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Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works.  However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers.  Intrigued?  Allow me to explain…

Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”.  It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel.  Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph.  Sentences often go on for pages.  Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks.  It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it.  There is barely a chance to draw breath.  Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*

Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter.  He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”.  (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?!  It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.)  Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition.  There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real.  The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.

The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death.  The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud.  The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double.  Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day.  Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death.  Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.

The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight.  Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins.  He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them.  When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”.  He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation.  It all sounds eerily familiar.  Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him.  The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”.  He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.

Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt.  The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution.  At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.”  It pays to stay on the General’s good side!

In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother.  He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony.  The effort to have her canonised fails.  Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See.  The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.

When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write.  He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno.  He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’.  As always, it is the people who suffer.  In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country.  Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”.  Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her.  The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel.  As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”.  (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’).  After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.

The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”.  The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her.  He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves.  The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man.  When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”.  Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.

The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified.  One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read.  The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too.  He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans.  The only thing left to sell is the sea.  When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents.  The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.

Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics.  This is definitely the case here.  García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975.  So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).  García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years.  Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.  García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.”  The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975.  Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship.  Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez.  So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear.  This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro.  Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”.  Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’.  Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech.  Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco.  In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn.  It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing.  Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.

Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**.  I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’.  I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special.  This is one of those books.  Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long.  Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist.  I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.

One last thing: spare a thought for the translator!  Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this?  Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141032474

229 pages

* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him.  Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.

** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed.  (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!)  It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982).  The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.

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The Miles Franklin Shortlist for 2010 has been announced.  The six novels, with judges comments, are:

 - MFLL10 - lovesong cover_sml   Lovesong
Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin
Read the Judges’ Comments on this novel
 - MFLL10 - Bath Fugues cover_sml   The Bath Fugues
Brian Castro

Giramondo PublishingRead the Judges’ Comments on this novel
 - MFLL10 - jasper jones novel cover_sml   Jasper Jones
Craig Silvey
Allen & Unwin
Read the Judges’ Comments on this novel
 - MFLL10 - The Book of Emmett COVER _sml   The Book of Emmett
Deborah Forster
Random House
Read the Judges’ Comments on this novel
 - MFLL10 - Truth cover_sml   Truth
Peter Temple
Text PublishingRead the Judges’ Comments on this novel
 - MFLL10 - Butterfly cover_sml   Butterfly
Sonya Hartnett

Penguin Group Australia 
Read the Judges’ Comments on this novel  

… and surprise surprise, I haven’t read any of them(!), though Lovesong is on my TBR. 

What are your thoughts?  Any favourites?

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The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne Clear, now 100-years-old, who has spent most of her life in a mental asylum on the Irish west coast, and her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, who is approaching retirement. Faced with the impending demolition of the asylum, Dr Grene is tasked with deciding whether patients should be moved, or indeed whether some of them are fit to leave.  In the case of Roseanne, he needs to delve into why she was committed in the first instance, some sixty years prior.  He writes of her:

She is a formidable person and though long periods have gone by when I have not seen her, or only tangentially, I am always aware of her, and try to ask after her.  I am afraid she is rather a touchstone for me.

Roseanne meanwhile, has begun to write down her life’s story, penned in secret, and hidden beneath the floorboards of her room.  The first-person narration switches between Roseanne’s chronological recollections and Dr Grene’s notes as he faces both professional challenges and the tremors in his private life.  Initially, the stories of Roseanne’s early life hold sway over the drier rigours of Dr Grene as she explores her early childhood and her close relationship with her father.  However, a balance is soon found as we learn more of Dr Grene’s private life, including his fraught relationship with his wife, Bet, caused by his own infidelity.

There is a special regard between Dr Grene and Roseanne, a friendship of sorts.  Tellingly, the only real comfort he finds when Bet dies is in the presence of this old ‘touchstone’.  In turn, she wonders whether her secret scripture will be read at all, but takes comfort in the thought that Dr Grene may one day be her reader.

