Posts filed under ‘historical’

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by RICHARD FLANAGAN

narrow road

Bookgroupers were divided. some thought it was poetry, others thought it was like reading a shopping list. Some thought it was bringing light to forgotten history, others thought it was going over the same old stuff we have heard over and over for years and years. There was one point of agreement. it was a gruelling read.

This Booktopia page  has links to reviews of the book, which won the Booker in 2014. This radio national interview, which was first aired in 2013, gives a lot of insights in to the mind of the author.

The book is largely the memoir of its aging hero. This character is called Dorrigo Evans, but it’s clear to Australian readers that his story is very similar to that of the real world Australian war hero Weary Dunlop. Like Evans, Dunlop was a doctor and officer in the Australian army in the Second World War. Like Evans, Dunlop’s hero status is a result of his role as a leader of the Australian prisoners of war in Burma. The Australians, along with prisoners from several other nations, were forced by their Japanese captors to attempt to build what came to be known as the Burma Railway.  The planned route went across mountains and through tropical jungles. The prisoners were given little or no food, primitive tools and all sorts of diseases.

Dunlop is regarded as a national hero because the death rate of the Australian prisoners, although very high, was much lower than that of other nations, and this is ascribed to his efforts as an officer on behalf of his men. The story is taught to Australians as an example of what it means to be Australian; egalitarian, all mates working together, and so on; and it is basically identical to the Dorrigo Evans story in this book.

Bookgoupers agreed the book largely consisted of lengthy descriptions of death, sickness and hunger. However, they disagreed on two main issues: whether there was anything beautiful or poetic about these descriptions; and secondly, regardless of how beautiful or otherwise the words might be, was there was any point to describing all this horror in such detail?

On the poetry front Flanagan certainly aspired to that. In this interview in The Monthly he said:

“I think there is an idea of high modernist prose particularly common with people out of American creative writing schools that actually has lost the importance of those poetic cadences and tropes in the writing of prose.”

But Bookgroupers were divided on whether he succeeded. Personally I didn’t find it beautiful, but I did find quite few great lines.

P3 a happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else
P23 but what reality was ever made by realists?

On the issue of whether there was any point to all these gruelling descriptions, I’m afraid I was very much in the anti-camp. I only managed to read 50 pages or so. I found all the portrayals of awfulness morbid and pointless, stale and repetitive. Not because of the writing just because I have heard it all so many times before. However I was very much in the minority. Most Boogroupers got through it all, many with great enthusiasm, and they said they enjoyed it.

I confess my reading of it was less than objective, and my reactions may be a little idiosyncratic. I have been poisoned by the way stories of suffering in war have been used politically in Australia in recent decades. so now i cannot read these stories without thinking of whose agenda they serve.

In this political context the net effect in my view of this book, and books like it, is to glorify war and make a repeat more likely. I know this is not Flanagan’s intention, and that his actual words say the exact opposite. However the effect of stories like this is to put war on a pedastal. They make war seem like the ultimate in extreme experiences, and therefore the people who die in it or live through it are by definition heroes. This creates a need in all of us to redeem their suffering in some way, and the greater the suffering the more we want to redeem it. To feel it wasn’t wasted. To give their suffering and death meaning. So the more we memorialise war, as this book does in lurid detail, the greater need we have to give it meaning.

This creates an opportunity for one politician or another to link this suffering to some unrelated non-specific end, like freedom. The next step is for politicians to justify future horrors in the name of their chosen goal, ‘the glorious fallen’, and their suffering. We see this in Israel, which constantly justifies its behaviour in Palestine by reference to the holocaust. We also see it with every deployment of australian troops. We are told they are part of the Anzac tradition, following the example they set in 1915 at Gallipoli.

