Out of the Abyss?

March 5, 2001

Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999

Reviewed by Mike Heald

bookcover.phpKim Scott is a Western Australian writer who is descended from the Nyoongar people. Benang is his second novel, and jointly won the Miles Franklin Award for 2001. It is a novel which continues Scott’s interest in his own indigenous identity, and in indigenous issues generally. The book’s subtitle is From the Heart, and it is appropriate to give a response, also, from the heart. I found Benang a searing, overwhelming experience, which wrenched me to see Western Australia, the state in which I have lived most of my life, from a nightmarish ‘other side’. The Nyoongar view presented is not always one of suffering, of course. Some evocations of the natural world, and the culture so closely attuned to it, are exuberant, and picture scenes I have observed many times in a way which seems both startlingly new and indelible:

In the afternoon a flock of cockatoos flew over the compound, screeching. They flew low to show how their glossy black feathers, so neatly side-by-side, felt the wind. Seeing the white tail-feathers, Jack remembered the clay on the dancers’ bodies. The birds flew in, over, showing themselves off and Jack realised that this was a dance too, and how wonderful it was.

And one of the central images of landscape, or seascape, is deeply affirmative:

The sea, like the fire, formed and reformed and out by the island – even at night – there was that blossoming; white, gone, white, gone white gone. Like what? Like ectoplasm, like breathing.

For the most part, however, as I read the book on the train on my way to Melbourne, I could barely continue, knowing that the cruelties and humiliations related would saturate and oppress me for the rest of my working day.

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Ordinary Inspiration

March 5, 2001

Robert Dessaix, Corfu, Sydney: Picador, 2001

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

CorfuRobert Dessaix’s latest novel is a worthy successor to Night Letters. Like its predecessor, Corfu is structured around a trip. Out-bound and homeward travel provides Dessaix with the linking narrative for his ruminations on life and art. The central concern of Corfu is the way living may be seen as a worthy art form, with its own pattern and beauty, not always apparent to the observer or the participant. In his exploration of this idea, Dessaix is subtle and intricate but quite explicit.

Dessaix’s closing pages provide a memorable symbol of his central theme. He uses a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in Serbia in 1965. “In the middle of a bare landscape (just a scruffy tree or two, some dusty bushes and a few unremarkable hills in the distance) a comically enormous double bass, slewed across the back of a man in a suit, is riding off down an empty, stony track away from the camera.”  Looked at from one perspective this image is pitiful or simply comic, quite risible in the juxtaposition of the ungainly instrument, the precarious bicycle, the rough surrounds and the carefully attired gentleman. However, Dessaix’s argument is that there is a breathtaking, double-layered art in it – the art of the man in the picture who is living a life which includes a beautifully crafted instrument in the midst of the ordinary. And the art of the man who photographed him – who could look at a scene where nothing is happening and see something extraordinary.  Clearly, Corfu is designed to function at both levels.

Corfu presents a dual plot line. The primary protagonist, the Dessaix character, is a young actor staying briefly on Corfu as respite from a relationship he is both attracted to and repelled by, and as a break in his journey home to Adelaide. The secondary story line concerns Kester Berwick, an Australian actor, writer and teacher whose house Dessaix rents during his stay and whose life he finds increasingly intriguing. The lives of the young actor and the older man reveal strange patterns and connections that both fascinate and unnerve the young man. This double story provides Dessaix with the opportunity for some unobjectionable didacticism about how a good life may be lived as the young man attempts to make sense of his circumstances by ruminating on the traces of the absent Kester he finds in Kester’s house and writings. The fictional character Kester Berwick has its basis in reality: He was born Frank Perkins in Adelaide in 1903 and lived in Australia, London and the Greek Islands. Dessaix is examining his life through the lens of fiction and thus, consciously emulating the position of Henri Cartier-Bresson as observer of the ordinary and as artist.

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GRANTA: The First Twenty-One Years, London: Granta Books, 2001.

Reviewed by Claudio Bozzi

Granta2The twenty-first anniversary edition of Granta reminds us of the central role played by the small journal in the development and modernisation of forms of English writing in the twentieth century.
Granta was launched in 1979 with the declared intention of rescuing the reading public from the insipidness of British writing. Its manifesto raised the possibility of introducing its audience to a literature of engagement: writing which courted controversy, and finished in dialogue. Controversy is to be understood not as social scandal or as the exploitation of the indiscretions of the famous, but as an indication of political vitality: that things may still be put on the agenda for the attention of a public interested in seeking solutions to problems. The first thing Granta problematised was the mental lethargy anchoring writing and writers to the worn themes of middle class anxiety.

