Mark McKenna’s Moment of Truth

Mark McKenna, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (Quarterly Essay 69, 2019)

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We’ve been talking a bit in my house about Jean-Léon Gerôme’s fabulous 1896 painting La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité (Truth coming from the well armed with her whip to chastise humankind). I don’t know what Gerôme had in mind when he painted it, but if it had been painted this year one would be tempted to think it referred to either the #metoo movement or the subject of this Quarterly Essay. Mark McKenna’s essay argues strongly that now is the moment for Truth to rise from The Great Australian Silence about the history of First Nations of the Australian continent. There may be no whip in the essay, and McKenna’s doesn’t scream in rage – he’s a serious, evidence-based historian. But Gerôme’s passionately urgent Truth is surely more appropriate to the occasion than the serene Truths of other painters of his time..

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McKenna begins his essay by quoting in full the Uluru Statement_From_The_Heart (link is to a PDF). If you haven’t read the full statement, please do. I think it’s worth reading many times, in full, and I hope that enough of us will take it to heart that the Prime Minister’s apparently offhand and certainly duplicitous rejection of its recommendations – for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution, and for a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history – will turn out to have been a bump in the road.

McKenna continues to quote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals throughout the essay, but his own voice is clear, cogent and eloquent. Here he is, a historian, on the importance of listening to Aboriginal people’s stories of massacres and dispossession:

[Mainstream] Australians have yet to accept that they live in a country with two ways of knowing the past. Our hierarchies of storytelling dictate what we can and can’t see. Documentary sources are accorded more authority and power, Indigenous testimony is more likely to be questioned and interrogated, its findings cast in doubt. This is another reason to hold a truth-telling commission: to hear and understand another way of knowing how Australia was founded and created. For Indigenous Australians, these things are not ‘past’. Taken as one living body of story, they form a mosaic that binds the historical experience of all Aboriginal people from all parts of the continent. It is not the only tie, but it is the one they want other Australians to hear more than any other. And it binds us all. Not as a vehicle for blame or guilt or a means to recoil in moral disgust and denounce the past. In order to understand what happened we have to step outside our own moral universe. History is not a trial of earlier generations, or of the present. The past matters because  we give it life; because we seek to understand both its difference from the present and the traces of commonality that bind us to the lives of those who have gone before us. Until we listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians, we will continue to see the history of the country we share through European eyes.

There’s a lot in that paragraph, and the essay as a whole could be seen as unpacking it. Because, unlike in New Zealand or Canada, the British didn’t make a treaty with the people who were already here when they arrived, Australia’s history has no redemptive moment. So, bizarrely, we are offered as a sacred foundational narrative the story of a losing battle on the other side of the planet, and our leaders say it’s a fascist rewriting of history to want public monuments to acknowledge the undeniable genocidal implications of ‘discovery’.

McKenna gives a fascinating account of his own intellectual shifts, in particular through his 2002 book, Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, and responds to recent hoo-ha about colonial monuments be removed with an account of a visit to Kurnell, the site of Cook’s first Australian landing.

The latter struck a chord with me because I recently went for a walk around Kurnell with a couple of friends. Mark McKenna went there in September, we went in November. You can read my blog entry here. Like McKenna, we were struck by the weather-beaten sign on an old metal post: ‘Welcome to Kurnell, the Birthplace of Modern Australia.’ He explores the history of that sign in a gently comic chronicle of bureaucrats trying to get it right. We were taken with the way Aboriginal perspectives are everywhere around the place of Cook’s actual landing.  As one of my friends put it:

Love the Kurnell monument: ‘Which bit of Piss Off don’t you whiteys get?’

McKenna – presumably because of word limits – doesn’t go into detail about the place, but he does tell the story of how at the local level the understanding of that event and its regular celebration have morphed to include significant input from the Gweagal people. Locally, it’s no longer a story of discovery or birthplaces, but of the meeting of two cultures. This whole discussion puts egg all over the faces of those politicians who insist that to alter monuments would be ‘stalinist interference’ (Malcolm Turnbull’s words):

For as long as we refuse to relinquish the triumphalist and monovocal view of our past, we seal ourselves off from understanding history as anything other than a crude choice between shame and pride.