In Australia this happens despite the fact that the historical facts about Gallipoli are well known. The Anzacs suffered and died pointlessly, whilst trying, and failing, to invade a country on the other side of the world for no apparent reason. It was not necessary, and did not contribute in any way to the subsequent freedoms and quality of life of Australians. We all know this but every year on Anzac Day when we remember their suffering, we want to believe all that horror was for something. Surely it had to be? So we choose to believe politicians and generals when they tell us it was.

Hence my discomfort with this book. It plays in to the hands of politicians and generals that want to use the Burma railway in the same way they have used Gallipoli. Like Gallipoli, The awful suffering detailed here played no part in the course of the war. It was a senseless tragedy. But this is such a harsh reality it is almost impossible to accept. It is much easier to believe the politicians and generals when they say they died for us, Christlike.

The counter argument of course, in favour of such books, is the old saying ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. My reply is, the saying needs a makeover to fit in to media world of the 21st century. It should now read ‘those who sanctify the sufferings of war will reenact it, again and again’.

But most Bookgroupers did not have these misgivings. Those who liked the book did have a dispute amongst themselves about the love story and associated sex that runs through the book. There were multiple lines of argument on this point: it was good light relief from the terror; it was a counterpoint in the otherwise too saintly character of the hero, making him more human; or it was just a shameless attempt to make the book more readable and saleable. all these points of view seemed equally valid.

Apart from the gruesomeness, there did seem to be another broad point of agreement between both the pro and anti camps – the inclusion of the Japanese point of view in the story. Bookgroupers thought this was a new and interesting take on the Burma railway story. They were very impressed at the lengths Flanagan went to achieve this, for example taking the reader in to the mind of a Japanese guard as he ceremonially beheads a prisoner. However, they didn’t talk about it as much as the mud, blood and shit, or the sex, so it can’t have been too front of mind for them.

It certainly was the most interesting aspect of the story to me. So much so I stopped reading the book and read a book on haiku instead. The poet featured in The Narrow Road, and from whom the title is borrowed, is Basho. He lived in the 1600s and is apparently the best known haiku poet in Japan. Below are some examples of his work that caught my eye, and/or seem appropriate to the book.

rainy season
and the crane’s legs
have grown shorter

out over the fields
attached to nothing
a skylark sings

quietly in the night
a worm in moonlight
burrows through a chestnut

it should have
stayed green
this bright red pepper

a sad fate for us all
we feed bamboo shoots
at the inescapable conclusion

But I thought I’d save his best for last. This one summarises the whole of Flanagan’s book in three short lines.

Summer grass
All that remains
Of warriors dreams

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April 12, 2015 at 6:55 am 1 comment

BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT

burial

Its Iceland and its eighteen twenty three,
there is work and the stink of poverty,
there is a crime and there is water,
and there is Agnes Magnusdottirr. She is no-ones daughter.

She is in the hands of fat man in red coats,
with their blame and certainty
they have privilege in plenty, but not much mercy.
She has the cold, and now she knows she is never growing old.
Its motivation enough to slit their throats.

She is sensitive and intelligent.
She is observant, but practical enough to lie.
She is tragic and arrogant,
and she is condemned to die.

They work, eat, sleep and pray
in the Badstofa. Its a room with 6 beds,
where they squint through the northern gloom
to pick lice from each others’ heads,
and ignore the stink of the chamber pot
and the cattle in their sheds.

They dress in wet wool and eat blood sausage, these folk,
and they cough blood on to dirt floors through thick smoke.
Their windows have no glass,
they are made from the membrane of a fishs’ arse.
The free, the servants and the condemned
endlessly knitting socks as if it will help her mend.

This is rural Iceland, not a museum diorama.
It is so detailed it beats the real thing.
This world imagined by Hannah Kent,
as the backdrop for what was a true life drama.
Its pre-industrial and pre-modern, its pre everything
except the enlightenment,

because its poverty
and religiosity
are washed with democracy,

and the rights and freedoms of John Stewart Mill.
The poverty is still brutal,
but the politics are not feudal:
there are no lords that kill,
it’s the courts and the people’s will;

there are landed farmers with servants,
but all alike can read and write
and everyone sleeps in the one room, though I don’t know how;
there are no landlords and no tenants;
and everyone gets tried in a court, they have that right.
In a sense it’s a stop on the way, to how we live now.

