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Archive for May, 2010

I came across both Marie Munkara and her little gem of a book, Every Secret Thing, at last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF), where I went to a session with Marie in conversation with Irina Dunn.  I really enjoyed the session and the three-or-so readings that Marie did, all of which were very humorous, and so I bought the book.

Winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous authors, Every Secret Thing explores the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to educate and ‘civilise’ a mob of aboriginals in the far north of Australia and the hilarious and devastating interaction of cultures and beliefs.

The novel feels like a series of short and highly entertaining stories, but there are recurring characters and a narrative arc that traces a gradual decline in the health and welfare of the ‘bush mob’.  Each story has lavish helpings of energy and wit.  Right from the opening chapter, entitled The Bishop, we know we are in for a fun-filled ride.  The Bishop, having arrived by plane (just!), sits in on a religious instruction class in which Jeremiah asks: “But why did Eve eat the apple?  Wouldn’t the snake have tasted better?” Another chimes in: “And why aren’t there any black angels?  Why are they always white?”  Each of the baptised aboriginal children is given a biblical Christian name, which gives Munkara a lot of scope for further giggles.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John run off and play in the trees as the Sisters try to organise everyone for the Bishop’s arrival.  The Bishop is a fool who answers the question about the black angels thus: “ ‘I’ll leave that for Sister to answer,’ he snorted pompously as he recalled Sister’s humiliating rejection of him when she had been on retreat six months earlier. ‘She knows all about being an angel’.”(!)

But despite the giggles, there are serious themes at work here.  The aboriginal children are referred to as “inmates of the Mission” as if it is a prison, which of course for the bush mob it most certainly is.  We get plenty of scenes that deal with the clash of white and black.  One such instance is the arrival of an anthropologist to study the ways of the natives.  He is called ‘Rat’ by them on account of his mannerisms and physical appearance.  Pwomiga, one of the aboriginal men, tells the misguided Rat all the wrong names for things.  ‘Spear’ becomes ‘penis’ and so on.  Pwomiga and his mates wonder how this ‘learned’ man can be so stupid.  Soon we find Father Macredie inspired to use the many words Rat has translated in his Sunday sermons – much to the amusement of the natives!  Elsewhere, a missionary woman tries to teach the aboriginal women how to cook using the stove, but is aghast when she finds puppies in their unused cooker.

One feels Munkara could have rattled on with endless stories about the ills of religion for the sake of laughs, but despite the very breezy language and atmosphere she created in the first half of the book, she has bigger fish to fry in the second half.  We see a pregnant cat imported to the mission and become the mother to an ever-expanding family of cats which go off hunting in the bush and render species that had been happily living in the area for millennia extinct.

A French couple then arrive on a ship-wrecked yacht and bring marijuana into the camp.  Not only do the mob start to smoke, but soon they are all growing it in their homes.  Odile, the French woman, gives birth to a half-caste child.  Her French husband seems oblivious to the colour of his skin.  But it is not only him, for the Missionaries decide they can’t take this half-caste child from his parents because its mother is white.  The mob see the double standards clearly: “The more erudite had reasoned that if they had to hand over their coloured kids then why shouldn’t Odile.  No matter that the mother wasn’t black, the kid was still coloured, wasn’t he, and everybody knew what happened to them.”

The decline in the wellbeing of the mob continues when one of the Brothers finds a crate of rum washed ashore on a beach.  We witness the horror of what alcohol does to the mob: “by mid morning everyone was roaring drunk except for Dinah’s baby who was busy sucking on an empty bottle and Dinah who was comatose.”  Munkara’s writing is deceivingly breezy even when we are faced with such terrible truths.

Yet it gets worse when Father Voleur replaces the retired Fr Macredie who realises as he’s leaving that he should have “let the bush mob into his heart from the beginning and been their friend.”  Fr Voleur introduces movies to the bush mob which they marvel at, but wonder how it is that a man who dies in one movie can be alive in the next.  Meanwhile, Fr Voleur blackmails the mob by saying that they’ll only get to see the movies if they come to Mass.  Pwomiga and the other men are confused by the resurrection of the actors and begin to ponder whether they are like Jesus.  This sets up the final harrowing scene which I won’t divulge here, but it caps off a wonderful little book, full of laughs yet full of demise too – one that delves into the dark side of the Catholic Missionaries and the devastating effect they and all of the aliens – feline, French or otherwise – have had, bringing hell to the place that was heaven before they laid claim to it.

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara

University of Queensland Press (UQP)

ISBN: 9780702237195

179 pages

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The two-page preface to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) outlines José Saramago’s contention that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping” – something that is quite topical with novels such as Wolf Hall spurring a recent swathe of historical fiction. But this is not a historical novel like Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, but rather a story ‘inserted into history.’  Its fictional siblings therefore include speculative ‘alternate histories’, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004).  However, Roth takes a point in US history, (where he has FDR defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 Presidential election), and goes off on a tangent, writing a totally new history, whereas Saramago alters how a particular historical event occurs and who is involved, but there is no splintering off into some altered path of history which leads to an altered present.

The novel is constructed with two story arcs, one of which is historical, and the other in the present.  There are the events set in the twelfth century including our protagonist Raimundo Silva’s alternate history of the siege of Lisbon, and there is the life of Raimundo in the twentieth century.  It raises questions over how accurate the historical record can be and whether we can ever truly know the emotions or thoughts of characters whose history we interpret many years later.  How accurate can we be about History?

Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.  This is the third book of his I’ve read.  The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats around the Atlantic(!), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ are the other two I’ve read.  The later is also an alternative history in the same vein as the Siege of Lisbon.  Both are excellent reads and are highly recommended.

In much of Saramago’s work, characters regularly have trouble connecting with others, and his novels regularly feature the theme of urban dislocation.  They also regularly feature magic realist elements.  The theme of historical accuracy and the framework of magic realism – right up my street! – so I was looking forward to another fine read from the Nobel Prize winning author.

Reading Saramago has its challenges.  He only uses commas and periods.  There is no other punctuation.  So, no question marks, exclamation marks, or dialogue quotation marks.  Dialogue is subsumed within the prose, marked only by a commencing capital letter and conversations are strung along with commas being the only separator between characters’ words.  His view is that the prose itself should make it clear as to who is speaking and also whether there is a question or exclamation involved.  One thus has to concentrate to keep up with things.  Close reading is a must.

This means that we get great slabs of prose, made only larger by his penchant for interminably long sentences and paragraphs, full of what I would call ‘narrative deviations’ in which the narrator goes off on some tangent to explore an idea or make a witty aside.  For example: (p63):

a traditional Portuguese meal of fried fish and rice with tomato sauce and salad, and with any luck, the tender leaves of a lettuce heart, where, something not many people know, nestles the incomparable freshness of the morning, the dew and mist, which are one and the same, but warrant repetition for the simple pleasure of writing both words and savouring the sound.

… It’s lovely writing, with lovely images, but there’s just too much meandering.  It is in some way reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s excellent (and challenging) The Autumn of the Patriarch, (see my review), and provides a stark contrast to the pyrotechnics of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer for example.

Yet for all the promise of the story’s idea and the sometimes beautiful writing, for some reason only the modern arc of Raimundo’s life worked well for me.  Raimundo is a proof-reader and one day we see him insert a ‘not’ into a historical text entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon – on purpose!  The deliberate mistake is only noticed after the book has been printed, but not before it is distributed.  The publisher’s decide to insert an errata notice rather than republish.  They also bring in a new woman, Maria Sara, to oversee all of the firm’s proof-readers’ work.  Needless to say, the meeting between Raimundo and his new boss is a tense affair!

After the meeting, Raimundo’s mind is filled with questions over the brusque nature of the woman.  Sometime later, he realises he has feelings for her.  Maria tells him that he should write the fictional history of the siege of Lisbon, one in which the crusaders decline to help the Portuguese evict the Moors from the fortified city.  After some silent rubbishing of this task, Raimundo finds himself drawn further and further into the lives of both Moor and Christian.  The fact that he himself lives in the fortified section of the city’s walls adds further intrigue – he can see battles and events from the distant past as if they are happening.  These historical scenes didn’t really capture my imagination.  Sometimes Saramago’s interminably long sentences with all their ‘nods’ and ‘winks’ and witty asides bored me.  It was all too ponderous.  So we have a wonderful premise for a story, but a structural problem with the dual arcs, one of which lacks bight.

It is only when the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara takes off that things move along nicely.  Here there are some wonderful moments, where an older single man falls in love with a woman fifteen-odd years his junior, who, we learn, liked him from their first meeting.

This is one of Saramago’s books that is one the 1,001, Must Read list.  I will certainly read other books by him, but just felt part of this novel didn’t work as well as it might have, which is a shame because the theme of the intersection between history and fiction is wonderful, one that is always worth exploring.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

The Harvill Press, London

ISBN: 9781860467226

312 pages

Source: Personal Bookshelf Rainbow

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Another damp day in Sydney saw the close of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2010.  Peter Carey is giving the official closing address, which along with many of the sessions will be available from the SWF website.  It was another very interesting day.  This is a long post but I assume that readers can see which session interests them and read those summaries:

1. ‘Portraits of a Lady’ with Colm Toibin and Kirsten Tranter in conversation with the learned Geordie Williamson, in part discussing their work’s (Colm’s Brooklyn & Kirsten’s The Legacy) relationship with Henry James’ famous novel, although the discussion covered more than this, with Colm in particular showing his encyclopedic knowledge of James, his life, and his work.  Geordie opened the session with a quote of Virginia Woolf’s review of (I think) Henry James’ Letters; Colm told the story of how Virginia and her sister (and everyone else in London at the time) wanted to impersonate James.  James was a great friend of Virginia’s parents and was over for dinner one evening and was telling a story in his own unique way, rocking on his chair as he spoke, until he rocked a little too far and fell toppled over, but what amazed Virginia was that he kept talking through the entire descent! 