It seems there is no surviving documentation detailing Roseanne’s arrival at the asylum.  This changes as Dr Grene begins to find old documents that have survived in various forms in other hospitals that she was once a patient in.  Things get interesting as we receive conflicting reports of Roseanne’s life and we are forced to ask ourselves which report is true.  Does she recall everything correctly?  She admits that her memories and imaginings reside in the same place in her mind.  Are they the ravings of someone long-since banished from orderly thought?  Or are the people who have plagued her truly harrowing life, such as Fr Gaunt, the local Catholic Priest, in some way to blame for her incarceration?  Is his ‘deposition’, made on her committal, accurate?  Or are they, in some way both true – has Roseanne altered her memories in such a way as to sanitise terrible truths and therein protect herself?

Fr Gaunt is a singularly malevolent character and is expertly drawn by Barry.  Poor old Roseanne retraces her steps, including the awful role he has played in her life, stretching all the way back to her father whom she adored.  This includes several particularly harrowing events, including the murder of an Irish ‘Irregular’ by Free-State soldiers in front of Roseanne and her father.  Her father unfortunately gets Fr Gaunt involved who is so aggrieved that he dismisses Rosanne’s father from his job in the local graveyard, whereupon he is forced to take up a role as rat catcher.  This leads to a particularly horrific scene as remembered by Roseanne, in which he dispatches rats by dousing them in paraffin and throwing them into a fire.  Unfortunately, one rat escapes, and – with his daughter (strangely) at his side and watching on – the orphanage in which he is working soon goes up in flames, with young girls jumping out of storeys-high windows all alight with fire.  Roseanne recalls the scene:

… they jumped from the ledge in little groups and single, their clothes burning and burning, the flames blown up from the pinnies till they dragged above them like veritable wings, and those burning girls fell the height of that grand old mansion, and struck the cobbles. 

Over one hundred children die.  Roseanne soon has to face another horror too – the death of her father, from a supposed suicide.  After his death, and her mother’s own mental illness, Fr Gaunt encourages her, a Presbyterian, to marry a Catholic and save her soul.  She is only in her mid-teens at this point and the man he picks out for her is over fifty, a certain Mr. Brady, who as it turns out, plays a more nefarious role in her life than she allows herself to recall.   For that is the crux of her recollections – they are so painful that she seems to adapt them and belittle their misery, thinking that it must not compare to the grief of others.

Fortunately she rejects Fr Gaunt’s offer, but this only serves to rile him and have him act against her at every turn thereafter.  She gains work at a café to support her mother and finds a man, Tom McNulty, who saves her at the beach from certain drowning, and who is also a customer at the café.  However, his mother rails against their marriage, cuts Roseanne off from Tom, and has Fr Gaunt act to annul the marriage.  There is a rage that burns inside Roseanne at this point, a fury that we too share.  But things get worse as she tells of her subsequent pregnancy and how her baby is stolen at birth.  The birth is both heroic and horrific as Roseanne finds herself caught outside in a fierce storm.  Father Gaunt subsequently writes in his clinical deposition that she has killed the baby and her committal is assured.  But all is not as it seems.  We wonder: did Roseanne have a baby as she recalls?  If so, who was the father?  And finally, what happened to it – did she really kill it as Fr Gaunt states?

This is fertile territory for an accomplished writer such as Barry.  He very skillfully keeps revealing layers of both Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s lives in such a way as to keep raising questions in the reader’s mind.  One of the main themes is that of history – can there be a single version of it, or is it merely like a collective memory and thus prone to human frailties such as imagined and misremembered events, motivations, and emotions(?)  The differing recollections and documents explore this theme well.

It all shapes up for a very dramatic climax.  I won’t reveal anything here suffice to say there are a few surprises in the gathering together of all these versions of history.  Some readers may find the big surprise a little bit stretched, even unnecessary.  Others will absolutely love it.  Perhaps it is no surprise coming from a writer whose early work was for the theatre where such climaxes are de-rigour and every character, large or small, must play their part.  I felt that in the last forty to fifty pages the book accelerated and turned from a quite lyrical and meditative enquiry into past events into almost a thriller with a sledgehammer ‘reveal’.  It felt a little bit rushed, to the point where I wondered whether I was reading someone else narrating as Dr Grene ties up the loose ends.  I lost the sense of depth in characterisation that had preceded it – which ironically seemed all the more required because of the surprises.  But perhaps that is the way people react to such sudden knowledge; it changes them, and they rush to interpret.