But for Agnes Magnussdottirr,
no one’s daughter,
it is too little and too early,
not enough to stop the execution of this surly girly.
She’s the right woman in the wrong time.
A time when a criminal is needed for every crime.
She is too smart for her own good,
a clever woman cannot be good,

so the fat men say, and they say it was Agnes Magnessdottirr.
We may not like it
but even so
we cannot know
it was not her.

Hannah Kent
gives her character the cold,
not only of Iceland but also of the soul.
She paints her less emotional than competent,

as a smart woman in the wrong time.
A disappointed peasant, rather than deranged witch.
But this is a version of history,
She could have been a bitch.

It’s not the real Agnes Magnusdottir.
We can never know her.
She could be a witch or deserve to be sainted.
Is this portrait a beautiful painting or is it tainted?
Yu know all this, its just like the moon lander,
but this version seems more like history than propaganda.

And partly thats because the Cinderella of this story
meets her prince up to her elbows in mince.
He’s an unbeliever but he sees her,
unfortunately their first kiss starts a love that couldn’t be more gory.

There are no metaphors in this love story.

She really did lose her head, and he really did take it like a knife to the heart,
It really was till death do us part.

While her history seems like great work of letters,
judging from the sources listed in the authors notes,
her literary achievement is even better.
For example, review these quotes

mostly, though not all, from Agnes the star of the show. She says:
Her poetry made lamps out of people;
The dark comes, it has settled down in these parts like a bruise in the flesh of the earth;
The world has stopped snowing;
The verses lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like mist;
I won’t let go of you Agnes I’m right here;
You are not a monster.

I say –
we are all monsters
when forced together
like chicks in a nest,
in a fight for food, warmth and rest.

So, in conclusion, it’s a novel about what went wrong.
The prose is decorated but not too long,
It is a sad story,
touching and a little gory
in the tradition of a Scandinavian Saga song.

 

There is a rather annoying academic review here. the author’s own website may be more informative than that or the above

December 16, 2014 at 10:27 am Leave a comment

COAL CREEK by ALEX MILLER

coal creek

This book is unlike nearly every other modern novel. It uses the  traditional storytelling approach of  first person, past tense, with a linear timeline. This is quite a relief, as it makes it a fairly easy read compared to all those funky ‘literary’ novels that jump back and forth in time and speak in the voices of multiple characters.

It is set in an unspecified part of north west Queensland in the 50s. The narrator is Bobby Blue, an uneducated young man whose mother died when he was teenager. As a result he grew up in the bush mustering cattle for  land owners throughout the region, with his father,  his fathers best mate, and his son Ben.

As the story begins Bobby’s father has recently passed away and Bobby is out of work. A new policeman has just arrived in town. He has come from the city to replace the previous officer, who had been in town for 30 years, and was a local. He is looking for an assistant so Bobby decides to take the job. As story develops it becomes clear that the person the policeman, and therefore Bobby, will have to deal with is Ben. Bobby’s oldest friend.

The book does not contain a lot of fast paced action. Neither does it cover a lot of complicated political or philosophical issues. Nevertheless it triggered lots of discussion at bookgroup. Nearly all bookgroupers liked it, and we don’t often agree so that is quite a compliment to the book.

The thing that seemed to get people’s interest was the way it portrayed two very different ways of being in the world. The narrator presents this as the difference between western people and coastal people. That is, between him and the other locals, and the new policeman and his family. But from the readers’ point of view, and I’m guessing the author’s, its the difference between people that talk about what they are thinking and feeling and those that don’t. Those non-talkers that just expect people to pay attention and pick up on what is happening.