When this Quarterly Essay was published, in March this year, I was in London. I was there again when the brilliantly multivocal exhibition James Cook: The Voyages opened at the British Library St Pancras. It’s heartening to see that in the British Library Indigenous voices are heard and more than one perspective is given respectful attention.

As I was about to publish this post, the June 2018 Quarterly Essay arrived in the mail, with 50 pages of correspondence about Moment of Truth. There’s the usual mix of interesting additions, observations from different perspectives, civil differences of opinion on some matters, a bit of mudslinging at a straw man, and an intelligent response from McKenna (‘I’ve learnt as much from speaking about my Quarterly essay as I did from writing it’). There’s also a brilliant contribution from Megan Davis, one of the creators of the Statement from the Heart, which brings home both the huge significance of the Statement and the devastation brought about by its offhand dismissal. She tells us to do ourselves a favour:

don’t just read McKenna’s fine essay, go and read the referendum Council’s report.

A PDF of the report is available for download here.

Maryam Azam’s Hijab Files

Maryam Azam, The Hijab Files (Giramondo 2018)

img_2516.jpgIn ‘Hotel Golf’ in the current issue of The Monthly, Erik Jensen writes that Helen Garner doubts if many people who attend church actually believe – she thinks that’s a myth maintained by non-religious people.

As a non-believer, I understand how Garner herself can participate in religious services without subscribing to the underpinning beliefs, but surely it’s just a failure of imagination to project that lack of belief onto the other participants. To put that another way, Helen Garner doesn’t seem to have met ‘many people’ like my Catholic  mother, or me in my teenage years, or – to get to the point – Maryam Azam, the author of The Hijab Files.

The 29 poems in this small book aren’t religious poems, but they are infused with a religious understanding of the world. Many of them focus on the hijab, and it’s hugely refreshing to hear a clear, nuanced, non-Orientalist voice on the subject, sometimes cheerfully practical (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Places I’ve Prayed’), sometimes satirical from an unexpected viewpoint (‘Modestique’), sometimes touching on friendly or hostile reactions from non-Muslims (‘The Hobbling Bogan’, ‘Praying at School’), sometimes addressing difficulties with other Muslims (‘Fashion Police’).

To single out one poem, here’s ‘Fajr Inertia’ (the Arabic fajr is explained in the epigraph):

Come to prayer! Come to success! Prayer is better than sleep!
FROM THE FAJR ADHAN (DAWN CALL TO PRAYER)

I lie in the knowledge of my failure
the way I lie through my chance at success,
hip sunk into the mattress
blanket over my chin
staring at a yellow flower clock
with a missing plastic cover
that reads six minutes past seven;
twenty-five minutes too late.
The broken gas canister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I hide under the covers from
the light invading my room
but I can’t hide the fact
I’ll have to live today outside
of Allah’s protection.

You don’t have to be a devout Muslim to understand this: the emotion isn’t a million miles from how I feel when I missed my pre-breakfast visit to the swimming pool, and realise I’ll have to live the day without that half hour of self-care. Who hasn’t woken up befuddled by a ‘broken gas canister of sleep’? With a gorgeous lack of portentousness, the poem places Allah’s protection in the middle of this commonplace experience.

Helen Garner’s scepticism about other people’s religious belief is probably typical of non-believers in these secular times. The Hijab Files speak back quietly but definitely to challenge that scepticism.

If you’re interested in getting more of a sense of this poet, you could have a look at a short, 5-question interview with her on Liminal magazine, here.

The Hijab Files is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.

John Mateer’s João

John Mateer, João (Giramondo 2018)

joão.jpgJoão is a man’s name, the Portuguese equivalent of John. So it was serendipitous that a copy of this book was in the mail waiting for me when we got back from the trip that included a memorable couple of weeks in Portugal.