Geordie asked the authors how it was that they squared with themselves the task of taking on the ‘monolith’ of James.  Kirsten told the story of how The Portrait of a Lady itself was James’ response to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so this gave her a sense of confidence that such a project was appropriate.  Cue Colm’s very witty reason: he used to work a summer job in the motor tax office, ‘sorting paper records covered in dust and grime and dirt’. Said Colm: ‘In the day, I worked in the tax office, and at night I read The Portrait of a Lady'(!)  He was astonished with the idea of a secret held to the end of a story, and was puzzled and intrigued by James, and what appears on the surface to be the ‘style of morality’ but is really ‘the morality of morality’.  Geordie then asked about the different structure that each author took in their novels, with Kirsten favouring a fairly direct use of James’ structure (with some ‘grafted-on’ mystery elements, as well as changing the scandal from infidelity to the artist’s authorship of her work).  Kirsten purposefully did not re-read Portrait before writing her work, though she did dip into it.  Colm stripped out a lot of the original structure.  He noted that a lot of James’ work is poor, some of short stories in particular (often written quickly for money), but also some of his longer works.  Colm said ‘James struggled to write about the English’, but he did have a gift in his great novels of using a very intimate third person narrative which allows the reader to ‘become the character’.  Colm said James did this very well and Portrait is a great example.  In Brooklyn, Toibin said he limits his protagonist Ellis Lacey’s ‘ambition’, but he allows her the ability to observe events and surroundings with ‘full intelligence’.  A question was asked as to whether Henry James would have written great works had he been openly gay; Colm replied that EM Forster wrote a story which was openly gay but it was very bad because everything was given to the reader, whereas in other works his use of metaphor works, and the same could be said of James.  Another observation of Colm was that James, whilst very wealthy, wrote poverty well.  Colm clearly has both the gift of the gab – and the intellect to back it up.  A very interesting session that covered so much more than the premise allowed.

2. ‘The Boat to Redemption’ – Su Tong in conversation with Linda Jaivin (who also translated).  Another great session.  Su Tong has a wonderfully sunny disposition which came across even through Linda’s interpretation.  Tong’s books have included Wives and Concubines – which was made into the acclaimed film, Raise the Red Lantern – and others, with his latest novel The Boat to Redemption winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, making a total of seven novels, and over 200 short stories.  The story is set in the Cultural Revolution – the time in which Su grew up.  He saw people with placards around their necks with their crimes inscribed thereon and wondered what their struggles and stories were.  There is violence in his novels, but he defends this by saying that ‘violence was a part of everyday life.’  Su said he is now very awake to the ‘nightmare and corruption of his childhood’ and all its ‘blackness’. 

Interestingly, Linda noted that the title of the novel in Chinese means ‘River, Shore’ – it is set on a river, its narrator a young boy whose father decided to move from the shore to the river and they haven’t set on land since.  Su Tong’s own parents once lived on an island on the mighty Yangtze River, so for him the river was his world.  Yet the feeling of a river lends itself more to poetry than novels, so writing a story about the river proved a great challenge even for someone with his background. 

Su said that he sees himself as a doctor that looks at the ills of humanity and figures out what needs to be done.  He says it is common in China for doctors to cut out diseased tissue and show this to their families; Tong says this is what he does with society, he cuts out the rotten tissue and shows it to us – a nice metaphor.  We then had quite a funny description of how young people learnt about sex in China, with Linda noting the theme of sexual anxiety that it present in a lot of Chinese literature, including Su Tong’s work.  Mothers commonly tell their children when they ask ‘where do babies come from?’ that they come from the mother’s armpit or they are found on the street.  Su Tong was told he was taken from a boat.  He and his friends found out about sex from The Barefoot Doctor, the book given to rural people who were given very basic medical training.  Says Tong: ‘We studied Mao in class, and The Barefoot Doctor at home. 

We then arrived at Linda’s observation about the English translation.  Linda read both the Chinese and English version simultaneously and was appalled at the differences between them.  Important sentences had disappeared, chapters had been moved, and the overall elegance of the Chinese version did not fully come across.  This was meant as a compliment to Su Tong’s Chinese version, but of course, we in the audience suddenly felt like we were getting a far inferior version.  The explanation was that the English translation was taken from his second draft, and not his final draft, the publishers were anxious to get the book out!  Tong blames himself for this, but the obvious question – which was indeed forthcoming from the audience – was: ‘will there be a ‘proper’ English translation published?’  I was certainly thinking this, but I had already bought the book the other night!  Of course, the point that should have been made was: it was the English version that won the Man Asian Prize and had Colm Toibin singing its praises on Thursday night in the ‘Judges & Winners’ session.  So whilst I have not read it yet and will provide a review soon, I’m aghast to think that there are people out there that wont read it because they feel it is a poor book, and I for one am looking forward to reading River, Shore

3. ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’ with Hugo Bowne-Anderson and Chris Andrews (translator of several of Bolano’s works into English), with chair Don Anderson.  Bolano has captured the imagination of many readers since his premature death with his mysterious and incredibly prolific writing.  Don noted in his introduction that Bolano said ‘magic realism stinks’, but he also said of Garcia Marquez, that some of his novels were ‘perfect’ – and this in a nutshell gives us a glimpse into the elusiveness of Bolano.  Hugo spoke at length about Bolano’s works, observing that either of By Night in Chile or Amulet (see my review), are good ways into his work. 

