Africa Dreaming

October 5, 2002

By Danny Fahey

Darkness has settled like a contented cat. You can hear it purring through the mouths of sleeping husbands. The urban world dozes as people dream their way forward into tomorrow. Street lamps flicker as if powered by dreams less ardent than they once were. Occasionally a car blunders down the road like a weary predator searching for a feast. Sometimes human voices carry, sounding like echoes of a long ago childhood.

In the bedroom, Suzanne sits in the rocking chair bought to feed the newborn. In the double bed, her husband slumbers, a gentle snore escaping as it does some nights and not others. In the cot beside the bed little Thomas sleeps also, his arms flung free from the blankets, his little mouth pursed in a tiny ‘o’. He has his father’s mouth.

She sits in the rocking chair at the foot of the cot and stares out the window. Because it is night, she sees her reflection in the glass mingled with snatches of the outside. A lamppost replaces her nose and her eyes peer back from a neighbour’s wall. The juxtaposition unsettles her mind, casts it free so that it wanders with a nomadic spirit.

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The glass reminds her how frail everything is. How easily things can shatter and never be redeemed.  No matter how many King’s horses or King’s men. She reaches out and touches the cold glass; imagines wet dew upon a vast open land where beasts mingle in a display of magnificence. Above the beasts a wide stretch of blue sky and a hot, yellow sun. Birds waft across the blue as if seeking rain to ease their thirst. She has been slipping back of late. Time travelling is how she describes it to friends and relatives who looked at her for a moment too long before shaking their heads and ‘tut tutting’.

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The Idea of “Goodness”

October 5, 2002

Carol Shields, Unless, London: Fourth Estate, 2002.

Reviewed by Susan Bendall

UnlessUnless is Carol Shields’ latest novel and although it deals with power, sexual politics and the interconnectedness of people and events, it does so in a deliberately contained domestic context.  Reta, the novel’s centre, acts as a conduit through which notions of family, love and relationships of various kinds are played out against an exploration of more challenging and, at first, more distant realities.

Reta is a 44 year-old writer: a novelist and translator.  Her life is presented as a privileged and fortunate one; she lives very comfortably with her husband and daughters and can afford the luxury of writing full-time, meeting friends for coffee and allowing life to take its own shape.  The carefully managed order of Reta’s life begins to disintegrate when her 19 year-old daughter, Norah, suddenly appears on a street corner, silently proclaiming “Goodness”, from a sign hung around her neck.  What follows is a search for meanings and an explanation for the silent Norah’s retreat from the world.

The idea of “goodness” becomes problematic and inscrutable as it takes on an echoing significance in Reta’s world.  It is pitted against “greatness”, seen in the novel as a privilege accorded men and denied to women.  Reta speculates bitterly, largely through the device of a series of unsent letters to prominent men, that it is Norah’s exclusion from the possibility of greatness that has caused her to abdicate from life.  These letters are vicious, slightly hysterical and somewhat comical in their extravagant invective.

The dynamics of power are examined through gender but also through Reta’s relationship with Danielle Westerman, a feminist thinker who dominates her intellectually, culturally and also professionally: Reta’s most significant work, for most of the novel, is her translation of the volumes of Danielle’s biography.

The novel self-consciously miniaturises its themes, even heading each chapter with “little chips of grammar”, that read as disembodied utterances: Here’s, Otherwise, So, Since, Ever…  Shields explains late in the novel that “Life is full of isolated events, but these events, if they are to form a coherent narrative, require odd pieces of language to cement them together”.  Chapters are short and episodic and although complete in some ways also carry a sense of being fragments of something larger.

Many of the novel’s preoccupations are seen through the act of writing.  Unless is a very self- conscious reflection on the art.  The book considers what it means to write, what constitutes a serious voice and how undervalued certain kinds of writing are.  Reta is a respected translator of another’s life, but strives to have her own voice recognised and approved.  Her fiction writing, while successful enough, is largely dismissed and understood to be light and without enduring qualities.  Reta understands and appreciates writing and struggles to maintain authenticity in her own fictional work.  Her writing is deliberately crafted, but her new editor’s attempt at catapulting her work into the realms of  “greatness” is misguided.

Being Shields’ last novel – the author is in the final stages of breast cancer – it will perhaps be tempting for readers to take imaginative liberties with the text.  No doubt this writing is informed by the knowledge of human closure.  It is not, however, pervasively dark; rather it is a gently written, witty and rather lyrical novel which will not disappoint Shields’ many admirers.