The Book is made up of two unequal parts. The first, ‘Twelve Years of Travel’, consists of 58 sonnets – 58 fourteen-line moments in which the character João travels the world, seeing the sights, attending poetry events, partying, having sometimes embarrassing sexual encounters (mind you, I tend to find all writing about sex embarrassing), spending time with friends and inlaws, occasionally hobnobbing with the famous, and ruminating self-consciously. The sonnets make up a kind of discontinuous narrative, which is a term I first met in the context of Frank Moorhouse‘s short stories. The comic self-deprecation of many of the sonnets also reminds me of Moorhouse’s early stories. One of the famous writers who appear is Vikram Seth, author of The Golden Gate, a fabulous novel made up of sonnet-like stanzas, but even though it might be possible to discern a narrative through-line in João, it is not a verse novel in that way, and nor are his sonnets as formally strict as Seth’s stanzas.

These sonnets read as if they were written during John Mateer’s own travels, João being a semi-transparent mask that allows for a playful distance between character and poet, while gesturing to Mateer’s complex relationship to national identity: for example, he was born in South Africa, spent part of his childhood in Canada, is an Australian citizen, and has strong connections to Portugal and the Portuguese diaspora (hence João rather than, say, Giovanni or Johan). I imagine Mateer walking back his hotel room in Macau or Colombo or Prague, finding the words to squeeze something from his day into fourteen lines about João, partly as discipline, partly as play.

The second section, still featuring João, is just four sonnets grouped under the heading ‘Remembering Cape Town’. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are in a separate section is that Cape Town is in a sense home for both John and João, so involve encounters with family and childhood memories.

Here’s a sample. It’s the 50th sonnet from ‘Twelve Years of Travel’:

Vomiting as critique, João thought bent
over in the millionaire’s dark Balinese garden,
while in the marquee the other writers went
through the motions of being gracious. Forgotten
was introspection; they were just acting true
to their personae. Then he wiped his face,
went back to the table where he and others, too,
watched those more famous. ‘My disgrace,’
he quipped, ‘is that affluence makes me sick!’
His mind loved the tropical opulence, his body,
though, was still political. No laughter. Restricting
himself to French, the Egyptian writer, now less moody,
was again bragging to a younger Australian woman.
João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.

This probably needs to be read aloud. The rhyming is important (as it is in the whole book, though not always consistently as here). It avoids the feeling of glibness that can be created by perfect rhyme (rotten/forgotten, say, is more obtrusive to modern ears than garden/forgotten or woman/forgotten), but its regularity makes the reader aware that there’s a verse structure at work. Though I don’t think there’s a regular metre, there are five conversational beats a line. True to the sonnet form, there’s a turn at the halfway point: up to then João is vomiting in the dark garden looking back into the marquee. In line 7 he becomes one of the group again.

The story is relatively trivial. A less than famous writer has a reaction to the food at a writerly party (presumably at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival). He vomits in the garden. On his return he makes a joke about his sickness which falls flat, and then is left feeling alone and socially awkward as the conversation near him, possibly sexually charged, is in a language that he’s not proficient in.

But it’s interesting how much happens in these fourteen lines. Wordsworth’s notion that ‘poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’ comes to mind, only the origin of this poem is a bit more physical than that. The emotion, and the thinking – the ‘critique’ – stem from the intense experience of regurgitation. If you’re out in the garden vomiting, you’re very likely to feel alienated from the people who are still happily chatting inside, so from the start there are invisible //irony// markers around João’s ‘critique’: yes, it’s a millionaire’s garden in a country where most people live in poverty; yes, people at parties tend to put on their party faces (their ‘personae’) rather than go in for ‘introspection’ (which I read as shorthand for serious thought). But what do these reflections amount to other than another form of self-indulgence? When João returns to the party, he tries to mould his observation into a quip. The fact that he fails – ‘No laughter’ – doesn’t take away from the fact that he wants to maintain his status as a partier.

Then, primed as we are from Shakespeare to expect things to be wrapped up neatly in the final couplet of a sonnet, we come to the lovely twist in the final line:

João, like the watching servants, was alone, forgotten.

