meet him in a secluded spot after school. When they meet, he and his thuggish offsider force Eli to splay his fingers on a flat surface while the bully, blindfolded brings a sharp knife dow=n, betting that he can land the blade between Eli’s fingers. They are interrupted in the nick of time by a school teacher, but Eli refuses to say anything untoward was happening. Later, asked by the bully’s mother – a powerful figure in the local drug trade – why he didn’t dob, Eli says, to the bully’s astonished pleasure, ‘Because he is my friend.’ And means it.
I was enjoying the book from the first page. The point where enjoyment turned to love is when Eli says:
I’ve never tasted the natural spring waters of Helidon, but I doubt they could match the sweet, restorative powers of an ice cold sarsaparilla.
You may need to be a Queenslander of a certain age to even understand what that sentence means, and I’m pretty certain that only a Queenslander could have written it. (Sarsaparilla, pronounced sarsprella in my childhood, is a soft drink that tastes like root beer, hard to find outside of Queensland, and not manufactured by the transnationals that otherwise dominate the softdrink market.)
Because, this is a Queensland novel through and through. Slim’s many escapes from prison earned him the nickname the Houdini of Boggo Road. The object of Eli’s infatuation works at the Courier-Mail. The beautiful names of Brisbane suburbs ring out through the story: Inala, Birrong, Sandgate, Toombul, Toowong, The Valley, The Gap. People feast on mud crabs, and no one trusts the police (it’s a just-post-Bjelke-Petersen novel).
There are fantasy elements – impossible conversations on a red phone, some romantic wish-fulfilment, maybe even the whole strand about Gus’s silence – that aren’t really integrated, and might irritate someone who wasn’t onside. For my part, I didn’t even have to forgive them: they work fine as decoration, they’re part of what make the book fun.
I feel a bit strange saying that a novel that includes scenes of terrible violence, a couple of teenage boys getting involved in drug trafficking, and some general degradation is fun. It’s not fun in the way, say, Breaking Bad, is, where sheer style carries the day. It’s fun because we encounter all those elements with an indomitably open-hearted narrator. Possibly spoiler alert: this is the kind of novel where the young hero, meeting the immensely powerful, chillingly evil villain, asks him on the record, ‘Are you a good man?’
This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues
Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.
She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):
The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people
She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.
She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.
The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry
Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.
Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.
is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show … The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.
‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’
I do wonder what Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, would think of this movie about changes that can happen to avert a climate catastrophe – distributed, renewable power grids, the end to private internal-combustion vehicles, regenerative farming, and so on. Dangerous reassurance, perhaps? But it does hold out hope – hope, as I understand it, […]
A special 'Blak Women's Edition' of The Lifted Brow. From the imprint page: 'BLAK, coined by artist Destiny deacon in 1990, names the lived experience and identity of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.'