The concept of conscience: Paul Genoni launches ‘A Thousand Tongues’ by Ian Reid

A Thousand Tongues by, Framework Press, 2019, was launched by Paul Genoni at Mattie Furphy House, Swanbourne, Perth on 1 September 2019

I would like to start by thanking Ian for the invitation to launch A Thousand Tongues. It is always a privilege to be asked to undertake a launch, and to be given the opportunity to provide the first public utterance about a book that you hope, and in this case deserves, to be read and enjoyed by many.
A good place to start in discussing A Thousand Tongues is with the novel’s two epigraphs, the first of which is derived from a soliloquy delivered by the King in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

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My conscience hath a thousand several tongues
And every tongue brings in a several tale…

It is accompanied by an epigraph from Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, a novel that deals with composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s struggles with his conscience in Stalinist Russia. In the epigraphic quote Barnes suggests that conscience ‘no longer has an evolutionary function, and so has been bred out’, and that ‘within the modern tyrant’s skin … there is no cave of conscience to be found’.

These two epigraphs declare that A Thousand Tongues is a novel about conscience, the multitudinous and complex ways in which it can be manifested, the ‘slings and arrows’ it sends our way, and the role it might have in the contemporary world. The Shakespeare quote obviously provides the novel with its title, and also carries further weight within the text, where it recurs several times and performs as something of a leitmotif in the life of Gavin Staines. In this novel of many characters, both historical and contemporary, it is Staines who remains the gravitational centre around whom other characters, and their stories, circle.

When we first meet Staines in 1917 we learn that he is someone who has had a fledgling academic career, but is now incarcerated on Dartmoor as a conscientious objector against conscription. We also learn of the brutal treatment of Staines and other objectors by a government, a public, and a military system that demanded complete submissiveness by individuals to the war effort. Throughout history there has of course been an incalculable number of issues whereby matters of conscience have resulted in clashes between individuals and authority, but conscientious objection to military service has been one of the most persistent and divisive. It is an issue that tests to the limit the balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the state, and it is an issue that has polarised opinion and yielded little to compromise. It serves A Thousand Tongues extremely well as a bedrock test of conscience, but readers will encounter many more over the course of the novel’s 260 pages.

This basis in an early twentieth century narrative means that, as with Ian Reid’s previous novels, A Thousand Tongues can be described as an historical novel. But that is effectively, only half of what it delivers. A second narrative strand brings us forward 100 years, to a storyline regarding Tim Holmes and Valerie Morton, two PhD students at the University of Western Australia, both of who are engaged in forms of historical research. In this contemporary narrative, the complexities around the exercise of conscience are further expanded and explored, and a number of these are derived from the ethical challenges of historical research and its limits as a form of truth generation. The stories of Holmes and Morton also involve matters of conscience that are currently debated in the Australian public sphere, in particular around asylum seekers, which serves as a latter-day example of a disjunction between government policy and individual conscience that mirrors the debates mounted around conscientious objectors in the previous century. And not unexpectedly in terms of the novel’s development, their research eventually draws them into contact with Gavin Staines, and an extended world of historically based characters and issues.

I can attest from my experience as a university-based researcher, research supervisor and research administrator, that the many dilemmas that inevitably flow from higher degree research frequently tested my conscience and resulted in restless nights. I think we can infer from A Thousand Tongues that this has also been the case for Ian in the course of his academic work. Universities across Australia have addressed the challenges of research by putting in place committees, processes, and approvals under the banner of ‘ethics’, and while these have undoubtedly helped they have also institutionalised accountability and deflected attention from the matters of individual conscience created by research, for which students are often ill-prepared. As A Thousand Tongues explores, students are often underprepared for the many challenges encountered in the course of extended research, and in particular the novel traces the problems facing Valerie Morton, a young woman with an embedded lack of confidence and a fragile grasp of her own identity. University Humanities Departments could do worse than hand students a copy of A Thousand Tongues in order to prepare them for some of the challenges of conducting themselves conscionably, and of better understanding the other personal tests they may confront in undertaking a PhD.