Chris then gave us a particularly well-constructed talk on what he saw as the five characteristics of Bolano: Energy; Tension; Totality; Ehtics; and, Poetry.  He quoted the opening lines of The Savage Detectives and noted its lack of adjectives as well as the immediate sense of a ‘vibration’ of energy.  Tension is ‘something that Bolano can create out of nothing’, and Chris noted that quite often his short stories, like Poe’s short stories, reveal a hidden structure at the end and what you thought you were reading turns out to be something entirely different.  Yet many of Bolano’s novels eschew endings.  Instead we have very open endings.  Bolano wants to work the reader hard; he attempts to retain a sense of mystery, and wants understanding to be elusive.  In terms of the ‘totality’, both Chris and Hugo noted how Bolano’s works are related and connected.  However, Chris observed that there are many inconsistencies – characters’ reappear in other books but sometimes with different names.  Thus, there is some sense of a plan behind the totality of the work, but not a real plan given all these inconsistencies.  Chris said that these are a small price to pay for the whole.  Ethics: Bolano was quite a moralist in his fiction (if not in life).  His cardinal vice was ‘cosying up to power’, whilst his cardinal virtue is courage – a view that I share wholeheartedly.  Courage in Bolano’s works is often represented by duels.  Finally, poets are everywhere in Bolano’s stories, both as a metaphor for the creative class but also because Bolano himself was a poet before he began writing novels.  Poetry is important to him. 

Chris was asked about the method of interpretation, and gave an interesting insight when he said that often the first translation is very dry and awkward and does not retain the poetry of the original; it takes a lot of work to then arrive at a real sense of the original Spanish in English.  An observation was then made from a member of the audience which the panel agreed with, as do I, when it was argued that had Bolano lived a long life, the sense of a real plan interlinking his entire work may never have been forthcoming, and we would have instead what we have now, a lack of a definitive ending to everything, where, appropriately enough, the session was ended!  Very interesting.  I have The Savage Detectives and 2666 on my shelf, their weight pressing down into the wood, but feel now that I have a much greater awareness of what awaits me. 

4.  ‘Australian Stories’ with Thomas Keneally (Australians – Origins to Eureka), Jack Marx (Australian Tragic), Michael Cathcart (The Water Dreamers), moderated by Richard Glover.  A fun romp through some tall tales, interesting facts, and myths that each author has come across as an antidote to the view in school-children that ‘Australian history is boring’.  Richard opened the session with Mark Twain’s famous quote from his journey to Australia, which Peter Carey used as a quote before his excellent Illywhacker, and which appears in the excellent: The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia (see my review), that Australia’s history ‘reads like the most beautiful lies’. 

There were some interesting observations made by each panelist.  For instance, Jack believed that one Australian myth is that of ‘mateship’ – he felt there is nothing special about Australian male bonds than anywhere else in the world.  Tom noted that one myth is the notion that all aboriginals were ‘supine’ to white settlement.  This was an interesting observation for me, for I am well aware that many of the aboriginals of the day openly resisted.  This notion was explored further after a question on why the stories of violence toward aboriginals goes untold.  Again, I found this an interesting assertion, as I was aware of these stories myself, but perhaps they are untold.  Jack observed that the violence continues today, providing the example of the indigenous man killed a couple of years back on Palm Is by a policeman and the lack of punishment.  Michael’s myth is the notion that ‘everyone died searching for an inland sea’, noting the irony that as far as he was aware, the only man to die whilst searching for an inland sea was a man by the name of ‘Poole'(!). 

All-in-all, the session was proof that there is a myriad of interesting stories that constantly fuel and refuel our understanding of the past, and the idea that those things that are swept under the carpet or assumed to be isolated things in our history, and thus unimportant, are actually rife within the primary records of the day, and it is not hard to find facts and myths and wonderful things if we merely open the page – an apt thought on which to end my musings on the 2010 SWF – thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring, fun, and yes, a little damp, but my mind was definitely expanded. 

Let me know your thoughts.  What were your SWF highlights? 

The D!

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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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Wow, another great day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  Even the intermittent rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the many attendees.  I went to three sessions today and thoroughly enjoyed each one. 

1. ‘First Nation Stories’ – undoubtedly the highlight of the day, with Canadian, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib Nation of Canada’s North West, and Boori Monty Prior, from North Queensland, moderated by Anita Heiss. 

Richard spoke first and it was soon clear that this was to be an interactive session!  He told us the story of how his people call the Northern Lights with whistling or rubbing of fingernails, and also how to ask them to go away with fingernails clipping the inside of one’s front teeth, and other methods besides.  He said the lights have a distinct smell (dead fish!) and also a distinct sound (like bacon sizzling in the next room!).  He told us that when he was young and people came around to his family;s house, his mother would say ‘Come, listen’ instead of ‘Go play’ – what a wonderful thing for a child!  He was thus trained to listen from the earliest age, not just to words but to the silence between them – silences which are just as important than the words themselves.  He told us about frogs (keepers of the rain: cue the first rain shower of the day!), saying, ‘where there are frogs there’s clean water.’  He told us about mosquitos – kill one & ten others turn up to his funeral! – a message of violence begets violence.  We heard also of the dragonfly secret he traded with a potter women in BC, and challenged us to remember all four lines, the last of which was ‘You need dragonfly wings for love.’ He also read his book Lullaby for Babies which a few years ago was given to every new baby’s family born in British Columbia.  It was a highly entertaining talk. 

