Barracking For Soccer

March 5, 2003

Johnny Warren, with Andy Harper and Josh Wittington, Sheilas, wogs and poofters. An incomplete biography of Johnny Warren and soccer in Australia. Sydney: Random House, 2002.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

10411Sheilas, wogs and poofters makes a fascinating cultural chronicle, because the sport of soccer has been so tied up with Australia’s increasing cultural diversity, and the many tensions this has caused. The main episode of Australian history this book deals with is that which begins with the influx of European migrants after the Second World War, to the present day. Warren’s own career as a player began in the fifties, and he has an intimate knowledge of soccer’s affairs since that time.

Warren seems to have several aims in this book. One is simply the autobiographical urge to set down the details of his own involvement with the game: to remember, reconstruct, pay tribute, and generally to unfold the yarns he has accumulated. There are also, however, two other important, associated aims: the first of these is to promote the code, and to oppose any notion that soccer should be a minor sport in Australia. As such, the book is a declaration of support and commitment to advancing the cause of soccer on these shores. And the second objective is to explore the acutely felt question of why Australian soccer has, in recent years, so consistently failed to achieve either international success or domestic administrative competence.

Warren’s answers can be surprising. He declares himself unable to dismiss, for example, the notion that a curse placed on the Australian team by a witch doctor has been effective: ‘Every time I look back on 1970 I can’t help thinking about the series against Rhodesia, the witch doctor and his curse. As the disasters and freak occurrences that have befallen Australian teams since 1970 pile up, my belief in the curse has only strengthened.’ (p106) And yet, as a former captain, and player in the only Australian side to make the World Cup finals, Warren also offers penetrating technical analyses of the many bitter defeats. And this is just one way in which this book is often a very strange mixture of perspectives.

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Per Olov Enquist, The Visit of the Royal Physician, London: The Harvill Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Claudio Bozzi

physicianThe Visit of the Royal Physician, Per Olov Enquist’s sixth novel, confirms a shift from the existential concerns of his early writing to an exploration of society and politics, in which he thematises the materialist paradigm that ‘humanity does not exist as Humanity, but must always be related to historical and political realities.’

Enquist has adapted the influences of post-Existentialism to the tradition of Swedish documentarism. The documentary novel saw literature as a research into reality committed to reaching behind perceptual and experiential conventions and was premised on a direct involvement with the social conditions it sought to unveil. Its critical and analytical activity was held out as the opposite of realism’s problematic ambition to ‘portray’ reality, with its concomitant idealisation of the role of the observer.

Enquist’s critics have accused him of mistaking radical undecideability for an incompletely worked out understanding of the relationship between historical documents. Enquist has responded saying that the real mistake is to ‘believe that the document is in some sense truer than fiction’ – thereby pointing once again to the realist’s fantasy that they are dealing with empirical rather than social facts.

The Visit of the Royal Physician is like earlier works in that it is an historical novel based on seemingly real documents. It goes further, however, in drawing its characters and events directly from one of the best known episodes of Danish history – the rise and fall of Johan Friedrich Struensee – to address concerns about agency and history.

Set during the reign of Christian VII, King of Denmark and Norway, The Visit of the Royal Physician concerns the appointment of Johan Friedrich Struensee as Royal Physician upon the king’s ascension in 1766. Struensee was appointed to manage and, if possible, cure the king’s madness. As Christian’s condition worsened, his dependence on Struensee grew, effectively giving the physician control of the kingdom. The novel follows his appointment as minister, his rise to prominence and power, and his execution for high treason in 1772.

Royal Physician is an historico-political novel in the sense that the events with which it is concerned are directly relevant to the possibility of a rational politics, and directly concerned with the durability of forms of feudal government and repression.  Struensee attempts to practice an enlightened politics, and takes up his post, encouraged by Count Rantzen, to ‘realise his noble dreams.’ But the new force of Enlightenment – its progressivism based on principle and visionary potential rather than historical precedent– encounters an entrenched culture of politics – the sober and traditional ‘art of the possible.’ From this encounter the battle over the power to redraw the boundaries of the just society, and to draw the line over which reform staggers into chaos, is waged.

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Character and Fate

March 5, 2003

Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters, London: Faber & Faber, 2002. 

Reviewed by Janie Gibson

Family MattersIn Family Matters Professor Nariman is the central character around which three generations of family revolve. The complex relationships of his immediate and extended family provide the tension of the unfolding story.

As the narrative begins the aging Nariman, a former professor, is living at Chateau Felicity with his stepson, Jal, and stepdaughter, Coomy, in a spacious apartment that he has made over to them.  Roxana, Nariman’s natural daughter and her husband Yezad live in a much smaller flat, Pleasant villa, in a block with their two sons, Murad, a laconic teenager and Jehangir, a sensitive young boy.

