A Slightly Frustrating Novel : Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Black Mountain’ by Venero Armanno

Black Mountain by Venero Armanno UQP 2012

black mountainI have a pile of books on desk waiting to be reviewed or to be more correct, waiting for me to have the time to review them. Black Mountain by Venero Armanno has been waiting longer than most. Published in 2012 it was one of those books that intrigued me with its back cover blurb about a boy being sold into slavery to work in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago. Finally, four years late, I finally picked it up.

Interestingly, after finally reading it I had to wait a few weeks before putting pen to paper. The novel itself was relatively easy to read once you get into it and has a strong central narrative that drives the reader forward. But it is also working on a number of different levels, and not all of them are successful.

Black Mountain opens with a man dreaming of a creature with no face. The man and the creature are in a bare room and the creature begs for the man to strangle him one senses to put him out of his misery. As he chokes the creature the blank face takes on the form of the man strangling him. The dream belongs to Mark Alter, a twenty two year old university drop out living alone outside a small coastal town in Australia. He has been having the dream about the creature for as long as he can remember. One night after watching a movie in the town cinema he decides to write a film script featuring the creature and then sends it off to a well known film producer. A few weeks later the producer contacts him and accuses him of plagiarising the creature from a novel called Black Mountain by a writer called Cesare Montenero.

Alter finds a copy of the book and finds that his creature really does feature in Montenero’s novel. He then attempts to track down the elderly and reclusive Montenero in an attempt to understand how they can share the same creatue. When he finally does tracks him down he finds that Montenero has fled and that his home, or more accurately a mansion, is empty. But he also finds a metal box with a manuscript inside and it is this manuscript which provides the bulk of Armanno’s novel . The manuscript is split up into a number of books (Black Book, Blue Book, Green Book etc) and details Montenero’s life from his days as a young slave working in the sulphur mines of Sicily to old age in Australia.

It does, however, takes 30 pages to get to the beginning of Montenero’s manuscript and I had rapidly become tired of the story of Mark Alter by that point. Alter is a very one dimensional character and his story so unlikely that it was only my interest in how we would get to the sulphur mines of Sicily that kept me going.  But the manuscript is a different matter. The character of the young Montenero is richly drawn and the dissolution and hopelessness of the sulphur mines, and the child slaves that are forced to work there, stands out. This is powerful narrative writing which continues through much of the rest of the novel as the young Montenero escapes and is rescued almost on the point of death.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to learn more about Montenero’s background. He was not, as he thought, sold into slavery as a young boy by his family, rather he was the result of a long running experiment to ‘clone’ humans, an experiment which was shut down during WW1. As Montenero learns more about his background the narrative again starts to break down as the fantasy element of the novel, a sort of Victorian genetic enginering, begins to assert itself.

Black Mountain is for me a slightly frustrating novel and I sense that Armanno is trying to do a little too much in it. I did note that he has written a number of young adult novels (along with another 9 novels) and I did feel at times, particularly during the Prologue, that there elements of a YA novel close to the surface. Perhaps as a result I felt Black Mountain to be a uneven novel, which is ashame because when it is good, such as in the large section revolving around the young Montenero’s life in Sicily, his escape from from the sulphur mines and his rise and fall as a writer, it is very very good. There is just too much getting in the way of the core narrative. As an editor I would have perhaps suggested ditching the Mark Alter character completely and concentrating purely on the life story of Montenero. The novel may have been slightly shorter but you would be thrust into the drama of the sulphur mines almost from page one.

So in the end Black Mountain didn’t quite live up my expectations, which were perhaps a little high given how long I had waited before reading the novel. I felt a little like finally drinking a wine that had been cellared for years only to find that it had just past its peak.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and publisher of Rochford Street Press. His collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February 2016.

Black Mountain is available from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1205/Black%20Mountain

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An Unflinching & Nuanced Portrayal of Australian Masculinity: Daniel Young Reviews ‘We. Are. Family.’ by Paul Mitchell

We. Are. Family. by Paul Mitchell Midnight Sun Publishing 2016

we-are-familyEach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and it seems that unhappiness is passed down from each generation to the next. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote that “the evidence that the effects of trauma can reverberate through generations—that history can be ‘embodied’—has steadily mounted” and that “a study at the University of Zurich has shown that stress in a male mouse can alter the RNA in his sperm, causing depression and behavioural changes that persist in his progeny”. Whether such inheritance really is physical, encoded in RNA, or cultural, passed down through the behaviour of one’s parents—or both—there’s certainly truth to the idea that family trauma can be difficult to escape from. In Australia, is toxic masculinity also passed down in a similar way through the inescapable expectations of the culture at large?

In Paul Mitchell’s debut novel We. Are. Family., familial trauma meshes with toxic masculinity to reverberate through multiple generations of the Stevenson family. The non-linear episodic structure of the novel—with a number of these episodes having appeared previously as standalone short stories—allows the novel to cross perspectives and generations as it tells the story of Peter Stevenson, his brothers Simon and Terry, their parents, grandparents and extended family.

The book opens with Ron Stevenson driving his family home, and some disconcerting perspective switches between Ron and his son Peter provide a picture of a working-class family, a troubled marriage, and confusion from Peter about why his Aunt has been put into “some kind of hospital”—a mental institution. Ron is straitjacketed by his masculinity: he observes his children sleeping as he drives and “wanted to reach over and touch them, but that was Julie’s job”. Peter, meanwhile struggles to understand the day’s events and is dealt a line that is all-too-familiar from my own upbringing: “Good boys should be seen and not heard”. And so from here, at the centre of this family tree, the story begins.

Shifting times and perspectives are often signalled through language and cultural references, both of which can feel overdone at times. Aussie lingo can come to sound like a caricature on the page, but it is being rendered realistically, so this complaint seems unfair. References to the zeitgeist—both the X-Files and the Three Colours films within a short passage—are sometimes dropped in purely as signposts, but at other times, such as in a reference to the recession “that goose Keating reckoned they had to have”, we see not just the events of the time but how they’ve impacted the lives of these characters. Among the lingo and sometimes frustratingly short, stilted sentences, there is also room for great humour and Aussie irony, poetic symbolism, and the healing power of art, drawing from Mitchell’s varied background as a published poet, playwright, screenwriter and essayist.