The book is fairly even handed. It doesn’t  necessarily say one approach is better than the other. For example, it would have been a romantic cliche to say that the way older generations of country people leave almost everything unsaid, and just expect people to pay attention and understand, is a better way to live than a more modern urban way of being, that expects people to ask if they want something and speak up if they disagree.

It didn’t do this it just presented the difference very starkly.

This was perhaps very relevant for bookgroupers as many of us have, or had, parents that grew up in the Australia of the 30s, 40s and 50s, with Anglo Celtic heritage. This means our parents were these non-talking types, but we, as 21st century urbanites, are expected by our colleagues friends and lovers, not unreasonably, to be talkers. Speaking personally, this can be difficult when you have been brought up by a non-talker.

Non-talkers live in a world where the presumption is that not only is mind reading possible, it is an accurate and universal ability that everyone possesses. This means they don’t ask for what they want, or say how they feel, but they believe they know what you want and how you feel. The book demonstrates what can go wrong with this approach, but also suggest it has some strengths.

Some of things bookgroupers did not like included several concerns about the language.

  • It is written in what is supposed to be the vernacular of that time and place, so much of the grammar etc is incorrect which was annoying to some bookgroupers
  • Some bookgroupers also questioned whether it was an accurate representation of the vernacular from that time and place
  • The language is sometimes very beautiful and insightful. How is that a problem for book groupers? Well it is written  in the first person, in the voice of a very uneducated character, so some bookgroupers found these more lyrical passages unbelievable
  • Finally, several bookgroupers who have spent time in north west Queensland, including me, couldn’t relate to the description of the country because it didn’t resemble the areas we have seen.

For me these concerns were much less troublesome than they might have been, because I knew from reading this review in The Monthly that the author actually grew up in this time and place, so he is writing what he knows. I took a lot more of it on trust because I knew that from the outset. I was able to assume that because he is from there he must know what it’s like. So for example I assumed it was a part of north west Queensland i had not seen and that’s why I didn’t recognise it. If I hadn’t known the author grew up there I would have assumed he was making it up and getting wrong. I suspect this would have annoyed me a lot.

Another thing that annoyed several bookgroupers was the technique used to create suspense. One of the advantages of writing  in past tense with a linear timeline is that it allows the narrator to insert references to events later in the book. In this case the book contains a liberal frosting of phrases like ‘if x had paid more attention to y things might have turned out better’ and ‘this was before the tragedy’. Bookgroupers thought more of these were used than was needed to create suspense.

However, bookgroupers did like that all this building up of expectations of violence and tragedy did not turn in to as much tragedy as expected. A lot of us were expecting a violent and unhappy end, and were relieved to find it wasn’t so bad.

Bookgroupers also thought it handled the difficult issue of a young man’s friendship with a young girl well. Similarly people found many of the descriptions of land, horses, dogs, vegetation and wildlife very simple, detailed and often beautiful.

I recommend The Monthly’s review. It is a very  serious and knowledgeable account, unlike this one. It includes a lot of info on the author and his previous books, some of which are apparently set in the same place and time, and even include some of the same characters.

 

 

October 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

FORGOTTEN WAR by HENRY REYNOLDS

 

forgotten war This is perhaps the most important book one can read as an Australian.

The subject of the frontier conflict between the white colonists and the Aboriginal nations of Australia is directly relevant to the life chances afforded their descendants. So much so that it is probably necessary for those Australians, people like me, to make a declaration of interest prior to commencing any comment.

I am from northern NSW. My ancestors mostly came from England and Ireland, mostly arriving in Sydney and Newcastle in the 1840s and 50s. Both sides of the family then arrived in the north of NSW in the first two decades of the 20th century. One side as small business operators in what was then a small coastal country town, and the other as wannabe farmers.