Coomy has never forgiven Nariman for her mother’s death, despite the fact that he had continued to care for her and Jal. She is constantly berating him and trying to control his life, both in the apartment and beyond, lest some accident befall him. This is exactly what happens. Having failed to dominate the old man, she then decides he is too much of a burden for herself and Jal, and should be cared for by Roxana and her family, a situation she manipulatively brings about. Mistry uses the impact of Nariman’s incapacity on daily life to explore the tensions that arise, as each member of the family is forced to confront their own attitudes to each other.  Yezad, for example, refuses to help with the old man, complains constantly about him and the imposition on the family, and even forbids his sons to assist with Nariman’s ablutions. This causes anguish for the young Jehangir, who is very compassionate and empathetic, both to the old man and to his mother. This forces the burden onto Roxana and increases the old man’s plight and frustration, as he becomes more and more dependent on the family.

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Resisting Revenge

March 5, 2003

Atiq Rahimi, Earth and Ashes, London: Vintage, 2003.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

902332Earth and Ashes is a novella written by an Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi, which is set during the Afghan-Soviet war: ‘a war ago’, as one review puts it.[1] Rahimi was born in Kabul, and, to cut a long and perilous story short, travelled to Pakistan in 1984, where he successfully applied to France for asylum. He has since completed a doctorate in audio-visual communications at the Sorbonne, and is a documentary film maker as well as a writer. Thus,  great benefit has flowed from France’s compassion towards this refugee.  One can’t help but ponder the squandering of talent, quite apart from the inflicting of misery, that is involved in Australia’s present approach to asylum seekers.

Earth and Ashes is Rahimi’s first book. It tells the story of Dastaguir, who is travelling, or rather, waiting to travel, to the mine where his son, Murad, works. Dastaguir has Murad’s  son with him, Yassin,  a young child who has been deafened by the exploding of Soviet bombs. Dastaguir is going to see Murad to tell him of some news about his village and his family, news which we understand is not good, but the exact nature of which takes time to emerge. At the opening of the novella, Dastaguir is waiting, in a bleak, dry landscape, for a vehicle to arrive at a checkpoint, so that he can get a lift to the mine five kilometres away. At the checkpoint are also a fairly incommunicative border guard,  Fateh, and a very kind, very well-educated and intriguing shopkeeper, Mirza Qadir.

What we get in this book is, if I can put it like this, micro action set against macro action: the minutiae of human life, both interior and exterior, and the vast machinations of war. This juxtaposition is perhaps well encapsulated in the following passage:

At your feet, your grandson is busy playing with an ant attracted by the naswar you have spat out onto the ground. Yassin mixes the naswar, the earth and the ant together with a jujube stone. The insect squirms in the green mud.

The soldier says goodbye to Mirza Qadir, and walks past you.

Yassin digs with his jujube stone at a footprint left by the soldier.

The ant is no longer there. Ant, mud and naswar are stuck to the boot of the departing soldier. (p17)

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Imagining a nation

March 5, 2003

Peter Craven (ed.) The Best Australian Stories 2002 Melbourne: Black Inc., 2002.

Reviewed by Felicity Henderson

9781863951951This is the third volume of Australian stories edited by Peter Craven in recent years, and, like the others, it claims to represent the ‘best’ new fiction by Australian writers.  Twenty-three writers contribute twenty-four pieces of writing, many of which have not been published before in any form, and some of which are extracts from works-in-progress rather than short stories in the traditional definition. Peter Craven, in his substantial introduction to the anthology, fires off various salvos at Australian cultural institutions or commentators he sees as inimical to his project (and hence, it seems, to Australian literature itself).  These need not concern the reader unless the reader is curious about the cut-throat world of Australian literary publishing.  More interesting is Craven’s comment that ‘a nation can only feel it exists when it imagines itself’.  If these stories contribute to Australia’s imagined identity, what do they tell us about ourselves?

Present in several of these stories is the suggestion of something hidden under the surface of the Australian landscape: an event that might be ignored or forgotten, but will inevitably come to light in a frightening and life-changing way.  Perhaps this sense of underlying tension stems from our sometimes savage history of colonisation and repression, which successive governments have done their best to bury or deny.  Generations of farmers and town-planners have stamped a certain European-style identity on the land, taming it with roads and fences and cultivating imported livestock and vegetation.  However, the ferocity of bushfires and the desolation caused by drought or floods keep reminding us that we have a tenuous grasp on this country.  We have an uneasy sense that we don’t belong here.

Our ambivalent relationship with the landscape lurks in the background of several writers’ stories. In Sonya Hartnett’s ‘The Dying Words of the Archangel’, a man lies dying in his bedroom and another hides in the bush outside town. The men are linked by the discovery of bones in the forest. It is not explained whose bones have been found, but the narrative suggests the archetypal Australian story of children lost in the bush. It is a beautiful piece of writing, illustrating the inner lives and voices of its two contrasting characters with clarity and detail, and an attention to the physical and imagined world that seduces the reader. However, as an extract from a forthcoming book it is slightly too elusive to stand alone here as the first chapter of the anthology.