The non-linear structure is an effective device, allowing details to emerge throughout the book, though the chopping and changing of perspectives in short chapters makes for a stop/start beginning that takes some persistence. It’s worth persisting until the depth of each character grows and we’re treated to longer chapters in the book’s midsection, particularly those dealing with Peter, Terry and Simon as adults, and come to see how they’ve all been influenced by their childhood and coped with events in their own ways.

This is a very ‘male’ book in a number of ways, and privileges this perspective without letting the reader forget the lives of the women who are undoubtedly also key to this family saga. Paul Mitchell does well to capture the constraints, the humour, the vernacular and the ideas of family that come with Australian masculinity, while providing a clear-eyed view of the darkness that can result. We. Are. Family. is an unflinching and nuanced portrayal of Australian masculinity, mental illness and domestic violence, one that will resonate in an unsettling way with the upbringings of many Australians.

 – Daniel Young

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Daniel Young is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal and has had short fiction published in Hello Mr. Magazine, Verity La, Mascara Literary Review, Seizure, The Suburban Review and Antithesis Journal. He is (slowly) reviewing all the novellas at allthenovellas.com and can be found on Twitter @jazir1979.

We. Are. Family. is available at http://midnightsunpublishing.com/shop/books/we-are-family/

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Traitor’ by Stephen Daisley

Chris Palazzolo reads Traitor by Stephen Daisley, Text, 2011

TraitorSome national mythologies cry out for re-examination, especially after they’ve been around for 100 years. One such myth is that of ANZAC, which last year marked its 100th anniversary. I can think of no better re-interpretation of the ANZAC myth than Stephen Daisley’s novel Traitor.

Time in this novel is very complex, but can be reduced to two absolute pasts; the closer, but still closed off past of 1940s rural New Zealand, and another, further back past of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Each of these pasts slip and shift into the foreground of the narration like shifting plates of memory and presence. The lapidary style of the novel gives a pebbly consistency to these plates, as if a life consists of tiny stones of poetic events and recollections that together in the course of growth and change begin to look fluid, like tectonic movements make solid rock look fluid. The big guns of Gallipoli set the plates in motion; their sound reverberates through the novel’s thirty year time span.

If one lays these pebbled plates out flat one can see that the presence is that of a farmer in New Zealand working his cold paddocks. Solitary, largely avoided by his neighbours, he is harassed by military police because he was court martialled for desertion in the First World War and so is seen as a security risk during the Second. The memory is of the circumstances that led to his desertion 30 years prior; as a young soldier in the ANZAC – a shepherd boy in uniform and with a gun fighting in a war he knew nothing about – he befriended, while on sentry duty, a maimed Turkish doctor who was a POW and tried to set him free, but was captured, court martialled and instead of being shot sent to the next worst thing, bomb disposal in no man’s land on the Western Front.

The memories of what he did, and what he lost, are what sustained him in the terrible decades of loneliness and ostracism that followed. These memories go to his motives. This is the central mystery of the novel; why did he set the enemy doctor free. I would summarise it this way – moved to pity by the doctor’s suffering, enchanted by the doctor’s Sufi words, his mind pummelled to a perpetual present by non-stop bombardment, the young shepherd soldier turned to god. His foolish act on this conversion meant surrendering himself to the harshest judgement of the world of nations – treason. The nation brought the full weight of this judgement to bear on him and crushed his sovereign subjectivity, but in the process saved his soul which, freed by the act of love (setting the doctor free) was purified by the abnegation that followed. The love meant more than just treason. It was also a breach of faith which can only be described as apostasy; the act and the love which motivated it effectively amounted to a conversion from one native faith of nation and people to a higher faith of God of all humanity (conversion is always to a higher faith).

From the perspective of a military mythology, the soldier is a weak-minded fool, and the non-military purity of his motives count for nothing in that judgement. But the ANZAC myth is unique among military myths in that, despite attempts to jingoise it, it remains a negative military myth; first of all, it commemorates a defeat; and second, it honours the Turkish defenders. But this is because ANZAC is not a military myth at all. It is, in fact, a tragic strophe in a pastoral epic. The Gallipoli campaign echoes deeply in the Australian and New Zealand psyches because it melded so poetically into the long pastoral eras of those countries; geopolitical events as mysterious to the Australasian mind as the inner workings of the seasons suddenly causing the deaths of thousands of young men; an event so inexplicable it seemed like a catastrophe of nature. The mythology is wide open to metaphysics. Traitor subverts many received notions of ANZAC, but without ever diverting from a logic intrinsic to it; mateship elevated to the love of an enemy soldier, not out of a desire to see that soldier’s country win, but out of love of his godliness. Where in the myth of Agincourt for instance would there be room for an English soldier to desert with a Frenchman? No matter how pure his motives might be, Agincourt is a glorious myth of victory for the English, so his actions could only ever be conceived of as treasonous. By following rigorously the trajectory that the ANZAC myth points towards (and which no other novel has ever done) Traitor moves us beyond nations and peoples and even histories to an event of cosmic significance; the making of a Holy Idiot.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

Traitor is available from https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/traitor

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Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Umbrella’ by Will Self

Chris Palazzolo feels his way through Umbrella by Will Self, Bloomsbury, 2012

UmbrellaRoland Barthes makes the distinction between the ‘readerly’ text and the ‘writerly’ text – the readerly text, which is the kind of text we encounter most commonly in everyday life, is where transparency of meaning is what all of writing labour is devoted too. Newspaper prose is the perfect example of ‘readerly’. When we skim a newspaper article, we get no sense of the industry that has gone into its production, neither the physical labour of writing the raw copy, from research, note taking, and 3am keyboard bashing, to the yanking and twisting of that raw copy into grammatical sentences that flow clearly and legibly – the text is ‘readerly’ because ease of reading and the transparent and limpid conveyance of meaning from text to reader’s mind is what the whole industry is about.