Next up was Boori (whose name means ‘fire’).  He has worked for twenty years going around Australia and teaching aboriginal stories to school children and had some hilarious anecdotes of this journey.  He also backed up Richard’s point about how children are the great teachers.  He noted too that he believes stories are a way to save our country – we are far too keen to sell our native culture overseas and to overseas visitors, but how many of us non-indigenous Aussies know any people from this great culture?  Boori also briefly explored the immense family tragedies that he has had to grow up with, and it is a measure of the man – and the power of stories – that he has not only survived such trauma but has lifted the spirits of so many with his stories.  Indeed, the session itself was proof of the power of stories and story-tellers.  If you ever get a chance to see either of Richard or Boori speak, do yourself a favour and go – and take your children with you!  A great session.

2.  ‘Family Fictions’ – with readings from four female authors from their respective works that each deal with families, their foibles and secrets. 

Larissa Behrendt read from Legacy, a book whose inspiration came from the tension between the generations in an aboriginal middle-class family. 

Alison Booth then read from her well-known Stillwater Creek, set in 1957 and delving into family secrets in a rural town where it seems everyone knows everything about others, but people always carry secrets. 

Kate Veitch noted before her reading the incredible small number of men in the audience – true!  I thought I was the only one, but I think I counted two others! – and commented on how it is women who are the real backbone – not just of families, but of the book publishing industry too – well, that seemed to be true from the audience, but there are some men who read(!)  She noted that ‘everyone experiences families differently, even siblings in the same family – a real truism.  Kate then read quite a racy section from her work Trust. 

Last, but not least was Caroline Overington who had worked in journalism for many years and has written award-winning non-fiction before as well.  She read from her pyschological thriller Ghost Child, a fictionalised story based on based on a really terrible crime and the affect it had on a girl whose sibling was murdered by her mother and her partner, with the girl and another sibling forced to watch.  This occurred in NSW.  It is an unimaginable event.  The book is told in first-person from the point of view of its many cast members – an interesting way to get the varying angles of the girl’s life. 

3. ‘Reading Muster #5’ – with Nada Awar Jarrar, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall, and Alex Miller, all reading from their most recent work – another interesting session.  Nada read from her book which the moderator Melaine Ostell described as ‘a love letter to a city’ – that city being Beirut.  Her reading explored some of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. 

Next up was Peter Goldsworthy, who read a short story entitled The Nun’s Story, a riotously funny story about a boy being taught piano by a rather (at first) attractive nun.  The boy smuggles in Womens Weekly magazines to the nun from his mother.  Even the boy’s father fancies the nun, thinking ‘What a waste,’ as he drives the boy home from the lessons.  The story ends with the nun trying on her ‘bible’ black one piece swimsuit – it is all very funny and highly recommended.  Peter was asked about the length of his career (as all panelists were) and had some interesting points on the learning process that each piece of work brings, whether it is poetry, short story, novel, play and so on.  For him, the learning never stops, but each genre and format gives him something to take to the next project, and skills are transferable across formats. 

Rodney Hall then read from his first memoir.  Author of too many books to mention, including Miles Franklin Award winners Just Relations (1982) & The Grisly Wife (1994).  I was particularly interested to hear Rodney as Just Relations had been recommended to me an author on Sunday after a discussion on Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest which I finished a few days ago (see my Siddon Rock review).  Rodney’s memoir deals with fragments of memories he recalls from his childhood, and one of his two readings was from a bombing raid in WWII when he was a young child in England.  He also spoke about what is important to his writing, and that is the voice.  It is key.  He talked about how each of his (14 I think!) novels each have a distinctive voice – particularly the seven he has written in first person. 

Finally there was Alex Miller, who read from Lovesong, a worthy book on this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist .  What is immediately apparent about Lovesong is the sparse prose.  Indeed, what was apparent from each of the writers’ readings – and Peter Goldsworthy himself made this observation – was that there was not one superfluous word.  (This provided me with an interesting personal juxtaposition, given I’m reading Jose Saramago at present – a man for whom the narrative aside is like breathing!)  Alex read a section dealing with his gloomy protagonist father’s return from Venice, and another section.  There was a wonderful humour in the sombre man’s thoughts.  He said of his work, ‘it explores a moment, and when I’ve finished exploring the moment, that’s the end of the book.’

I had to steal away after this session, but there is plenty to look forward to over the weekend – except that usually benevolent Sydney sunshine, which seems likely to remain hidden behind plenty of rain.  I’m sure the crowds will continue to find their enthusiasm hardy whatever the elements. 

What are your SWF highlights?  Thoughts?  Let me know!

The D!

  

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Well the first full day of the SWF 2010 has come and gone and a great day it was too.  (I did enjoy a couple of lunch time lectures earlier in the week at The Mint too).  I went along to four talks today and enjoyed each of them.

1. ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ – with Kath Leahy, David Foster & Jeremy Sims (who stood in for Jack Thompson), moderated by Katharine Brisbane. There were plenty of laughs and each speaker added depth to the discussion, which delved into the history of the accent, its transformation from a prim English accent – particularly in public life and broadcasting, through to the various incarnations we have today, including quite distinct regionalised language and delivery. 