Bill Buford’s post mortem ‘The End of the English Novel’, is delivered from the perspective of the state of writing and publishing in 1980. Importantly, the parlous state of English letters must be viewed along the lines of this two-track model. On the one hand, it is ascribable to bad writers, and on the other to a publishing industry which views fiction as a form of entertainment, in direct competition with others, to be sold to a mass audience. Writing becomes bad, says Buford, when it lacks urgency.
Insulated from philosophical debates and social issues, writers in England languished in the twin, connected valleys of insularity and nostalgia. Failing to understand the international contexts of thought, or to learn from literatures other than their own, the English novel was a timid creation compared with its experimental ‘foreign’ counterpart. Publishing is complicit with the decline of standards and the spread of provincialism, Buford says, when it loses interest in translating literatures from other languages, and when it leaves production to market forces. These represent nothing less than a silent censorship imposed on an unwitting public, whose vision, used to the grey uniformity of the bourgeois palette, turns away from anything brighter. Like the enlightened freeing the slaves from the cave in Plato’s republic, Granta was to lead its readers into the day.

To do so it had to understand its readers. It had to recognise that, with the waves of migration and the upheavals of history in the last century, the constitution of the reading public had altered in fundamental ways. Firstly, the audience was diverse, no longer uniform. And this reconstitution of the public, and the reading public within it, necessitated a reconceptualisation of the meaning of narratives. It could no longer be assumed that the middle class novel had universal appeal, that Africa or India could be appropriated as the passive settings for adventure and heroic acculturation. Africans and Asians, Caribbeans and Europeans had established themselves in numbers in Britain, bringing with them their own sense of meaning, their own forms of expression, their own lexicon, imagery and grammar of thought. Being British came to mean something different from the stylisations of national mythmaking. Granta responded by seeking creative reactions to the conditions of the new social complexity from marginal sources within its own constituency, and from the experience of cultures who had already long undertaken the revision of tradition, and responses to modernity. The anniversary edition therefore presents the works of British, American, Commonwealth and European writers, some of whom may have remained marginal to the practice of the established field of literature had it not been for the assertiveness characterising the Granta project. What follows cannot hope to do justice to the richness of the selection, but reflects this reviewer’s estimation of the most valuable pieces from a treasury of highest quality.

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Hate Couture

March 5, 2001

Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker, Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove: 2000

Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

DressmakerThe Dressmaker is subtitled: “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate, and haute-couture” which does in fact capture its mixture of genres. The novel is set in a small town in Victoria in the 1950s (judging by the fashions described). It is gothic in the sense of being extreme in its depictions of events in the overstated manner associated with tragedy. Love is central to the intensity of feeling that drives the main narrative line, though only covered with the utmost brevity and obliqueness. Hate is essential in any good tragedy, and as this novel deals with the base motivation of revenge, hate is present in abundance. Haute couture provides Rosalie Ham with a satirical voice to lampoon rural sensibilities.

The first half of the book is intriguing: the crafting appears to avoid the development of plot.  Rather, Ham offers us a ‘peeping Tom’ perspective on small town life, moving from tableau to tableau. During this lengthy setting of scene Ham demonstrates her skills in observation of detail. She takes great care with period and place, recording brand names, merchandise, sewing patterns, styles of decor and contents of cupboards. There is nothing on the blurb to indicate whether Ham is old enough to remember these details of a now defunct life-style or whether she is reconstructing. Either way, it makes interesting reading from a social history perspective.

Ham is exploring the possible consequences for the small wheat-belt town of her imagining of the return of a glamorous outcast. As a child Tilly left Dungatar in lonely disgrace, after a death in which she was somehow implicated. She has returned with skills gained in the international fashion world. The dressmaker of the title, Tilly is a couturier who shocks the locals out of their seersuckers and ginghams into exotic styles and sumptuous fabrics. Whether this transformation is plausible or not, Ham’s premise gives her scope for evoking comic imagery based on the incongruity of all this glamour in the bucolic Shire.

Tilly has returned from Europe to Dungatar to look after her mother, ‘Mad Molly’ who is near death through the self-neglect associated with mental illness. The gloom, squalor and despair of Molly’s condition are described in Dickensian detail – the ramshackle hovel on the outskirts of town, tilting, slipping, down the hill towards the municipal tip. Molly’s status in the small community has evidently been one of clinging to the fringes. Having decided recently to stop clinging, she is nothing: human refuse. The brooding question of what could have brought Molly to this state is ever-present. We wonder why she is there, what has happened to her and what the role is of the closed-minded, hypocritical town.

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V.S. Naipaul, Half A Life, London: Picador, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

NaipaulIn a less than subtle reminder to the fiction reading public of the world, and in particular to a small reading group convened in Sweden, V.S.Naipaul’s new novel was published earlier this year with an editorial note that proclaimed: “He has won every major literary award bar the Nobel.”

Such audacious literary marketing reaped lavish reward in October 2001 when the great man received the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour few people would begrudge Naipaul given the high quality of his work over more than four decades.  Although Naipaul had chosen not to write fiction for a number of years, preferring instead to produce non-fiction works of travel writing, cultural history and personal memoirs, he returned to fiction with Half A Life, and he returned triumphant.