The ‘writerly,’ on the other hand, are those rarer, usually poetic as well as modernistic and experimental prose texts, where the labour of writing demands a more equal share of labour on the part of the reader. James Joyce described the ‘writerly’ when he said a novel should take as long to read as it took to write (it took him 7 years to write Ulysses, and took me 14 months and a considerable chunk of a scholarship from Murdoch University to hack my way through it – writerly indeed! I felt I had to ‘write’, that is to say inscribe into my brain, every word of that book, before it yielded meaning).

Will Self’s Umbrella is such a book, which is to say, its mysteries are not accessible to the casual reader. Nonetheless if one is prepared to put in the effort (in my case a kind of six pages forward, four pages back kind of reading, so that with each session I would progress two pages) it will open up. The challenges it puts in your way are features such as no chapters and no paragraphs so the book is one exhausting block of text (there are paragraph-like indentations every ten or twenty pages or so, but they’re not really paragraphs because many of them are continuous sentences), and sudden shifts of subjectivity which are also often in the middle of sentences. In the broadest sense it is about the pot-bound nature of institutionalised memory; the memories centre on a patient in a specialised hospital, and how those memories, both the patient’s and others connected to the patient, are tangled together.

Because the book is one unbroken roll of text we can think of its memory scheme as pleats of fabric folded over and tangled in to form a kind of rabbit warren of funnels leading to chambers and gaps of lost time. If I was to iron out that fabric in order to put all of its events into the proper (chronological) order, the story would look like this – London, 2010, the disgraced and pensioned-off former psychiatrist Zachary Busner, takes a bus trip down to a new block of swanky apartments built on and around the site of the hospital where, in 1971, he conducted the experiments that got him struck off the register. Those experiments involved the use of a powerful hallucinogenic drug called L-Dopa to revive patients made catatonic by encephalitis lethargica. One of the patients, Miss Audrey Death, had been in the hospital since 1920, but when revived her memory and language was so clear it was as if the fifty years of catatonia had been no time at all (she remembered, among other things, all the factories she worked in before she was hospitalised, including a munitions factory and an umbrella factory). Nonetheless, something had happened during her hospitalisation; her sensory deprived subjectivity had found, through a hole of what can only be described as familial and race memory, passageways to the contemporary experiences of her two brothers, both of whom in different ways, were destroyed by the First World War.

The hospital is the ruling sign of this book. It is both a setting for all the crucial action, and a metaphor for the crabbed-in depth memories its very walls induce in its residents. And rabbit warren is the way a nurse once described Royal Perth Hospital to me. This aging facility, over a century old, has had so many additions to it; new wards, new passageways linking wings, which themselves were added to and modified decades later, that the hospital has become a labyrinth of imperfectly matched styles, steps, slopes and entrances to other entrances, each bearing the imprimatur of rational trends and assumptions current at the time of construction. This strange, anachronistic, four dimensionality serves a single purpose; the containment of sickness, its cure, or ease of death, onto the body of the patient. But the patient’s subjectivity is another rabbit hole within this warren. Friern-Barnet Hospital, where Audrey Death resides and Dr Zach Busner conducts his brilliant and career destroying experiments, is a kind of hermetic container of personal and racial suffering (its patients are all Jews). Like Royal Perth Hospital it has that rabbit warren structure of ad-hoc additions. Contained in the middle is the warren of Audrey Death’s memories, and, confoundingly, her communings with her brothers even after they’ve died. Where does her subjectivity stop and theirs start? What wall was knocked out, what passageway, what entrance opened up deep inside her mind that led to the infinite interlocked chambers of her brothers’ subjectivities? This is the deepest mystery of all.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

Will Self has a website http://will-self.com/

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Sydney Writers Festival: Ye Xin discusses ‘Educated Youth’

Educated Youth by Ye Xin was originally published in China in 1991. The first English translation has just been published by Giramondo Publishing (translated by Jin Han). Ye Xin spoke at Chatswood Library on 19 May as part of the Sydney Writers Festival.

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Ye Xin with translator Jing Han discussing Educated Youth at Chatswood Library as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It was an interesting experience to attend a literary event in Sydney where over half of the audience was non-European and where non-Chinese speakers had to rely on a translator to follow what was going on.

In retrospect, however, the real surprise was just how rare this experience is. Australia is a linguistically diverse continent – in the late nineteenth century there were approximately 250 indigenous languages or dialects in use around the country (and despite the best efforts of Australian governments over the last 116 years many of these languages are still spoken) – and to our north there are millions of people whose native language is not English. Yet our literature is still predominately an English language literature – work written in or by Australians, even in other European languages, still ranks as curiosity rather than part of the mainstream.

This maybe slowly changing Owl Press, which has been around since the 1990s, publishes writing by Greek Australians and Spinifex Press, is celebrating 25 years of publishing this year, has also been active in publishing and translating the works of women writers from around the world and has an Indian publishing program that stretches back 24 years. We have also seen publishers like Vagabond Press embrace writing from around Asia and the Pacific over recent years as it attempts to include Australian writing in a wider local literary context. Giramondo have also been active in expanding their publishing program beyond the English centric borders of Australian culture and their latest publication, a translation of Ye Xin’s 1991 novel Educated Youth, is further evidence of this.

Ye Xin spoke about his novel at Chatswood Library last Thursday as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival. Through his interrupter he described the main themes of the novel, the “educated youths” or zhiqing, high school graduates who found themselves separated from their families and sent into the country side as part of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Xin, who was one of the zhiging, explained that many of them embraced the change with revolutionary zeal as they felt that they needed to be “re-educated”, others simply “went with the flow”. As the years passed many married, had children and settled down. Then when Mao died they were suddenly free to return to the city under certain circumstances. Only unmarried zhiging were allowed to move back. Many simply abandoned their families, or found means to quickly divorce and flee. Years later, however, the children they left behind began travelling to the cities to look for their parents, many of whom who had married and started new families.