2. ‘Tales of Adversity & Survival’ – with US author David Vann who wrote ‘Legend of a Suicide’ about his father’s suicide, Brenda Walker’s memoir Reading by Moonlight which is one of the books of the month on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, and Ross Fitzgerald, who has battled alcoholism and drug dependency and lived to tell the tale (and many others besides).  Each author spoke about the method in which they addressed tragedy, grief and/or illness, which ranged from quite distant or oblique structuring (Vann) through to the very direct (Fitzgerald).  What was clear was that each method seemed perfect for the story they were trying to tell. 

3.  ‘Performing Words’ – in which Jana Wendt discussed the role of music in their respective memoirs with Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons) and Linda Neil (Learning How to Breathe).  Anna played a couple of wonderful piano pieces from Bach & Chopin, and Linda sang a song she had sung with her ill mother in hospital and then played a violin piece she had written whilst in India watching dead bodies float down the Ganges.  This session was excellent with moving performances & insightful discussion of how music informs both writing and life.  What struck me is how these women grew up with music around them and what a powerful force it has been in their lives, with Goldsworthy describing how her music teacher’s piano lessons taught her so much more than music, including great little gems of wisdom on how to live.  Neil described how her mother was a wonderful singer and would cook whilst singing opera!  This was then juxtaposed with her battle with Parkinson’s which stole her voice.  The emotion in the pieces played by both Anna and Linda was infused with these life-long lessons and knowledge, and it was a privilege to be party to some of their thinking and their gift for music. 

4. ‘Judges and Winners’ – a highly entertaining panel discussion, with Colm Toibin (twice a Man Booker Prize bridesmaid, but winner of many other awards including the Dublin IMPAC & also himself a judge on several major literary awards including the Man Asian Prize), Tom Keaneally (winner of Booker for Schindler’s Ark), John Carey (twice Booker Prize Chairperson, including the year Keneally won), Chinese author Su Tong, (he of Raise the Red Lantern fame, and more recently The Boat to Redemption – winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize), moderated by Caroline Baum, herself a regular judge on Australian literary awards.  This discussion was a lot of fun.  It ranged from how on earth does a judge read circa 130 books in what amounts to just a four-month period in the case of the Booker Prize, which amounts to one book per day.  Astonishing!  I favour ‘close reading’, which is slow, so I’d be toast.  There was admissions of judges leaving the room knowing that the best book (in their opinion) hadn’t won (cue gasps from the audience!), judge’s walk-outs, as well as the inside experience of someone shortlisted for the Booker – with all the rigmarole of the presentation dinner – hilariously provided by Colm.  Colm also provided high praise for Su Tong’s book The Boat to Redemption, which sounded so good I bought it at the end of the session.  Tong gave some rare glimpses into the world of Chinese literary scene, including not only dodgy publishers, but street sellers who would copy out recognised authors’ works and sell them passed off as their own work!  Finally, there was all-round agreement on the announcement of  JG Farrell as the winner of the 1970 Lost Booker Prize for his book Troubles, the first of the Empire Trilogy, decided by public voting, with Troubles garnering a clear win with 38% of the vote.  Colm Toibin & John Carey were effusive in praise for a deserved win. 

I had wanted to go to another talk in the mid-afternoon, but not only was that one full by the time I’d had a quick sandwich, but all the rest were full too – clearly a sign of the popularity of the festival.  Otherwise, it was a very entertaining day, with a smaller number of talks on tomorrow and the weekend to come as well.

The D!

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On paper Siddon Rock had many of the elements that I like: magic realism, an Australian setting, a wide cast of odd characters, all in a debut novel and thus a new ‘voice’ to enjoy.  It had also garnered a positive appraisal view from Lisa’s excellent review at ANZLitLovers.  It had won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.  It is also short-listed for the 2010 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in the ‘New Writing’ category.  Would it match my expectations?

Siddon Rock is the story of the fictional town of the same name located somewhere in the Australian inland, its founding & naming, and the large cast of characters that inhabit it – many of whom are subject to miraculous visions, and each of whom carry secrets that bubble to the surface and infuse magical events.  And it is a very interesting cast of characters, including an agoraphobic Methodist minister, a cross-dressing dressmaker who is Alistair by day, Allison by night, and the disturbed returned soldier Macha Connor, who grew up wanting to be a boy and, whilst serving as a nurse in the war in Europe, comes across her male namesake Mark Connor and takes his place on the front line after his death.  There she witnesses the horrors of war and is never the same again, her arrival back into Siddon Rock marked by her naked, vigilant wanderings around the town with her .303.   The second half of the book focuses on the arrival of Catalin and her son Jos, émigrés from Eastern Europe, looking for a home and an escape from their own war-torn past.

The novel’s stronger and more interesting characters are all women (or wannabee women in the case of Alistair!).  Nell, the maligned local aboriginal woman vies with Granna, caretaker of the Aberline family, for wisdom and mystery, and there is Sibyl the daughter of the local butcher who was abused by her father until he left and now runs the shop herself, always ambushed on Sundays by painful memories of her childhood.  Indeed, men come off pretty poorly for the most part, including the befuddled Minister, the barman Kelpie Crush who hides a dark secret, the hapless Young George Aberline, and Fatman Aberline, cousin of Macha, who envies her abilities as they grow up.