I have often wondered what interaction they had with the local Aboriginal people. Based on the timetables outlined in this book it seems likely that they arrived several decades after the Frontier War in that region. They were mostly therefore direct beneficiaries of the war, because their businesses were based on property acquired from it, though perhaps not direct participants.

The exceptions are the families of my paternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather.

My grandmother’s family were in far west NSW in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this means they were present at the frontier, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. She seems to have left that area as a young woman, and with nothing in the way of assets, so perhaps it can be said that she and her descendants did not benefit financially.

The family of my grandfather’s mother were on the far south coast of NSW from somewhere in the 1850s onwards. So again, they may have been present towards the end of the Frontier War, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. However, in their case they were farmers, so whether they were involved or not, they were direct beneficiaries. Therefore, it could be the case that the benefits that the family gained from the frontier improved the life chances of my great grandmother and her sisters, and this my have somehow in one or more indirect ways benefitted my grandfather, my mother and me in turn.

And so to the book.

Reynolds begins by reminding us of the history wars that raged in the Australian media in the 90s and 2000s. He observes that during this time all sides of the debate, which was about how to talk about the colonisation of Australia, agreed on the importance of reconciliation, but none of them said what we needed to be reconciled to. It is hard to disagree with him. It does seem strange that we were silent on why there was a need for reconciliation even though we were happy to agree there was a need.

After this he returns to the familiar ground of the history wars in order to settle the key issue that was disputed at that time – what should we call the violence that occurred on the Australian frontier. Inside the first 50-60 pages he provides so many direct quotes from the highest British and colonial officials possible, one governor after another, that any doubt about whether the colonists thought they were at war is removed.  I had expected Reynolds tot go through the massacres one by one or detail deaths region by region, perhaps because this has been done elsewhere, so much so that it can now be accessed on wikipedia.

It’s clear they considered it a war. One that was unfortunate, but necessary in their view to bring violence to a swift end rather than prolong it. The governors also supported this view with all the legal, military, political and logistical measures they could manage at the far end of the empire.

The result was the Aboriginal peoples resisted occupation violently, as any people would, but we’re defeated by a more numerous, better armed, and better organized opponent.

From a white perspective I think it’s hard, though disturbing, not to conclude this approach was a huge success. It allowed waves of migrants to fill the nation up and exploit it’s resources, in the very effective way that capitalism does. They built a modern successful multi-cultural nation. If not the best in the world, very close to it.

However all that came after the Frontier War, and relied on perhaps Reynolds chief target in book. It relied on forgetting. It relied on a nation’s worth of energetic optimistic migrants, in search of a better life, to fill the place up with their energy, dreams and desires. An easier task if property is handed to you as sole vacant possession, rather than as tenants in common with people traumatized by decades of officially sanctioned violence. Violence sanctioned by the same institutions, if not the same people, now encouraging migrants to make the most of this large, and supposedly empty, land of opportunity.

From this perspective the logic of what Reynolds calls a national cult of forgetting is compelling. He draws attention to many examples of the effect of this cult. The one he seems particularly upset about is the Australian War Memorial. For example, he points out that the War Memorial is is recording the name of every known person who died during a time of war since 1885, regardless of the location of the death, or whether it was from combat, accident or disease (p45). This means Aboriginal and Islander families are encouraged to remember those who fought for the British Empire but expected to forget those who fought against it, in defence of their own land (p46).

Towards the end of the book he returns to the issue of commemoration. He spends a lot of time on it, which I initially found frustrating, but ultimately found rewarding, so I will also return to that issue at the end of this piece.

Most of the book from Chapter 3 onwards can be seen as a way of explaining to us – denizens of the cosmopolitan 21st century – what the Frontier War was like for the people involved, white and black, and how and why they could have done what they did.

He first tackles this challenge by using quotes from sources written at the time describing the state of mind of whites on the frontier. They seem to be as you might imagine people today in Gaza or Syria – constantly stressed  and in fear of their lives; never sure if or when attacks might come. As a result they fight back with overwhelming force – a reaction common in present day conflict zones, from the better armed side.