But Valerie is far from being alone in dealing with both private and public tests of her conscience. In this tightly constructed and brilliantly organised novel, almost every character, both past and present, finds they are confronted by moral, ethical and political challenges, sometimes found in the public issues that swirl around them, but also in their personal circumstances and relationships. Just some of the matters of conscience woven into the several plots include,

● How Individuals find themselves aligned in support for a cause based on entirely different justifications of conscience.
● How an orthodoxy regarding a position of conscience for one generation, may be almost entirely overturned for another.
● How persons of good character and intention, committed to leading a life based on the honourable exercise of their conscience, may find themselves opposed, and undone, by others who are equally well intentioned.
● And how what is touted as ‘conscience’ may be something else altogether. Perhaps no more than an affectation that is constantly adjusted as individuals mould their opinions to suit changing personal circumstances.

It should also be clear by now that A Thousand Tongues is a novel of ideas, designed to have the reader not only interrogate matters internal to the text, such as plot, character and motive, but also to look outside the text, and question the place of conscience in their own lives, and how it relates to their values and identity, and to matters of current public debate. After you have read A Thousand Tongues, I can guarantee that the next time you come across someone – perhaps an errant politician, businessman or sports star – in the media defending themselves after being dragged before some court or tribunal, and declaring that they have acted in good conscience—then you will be asking yourself, what exactly do they, or we, mean by ‘conscience’?

You will also perhaps be asking that if, as is often asserted, we have entered an era of ‘post-truth’ in which objective ‘truths’ are seen as either indeterminate or inconsequential, then does conscience also become irrelevant? And if other frameworks for the formation of conscience, such as shared systems of religion and philosophy lose their reach across wide sections of society, is it possible for individuals to even muster a coherent or consistent conscientious position? Or perhaps, in such circumstances is our individualised conscience more important than ever as our only reliable guide in shaping personal opinion and action?

In reading a novel of ideas, it is likely that readers will question the extent to which the writer is present in the text. In other words, is the narrative voice in A Thousand Tongues that of the author, and can views expressed in the novel be said to reflect those of ‘Ian Reid’? I ask that question because Ian has, I believe, gone to the trouble of answering it in the novel, again with a little help from Shakespeare, but I will leave readers to discover his response as part of their own engagement with the text.

Where I believe Ian’s presence can be detected is with regard to the issue of history versus fiction. As Australians interested in public sphere discussion will be aware, there has been a turf war in Australia in recent years between historians and novelists as to who should have priority when it comes to recounting the nation’s big stories. While as a matter of debate the issue remains unresolved, we can sense where Ian’s sympathies lie. In A Thousand Tongues Tim Holmes and Valerie Morton come to lament the inability of their historical research to yield the insight that they come to believe can only be achieved through more imaginatively grounded forms of enquiry and representation. This epiphany seemingly accords with the trajectory of Ian’s own shift from academically driven enquiry to the writing of fiction, albeit fiction that remains underpinned by his considerable skills in historic research.

If anything I have said to this point leads you to conclude that A Thousand Tongues is in any way, ‘hard going’ then let me put your mind at rest. For although it deals with big themes, and just some of the plot elements I haven’t mentioned include murder, suicide, racism, abortion, industrial poverty—and also what to an academic is the most serious sin of all, plagiarism—it does so with an admirable lightness of touch. A Thousand Tongues carries all the hallmarks of Ian’s three previous novels—it is impeccably researched, meticulously plotted, and blessed with elegantly and artfully crafted prose. Nothing is laboured, and the pages slip by in a most beguiling manner. It is also remarkably concise, and I can assure you that as a reader you won’t be screaming for a good editor. Ian is working at the top of his craft, and to my mind it is remarkable that this intricately crafted novel has been delivered in such a compact and constantly engaging form.

I would also like to note that A Thousand Tongues can claim membership of that smallish, but for some of us important genre, the campus novel—a genre that has a deeper tradition in other countries than it has enjoyed in Australia. As mentioned, it is a novel about a particular campus, the University of Western Australia. It is perhaps surprising that UWA hasn’t had a more prominent place in WA fiction given its role in the lives of many of the state’s writers. Randolph Stow and Tim Winton have written scenes set on the campus, and perhaps something might be found in the writing of Peter Cowan, Dorothy Hewett, Benda Walker, Gail Jones or some of the many others who have a long personal engagement with the university. But I believe that A Thousand Tongues may be as close as anything we have to a campus novel set at UWA. It is one of the novel’s many small pleasures that for those of us who love the campus it evokes many familiar settings. As always Ian is exact in his descriptions of place, and readers will instantly recognise the sets of stairs, walkways, arches and even trees that he describes. Readers more astute than myself might even recognise the aptly named research supervisor described as the ‘uncharismatic Dr Barry Plunket’, who’s contribution to the plot is to be a point of avoidance for his student, Valerie Morton.