Considering it is now 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the publication of the English translation of Educated Youth is a timely one and Ye Xin’s author’s talk raised a number of issues for both the Chinese and non-Chinese members of the audience.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Educated Youth is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/educated-youth/

The Politics of the Australian Pastoral: Jonathan Dunk Reviews ‘The Hands’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr Wakefield Press 2015

The HandsPastoral’, from the Latin word for shepherd, denotes a form of verse composed in praise of rural and bucolic life against the urban and mercantile. It was inaugurated by Theocritus in third century B.C.E Sicily, but typified by Virgil’s Eclogues composed between 44 and 39 B.C.E. Classical poets often associated rural life with Hesiod’s Golden Age, and the form rapidly evolved into an idealized and loftily conventional aristocratic parlour-game divorced the actualities of agricultural conditions; like a farm themed costume party thrown for the privileged kids at St. Paul’s. Ironically enough the genre was moved closer to realism by John Gay’s extravagant parody The Shepherd’s Week in 1714 which juxtaposed the elegant formulas of pastoral poetry with the crude realities of rustic life. Virgil’s fourth eclogue, ‘Pollio’, proclaimed the Golden Age inaugurated by Augustus, and constituted an extremely potent political mythology, later fulsomely exploited by the Christian allegorists as Frank Kermode writes in The Classic (1975). Even at its most idealized and nostalgic, the pastoral form is intricately dialectical, and keenly political.

In the colonial era the pastoral, like many forms of landscape writing, was pressed into the service of what Paul Carter calls the “fabric of self reinforcing illusions” of colonial discourse which Edward Said defines as “the ideas, forms, and imaginings” that legitimate(d) imperium. In Australia the most potent article of this process was the doctrine of Terra Nullius in which the continent was imagined as a tabula rasa ripe for European settlement and cultivation. Of course, the land wasn’t, and isn’t empty, but inhabited by a pre-existent and sophisticated culture of land-management, one albeit, profoundly antithetical to European systems of cultivation. In these forms of colonial contexts, landscape genres like the picturesque and the pastoral acquire a particularly poignant ideological freight as mechanisms by which “colonial space is rendered familiar and manageable according to western schemes of representation, as Jeanne van Eeden writes in a study of South African architectural politics.

In his 1993 article ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral’ Ivor Indyk traces representations of the antithetical other through a genre which he understands as haunted by “a sense of violation, caused by an upheaval… the displacement of an Indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.” Indyk considers the idealized Rousseaian representations of the Aboriginal-as-noble-savage in Australian colonial poetry a presence which “unsettles the affirmations of the pastoral song” and therefore argues that the success of this genre in effacing the prior claim of Aboriginal custodians is at most “limited and partial”.

Writing, perhaps, in a more cynical time I’d argue that the claim to “a deeper and more basic” connection to country which Indyk finds articulated in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo (1929), in which Aboriginal people are figured as the simpler children of an essential ‘life force’, merely constitutes a more sophisticated, and therefore more insidious, form of colonial discourse.

From the current vantage, Coonardoo reads as heavy-handed, and paternalistic novel which rehearses Daisy Bates’ disingenuous ‘smooth the pillow of a dying race’ dictum rather than critically engage the material conditions of Australian colonialism. A disappointing turn, given Prichard’s Marxist inclinations.

Stephen Orr’s new novel The Hands was published in late 2015, and is currently under consideration for the 2016 Miles Franklin prize. The Hands is a cyclical, familial pastoral circling the red soil of the Australian interior. ‘Bundeena’, the farm worked by six generations of the Wilkie family, straddles the territorial edge of the Modern Project, on the lip of the Nullabor desert, where the east-west rail corridor thunders by, and where “man” according to Trevor Wilkie, “had given up agriculture”. Already, on it’s fourth page, you’ll note that the text denies Aboriginal land management practises the dignity of cultivation. ‘Bundeena’ is a Dharawal word meaning ‘like thunder’, which in Sydney is traditionally associated with the waves. In Orr’s arid setting, four hundred miles from the coast, the etymon acquires more ominous connotations. The name is one of the text’s notably scarce allusions to Indigenous culture, a fact to which I will return.

The novel’s dust-jacket wears the subtitle ‘An Australian Pastoral’ above the poignant image of a small homestead with corrugated iron roof, clinging to the face of a parched country beneath a vast celestial geography. The ironic structure looks fragile, already historical. Thus self-proclaimed, The Hands plants crooked fences across a nebulous territory.

Orr takes one epigraph from Eliot’s ‘The Dry Salvages’ in which the recurrent hauntings of history are tremulously elevated to a profession of religious faith, and another from James Agee and Walker Evans’ elegiac documentary of Depression era sharecroppers Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Both texts were first published in 1941, and this duality expresses the fundamental tonal and stylistic ambivalence of the text’s moment. It aspires both to tragedy and reportage.

Firstly, Orr’s novel liberally avails itself of tragic structures and iconography: the action set in the early 2000’s is haunted by an ancestor’s desertion in the First World War, and the resulting ignominy which precipitates his father’s suicide. A miasma of past wrongs and suppressed guilt palls the station’s air, and inflects the drought with the weight of an ancestral curse. The supposedly firm roots of the Wilkie patrimony, extolled so inflexibly by the patriarch Murray, are gradually excavated by the narrative arc, and revealed as a fragile honeycomb of lies.

If The Hands is a tragedy, however, it conspicuously lacks a hamartia. John Wilkie’s shell-shocked desertion, and his father’s subsequent suicide are resonant indictments of the inflexible axioms of rural masculinity, but these events seem a symptom rather than a first cause for the historical despair threatening to engulf the Wilkies. In his 1968 Boyer Lectures the anthropologist Bill Stanner argued that the Australian false historical consciousness comprised “a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale”. In an exchange dismally familiar Trevor Wilkie derides his son Harry’s history curriculum for including abstractions like Ancient Egypt alongside ‘real’ history like the explorers. Further, when Harry does study the explorers he learns to Trevor’s chagrin that: “they only survived because of the blackfellas”, a reflection which prompts one of the many reveries through Trevor’s mind which ventriloquise the brittle, contorted melancholies of white Australia: “Trevor was tired of songlines, and explorers. They weren’t real – anymore, at least. .”