A question Reynolds does not really address was ‘why stay?’. If it was so dangerous why did they persist. They were the invaders why not go back? Particularly those who had brought wives and families – why not send them back? This makes you think they thought victory was certain, and it would be swift, they just needed to get through it. Alternatively perhaps where they came from was just as bad?

Apart from this issue, I found this first account of the frontier quite satisfying.

However Reynolds goes on to give an alternative. In this one, also based on quotes from officials of the time, the blacks or savages as they called them, were seen as having a “wanton and savage spirit’, that was ‘impelling them to mischief and cruelty’ (p102).

As Reynolds points out this is consistent with global colonial attitudes at the time and got reinforced throughout the 19th century by the rise of ‘scientific racism ‘.

I was pleased to see on page 167 that he also acknowledges ‘they were fully conscious of the fact they were invaders, and proud of it, believing they were participants in a crusade that was thrusting outwards the borders both of the Empire and of civilisation’.

As a young man I had always thought the British Empire was a massive exercise of arrogant acquisitive racism.  However when I went to Westminster Cathedral it became clear that at one level people of the day did think it was the right thing to do, because it was spreading god and ‘civilization’. Obviously this is a convenient self justification from our modern perspective, but to them it probably was real at some level. This really fits into the second version of the story that Reynolds tells about the people of the times – they saw the Frontier War as an unfortunate but necessary evil.

In chapter 5 he introduces a third version of the story. In this legal interpretation of events the key turning point is British claims in the earliest days of the colony that the continent was unoccupied. This resulted in the continent as a whole being claimed as property of the Crown, and meant the process of settlement proceeded in a different way from other colonies in the Empire where purchases and negotiations took place along with wars and killing.

The difficulty for modern Australians, which Reynolds points out on page 135, is that we no longer have this ‘armory of ideas that protected colonial Australians from irritating introspection’ the ‘whispering in our hearts’. Science has declared ‘scientific racism’ dead, god and the empire are dead, and the courts have declared terra nullius dead.

The interpretation of the Frontier War story that Reynolds does not tell, understandably I think given how much controversy he went through during the history wars, is one that I think is true everywhere in history and around the world. It is that in times times of war and lawlessness a certain type of men (it is always men) often become prominent and take control. The situation that I’m most familiar with was Northern Ireland towards the end of the troubles, as that conflict was called.

At that time people in Northern Ireland commonly described the paramilitary on both sides as gangsters, rather than as politicians. They used to describe it to me as a self-perpetuating wave of crime, where the para-militaries on both sides were effectively running protection rackets for the money.

It’s easy to imagine that in the Australian frontier environment that Reynolds describes its men such as these gangsters that would have flourished, perhaps with the tacit approval of more respectable folks back in the city. Once they had done their work they moved further out to the next frontier and the more respectable types took over, and they could reasonably claim they did not take part in or know a lot about what happened.

Towards the end of the book Reynolds spends a lot of time on what seems to be a semantic debate about whether the frontier violence was war, and on complaining about the War Memorial not commemorating it. I initially thought this was sidetracking, a diversion from the key issue as I see it – the killing, acknowledging what actually happened, not what you call it or how you commemorate it.

However on page 235 he makes the case that over the last 20 years the Australian Government has funded a campaign to memorialize overseas wars that ‘is designed to replace two other versions of history while appearing to be innocent crusade of remembrance”.

The older of the two alternative stories he is referring to is the bush workers, and the other one is the so called black arm band view of history. It is easy to see the political importance to the conservative side of Australian politics, which has been in power almost throughout that time, of refuting both these views. So In the end I was persuaded that this discussion was useful not just semantic.