Well, no, João isn’t like the servants, and the poem doesn’t expect us to think so. João is on the outer because he got sick, because he’s not one of ‘those more famous’, and because the French-speaking Egyptian writer and the Australian woman aren’t interested in him. People who work as servants in Bali are excluded by much harsher factors. And it’s in the nature of a party that they are more or less ignored by the partiers. João thinking of himself as ‘like’ them is self-pity, not solidarity. By putting them in the picture, though, the poem takes a mocking step back, suggesting a wider perspective. And I don’t think it’s stretching the point to read the repetition of ‘forgotten’ as a rhyme word as talking to us over João’s head, suggesting that whereas the vomiting João thought that forgetting ‘introspection’ was something to be criticised, actually forgetting a whole class of people is o a whole other level. We’re still fond of João, but a lot happens in the space between him and ‘John’ the poet.

I’m grateful to Giramondo for my copy of João.

Suneeta Peres da Costa’s Saudade

Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018)

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I recently spent a wonderful couple of weeks in Portugal, visiting countless galleries and museums, walking the Caminho Portuguès, being blown away by the neolithic sits at Evora. It’s a great place to visit. One cause for unease, though, was that at least in touristy circles conversation about Portugal’s past generally glossed over or completely ignored unsavoury topics: we heard quite a lot about the Age of Discovery, and very little about colonisation and slavery.

Saudade, a novella in Giramondo’s Shorts series (whose previous titles include Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man and Michael Mohammed Ahmed’s The Tribe), offers a welcome counterpoint to that silence and evasion. It is set in Angola, beginning in 1961, the year the Angolan War of Liberation began, and ending with the declaration of Angolan independence in 1975. It’s not a fictionalised account of the struggle of those years, but the coming of age story whose protagonist-narrator Maria-Cristina, born in Angola to Goanese parent, is three years old in 1961. The war and the process of decolonisation are rarely foregrounded: they affects the characters’ lives profoundly but remain in the background.

For the benefit of readers who know as little about Portuguese culture as I did three months ago, saudade is a pretty much untranslatable term described by Wikipedia as ‘a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.’ Wikipedia continues, ‘Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.’ It’s an emotion that looms large in Portuguese culture dating back, we were told on a walking tour of Lisbon, to the collective feeling of mourning and messianic hopes following the death of King Sebastian in a sixteenth century battle in northern Africa.

In this novella, it hovers over everything: it could refer to the yearning for independence (our protagonist earns the wrath of a ‘teacher from Coimbra’* when she repeats what she has heard on the radio and calls Bartolomeu Dias ‘the invader’); the general sense of dislocation (Portuguese is the official language, but the parents sometimes speak their mother tongue of Konkani, while African characters speak Creole or Kimbundu, which the protagonist doesn’t understand); a sense of not having a place in the world (which is explicit in the case of the young man who is Maria-Cristina’s first real sexual partner); and perhaps in a more diffuse way in a general sense that Maria-Cristina is telling her story as a way of reaching for some understanding of her past, some grounding.

Christos Tsiolkas said on radio recently that when he was young he read for pleasure, but came to understand that sometimes one could read to be challenged. I think of Saudade as a challenging book. Each of its eleven chapters is printed without paragraph breaks, and only sometimes do ellipses indicate where a paragraph would be in a conventionally laid out narrative. We learn Maria-Cristina’s name in Chapter 8. The elements of Angolan geography and history are not glossed. Chapter 2 begins:

The Brazilian mutineers from the Santa Maria did not get to the harbour of Luanda. Captain Galvâo did not start a revolution. None of the prisoners that escaped from the Sâo Paulo penitentiary tapped on our door, entreating us to harbour him as a fugitive. Yet in the days after the revolt at Baixa de Cassanje, there was a telex to say that a client of Papá’s, a German cotton-farm owner, had been killed in a northern reprisal.

That’s surely an invitation and a challenge to readers who (like me) don’t know anything about Angolan history to do a bit of research. I now know that three separate events in January and February 1961 marked the beginning of the Angolan War of Liberation.