 

Words For Secrets

October 5, 2002

Harry Aveling (ed), Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry, 1966-1998, Ohio: Center for International Studies, Ohio University, 2001.

Reviewed by Mike Heald.

9780896802162I recently attended the launch of two books about the ex-Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, at which the subject himself, often known affectionately as Gus Dur, was the guest speaker[1]. Hearing Wahid reminded me of what an extraordinary event his election was, and what a turbulent, complicated country we have as a northern neighbour. In the same week, an article appeared in The Age newspaper written by Wahid, entitled “How to counter Islamic extremism”, a topic, of course, very much on people’s minds after the events of September 11th. Wahid’s argument was that many students from Muslim nations who study overseas do not receive a broadly-based liberal education, focussing only on vocational areas such as engineering and the sciences. He argued that, as a result of this narrow education, many of the students lack the intellectual subtlety and capacity to interpret their religion in any but a simplistic, literalistic way, unmindful of cultural change and nuance:

Because they [the students]have not been trained in the rich disciplines of Islamic scholarship, they tend to bring to their reflection on their faith the same sort of simple modelling and formulistic thinking that they have learned as students of engineering or other applied sciences. Students studying liberal arts are rather better served when it comes times [sic] to reflect on the place of Islam in the modern world[2].

I read Wahid’s article with an interest fuelled, in part, by my own professional role within the teaching program responsible for this journal, the Foundation Studies Program of Trinity College, Melbourne University. The wisdom of including humanities subjects, such as Literature, Drama and History of Ideas, as compulsory elements of our Core Curriculum, is periodically questioned, from the position that a functional competence for one’s vocation is all the formal education that a young person needs. The error of this way of thinking, and the very real connection between suicide bombers and intellectual training, is made very clear by Wahid. Intellectual subtlety, a capacity to deal with ambiguity, metaphor and cultural relativity, are by no means disposable, abstract or decorative educational objectives: they are indeed ‘foundational’, and they lead to certain kinds of behaviour which are highly preferable to anyone who values an open and tolerant society. The Core Curriculum of Foundation Studies at Trinity guarantees, for example, that students encounter, and reflect upon, poetry. And poetry, as this anthology Secrets Need Words again confirms, entails a grappling with the subtleties of human experience: so that, through Harry Aveling’s translations, we encounter the ambiguities, the passions, the uncertainties and, in general, the inner life of Indonesians in the Suharto years. After reading such a collection, we can no longer believe in simplistic, or strategically distorted conceptions of contemporary Indonesia: they are dispelled.

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Ian McEwan, Atonement, London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

Reviewed by Nina Waters 

medium_64883734Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998. Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. I have been a McEwan fan for a long time and this is the best of his prolific output yet. Starting very slowly, it becomes more gripping as the plot and characters develop and intertwine – quite irresistible! Atonement is an engaging novel with a message about how we all attempt to edit our own versions of history.

The title Atonement hints at a dark secret, a need for retribution, something we can all be curious about with our own hidden secrets. McEwan’s story of the intricate relationships within an English family staying at an estate begins in the 1930’s, progresses through wartime, and then concludes, with a twist at the end, in the present day. The complexity of youth, along with the vagaries of maturity, the awakening of sexual awareness, and the agony of desire and guilt, all contribute to an intriguing and hypnotic plot.

McEwan’s use of female characters as the main protagonists is well executed. We meet Briony Tallis, the fiction writer, the storyteller, and the dramatic director, in the process of writing a fantasy play with all of its associated drama. Despite its melodrama, Briony’s fairy tale, The Trials of Arabella, becomes a symbol of her obsessive search for perfection. When Briony inadvertently witnesses something disturbing and interprets it in her own impressionistic manner, life will never be the same for the characters drawn together at the estate.

The second part of the novel is quite a contrast to the first. The descriptions of battle and its aftermath are well written and graphic. The emotional trauma of the war and the wounded is developed in a manner that allows us to feel the anguish and despair of those fighting for their country. The futility of war and the assault on all physical and emotional fronts is portrayed in an overpowering fashion.

As an adult in Part Three, the life experiences of Briony during the time of war enable her to address her earlier actions and their terrible outcomes. The last part of the novel is dramatic. It details the agony of Briony’s past and her desperation for retribution. Can atonement ever really take place? Once the damage and hurt has been done, is there anything that can ever really take it all away?

………how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.

Photo credit: by Brian Drew, Flicker Made available under the Creative Commons Licence