I’d like to finish with two personal matters that influenced my reading of A Thousand Tongues.

Firstly, a man who has been in my thoughts in recent years, my great uncle, Ernesto Genoni. Ernesto was one of nine brothers who migrated to Australia from the mountains of northern Italy. They were a family of pacifists, who came to Australia as they reached conscriptionable age in order to avoid compulsory service in the Italian army. Ernesto was the youngest and last to arrive, in 1911. Despite sharing the family’s pacifist views, he enlisted in the First AIF in 1915 as part of a category of non-combatant soldiers created for those who would otherwise have been conscientious objectors. Of the 400,000 persons who enlisted with the First AIF, Ernesto is likely to have been one of the very few who gave his religion as ‘Theosophy’. He served on the western front throughout 1916 the AIF as a stretcher bearer, and was involved in the Battle of the Somme, including at Pozieres. His time in an Australian uniform was cut short, however, when Italy declared war against Germany in August 1916, and soon after demanded that this Italian citizen be returned to them for service in the Italian army. Perhaps unconscionably, the Australian command handed him over. The Italians had no category or role for non-combatant servicemen. When Ernesto refused to sign an oath that would have committed him to a combat role, he, like Gavin Staines, was incarcerated. He spent over two years in gaol in Verona, not being released until March of 1919.

Secondly, Ian managed to get a copy of A Thousand Tongues to me shortly before I embarked on some European travel. I read the book twice, firstly in Paris, and then in Spain. Between these two readings, I had an encounter that deeply impacted the second reading. As I travelled south I stopped to meet an elderly English women, Dot, who lives in a village outside Bordeaux. It was the first time I had met Dot, but I had known her for some five years, after we began corresponding as I undertook research involving her late husband. Over those years she had shared her reflections on his life and provided some relevant photographs, but the bulk of the documents I relied upon were sourced from material he had deposited with a public archive. The purpose of the visit was to give Dot my thanks for her assistance. During our fascinating and delightful discussion, however, she began to offer me many other documents from her husband’s personal records, including photographs, diaries, and correspondence – material he had chosen not to place in the public collection. But as Dot approaches 90 and with no children or family, she is concerned both about her husband’s legacy, and the future of the documents still in her keeping. I was immediately conflicted as to where my obligations as a researcher lay – to my subject, Dot’s deceased husband; to Dot, now by default in possession of this material and wanting to rid herself of the burden in an orderly manner; to other individuals, some dead, some still living, about whom I knew there was material of a deeply personal nature included in these documents which were never intended for the eyes of a stranger; to some concept of ‘pure research’, policed by the ethical requirements of a University by whom I am no longer employed; or my own self-interest, driven as it is by the curiosity that led me to pursue this subject and to initiate my relationship with Dot. I was troubled on that day, and I have been troubled since by the issues raised by our meeting.

I mention these two matters because both are relevant to the content of A Thousand Tongues, and both were important to my reading of the novel. But it is that sort of novel. Readers will approach it with their own similar personal histories and experiences; reference points that determine their own understanding of the concept of conscience and the place it has assumed in their lives. After all, the point of a ‘conscience’ is that it is highly personal, formed and framed by many experiences—momentous and incidental, public and private, recent and distant—that shape our own view of the world, our place in it, our relationships with others, and our response to the important issues of our life and times.

It is with that thought that I am extremely pleased, in all good conscience, to declare A Thousand Tongues, launched.

 – Paul Genoni

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Paul Genoni is an Adjunct Associate Professor with the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. He has published widely on Australian literary and cultural studies, and is the author of Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction (Common Ground, 2004); and with Tanya Dalziell, co-author of Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1954 (Monash University Publishing, 2018). He is a former President of the Association for the Study of Australian literature.

A Thousand Tongues is available from https://frameworkpresscomau. wordpress.com/

 

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