Whilst I love the magic realism of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, or Peter Carey as an Australian example, some of the early fantastic events in Siddon Rock seem so over the top that I found some of images a little jarring for some reason.  I also found the writing a little mixed.  It is excellent in parts, but some sections seemed not as polished or well-edited as others.  I found the constant use of names, particularly surnames, bordering on annoying.  Kelpie Crush, barman at the pub run by Marge and Bluey, is pretty much always ‘Kelpie Crush’, hardly ever just ‘Kelpie’.  But as a counterpoint there are lovely images such as Henry Aberline sitting on the rock that becomes known as ‘Sitdown Rock’, which is then corrupted to ‘Siddon Rock’.  Henry, an Englishman who ventured to Australia in search of a butterfly, forsaking his cotton-mill wealth, eventually disappears, and the family of Jack, the aboriginal guide who lead him to this spot, say of his disappearance: “He’s a butterfly”, and, “He flew”.  Henry leaves behind not just an interesting story, but a family tree and the fledgling town which becomes known as Siddon Rock.

Once through the first 50-60 pages or so the writing is more polished.  The ideas and images are well chosen and well depicted.  Guest has found her stride, and the reading experience is a lot better for it.  One of the central themes – that of the secrets the characters carry – really comes together.  The idea and image of Catalin’s cello, on which her family history paints itself, is wonderful.  There is also the hat that Alistair has designed and asked a Parisian milliner to make for him – it arrives looking nothing like the design he sent away, but the “rich maroon-red to black” and its wings remind us of the exact same colour of the butterfly that Henry had searched for when he also journeyed from Europe to Australia – a nice echo of the magical past in the magical present.  There is Young George Aberline’s ill-fated plan to harvest the salt from the lake and sell it as Siddon Rock Salt – a humorous linkage of word and idea.  Later, we have Catalin giving a talk on the history of Germany in the war to the school children through the use of shadows thrown onto the wall by her hands – it is a wonderful scene, poetic and emotionally charged.

The story is quite ambitious for a first novel with quite a large cast of characters.  The majority of the writing measures up to the ambition very well.  It’s just occasionally let down.  Take for instance (p114): “And so Majorie began the journey towards her music. We don’t need to follow the beginning story too closely.” (Emphasis added).  ‘The beginning story’ sounds awkward.  There are many examples like this.

The great thing about the magic realism of Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie or even Peter Carey is that it feels necessary for the story; it adds meaning to the realism.  Indeed, I often think that people neglect the second word of that description: magic realism – for the magical seems best when it serves realism rather than be on show for the sake of itself.  For the majority, the magic in Siddon Rock serves the story and sense of place very well.  There’s a lot to like about it and it is a wonderful debut novel.  I think there are some fabulous ideas and some great writing, but it fell just shy of my (probably too high) expectations.  That said, I’m very interested to see where Guest’s writing goes from here.  Siddon Rock would be a perfect choice for a book-club, with lots to dissect and discuss, including, in my view, the poor ending!

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest

Vintage

ISBN: 9781741666403

291 pages

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A few years back, the Dilettante had the real pleasure of ten or so days driving around Sicily, the setting of The Leopard.  It was the best travel experience I’ve had.  If anyone ever has the chance of going to Sicily: go; the mix of history and cultures – Greek, Roman, Moorish, Byzantine and so on – is incredible and the highlights are too numerous to mention.  Of course, as it is anywhere in Italy, one highlight is the food.  Food features constantly in The Leopard, and like his feasts, Tomasi’s sumptuous language is good enough to eat.

Set against the backdrop of Sicily’s ‘fall’ into the hands of the new kingdom of Italy, The Leopard deals with a major moment of change in Sicilian history.  It ponders large themes, such as the decay of the nobility and its loss of power, the rise of the middle class’s new wealth, the more general pitfalls of greed and decadence, and the question of how to come to terms with great change – does one resist or adapt?  There is an all-pervading sense of decay and death throughout the book; even the feasts echo the sense of decadence as the characters devour what remains of their past.  There are some wonderful lines that perfectly capture the change that is forced upon the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio: the Leopard.  His enigmatic nephew, Tancredi, is off to fight with Garibaldi’s invaders and states, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The Leopard is forced to face up to his changing circumstances when the family travels to his summer Palace, Donnafugata, where the local mayor, Don Calogero Sedàra, a wily, tasteless upstart, has amassed a wealth that rivals the Prince’s.  However, it is his daughter, the beautiful Angelica, who captures the eye of everyone, including Tancredi.  They fall in love and are married; the two families are thus fused, but not before the Prince is forced to outline to Sedàra that his nephew, whilst of a noble name, is poor, for the Prince’s ever dwindling wealth will go to his daughters.  He can only marvel at the dowry Angelica’s father endows the pair, for his wealth is far greater than the Prince had first imagined.  The Prince now must spend time with Don Calogero and notices his growing affection for a man that should repel him.  He sees the skills with which the man has built his wealth and admires him, including his move to ‘buy’ the family an ‘old name’, that is, to buy themselves a noble past.

It is at Donnafugata where Angelica is presented to the Prince and Princess at one the dinners in all of literature…

… the aspect of those monumental dishes of macaroni … worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked.  The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Yum!  The food is so enticing the priest makes a sign of the cross, then “plunged in head first without saying a word”!