If we combine Stanner’s historical diagnosis with the psychoanalytic approach to Australian literary culture in Jennifer Rutherford’s Lacanian study The Gauche Intruder (2000) Orr’s novel can be observed writing into an Australian settler fantasy obsessively overwriting the forcible dispossession of the Aboriginals with anxious eulogies to masculine prowess. The guilt of which, naturally, always returns, displaced into the body of the text.

Trevor’s blithe dismissal of history is bitterly ironic, as the belief structures that keep him locked in a struggle of diminishing returns against a sere landscape is constructed and not given. That is, to paraphrase Coetzee in Dusklands (1974), history is whose fault he is, and the truth of that history might set him free from a despairing obligation to a failed and misbegotten estate.

Like many novelists straddling that much disputed category, the middle-brow, Orr is playing a double-game. His other, and contradictory ambition in this novel is foregrounded by the other epigraph. That is, to record in detail the conditions of the rural poor. Subsequently the texture of the novel’s language ripples with barbed wire and sighs with gidgee and bluebush, mallee and bloodwood. The minutiae of country life, like the pedagogic rituals of the School of the Air, and the intricate dignities of labour involved in the muster, say, are recorded with a precision that will, I imagine, divide readers.

To some, the mechanical litany of ‘authentic’ detail characterising much of this novel will be an asset. Readers like Stella Clarke who reviewed Orr’s earlier novel Dissonance for The Australian: “Orr is a no-nonsense, vivid storyteller” Clarke writes, who “punches out exchanges… in a pragmatic way… without sentiment.” Perhaps for some there’s a pleasing and steadying representative frisson to be found in this kind of fiction. For me though, this is where the pastoral merges with the Wintonesque suburban narrative; it becomes a fleetingly examined self-consciously masculine realism; predictably solid fare for that mythical tribe: ‘Middle Australia’. This kind of book is a perspiring VB in a Carlton FC neoprene sock. It’s quartered oranges at half-time, unveiled like corpus Christi in a Tupperware coffin by someone’s cardiganed mum. It’s double-brick and a Hills Hoyst, Winfield Blues and Wonder White, Menzies’ forgetting people, and Howard’s perpetual battlers: a mirage of diesel-slick wilting up from an endless stretch of bitumen into a blizzard of midday sun. A tedious rehearsal of threadbare clichés.

Perhaps I’m just disappointed. There are moments early in The Hands that promise much more than they deliver. A few pages in, following a dog-chewed akubra, some lyrically parched soil, and the usual nonsense about ‘taming the country’ there follows a more interesting passage:

“As they drove the clock rattled in its too-big receptacle. His eyes settled on a pocket of of ground peeling away from the earth in the mid-distance. He felt himself falling, until he wasn’t in his ute. This place – the fences, the cattle, their hunger, their thirst – seemed to have nothing to do with him. All he had to do was keep his foot on the accelerator. That would lead to arrival, eating, sleeping, vaccinating, ranting about government and stock agents driving jaguars. But beyond all this he felt smaller than a spider.” (p6.)

This is plangent stuff. The bumbling chronometer of metropolitan time, the standardized currency of western linear history, rattles in the wide socket of the Australian continent, its most resistant soil. The time, as Slessor writes in Five Bells “that is moved by little fidget wheels/ Is not my time”, the temps of Modernity is not the durée of individual, affective experience, to adapt Bergson’s model. In the third vision of his earlier poem Five Visions of Captain Cook Slessor artfully situates a similar temporal schism between the two quarrelling time pieces kept by Captain Cook on the Endeavour, “choked with appetite to wolf up time”. Stretching the cross-reference a little further; the temporal narrative of modernity arrives on these shores already broken, and in the echo of this crooked narratival space the Wilkies and their ilk attempt to live. The soil itself, to which the frantic nostalgia of the Australian pastoral enacts a constant Pochvennichestvo-esque return, shrugs off the settler’s gaze, and refuses to contain his presence. The untethered repetitions of eating, sleeping, ranting, getting and spending, form the tenuous thread of his dissociative desire. Most of the depiction of Trevor’s interiority in The Hands is keenly aware that this cultural configuration is a cul-de-sac.
At one point in novel, traumatized by a car accident, another subverted trope of masculine autonomy, Trevor’s oldest son Aidan deliberately rides down a kangaroo on his quadbike:

“He took a deep breath, found his knife in his pocket and opened it. Then he knelt down beside the animal, grabbed its scrotum and cut into it. The roo struggled and made a series of low, guttural moans. Only wanting to finish the job, he castrated it, stood up and threw the warm, bloodied sac onto its body.” (p104-105).

This act is a cruel parody of the Wilkies’ method of bull-catching during muster, the text’s supreme embodiment of the “will” and “bloody mindedness” of rural masculinity. At this, and many similar points in the novel, the critique of the text’s ideological material is incisive and visceral: Australian masculinity performs its brokenness violently upon the body of the other, the animal, the earth.

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However this promise is not pursued to its full potential, like the Wilkie family, the text is divided against itself, fundamentally ambivalent about the future. It yearns to burn the crumbling estate of the Australian pastoral to the ground, but remains wedded to it like Murray, the family patriarch, and a miserable old bastard incapable of imagining another way of being. Although the text stages and performs the Australian settlement’s ubiquitous denial of frontier violence, it shirks from articulately disrupting or subverting this silence, and so risks replicating it.

In a comparable vein, The Hands takes pains to illustrate how the roaring days of masculine prowess abused the unrecompensed emotional and material labour of women, but remains incapable of furnishing its female characters with agency or interiority. Again, this boundary is dismally appropriate to the tradition into which Orr writes. Kay Schaffer and others have shown in their critical reinterpretation of the hallowed ‘Bulletin years’ of the 1890s, that the putative golden age of Australian literary nationalism, perpetrated a forcible overwriting of the lives and work of women. In one scene towards the novel’s conclusion Trevor and Murray watch “a mother in frayed track pants and an old boob-tube, a cellulite midriff and pierced belly button” and conclude that “it could be worse”, referring to her as a “bush pig” and a “fuckin’ disgrace”. The stark limits of their empathy might be ‘authentic’, and the boundary of the novel’s attention to women might be historically appropriate, but in the ethical contexts of Australian history, silence is an insidious form of assent and approval. These elisions blunt the novel’s critique, and render its gestures towards a gentler future, in Brecht’s terms, less convincing than they might otherwise be. As the novel rambles away from its tragic, metafictional beginnings, I often wondered why any of these characters merit attention or sympathy.