Responding to invitations like this (and there are many throughout the book) seems to be a necessary part of reading the book: they ground the narrative in a particular time. At times they more questions than they answer. For example Maria-Cristina has an unsettling sexual encounter with a soldier in a movie theatre, and names the film they are watching. It’s La chinoise. Well, that’s a movie made by Jean-Luc Godard in 1967. If you allow a couple of years for dubbing and shipping, Maria-Cristina is probably about 11 years old, and by doing this calculation we realise that it’s a story of child sex abuse. That’s not how Maria-Cristina narrates it, though. The question I couldn’t shake, though, was: what self-respecting Angolan soldier would go to see a French movie about a house full of students arguing about Maoist politics? I’m not saying this was a mistake. It’s clearly deliberate, and it’s part of the generally unsettling nature of the book. Nothing is simple, nothing is straightforward in a complex world the colonised are fighting back and searching for solid ground.

Saudade is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.


• A city in Portugal

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)

browngirl.jpgThis is a memoir in verse written for a mainly YA readership. ‘YA’ stands for ‘Young Adult’, publishing jargon for teenagers, but don’t let that put you off: teenagers get some of the best stuff.

It’s a portrait of the writer as a young woman who is Africa-American. She was born in Ohio in the early 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement features in this narrative as significant backdrop.

___________ we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

After her parents split up she and her two siblings move to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with their grandmother who imposes strict Jehovah’s Witness discipline, then at about the age of seven they rejoin their mother in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the Witness discipline is relaxed somewhat, and among other things young Jacqueline discovers her vocation as a writer.

There’s something almost miraculous in the way the narrative swings along, one short, self-contained poem at a time. The little girl’s relationships with her mother and grandparents, and even with the father they leave very early in the piece, are finely drawn. Likewise her position in the family: in the shadow of her smarter older sister, concerned for their vulnerable youngest brother, born in Brooklyn, and proud of their quietly achieving middle brother. There’s a lot about the Witnesses and the Civil Rights Movement, and the joys and pressures on children’s inter-racial friendships. When a beloved uncle comes home from gaol as a convert to Islam, the telling provides a tender contradiction to the way such a story would be treated in the mainstream press.

This is from near the end of the book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler:

the promise land

When my uncle gets out of jail
he isn’t just my uncle anymore, he is
Robert the Muslim and wears
a small black kufi on his head.

And even though we know
we Witnesses are the chosen ones, we listen
to the stories he tells about
a man named Muhammad
and a holy place called Mecca
and the strength of all Black people.

We sit in a circle around him, his hands
moving slow through the air, his voice
calmer and quieter than it was before
he went away.

When he pulls out a small rug to pray on
I kneel beside him, wanting to see
his Mecca
wanting to know the place
he calls the Promise Land.

Look with your heart and your head, he tells me
his own head bowed.
It’s out there in front of you.
You’ll know when you get there.

It’s a terrific book, and the reader falls in love with young Jackie and her family, so it’s a real pleasure to discover the pages of photos of them all up the back.

I feel obliged to mention, though, a shock I had when I read the poem ‘bushwick history lesson’. The first four stanzas begin: ‘Before German mothers wrapped scarves around their heads’, ‘Before the Italian fathers sailed across the ocean’, ‘Before Dominican daughters donned quinceañera/ dresses’, and ‘Before young brown boys in cutoff shorts spun their / first tops’. We are reaching back into the beginnings of this part of the world. But where we get to is: ‘Before any of that, this place was called Boswijk.‘ In the beginning were the Dutch and ‘Franciscus the Negro, a former slave / who bought his freedom.’ For young Jacqueline, this meant that African heritage people had been in Bushwick from the beginning. But for the reader it’s a painful shock all the same to have the pre-colonial past, and the dispossession of Native Americans so thoroughly erased.

To quote Joe E Brown’s character says at the end of Some Like it Hot, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect!’

Simon Armitage’s Flit

Simon Armitage, Flit (Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018)

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This handsomely produced book of poems and photographs (mainly taken by the poet) was published to coincide with a small exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featuring a selection of the photos and a video of Simon Armitage reading some of the poems.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is brilliant: Henry Moore sculptures and sheep happily coexist in the fields, in wooded areas you stumble on Andy Goldsworthy’s extraordinary land art, an Ai Wei Wei Iron Tree stands outside a chapel, and there are any number of special exhibitions, including, when we visited in early May, the Simon Armitage room and Chihara Shiota’s Beyond Time, which fills a small building with floating memories of its past identity as a chapel.