There is also a structural issue apparent from the off – why has a patient in Dr Grene’s care spent thirty years without him knowing the details of her history or wanting to find out prior to this forced enquiry – particularly as she is someone he has a strange affection for?  Barry does address this ‘lack of professionalism’ as Dr Grene sees it, but there is still a slight credibility gap.  Furthermore, Roseanne has spent sixty years in mental institutions during a 20th Century riddled with inhuman treatment of such people, and is now a very adept and alert centurion!  Whilst she writes that her notes ‘are my sanity’, it seems a little difficult to believe, but only if one is to be persnickety.  And in one place, Dr Grene’s medical knowledge is found wanting.  When he hears the voice of his dead wife calling to him one night, he questions whether it is adrenalin causing his physical reactions; surely a physician would know this?

If you can get past the structural issue (as I allowed myself) it is a wonderful read and Barry’s writing is beautiful.  I found myself stopping on numerous occasions to underline passages or images that particularly struck me.  Highly lyrical, he delves into the inner workings of the mind with acute insight.  The Secret Scripture was the hot tip to win the Man Booker Prize in 2008, but was beaten to the post by Aravind Adiga’s somewhat polarising The White Tiger. (Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole was also short-listed that year).  I enjoyed Adiga’s book, but it wasn’t a great book.  I certainly didn’t love it.  It had a vibrant energy which helped sustained its rage.  The Secret Scripture is definitely worthy of its Booker short-listing despite my slight misgivings, and is on a par with the winner.  It is thus no surprise that it did win the respected James Tait Black Memorial Prize & the Costa (a UK café chain) Book Award.

Interestingly, Sebastian Barry (like Paul Torday’s The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers & Marilynne Robinson’s Home) has taken a character from a previous work, whether play or fiction, to base a new fictional novel on – in Barry’s case at least twice*.  Clearly, when you’re onto a good thing – or a good character – you stick to it.  Barry has since written another play.  For those of us who enjoy great reads, we can only hope he returns to a format he is very good at.

This completes my 10 Prizes Challenge for 2010!  I think you’re supposed to only complete one per month, but I got through about eight before I realised this ‘rule’.  This still leaves plenty of other challenges to pursue though…

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571215294

312 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

* Willie Dunne in A Long Long Way (short-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize), was the son of a fictional character from one of his earlier plays.  And Eneas McNulty, brother to Roseanne’s would-be husband Tom in The Secret Scripture appeared in Barry’s earlier The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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This delightful ‘fairy-tale’ is something for the young and the young at heart.  However, like all good fairy-tales, and given this is Salman Rushdie, there is a very serious thesis at its core.  Haroun’s father, Rashid, who goes by the name of the Ocean of Notions, or less admiringly: the Shah of Blah, is a master storyteller of Arabian Nights calibre.    Rashid is “stuffed with cheery stories” until his wife – and Haroun’s mother – deserts them.  In a flash, Rashid loses his story-telling powers and what comes next is a magical fantasy ride of strange creatures, figures, and places – a quest that Haroun and Rashid take to try to rescue the power of storytelling.

Haroun and Rashid travel to the ‘second’ moon Kahani, where Haroun plans to find the means to return his father’s story-telling powers.  However, the moon is in a turmoil of its own as Khattam-Shud, the master of silence and darkness has kidnapped the pompous Gup Prince’s bride-to-be.  Worse still, the shadows of Khattam-Shud – evil overlord of the Chupwalas – are poisoning the ocean which is made up of all the streams of stories, and are also in the process of plugging the wellspring where new stories are born.  Haroun and Rashid inevitably find themselves helping the good Gupees.

This slim and multi-layered book – perfect to read as bedtime stories for youngsters, (or perfect under-the-covers reading for the rest of us!), has a serious side, as all good fairytales do: stories vs silence – the battle to keep storytelling alive and vivid in the face of dumbed-down masses that live in the world of silence.  “Freedom of Speech” is a gift to be utilised.  Rushdie’s message is the power of fictional stories to frame and inform our understanding of life.