In the way it seeks to elegize the transplanted topoi of European culture The Hands recalls Prichard’s social-Darwinist pastoral, discussed earlier, and Patrick White’s eschatological masterpiece Riders in the Chariot. The application of tragic structures and symbols to contemporary realities and problems is a fraught business however. It risks the vague, roseate, and politically enervating ‘transcendence’ of which the New Critics were so fond. Riders in the Chariot abounds with White’s magnificent difficulties; both numinous and ironic. It also typifies the complex problems of White’s political ethics. On the one hand the novel constituted a progressive expansion of White Australian consciousness. Written in 1961, it was one of the first imaginative texts in the Anglosphere to engage with the reality of the holocaust. Similarly, one of the text’s four elect, and the artist moreover, is an Aboriginal man. His characterisation, however, is at times clumsy, and as Michael Wilding argues in his Lukácsian essay ‘Patrick White and The Politics of Modernism’, its searing critique of violent masculinity may also be a a pejorative presentation of the working class, verging on a patrician reactionism.
My context in this reading is not inert. As a twenty-something academic residing in the fertile bottle-cap of urban Australia, the pastoral and suburban iconography that Orr eulogizes is at best a melancholy curiosity. These are the artefacts of the horizon-pressed lives of many of my male relatives, practical, laconic, miserable men, marooned in language and away from it.

As Brigid Rooney’s various work on the representation of suburbia has shown, the rebarbative rejection of the suburban trope, and its ancestor, the pastoral, performed by so much Modernist literature, and Patrick White particularly, can be read as an oppositional gesture. In this figuration the ideal space of ‘Middle Australia’ is a fictive other, simultaneously too empty and too cluttered, demarcated by passive, stultifying, ‘feminine’ forms of cultural consumption, readily opposed to active, intellectual, ‘masculine’ forms of cultural labour. While he wasn’t much of a Modernist, Phillip Larkin’s poem Vers de Société illustrates this conflictual model perfectly; juxtaposing the solitary hermeticism of male art against the plural tedium of that suburban communion, the dinner party:

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid –

Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown…”

To acknowledge that critiques of the pastoral and the suburban are mired in their own politics is not, however, to consider all politics relative. The topoi of Middle Australia are certainly cultural constructs that can be fluidly plied, but they also remain fairly unironic aspirational models for a politically powerful cross-section of Australian society. As the pastoral overwrites the violence of the frontier the suburban idyll consolidates and polices that suppression beneath a fictive consensus. In the same year that Simon During proclaimed White’s patrician critique of White Australia irrelevant to Keating’s new multicultural society, Howard swept to power on a resurgent tide of White Australian conservatism to which the current government remains hostage, despite its leader’s avowed liberal principles.

A few nights ago I was fortunate to attend the launch of the Free University of Western Sydney at Bankstown Art Centre. The event consisted of a panel of Aboriginal elders, activists, and academics hosted by an initiative and an audience overwhelmingly composed of non Anglo-Celtic migrants. The discussion was various, fierce, and proffered no easy solutions to the problems of Australian polity. It did however, constitute a genuine attempt at equable, progressive discourse, and a genuinely empathetic forum to air grievance. It drew a stark contrast to the attention given these problems by mainstream Australian discourse which ranges from tired and tokenistic sufferance to scornful cant about remote ‘lifestyles’.

I generally try to avoid criticism’s normative fallacy of baldly wishing for a different book, but given the essentially divided nature of Orr’s book, and the complexity of its cultural contexts I feel justified in this case. Returning to the politics of the pastoral with Bankstown and Bundeena to mind, I wished that the Wilkies had left Bundeena in the novel’s first chapter, and had gone somewhere more interesting and more hopeful.
If the cultural fabric is so tortuously stitched that we can’t depict the plight of the rural white poor without occluding the violence of colonialisms past and present, that we can’t critique the brazen cupidity of the powerful without slighting the disadvantaged and under-educated, perhaps we should abandon the genre. Perhaps it’s time to do what this novel yearns to but cannot. To lift our hand from the plough, and let the scythe lie in the field where it falls by the rusting hulls of the FJ and the John Deere. Leave the sheets to swing on the line, open the sash-windows for the leaves, and up stumps for good.

In abandoning the conventions of middle Australia we might enrich our cultural discourse, and liberate that of those whose misfortune it has been to cohabit history with us, whose lives and languages and graves the canards of Middle Australia still obscure. Perhaps, to paraphrase Midnight Oil’s immortal Beds are Burning, it’s time to pay the rent, to see what other stories we can tell.

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References

Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Coetzee, J.M. Dusklands. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

During, Simon. Patrick White. Melbourne: Oxford University Press 1996.

Eeden, Jeanne van. ‘Theming Mythical Africa at the Lost City’ in The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. Edited by Scott A. Lukas. 113-135. London: Lexington Books, 2007.

Larkin, Phillip. The Complete Poems. London: Faber, 2012.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. London: Faber & Faber, 1975.

Orr, Stephen. The Hands: An Australian Pastoral. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015.

Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo: The Well in the Shadow. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2013.

Rutherford, Jennifer. The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Slessor, Kenneth. Selected Poems. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1993.

Stanner, W.E.H. The Boyer Lectures 1968 – After the Dreaming. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Comission, 1969.

Indyk, Ivor. ‘Pastoral and Priority: The Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.’ New Literary History, vol. 24 no. 4 1993 pg. 835-855

White, Patrick. Riders in the Chariot. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961.

Wilding, Michael. ‘Patrick White: The Politics of Modernism’ in Studies in Classic Australian Fiction. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1997.

 – Jonathan Dunk

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Jonathan Dunk is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian Literature. His work has been published in The Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Cordite, and shortlisted for the 2015 Overland Victoria Short-story prize.

