Moments by Subhash Jaireth Puncher and Wattman, 2015
Subhash Jaireth has produced an increasingly rare thing in Australian prose fiction: a book that is both unashamedly intellectual and international in scope without succumbing to the awkward reverence that sometimes mars Australian writing. This is not to say that Moments is impenetrable or experimental (gasp!). On the contrary, it is a seductively written collection of stories that reimagines the lives of (mostly 20th century) prominent thinkers and artists through a series of vignettes. These are equally at home on a train to Leningrad as a rock formation in the Kimberley—equally up to the task of retelling the tragedy of an indigenous massacre as the horrors of Pinochet’s Chile. And yet the stories are subtle enough to make each tragic moment (and there are many, of varying degrees) uniquely felt. But this isn’t a book of sturm und drang. It’s a quiet book: a whisper; a slow dance; a growing realisation.
The success of these stories relies not on a pyrotechnic style, or what Raymond Carver called ‘cheap tricks’, but on a deft focalisation technique that takes the glare away from a story’s central subject (and their often well-rehearsed biographies) to rest upon tangential characters who have a certain connection, or particular way of seeing the subject. This in turn reveals that subject as an effect on someone else— a ripple in time and place if you like.
Take, for example, the wonderful pair of stories that form the central part of the collection. In ‘The Electric Dress’ conceptual performance artist, Atsuko Tanaka, is portrayed in her older years, living out her days in the Japanese countryside far from her beloved Osaka. Her health (mental and physical) is strained. She is tended by her husband Akira, and sometimes a young relative, Hiroshi. Into this mix comes a conceptual artist from India, Amrita, on a pilgrimage to meet the creator of the seminal performance piece: ‘Electric Dress’. What we learn through this encounter is not only the tenderness of the relationship of the older couple, or —in reflective passages —Tanaka’s ground-breaking work, but also a rumination on ageing and the artist, the capacity of performance art to incorporate the body in its expression, and for that expression to be truly novel.
It’s companion story, ‘Dance is like water’, is also of the body, and puts its central figure, Merce Cunningham, even further into the background. Here the narrator is Visnu, an Indian mathematician estranged from his despotic father, who runs a traditional dance studio in Madras. Visnu reflects on his enduring love for Lara, a young South American dancer who he meets in 1972 in New York. She is studying with Merce Cunningham. Visnu visits Lara at one of Cunningham’s classes and becomes entranced by the older dancer:
He was wound up like a spring ready to uncoil at any moment. When it came, the moment was utterly magical. I have never seen anyone so wonderfully animal-like: the sheer agility, the ability to turn unexpectedly, to leap high and float in the air as if he had wings and then land with immaculate ease, precision and grace.
This is all we see of Cunningham, whose impression Visnu carries with him through his love for Lara as they tour with her political dance troupe through Chile and the tumult of General Pinochet’s coup.
These echoes and reflections form a prismatic structure that seed impressions throughout the collection as characters appear and reappear. However, the central concern of the collection seems to me to be a fascination with the making and effect of art in its various forms. The technique of the stories seems to undermine the idea of the ‘great people’ of art (these are after all ‘fictional autobiographies’), while refocusing on their work and its influence. And this influence is often surprising.
In the penultimate story, ‘Quartz Hill’, a fictional Chinese photographer, Li, is taking photos of Alice, a young Australian dancer. In these opening passages, the story lingers on the fragile, but deep, collaborative bond between photographer and subject. Later, Li writes to Alice to tell of the deep significance of a painting by Paddy Bedford she has come across on the internet. Li decides to use this as an excuse to visit ‘the land of her grandmother’: Hall’s Creek in the Kimberley, also the home of Bedford, where she visits the site that is the subject of the painting to uncover its brutal history. Here, Jaireth is able to weave an indigenous massacre; the art of Paddy Bedford; the ephemeral nature of photography, and family, and history, and truth, into a satisfying, understated grandeur that easily inserts Australia and Australian culture into a broader global narrative without appearing deferential. The book is filled with these moments, and it left me very glad to have read it.
– Shane Strange
Shane Strange lives in Canberra. His writing has appeared in various print and on line journals, including Overland, Griffith Review, Burley and Verity La. He is currently studying at the University of Canberra, where he also tutors and lectures in Creative Writing.
Moments in available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/moments
Professor Jen Webb’s launch speech for Moments was previously published in Rochford Street Review https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/11/06/depth-surface-jen-webb-launches-moments-by-subhash-jaireth/