However what was even more persuasive, and important, for me was the last few pages of book. In these pages he gives us a vision of two sides fighting for all the grand things that men (to the cost of women) have always fought for – freedom, nationhood, land, resources, a future, and family. Clearly the Aboriginal fighters had a noble cause, defending their nations, and the whites were invaders stealing the livelihood of those nations for their own benefit. But like all wars Reynolds points out that it is also possible to see a more complicated picture. No doubt there would have been some cruelty on the Aboriginal side – innocent whites killed and maimed. Likewise some nobility on the white side – those who sought to reduce the violence, those who, however wrongly, thought they were bringing civilisation, and those trying to escape violence and poverty where they came from.

In many ways it’s an actual real world for example of exactly what is so often portrayed, and glorified, in popular entertainment like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. A complicated mix of good and evil characters on both sides fighting for enormous stakes – in this case a whole continent. Some of these characters are fighting for the survival of their family, history, culture and nation; some for money; some for power; and some just because they like fighting.

And so what next? It seems clear there was a consensus on killing in the 19th century, among the ruling class at least, and that there has been a consensus on forgetting in the 20th. What should the next consensus be?

Strangely perhaps Reynolds points to his key target, the Australian War Memorial, for a way forward.  He points out that its two key slogans are equally, if not more so, relevant to the Frontier War than the overseas wars to which they refer.

The first slogan is ‘lest we forget’. It is perfectly appropriate for the Frontier War. The second is “here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they love, and here we guard the record which they themselves made’. It is hard to think of a better line with which to commemorate the black dead of the Frontier War.

September 2, 2014 at 7:39 am 1 comment

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by COLM TOIBIN

 

testament of mary

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty

I love that quote, and this book contains a few others that are nearly as good. Unfortunately these highlights are rare.

A famous irish author chooses to re-write the new testament in the voice of the catholic church, and ireland’s, number 1 saint – the mother of jesus. A courageous decision Sir Humphrey might have called it, but given it was shortlisted for the booker in 2013 i guess you could say the gamble worked. It didn’t work for me however, or the other bookgroupers.

we didn’t hate it, but its a very hard book to love. In a way its because toibin is too good. he has to make a lot of choices in this book. he has to invent mary, what is she like, what does she want to say, what did she see, and how did she interpret it. His choices are brave at every turn – to a fault. he never makes an easy choice so the mary we read, the mary of toibin’s creation could very well be real but she is not likeable, wise, insightful or entertaining. he is scared, reclusive, resentful even bitter. In modern terms we would say she is depressed.

This makes the book hard work and quite frustrating. All the famous, and spectacular, events are related in the flat drone of a very sad old lady, and we don’t understand why she is like that until the end. Some months after witnessing the crucifixion, and narrating us through it from a mothers perspective, she says

I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that or lessen what it did to me.

At this point you can see why some people think the book is a literary triumph for toibin. he is so truthful, so determined to imagine a version of the ageing, reflective mary that could be real, he makes no attempt to give us a good read. Instead he gives us a trauma survivor. A woman living in a police state, who has been in hiding and in fear of her life for years, who watched her son mutilated in public and stood by doing nothing. A woman who is now visited by people determined to make him their saviour rather than her son, and worst of all, that may be the choice he himself made – to abandon her.

you can see why she might be depressed, but it doesn’t make the book fun to read. as one bookgrouper said its a bit like cormac macarthy’s the road in its relentless bleakness.

It did raise an interesting idea for me however. there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of trauma survivors, from places like rawanda, sudan, congo, afghanistan that may have been through similar things – forced to  stand by while their loved ones are hacked apart by one crazy regime or another. Some of these people end up in places like australia as refugees, where we expect them to become normal happy citizens. having read this book i think its a miracle that some of them do.