Like Rashid, Rushdie is a master storyteller – which gives rise to the very personal allegory involved here.  This is Salman Rushdie’s first book after The Satanic Verses – which had resulted in the fatwa for his ‘heretical’ story.  , Writing under the protection of MI5 and exiled from his son – to whom the book is dedicated, Rushdie in a way has had his own storytelling powers threatened and stolen – and he wants them back.  Like Haroun and Rashid, he battles a shadowy enemy: religious zealotry.

There are numerous examples of speech vs silence, light vs darkness, the material vs shadows.  The Gupee half of the moon is constantly in sunlight, whilst the Chupwalas are in constant darkness.  Furthermore, there is wall between their two worlds, named ‘Chattergy’s Wall’ after the Gup King.  This sense of the building of walls between vastly different cultures also has a basis in real life, with the invisible wall between the West and the Middle-East.

Magical things abound, such as the ‘plentimaw’ fish who travel in pairs and who talk in rhyming couplets; flying horse machines that talk and have removable brains that are the mythical creatures one uses to get to Kahani; water genies; floating gardeners; shadows who fight – and in some case separate – from their owners; the list goes on.  They all help Haroun in his battle against the dark-lord’s shadow.  All standard fairy-tale fare, but delivered with Rushdie’s playful and rampant imagination.  He adds layers that beg to be interpreted.  Names, for instance, are important.  Haroun and Rashid for instance, are taken from the “legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales.  Their surname, Khalifa, actually means ‘Caliph’,” and there are many other examples.

I am a big Rushdie admirer, particularly his earlier books such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children and the short stories in East, WestHaroun and the Sea of Stories, written in 1990, sits firmly within the best category of this early work.  He has recently come back to something like top form, with the very good Enchantress of Venice after the less successful Fury and Shalimar the Clown (which I so wanted to love, but was a little let down by some aspects as well as the ending).  He recently was quoted as saying he would soon write the story of his exile under the fatwa.  I can only hope it is as adventurous and interesting as his finest work.

If you enjoy ‘adult’ fairy-tales with magic-realist elements (and what good fairy tale doesn’t have these?!), or are an avid Rushdie fan, then you’ll enjoy this.  If you have young kids, I’d recommend giving it a trial run on them … (unless they’re too busy twittering or facebooking of course!)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Granta Books

ISBN: 9780140140354

218 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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Yesterday I popped into the Mitchell Library to see the truly wonderful One Hundred exhibition, celebrating one hundred years of the library in one hundred objects.  The exhibit displays books, diaries, letters, maps, paintings, etchings, drawings, photos, and other objects d’art. 

For book lovers there are, naturally, numerous highlights.  There is the ‘pitch’ letter that Miles Franklin wrote to Angus and Robertson along with her manuscript for My Brilliant Career – which was rejected!  The letter is fascinating; self-deprecating and unsure – she calls her story “My Brilliant(?) Career”.  The letter was subsequently annotated by George Robertson, who noted the decision to reject the manuscript was taken whilst he was away! 

There is the journal of George Augustus Robinson, otherwise known as The Conciliator, whom Richard Flanagan fictionalises as The Protector in his novel Wanting (which was ironically my last read & review).  There is an early draft of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, written in very attractive longhand.  There is Patrick White’s Nobel Prize diploma and medal.  There is Donald Horne’s personal copy of The Lucky Country and Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner which was originally Six Pickles before she added a seventh and renamed it.  There is Banjo Patterson’s original Man from Snowy River, which can also be heard spoken by Jack Thompson, and Hnery Lawson’s While the Billy Boils

Architecture is also represented, with Joern Utzon’s original 1962 sketches for the Sydney Opera House and Glenn Murcutt’s drawings for his famed Magney House, amongst others.

This being Australia, there are the journals of several explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt – the inspiration for Patrick White’s Voss – gold explorer Harold Lasseter’s diary, found on his person after his death, and the journals of Wentworth and Lawson detailing their expedition across the Blue Mountains. 