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Part of Andy Goldsworthy’s Hanging Trees. Photo by Penny Ryan

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Henry Moore, Two Large Forms and sheep. Photo by Penny Ryan

Back to the book. The YSP website describes it like this:

The fully illustrated publication comprises 40 poems by Armitage, who was poet in residence at YSP throughout 2017, its 40th anniversary year. […] Rather than writing a direct commentary on the Park, he has redefined it as its own country, the little known Ysp (pronounced eesp). Letting his imagination run wild, Armitage has mapped an elaborate, alternative reality that melds fact and fiction, creating a fanciful existence for both YSP and the poet himself.

The key word of that is ‘fanciful’. At least for this reader, the book hardly relates at all to the experience of the Park. Less than a quarter of its photos show any of the sculpture – most are of the park’s buildings old and new or of its woods and water, some with odd images collaged into them: a Vietnamese fisherman sitting on the roof of a shed; a paddle-steamer on one of the streams. The photographs are beautiful, and so are the poems, but for me the conceit falls flat – my main response to the Ysp poems (a queue that lasts for months, the legend of a great drought …) is impatience. I guess what I wanted, to use the words of the website, was ‘direct commentary on the Park’.

All the same the individual poems are a good read. I’ve heard Simon Armitage read on the radio, and am glad to have got to read some of his work on the page.

Here’s a spread that includes ‘direct commentary’ on a sculpture (an ekphrastic poem, to use the technical term):

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On the left is a photograph of David Nash’s ‘Seventy-One Steps’, with the image of an odd temple-like building fancifully, and to my mind awkwardly, inserted. In real life you encounter this sculpture as you walk through the woods, and if you weren’t on the alert you might just walk on the steps without realising they were a work of art, though you would probably register that they are a lovely piece of work.* What you can’t see in the photo is that the dark, hefty oak steps rest on 30 tonnes of coal which will gradually erode. (The work was originally called The Black Steps, but it has already changed enough that it has been renamed.)

On the right is ‘The Dark Stairs’, presented as a translation of a poem by Armitage’s invention, ‘Ysp’s most famous poet, HK’. It’s a 14 line response to the sculpture, the short lines themselves a bit like steps.

[Inserted later: I realised that the text is hard to read in that image, so here’s the poem in full:

The Dark Stairs

Each blind step
a railway sleeper
quarried from coal,
fossilised treads
marinated in tar,
charred planks
dug out of a fire.
To me they’re saying
heaven or hell
it’s all the same,
a minor scale
of sharps and flats,
black keys only
this way or that.

The more I look at this poem, the stronger it feels. Where Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Polish Sleepers’ spells out the dark associations of railway sleepers by invoking the Holocaust, Armitage (ventriloquising HK) invokes elemental forces of fire and fossilisation, and perhaps the spectre of global warming, and does exactly the thing that I had hoped for from the book as a whole, finding words that help name the feelings evoked by the work.


*One of the joys of the Park is that this is true of a number of the sculptures: you could easily miss the Andy Goldsworthy piece above if you didn’t happen to look over a low stone wall, and there’s a brass sculpture that looks for all the world like the exposed roots of trees.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017)

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I try to assemble the year 1947 into a splintered whole. This is lunacy, but time does not leave me alone.

I have a personal interest in the year 1947: it’s the year when I began. In my early 20s, before there was an Internet to make the task stupidly easy, I spent a little time drawing up a list of big events that happened in that year. I didn’t get much beyond the civil war in China, the new constitution in Japan, the establishment of the 40 hour week in Australia and a list of births and deaths.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s project of assembling the year ‘into a splintered whole’ is much more ambitious than that, and has produced a hugely readable, enlightening and disturbing book. It progresses through the year, month by month, in tiny sub-chapters. From these splinters a number of narratives emerge. We see the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood and a new significance for the term jihad, the rise of new white supremacist nationalism from the ashes of Nazism and Italian Fascism, the consolidation of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, the birth of the United Nations Genocide Convention, the role of the powerful western nations in setting up Israel to be a focus of conflict in its region, the cavalier and callous role of Britain in the partition of  India and Pakistan. A number of personal dramas play out: Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren begin their passionate relationship, and she starts work on The Second Sex; Eric Blair aka George Orwell drafts 1984; Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Thomas Mann, Nelly Sachs shine a literary light on the horrific recent past.