The Hands is available from http://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1238

Edging Towards a Rendezvous: Mike Coppin Reviews ‘From Now On Everything Will Be Different’ by Eliza Vitri Handayani

From Now On Everything Will Be Different by Eliza Vitri Handayani  Vagabond Press, 2015

from now onJulita, a feisty photo-journalist, strains against mainstream society’s strictures, occasionally using her tee-shirt as the page on which she expresses her revolt. Eliza Handayani, creator of the character Julita, felt impelled six months ago to have her own tee-shirt printed with text from her recent novel, in order to protest the official blocking of its launch at a writers festival in Indonesia. The authorities’ action alone would make this book of interest, but it is well worth reading on its own merits as an engaging novel from a new talent.

From Now On Everything Will Be Different traces the relationship between two young spirits yearning to be free. We are introduced to Rizky as a thirty-something doctor as he prepares to catch up with Julita for the first time after a period of years; he has just received at letter from her, asking to meet. The twin threads of Rizky preparing/travelling to meet Julita and vice versa comprise a core strand of the novel.

We next see them as high-schoolers in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, getting into strife because of their unconventional values. Their story is picked up again in 1998, a time of groundswell unrest against the government and the established order – and the last year I lived there, as it happened. Here the themes of their resistance to social and political norms, together with their individual struggles to find freedom and identity in their personal lives, are more firmly established, forming the double motif that provides the book’s focus. The novel progressively delves back into different periods of the pair’s lives, so that we gradually learn more about them and their evolving relationship.

The characters of Julita and Rizky are well drawn, both being likeable but with flaws and foibles. Their efforts to achieve workable lifestyles, ones that somehow reconcile their Bohemian beliefs with mundane realities, are for the most part pursued separately, and circumstances dictate that their relationship is expressed mainly through phone calls, text messages and letters. Rizky is the comparatively less assertive of the two in terms of breaking free and wears the cost of that, while Julita takes a more non-conformist route, with its own attendant price. She is far more adventurous in her love life than middle-class Javanese women are expected to be.

Perhaps reflective of the pair’s personalities are the boxes each keeps. Rizky keeps a ‘Box of Essential Memories’ (backward-looking), whereas Julita maintains her ‘Box of Unfinished Projects’ (forward-looking, to an extent). Whatever, their pains are palpable and one aches for them. Julita, especially, suffers from a sense of enduring disappointment in life until achieving a degree of perspective.

Their personal struggles take place against the backdrop of the Indonesian nation’s own struggle to forge a reformed society after the easing out of the quasi-dictator, Suharto, and the social order that went with him. This process was accompanied by acts of mass violence that could break out at any time; these occur ‘off-stage’ in From Now On, but add an element of edginess to the story. This backcloth is in no way intrusive, and it won’t harm your enjoyment of the novel if you have no knowledge of the politics or culture of the place.

This leads us to the blocking of the book-launch at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. It wasn’t literally a banning: the local police simply told the festival organiser that the whole show would be shut down if she didn’t cancel any functions that mentioned the government-sanctioned mass killings of 1965 (which had over a million allegedly communist victims). The organizer put up a brave resistance before complying, but then publicised the incident to draw attention to the very thing the authorities didn’t want in the limelight.

What exactly had Eliza written in From Now On Everything Will Be Different to incur official displeasure? Here’s the relevant extract: “The actors asked him what new plays he wanted them to mount, now they could perform whatever they want – perhaps something about the ’65 mass murders…” And that’s it; there’s not another mention in the whole novel. Maybe Eliza is correct in suggesting that her book was “dragged into the 1965 paranoia wave”. Undaunted, she continues to promote her book, saying that it’s important to never be afraid.

Back to the novel as literary work. It is longer than the Indonesian-language version published in two years ago, as Eliza added more background to aid the understanding of foreign readers, plus modifications based on feedback from the earlier version. This is not the author’s first novel. As a teenager she wrote a book, but was so unhappy with it she didn’t tackle another novel for a decade. What we have now is the work of a more mature talent.

There are two minor issues I’d raise about the book. First, there are a few slips of grammar, but not to any distracting extent. More of a bother is occasional lack of clarity about exactly where we are time-wise, as the jumps forward or back in time are not always clearly indicated. Editorial guidance could have easily fixed this, using double-line breaks or centred asterisks.

That said, From Now On Everything Will Be Different is an intriguing novel with two endearing main characters, even when you feel like giving them a slap to wake up to themselves. Though they are probably not people I’d want to be besties with, as they edged slowly closer to their rendezvous, I couldn’t help feeling the tension and had to resist flipping to the end to see what happens. You should resist, too.

I recommend this novel to anyone who likes a well-written read about characters you can care about, and especially commend it to those with an interest in new writing coming out of Southeast Asia. Whether, as Manneke Budiman suggests, it represents “a new dawn of the Indonesian novel” is – I suspect – too early to call. It is, however, a real advance on a lot of literature from that country in that it enters deeply inside the hearts and minds of its protagonists, and in that it explores moral issues more fearlessly than her compatriot writers usually do. Perhaps that was another reason Eliza incurred the wrath of the authorities.

Now just short of thirty, Eliza is married to a Norwegian and divides her time between Oslo and Jakarta, where she is involved with InterSastra, an organisation she set up to promote literary translation. She’s definitely one to watch and I look forward to her next offering.

.

Postscript: I have followed the Indonesian custom of referring to a person by their first name rather than their last.

 – Mike Coppin.

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Mike Coppin is the author of Shadow Chase, a novel set in Java, where he taught English for five years. He has had articles and book reviews printed in Inside Indonesia, Rural Society and other publications. He can be found at www.mikecoppin.wordpress.com

From Now On Everything Will Be Different is available from  http://vagabondpress.net/products/eliza-vitri-handayani-from-now-on-everything-will-be-different

Great Humanity and Human Decency: Annette Marfording reviews ‘The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey’ by Alex Miller

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey (selected and arranged by his wife Stephanie Miller) by Alex Miller,  Allen & Unwin 2015.

simplest wordsThere are many Australian authors who are good writers, but there are few who, in addition to bringing the reader enjoyment – and incidentally – teach the reader something about how to be a good person, show the reader the impact of racism and other injustices, and thus demonstrate their deep humanity. In America, one of the most famous authors to do so is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird through her character Atticus Finch, teaches her readers the meaning of empathy and the injustice of racism. In Australia, that author is Alex Miller. And for those who are not familiar with all of his work and especially his most award-winning novels The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country, and Landscape of Farewell, in which those teachings of his are the strongest, his deep humanity is starkly illuminated in this book The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey.