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Txopokods and Clay Pots

March 5, 2003

Betty Mindlin and indigenous storytellers, Barbecued Husbands, London: Verso, 2002.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

barbacuedhusbandsBetty Mindlin is an anthropologist living in Brazil, and a founding member of the Institute of Anthropology and the Environment.  IAMA has been involved in extensive fieldwork with Brazil’s indigenous communities since the early 1990s, promoting native languages through multicultural and multilingual programs. The compellingly titled Barbecued Husbands is Mindlin’s new collection of stories recording the extraordinary myths of tribal peoples from Rondonia, a remote area of the Amazon near the Brazilian border with Bolivia.  Mindlin arranges the short, frequently shocking stories according to six tribal groups, representing the oral storytelling of the Macurap, Tupari, Ajuru, Jabuti, Arikapu, and Arua peoples.

To a Western reader the stories contained in Barbecued Husbands appear fantastic. Human heads detach from their bodies at night and fly through the air in search of food.  Tapirs strip off their fur and transform into seductive humans.  Mothers turn upside down and become cooking pots for slow boiling chicha (an intoxicating drink best made by women – because vegetables chewed by women make a sweeter fermented drink than anything masticated by men).  Piranhas spring fully formed from the severed head of a devoted, but discarded wife.  And the disappointed dead ascend as newborn stars or constellations.  Yet these seemingly extraordinary oral narratives are coherent tales of origin, identity and instruction within indigenous societies.  This rich collection of myths provides a wide range of stories explaining natural phenomena, human skill, and social mores of interest or practical application to tribal people.  Various storytellers relate why Brazil Nut trees are tall, why thunder roars, or why women menstruate. (In ancient times men used to menstruate and women would tease them about it, but since the day men retaliated by flicking menstrual blood at their tormentors it has been women who suffer.)  These stories explain the origin of cool rivers and the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes.  They narrate how the tribe survived disaster, and the origin of clay pots.  These stories also warn against incest and the dangers of spirit lovers sneaking about at night.  And young girls are counseled not to reject short suitors or they might end up with a snake for a husband!

The myths are often brutal, direct, and yet dreamlike, with sex, food and death constant preoccupations.  Hunting and foraging skills, body painting, drinking parties, love in a hammock, and the medicinal snuff associated with shamanism mark positive dimensions of life for the peoples of the jungle. But the Amazon is no idyll.  Jealousy, vengeance, cannibalism, wild beasts, and malevolent spirits mark the dangers and despairs of tribal life.  A number of the stories deal with the near extinction of the tribe.  Ghosts populate the jungle, and villagers need to be constantly alert and aware of danger.  Significantly, in some tribal languages the word for evil spirit is also the word for white man, but many of these stories predate contact with Europeans. The villages also have their own endogenous problems unrelated to the historic disaster of colonisation, making life in the primal Amazon less an Enlightenment-era State of Nature – populated by nakedly happy noble savages – and a little more Hobbesian in prospect: nasty, brutish and short.  Adultery or unrequited passion leads to murder or rape; scarcity brings theft, slaughter and cannibalism; and the Stubborn One, as is painfully apparent in many communities, ruins things for everyone.  At times the narrator of a gruesome moral tale links the old story with current practice and past – often violent – behaviour, such as the Tupari legend of a girl who refused to get married.  She was killed, roasted, and eaten.  “Even today, when a girl doesn’t want to get married, they tell her the story of Piripidpit.  In the old days, if a girl didn’t want to get married, they had her killed.”

A small number of the indigenous narrators of these marvelous legends were born in remote areas of the Amazon before contact with white people.  They suffered the decimation of their communities from introduced diseases like measles, or were forced into near slavery on rubber plantations in the 1920s and 1930s.  Many were dispossessed, moved on from their tribal lands, or required to work on the plantations before some groups attained land rights in the late twentieth century.  The six tribal groups represented in Barbecued Husbands represent a total population of 750 people.  In some of these tribes only five or six people retain knowledge of the traditional language.  Mindlin has had contact with one tribe, the Kanoe, where only one native speaker remains.

While a few of the native storytellers spoke to Mindlin in Portuguese, most used their native language. Some of the stories in this collection have passed down a complex path of translation from one indigenous language to another, then into Portuguese and finally rendered in English.  They remain vibrant and challenging for the non-indigenous reader, with striking imagery and occasional echoes or themes repeated in the stories and across tribal groups. Mindlin has sought to be true to the mood of the narrations rather than literal, although she has been careful not to invent material.  She is keen to have her collection live as a resource for indigenous peoples, and Mindlin has retained over three hundred hours of tape-recorded stories for others to use for education, further research and translation.  The Jabuti, among other tribal peoples, believe in the transformative power of words: “In those ancient times, what was said happened.”  With Barbecued Husbands and other collections like Mindlin’s living archive, things will continue to happen.

And finally, some practical advice: Whenever confronted by a ravenous Txopokod, do not be foolish enough to believe that handing over all the fruit from an apui tree will satiate this evil spirit.  A Txopokod certainly loves apui fruit, but your flesh will remain irresistibly desirable.  Unless you arm yourself with pepper; then you should be relatively safe.