Between June and July is a chapter entitled ‘Days and Death’, 17 pages of the author’s family history, in which her personal connection to the events she narrates becomes clear. It’s a terrible story of loss at the hands of the Nazis and of mysterious, almost miraculous escapes, of resilience and heroism and devastation. 1947 doesn’t seem to play a pivotal role there, but this is where it becomes obvious that the book is much more than an extended and scholarly version of my youthful doodling. It’s not that Åsbrink has set the year 1947 as a structural constraint on her project. There are plenty of excursions into 1947’s past to make its present comprehensible, and into its future to spell out consequences that could not have been known at the time, such as the nakba and the conflict in Kasmir. So the excursion into 200 years of family history is simply – or complexly – another part of the overall attempt to make sense of the world of ‘now’.

Probably every reader will have something from their own private 1947 that didn’t make the cut. I missed the beginnings of the US/Vietnam War and developments in China and Japan, and accept stoically that Australia rates just two passing mentions (though who knew there was an Australian on the UN committee set up to make recommendations on Palestine). And it may be that another writer would have picked a different year to mark ‘when now began’ – 1968 or 1793 perhaps. But this is an extraordinary, accessible book that shines a brilliant light on our times.

Robert Seethaler’s Whole Life

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins (first published in 2014, translation 2015)

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‘You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.’

If this slim book is any guide, I really should read more German fiction. It tells the life story of a simple working man in a mountain village. He has moments of quiet joy, and small achievements, and he stumbles. He is brutally treated in his childhood, is a conscript in World War Two and a prisoner of the Soviets long after the war is over, and has his share of violent tragedy. He keeps his integrity and his dignity, and though it’s true that his life is made up of moments, it’s also true that he has a whole life.

I only know about six words in German, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation. But I can say that it read smoothly and is beautiful English prose. The quote at the top isn’t typical: mostly the book’s characters are pretty inarticulate, but this statement was more or less blurted out by the manager of a construction company when he was hiring the protagonist. It could have been a clunky insertion of a thematic statement, but in Seethaler’s (and Collins’s) hands, it is like a magical realist moment where the character momentarily becomes an oracular figure – without causing a ripple in the flow of the narrative.  And the book is full of such joys.

 

Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels

Carol Ann Duffy, Feminine Gospels (2002, Picador 2017)

gospels.jpgThis book is on the curriculum in UK schools, and that is definitely a good thing: its wholehearted focus on female experience is a welcome corrective to the existing gender imbalance. The surreal, shaggy-dog story form of most of the poems – a shopping woman accumulates huge quantities of stuff, goes broke and eventually metamorphoses into a shop; a character named Beauty becomes a series of celebrated women, from Helen of Troy to Diana Spencer; one girl’s unstoppable giggling in class infects the whole school, leading eventually to the school closing its doors as all its teachers leave to follow their dreams – provides plenty of scope for classroom dissection and discussion. And there’s much joy to be had in the way the words sound and work on the page.

I’d better give a warning to any students who stumble on my blog looking for help with an assignment. I’m a seventy-something man from Australia who likes to read and to write something about everything I read. I would probably fail the A Levels.

I’ll stick to my rules and single out just one poem. There is handful of wonderful, memorable and readily memorisable lyrics at the end of the book, of which I especially liked the love poem ‘White Writing’ and the elegiac ‘Death and the Moon’. But the poem that struck me most forcefully on second reading is ‘History’, not actually a tall-story poem, but a close relative. You can read the whole thing here – it’s not long.

The poem begins with a picture of an old woman ‘not a tooth / in her head, half dead … smelling of pee’. who is a personification of History. There follows a list of events she has witnessed, and from a particular Eurocentric/Christian sample of world history:

She’d seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;

——————————been there
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;

——————————witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name

I love ‘the air of Rome / turned into stone’ as a way of capturing the transformation of the fluid, liberatory Jesus movement into a hard, authoritarian institution, and then the way that transformation segues to the wars and crusades.