There is John Gould’s The Birds of Australia, 1840-48, a mammoth tome of some 600 hand-coloured lithographs – no wonder it took so long to produce! – in which the larrikin kookaburra is known rather plainly as the Fawn-breasted Kingfisher

But some of the older exhibits yield real fascination – take for instance a letter to Giuliano de Medici by Andrea Corsalii written in c.1516, in which there is the first known drawing of the Southern Cross constellation by a European.  And the diary of Archibald Barwick, a WWI digger, who served Gallipoli and the Western Front, who writes on the 25th of April 1915: “Bullets hurt when they hit you”; he also talks of fear, of the thought of wanting out of it all but not wanting to leave your ‘mates’ behind. 

There is Sir Joseph Banks’ Endeavour journal, 1768-1771, a journal of the First Fleet, and early letters home – by Arthur Phillip and convict Mary Reibey – to England from the settlement at Port Jackson, which became Sydney, although as records show, Phillip was going to call it Albion, before Sydney was chosen.  Also present are some very interesting artefacts dealing with aboriginal issues, including a painted proclamation in Tasmania from around 1830 that tried to depict the sought after equal treatment of black and whites – and the punishment for killing – not through the usual dense words, but through pictures. 

The list goes on.  Indeed, the exhibition is so extensive that to take it in in one visit was too much.  But that’s fine with me – it means I have the perfect excuse to go back and see it again.  It’s free too, so there’s really no excuse for not seeing a magnificent exposition of unique items that display the history of Australia, in all of its forms, both triumphant and tragic. 

The only drawback is the website, which gives you a taste of the exhibit, but is very slow to navigate – you need to scroll (s-l-o-w-l-y) through all objects to get to one you want more information on, and when you return to this menu after looking at one object, you have to start from scratch again – very annoying!  There should be a page from which all items readily accessible.  What’s worse is there’s hardly any information on the items themselves, just a very short 10-20-odd second sound-bite – some of which seemed to have been cut off mid-stream – it’s not nearly enough and poorly done.  Of course, the real pleasure is seeing them with your own eyes, though for interstate and overseas visitors, the website should be better. 

The Dilettante’s Rating:

Exhibition: 5/5

Website: 1/5

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It is one of the most often heard pieces of advice when it comes to writing: ‘write what you know’.  I’ve read the first three novels by Richard Flanagan and enjoyed them all.  I particularly loved Gould’s Book of Fish. It is obvious that he and Tasmanian history go together like cheese and crackers. For this reason, I skipped The Unknown Terrorist, its departure from his previous style and genre lessoning my interest, along with quite mixed reviews.  So I came to Wanting – with its mix of Tasmania and the life of Charles Dickens – as a Flanagan fan and expecting good things.  And for the most part I was not disappointed.  I found the scenes centering on Tasmania and the tale of the aboriginal girl Mathinna the most successful; the early Dickens scenes didn’t quite match up – but only just.  Once Flanagan got in full stride, I found Dickens’ nascent love for Ellen Ternan, and his acquiescing to his desires, very satisfying.

Flanagan certainly sets himself a real task. The story is about that most basic of human drivers – wanting – and its hold over all of us.  There is much talk of what it means to be savage – is it the native or the one who gives in to their own hunger, giving free reign to their basest desires?  The ‘savage’ line of inquiry is one of the links between the Tasmania and its Governor, Sir John Franklin, with the polar exploration of the Europeans, one of which, under the leadership of Sir John, ends with questions back in England of whether the stricken explorers had turned on each other, relying on cannibalism – and thus, savagery – to survive.  Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane, requests the help of Dickens to restore her husband’s public image.  He does so through a rebuke of the cannibalism theory, subsequently acting in a play his friend Wilkie Collins writes, called The Frozen Deep.

There is ‘wanting’ everywhere.  There is the desire of the white settlers to be rid of the aboriginals who have plagued their expanding settlements.  They are rounded-up and shipped off to Flinders Island in Bass Straight under the misguided ‘protection’ of Rev. George Augustus Robinson, (a story that Mark Twain wrote about in his visit to Australia, captured in The Wayward Tourist, which I reviewed just a week or so ago).  With them is the young girl Mathinna who is ‘adopted’ by the visiting Governor, Sir John, and his wife, Lady Jane.  This adoption is their ‘scientific experiment’, to see if a savage can be tamed and schooled as an Englishwomen would be.  For the pompous Lady Jane, it is her chance at motherhood for she is barren.  It is an opportunity she welcomes at first, but when it matters most, she fails both herself and Mathinna miserably.