Although Alex Miller has written short stories and essays, some included in past editions of The Best Australian Essays and The Best Australian Stories, he is best known for his novels, for which he won multiple literary awards, including the Miles Franklin award for The Ancestor Game and for Journey to the Stone Country. Apart from the Miles Franklin, his most prestigious literary awards are the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for The Ancestor Game) and the Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award from the People’s Literature Publishing House in China (for Landscape of Farewell). He has also been awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature and the Manning Clark Cultural Award for his outstanding contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life.

In individual pieces, written mostly for newspapers – especially the Melbourne Age – and in short stories, selected and arranged for this book by the author’s wife Stephanie, and with the addition of significant photographs with family and friends, The Simplest Words presents a kind of autobiographical journey of the author in chronological order, which ends with a surprise poem. That the book emerges as an autobiographical journey is interesting in itself, because at the symposium on his novels, organised by Professor Robert Dixon at Sydney University in 2011, he began his own contribution by saying, “I’ve been asked for a memoir for this occasion yet I am uncomfortable writing directly about myself. I prefer the mask of fiction. In this preference it is self-deception I fear most, for who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?” The last sentence is, of course, an immediate demonstration of his deep humanity, his morality, his modesty: “who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?”

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey begins with the desire for storytelling in his childhood, takes the reader through the impetus for each of his novels and shows their profound link to his own life, includes brief extracts of each of those novels, and introduces the reader to his special friends, his thoughts about writing and issues he feels passionate about. For those who are new to Alex Miller’s work, this book is thus the ideal introduction to, and overview of, his body of work.

For this reviewer, who is intensely familiar with his novels, has reread most of them, some more than once, who was one of the only non-university people to attend the above mentioned symposium on his novels, and who learned yet more about him in her in-depth interview with him for her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, there were several highlights in this collection. The first, the ability to read ‘Comrade Pawel’, the story that was his first publication in Meanjin in 1975. The story is based on an incident that happened to his friend Max Blatt in the Second World War. Reading the story as written by Alex prompted Max to say, “You could have been there,” and with those words launched his writing life and career.

A second highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a previously unpublished novella, ‘The Rule of the First Prelude’, in which Alex Miller imagines the life of the child of his protagonist Emily in his novel Conditions of Faith as an adult, and her grief at her mother’s absence. It is an eloquent and extremely powerful story, though written, indeed, in the simplest words.

A third highlight of this book are the essays on issues the author feels passionate about; foremost ‘Australia Today’, in which he writes in disbelief about the Australian government’s shocking turn-away from asylum seekers, and yet, remains hopeful that Australia will return to humane refugee policies. Another is ‘Chasing My Tale’ on the labelling – such as revisionist historian – that he has received by academics following his novels and his resulting bewilderment, causing him to say, “I believe a novel is like a painting or a piece of music, at least in the sense that it cannot be explained but can only be experienced.” Another is ‘Sweet Water’, an outstanding essay on the need to preserve the Urannah Valley, and thus the land and pristine wilderness of the Birriguba people of North Queensland, from damming and consequential destruction. The Urannah Valley is part of the landscape in his novel Journey to the Stone Country and in this essay Alex Miller explains the significance of this land to its original owners, and makes a passionate argument against the focus of Western culture on acquisition: of land, of knowledge, of consumer goods, and in favour of preserving the sacred. And, while in the interview with me he stated that his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell were not written as books about Aborigines and the issues they face, but were the stories of his personal friends, which they had asked him to write, towards the end of ‘Sweet Water’ he nevertheless points to the importance of writing about things affecting Aboriginal people: “Some critics assure us that our novels are irrelevant to the important issues facing our society. I don’t share that view. As well as entertaining us, our novels have always explored the individual’s relationship to the great moral questions of the day. Not answers, but an awareness of the questions we need to face. Something, dare I say it, such as an image of the Urannah Valley…., intact as yet and just as filled with mystery as the deepest and most hidden part of the great Amazonian forest. A fragile and precious reality of ours that we are about to destroy in order to provide water for coal mines and crop irrigation.”

A fourth highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is the inclusion of ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a piece on parental love and advice and writing, which he read at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and which held the entire audience in a suspended hush for the duration.

A final highlight of this book are Alex Miller’s pieces about his friends, including the aforementioned Max Blatt, the late Frank Budby, elder of the Barada Barna people, who became his protagonist Dougald Gnapun in Landscape of Farewell, Col McLennan, elder of the Jangga people, and his wife Liz Hatte, who became his protagonists Bo and Annabelle in Journey to the Stone Country, biographer Hazel Rowley who became his soul mate by daily email correspondence, and philosopher and author of Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, Raimond Gaita. And in words I would use about Alex Miller, he finishes the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ as follows: “Rereading her books these last few weeks I have known myself to be in the presence of Hazel Rowley’s great humanity… Her great books are for life. To read a great book for a second time, just as to listen to a great piece of music for the hundredth time, is to be in the presence of a new creation.” Gerard Windsor, in his review of The Simplest Words for The Australian refers to this praise as “quite starstruck admiration” for Hazel Rowley, and the same might be said of this review for Alex Miller, but I see it as simple gratitude for those people in our lives, be it primarily only through the written word, who remind us of the existence of such great humanity and human decency in this increasingly self-centred world.

Buy The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, buy Alex Miller’s novels, and reread each of his books for perpetual new pleasure, awe and gratitude. It’s no surprise that this book was my book of the year 2015. It was published by Allen & Unwin in a sturdy hardback edition with a hauntingly beautiful cover image designed by Lisa White, which you will enjoy looking at for years to come.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is available from  https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/literature-literary-studies/The-Simplest-Words-Alex-Miller-9781743313572