There’s a bit of a leap in the next bit:

Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam.

These are not crusades, three of them aren’t even wars. Bannockburn (1314) was an important victory against the English for Duffy’s native Scotland, and the rest are emblematic moments of violence in the 20th century: the battle of Passchendaele (1917) of the First World War (and incidentally the subject of Paul Ham’s book that won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction this year); the massacre of Babi Yar (1941), the Second World War and the Holocaust; and the Vietnam War (1955–1975), known in Vietnam as the American War, a dominating feature of the first 20 years of Duffy’s life. If the poem had been written a few years later, it might well have included George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the rise of Isis.

The slide from religion to mass violence is then repeated in the next section, this time in relation to the suffering of individuals: the old woman has witnessed the deaths of martyrs and of murderers, and then ‘the dictator strutting on stuttering film’. Finally, in a heartbreaking return to the Holocaust, she has seen

——————————how the children waved
their little hands from the trains.

 So far, so rich in possibilities for classroom explication and discussion! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Then the poem ends like this, and it’s the ending that makes me love it:

—————————————————-She woke again,
cold, in the dark,

——————————in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.

So far, History has been imagined as a feeble, weary old woman, worn down by the burden of witnessing the horrors of the Christian era, and especially of the twentieth century. The reader thinks he (in my case) gets it. But now it turns out it’s more than that: she is being actively harassed and humiliated. It’s hard to pin these final lines down to a specific allegorical meaning. The old woman is a personification of History, but who are the thugs who are attacking her, and what is signified by the bell, the graffiti and the shit through the letterbox? In a way it doesn’t matter: the sudden, visceral power of the final image takes the poem to a whole different level.* It’s no longer asking for polite applause, but doing what we always hope poetry will do, changing the way we see and feel about the world, or at least helping us to see and feel with more clarity and precision. It makes me want to leap up and shout, ‘That’s what the Trumps and Duttons and Bolts and Devines and Kennys are doing with their lies and half-truths: they ring History’s doorbell and run away before she can answer. And they shove shit through her letterbox!’

Thanks, Carol Ann.
———
* This could be an idiosyncratic response on my part, due to my mother-in-law having dog shit pushed into her letterbox during the American/Vietnam war. But it is my response.

Nadeem Aslam’s Golden Legend

Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend (Faber & Faber 2017)

legend.jpgThis novel includes the standard disclaimer. It is a work of fiction: not only are all its characters, events and organisations creations of the author, but not even any resemblance to persons, events or organisations is intended.

I’m sure that’s technically correct, but the book’s power derives from the pervasive sense that the Pakistan in which its characters live is at heart an accurate representation of the actual Pakistan, that the terrible world of murderous religious intolerance, both of the Muslim majority against the tiny Christian minority, and of militant Islamists against both Christians and other Muslims, is not too far from reality. Certainly the events that have disastrous impacts on all the main characters have close parallels in the real world: US drone attacks that maim children and worse, sexual violence resulting in death virtually ignored by the authorities, behind the scenes machinations that enable crimes committed by US diplomats to go unpunished, the atrocities committed by Indian military in Kashmir, suicide bombings..

What the book does is make these forces painfully real by showing how they work in the lives of a small group of people. By contrast, there are characters for whom Islam is a sustaining and life affirming force, in particular a gentle imam, who always carries a set of beads in one hand and a bulky ‘book of sins’ in the other. One of the beads gives delight to the children of his village – Christian as well as Muslim – because it contains a tiny image of a holy Muslin shrine and a magnifying lens through which to look at it. And there is a book compiled by the father of one of the characters, nearly a thousand pages long, that is

an acknowledgement and celebration of the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.

The book is destroyed by a man from the Pakistani military, and the main characters spend the rest of the book reassembling its pages and sewing them back together with gold thread, reading excerpts as they do so. Through this device the horrors of the current sectarianism are interspersed with reminders that, for example, Dante had ‘in all probability’ read of Muhammad’s journey to Paradise and Hell before he wrote The Divine Comedy, and that over centuries the relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have been mutually respectful, cooperative and productive.

And through all this there’s a love story, a chase, poignant family stories.