Meanwhile, in London, Dickens is ruminating on his apathy toward women, his wife in particular.  He is searching for something and becoming restless.  The question is: what is the price of wanting?  And: can he pay the price?

The ineffectual Sir John, at first a distant figure in Mathinna’s life, suddenly warms to her presence and begins to enjoy the girl’s company.  Whilst this relationship is burgeoning, Lady Jane requests her sister in London to send to them a ‘glyptotech’ – a building for housing sculpture – as well as casts of the Elgin marbles and other famous sculptures no less.  It is a poignant moment, for she writes: ‘the island needs its own Ancients and Mythology’, just as they have overseen the removal of the last aboriginals from Tasmania.  The sheer poverty and arrogance of the situation is laid bare.  Sir John begins to spend more and more time with Mathinna, neglecting his Governorship, and comes to love the girl.  However, when the social climbers in Hobart engineer change by having Sir John recalled to London, he changes tack and begins to blame Mathinna for his own failings.  A visit from a white landowner, Mr Kerr, who has taken action into his own hands in eradicating the natives, transforms Sir John even further, as he comes to admire the man’s violence.  Sir John now wishes to return to polar exploration, “the only emptiness he knew greater than himself.”  He ships off Mathinna to an orphanage where her treatment is terrible and she retreats into herself.  Lady Jane visits, essentially to remove Mathinna and take her home, but at the moment when motherhood cries out to her most, she feels most unable to heed its call.  It is heartbreaking stuff, and expertly crafted by Flanagan.

We are also witness to Dickens’ growing feelings for Ellen, one of the actresses in his play.  The play becomes life and we find, through illness, Ellen play Dickens’ love interest in the play.  They begin to drift off the script as they express their feelings for each other on stage.  It is a wonderful construct by Flanagan and we are left with Dickens’ final realisation:

Dickens knew he loved her.  He could no longer discipline his undisciplined heart.  And he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of the savage, realised he could no longer deny wanting.

I know others have found the foray into the world of Dickens an oddity and less successful than the Australian side of things.  Is it evidence that a writer should stick to their bread and butter best material or setting? To write ‘what they know’? (It seems as though the same setting has not dented Tim Winton’s success, though I wonder how long he can continue to write from this same place).  For Flanagan, the Dickens foray seems a stretch at first, but I found myself happily leaving questions of linkages behind and enjoying the fraught inner machinations of Dickens, as he finds his whole world changing.

Wanting was short-listed for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award.  It was a formidable shortlist, with Murray Bail’s The Pages, Christos Tsiolkas’ polarizing The Slap, Ice by Louis Nowra, and of course Winton’s Breath.  I have read The Pages, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but have not got to Breath yet – it must be a mighty good book to have toppled Wanting.  (One gets the sense that to go up against Tim Winton in the MF is like pushing water uphill!  It also provides a stark contrast to this year’s long-list, though Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers will correct me if I’m underestimating its strength.  By the way, you can read her excellent review of Wanting here.)

One of the things that first struck me about Wanting was the restraint that seemed evident in the writing. The poetry and lyricism were less obvious.  However, I found these signatures of Flanagan’s style coming to the fore as the book matured, and there are passages of immense beauty.  And immense tragedy too, for ‘wanting’ changes everyone – from the fickle Sir John, the hollow Lady Jane, the lovesick Dickens, and lastly, and most terrifyingly, Mathinna and the last remaining aboriginals, who are eventually brought back to a shanty town near Hobart, but who have lost everything. Flanagan captures their demise eloquently and hauntingly.

So should writer’s stick to ‘writing what they know’?  Quite apart from the fact that it’s of course entirely up to them (and their publishers no doubt!), the evidence is mixed.  We have The Unknown Terrorist – which was a big departure in style and genre, a book that satisfied some new readers whilst befuddling existing ones.  And then we have Wanting, perhaps a perfect attempt at departure – a fusion of the old and the new, and thus a fine balancing act.  For me, Flanagan balances things just fine, and his writing is at its lyrical, evocative and powerful best.  I can’t wait to see where he takes himself – and us – next.

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Vintage

ISBN: 9781741666687

252 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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