Naipaul’s new novel begins in India in the 1930s, with the protagonist’s father reflecting back on his life of self-sacrifice and his brief moment of fame achieved through asceticism and a vow of silence – very attractive to loud and wealthy western tourists seeking a religious experience in the Orient.  The story moves with Willie Somerset Chandran to London in the ‘60s, where he takes a degree in a minor London college.  He studies little but he learns much.  He re-imagines his personal history to make himself more interesting to classmates and the faculty, presenting himself as the inheritor of an ancient minority tradition of Indian Christians rather than the son of a frustrated high-caste man who regrets his symbolic but loveless marriage to a low-caste woman.  In London little Willie (as his father ominously calls him) discovers sex in squalid tenements and bars.  He is shamefully confronted with his own deceptions and inadequacies: an inability to satisfy a woman is explained as the poor product of a culture of arranged marriage as opposed to practiced seduction.  He mixes with bohemians, BBC journalists and minor scoundrels, and creatively transforms Hollywood film scripts into “authentic” stories of post-colonial Indian village life.  The narration then bids farewell to London after Willie’s only book is published and he graduates with a teaching degree but no intention of working in a run-down suburb where he might be knifed in a race riot.  We travel with Willie and his new wife Ana to her farm in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa that sounds, smells and bleeds like Mozambique in the years climaxing in the end of colonisation and the flight of Europeans, mulattos and oddities like himself.

Half A Life is a novel of partial visions, prejudices and misapprehensions, with characters moving within and sometimes beyond barriers of caste, race and culture.  Playing roles, recasting identities, forging and leaving personal relationships of family, community and sex, Naipaul’s characters remain frustrated or uncertain.

Naipaul seems uncomfortable with, if not hostile to, political and religious movements.  His view is sceptical – a tone familiar to readers of Naipaul’s non-fiction works on culture and religion – and some of his characters in this novel are embittered, even jaundiced.  Naipaul and his protagonist are more concerned with the individual.  But the individuals in Half A Life, when focused on themselves and their emotional needs and characteristics, often appear self-indulgent, unaware of their partners’ feelings, or delusional.  For reasons varying from age, culture, sex, political ideology, and hope, they all lead half-lives.  Naipaul’s characters are judgmental, but rarely judge themselves with insight, and seldom treat others with compassion.  Willie Chandran – like his father – is unfulfilled.  But so too is Willie’s mother and, silently, Ana – who Willie deserts after eighteen years.  Perhaps we all lead half-lives: partial and unfulfilled.  Will winning the Nobel Prize make Naipaul’s life complete?

A Mountain of Stories

March 5, 2001

Dai Sijie (Ine Rilke trans.), Bladzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001

Reviewed by Glen Jennings


An important sub-genre of Chinese writing is currently making an impact on the world.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress joins an impressive list of Cultural Revolution memoirs and novels published in the last two decades, most written by authors with first-hand experience as victims of Red Guards or as urban youth banished from their homes for re-education in the countryside.  This literary genre is far from exhausted.  Millions of urban youth – Dai Sijie among them – were sent to cool their heels, to pay their penance, to languish or to die on mountains, farms, and in China’s remote wastelands in the late 1960s and ‘70s.  Dai Sijie’s novel is set in rural Sichuan, near the border with Tibet.  It is the story of two high school students from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and their relationship with a local girl on wild Phoenix Mountain.  Their story unfolds at a time of sweeping social movement in Mao’s China, but on their remote peaks and in the immediacy of Dai’s first-person narrative their story reads as personal and unique, an intimate expression of friendship, despair and love framed by the terrible beauty of precipitous mountains.

The two teenage boys, Luo and the unnamed narrator, arrive in the backward region in 1971, after ‘completing’ a high school education seriously disrupted by the political rampages of the Cultural Revolution and severely limited by the narrow prescriptions of Maoist orthodoxy.  Luo, the son of a famous dentist who had worked both on Mao Zedong and his nemesis Chiang Kai-shek, is now labelled the offspring of a class enemy.  The same fate has befallen the narrator, the son of two important – but less prominent – doctors.  The boys face a life of re-education under the supervision of poor peasants, many of whom are illiterate, all of them struck with wonder at the sight of Luo’s alarm clock.  Phoenix Mountain is economically and culturally underdeveloped.  It had been an opium-growing region in the past, and the veneer of socialism is particularly thin.  Local sorceresses appear like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, and the poorly educated village youth think any picture of a westerner must be either Marx or Engels.  Authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism feature prominently, and the boys live under political surveillance and threat.  They labour in unsafe coalmines, in terraced fields, and on narrow mountain passages, slopping excrement in heavy buckets strapped to their backs.

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