 

April 13, 2014 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN TEN AND A HALF CHAPTERS by JULIAN BARNES

HistoryOfTheWorld 

Religion culture art history – all these things are commonly discussed and examined in the books we read here at bookgroup, and we love it. But what does a woodworm or a termite think of Noah, or medieval jurisprudence? Don’t care?
Well Julian Barnes does and this book is super smart, and laugh out loud funny, because he tells these ten and a half history based stories from such bizarre perspectives.
I found his invented transcript of an apparently real court case from 13th century France hilarious. it involves the prosecution of a family of wood worms for allegedly ‘rendering the bishop of Amiens into a state of imbecility’. It is written in perfectly logical barrister-style legalese, and the arguments of the prosecution for excommunication were as compelling as those of the defence. By rotting the leg of the bishops throne were they doing the evil work of the devil, or serving god’s purpose by behaving as god created, and intended, them to?
This retelling of medieval Europe was completely ridiculous and completely  believable, as  were the other 9 and a half other bizarre point of view chapters. He does biblical criticism by telling the story of Noah’s ark from a woodworm’s perspective. He does colonisation and finding the new world from the point of view of a 1970s english actor writing back to his lover from the Amazon jungle, while shooting a movie recreating first contact between the church and a lost tribe. He does nuclear apocalypse as a woman so certain destruction is coming, and so annoyed at others lack of anxiety, that she sails away from civilisation and becomes lost and delirious for some weeks post rescue.
All these were perfectly done: the writing fast; characters convincing; the scholarship on history, politics and religion acute; and all of it very funny. I guess the only criticism might be the obscurity of the connections between stories, and whether Barnes fails, or even wants, to make an overall point. However for many readers this will be a strength not a weakness. His point, if there is one, is about complexity, humanity, and enduring chaos.
Thankfully he makes this point in a confident irreverent matter of fact way, not in some jargonistic relativistic post modern way. That is, he is tough on many of his subjects: the church; the actor; the neurotic woman sailor of the future; and even nature. He doesn’t just say if it makes sense to you it makes sense. Neither does he impose a reading of history on his history of the world – excuse me for hypocritically borrowing some post-modern  jargon.
In the end what he gives us is a funny, smart, and imaginative reflection on the stories we tell ourselves about our past, and our future.

September 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm Leave a comment

THE HARP IN THE SOUTH BY RUTH PARK

harpRuth Park’s harp in the south was truly great. It deals with poverty, domestic violence, abortion, alcohol, aging, coming of age, parenthood, aboriginal issues, and immigratione, but none of these make it great. With these alone it would just be another forgettable piece of gritty, worthy social realism.

What makes it great is that it did all this in 1940s and was hugely popular at the time, so much so the book was serialised by the SMH in 1947 (This is the first episode as it appeared to SMH readers back then) and subsequently went on to be made into movies, tv shows and to be on the hsc english curriculum.

I would say there are several likely reasons it managed this amazing trick of both portraying in documentary detail the poverty and dysfunction of sydney’s surry hills in the 40s, whilst also being successful in the popular culture mainstream.

  • The language is both easy and vivid.
  • The characters appear to be larger than life, even stereotypes, worthy of any soap  but they all have an inner life and go on an inner journey over the course of the book.
  • It is politically very clever because although it is a social justice manifesto screaming that attention be paid to the poverty in the heart of a rich city, which presumably made people of the time uncomfortable, it is also peppered with patronising moral judgements of the the ‘lower classes’, which presumably softened the challenge of that call to action.

The bookgroup mostly loved it, although there was some criticism of the moral judgments, the simplistic language and the ending. It does certainly come across as an artifact of its time, but i found it great to read such a forensic account of my neighbouring suburb, from not so long ago.

To stay in the mood we met at shakespeares hotel because it is pub in surry hills not changed much since the time of the book, and it is the kind of place at which hughie darcy from the book may have had a drink, or ten. I was very excited to find the lane adjacent to the pub to be very much in the style of the time of the book. I was even more excited to find that one of the houses in the lane was numbered 3 1/2, because the darcy’s house in the book was number 12 1/2.

March 17, 2013 at 10:35 am Leave a comment

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