The Leopard’s impassioned rejection of an offer of a Senate seat given by an emissary of the newly declared Italian state, and his description of the character of Sicily is eloquent and powerful.  In his rejection he comes to see that the man who should be offered the position is Sedàra, and he counsels the emissary thus.  The Leopard finds himself “swung between the old world and the new” – the choice of the word ‘swung’ is perfect, aping the death throes of a man in his last days, of a time that is passing.  He is brutal when analysing Sicilians themselves, saying they have no want to improve themselves and only wish for sleep: “Sleep is what most Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring them the most wonderful of gifts…”(!).  And the reason for not wanting to improve themselves?  “… for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery…”.

In response to the emissary’s final claim that “This state of things won’t last; our lively new modern administration will change it all”, Don Fabrizio sums up the destiny of himself and those who rule after him: “All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different but worse.  We were the Leopards and Lions; those who take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking we’re the salt of the earth.”  Just as things may change, other elements of life and history will always be repeated.

The themes of avarice, gluttony, history’s passing, and death, all come to the fore in the wonderful, brief chapter entitled A Ball.  It provides a microcosm of the entire novel.  Despite the joyous occasion, the chapter is book-ended by images of death, and death is a constant presence.  On the way to the Palazzo Ponteleone the family’s carriage is stoped as they are passed by a “priest bearing … the Last Sacraments; in one of those barred houses someone was in a death agony.”  At the splendour of the ball the Prince nods in approval at the jewel-like rooms, but is overcome by a loathing for the rise of Don Calogero and his ilk, with their “tenacious greed and avarice”, whose prominence looms over the nobles’ palaces like death.  He becomes melancholic knowing that everyone at the ball, even the young who are dancing up a storm, will eventually die, but then finds compassion for them, “for how could one inveigh against those sure to die?”  Retiring to the library for a rest, he examines a painting entitled, Death of the Just Man, before being rescued by Tancredi and Angelica, with Tancredi prophetically asking, “Are you paying court to death?”   After a dance with Angelica, the Prince then surveys the spread of food which is, of course, amazing.  There are “waxy chaud-froids of veal … turkeys gilded by the ovens’ heat, rosy foie-gras under gelatine armour, boned woodcocks reclining on amber toast decorated with their own chopped guts, dawn-tinted galantine, and a dozen other cruel, coloured delights.”  The desert tray is similarly blessed.  At six in the morning, as things draw to a welcome close, the family leaves, but the Prince decides to walk home for ‘some fresh air’.  He finds solace in seeing Venus still ablaze just after he is passed by an open wagon “Stacked with bulls killed shortly before at the slaughter-house”.  The Prince sighs and wonders when Venus would “decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral”.

Tancredi was right, the Prince is indeed courting death, and though it soon arrives ‘for an elopement’ for us readers in the next chapter, a good twenty years have passed since the ball; it is now 1883.  Don Fabrizio has given us such an entrancing sojourn into the world of the nobility, that when he realises his death will mean the end of the Salinas, one cannot help but be moved and wish there was some other possible end.  But just as the Prince noted at the ball, death comes to us all, and soon the tinkle of the Last Sacraments are heard coming up the stairs and into his room.  After the priest leaves, as Tancredi holds his hands and talks of political manoeuvres going on elsewhere, the Prince is instead totting up a balance sheet of his life, “trying to sort out of the immense ash-heap of liabilities the golden flecks of happy moments.”  This is no time to calculate incorrectly, and he concludes that, “I’m seventy-three years old, and all in all I may have live, really lived, a total of two … three at the most.”  It is a scene of impeccable strength and imagery, made complete when a young lady he saw just the day before at the train station in a brown travelling dress, whose face has a “sly charm”, comes into the room where all his family have gathered, his doctor too, this beautiful representation of Death elbowing her way into the room, come to claim her Prince, the Leopard, last of the Salinas.

Said to live the life of a ‘literary dilettante’ – and thus clearly a kindred spirit of mine! – Tomasi was perhaps the only person who could have written The Leopard, being the last in line of minor Sicilian princes, and the events and characters depicted mirror both his own experience and that of his grandfather.  In letters to his family before his death – reproduced in the Forward of this edition – Tomasi concluded after his after his original thought of setting the novel in a 24-hour period in the life of his grandfather on the day Garibaldi landed at Marsala: “I can’t do a Ulysses”.  Instead, he’s achieved something just as great (and far more accessible!) in The Leopard.  Says Hartley on the back cover: “Perhaps the greatest book of the [20th] century”.  That’s a big call, and a debate I’m perhaps not equipped for, but it is a sumptuous, wonderful, defining book, and deserves its reputation and stature as ‘one of the greats’.  Unfortunately for Tomasi, he died in 1957 before it was accepted for publication (in 1958); he had left specific instructions for his family to continue to seek a publisher – and we are grateful that he, and they, did so.

For a further review, see the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club’s excellent panel discussion on The Leopard.

Lastly, if you’re ever in Taormina on Sicily’s east coast and you enjoy great gelato, then make a pilgrimage to the aptly named Gelatomania. It’s a real pleasure palace for those of us with a sweet-tooth; I promise you’ll be going back for seconds!  If you can’t make it that far, feast instead on The Leopard!

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Vintage Classics

ISBN: 9780099512158

230 pages (including Appendix, not including the 22-page Foreword)

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