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Archive for April, 2011

Do you like a good brouhaha?  I do.  Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha.  And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced.  Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth.  Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates!  The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Does this shut out some novels, some themes?  The other is the gender debate.  Three shortlisted novels and no female authors.  Feathers have flown!  These are important debates and need an airing.  The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%.  That seems low, but it’s just a statistic.  I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines.  The reason?  Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list.  How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments?  All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them.  Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal.  (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!) 

The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise.  Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out.  And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel. 

It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline. 

The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear.  There is a large and wonderful set of characters.  There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing.  The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty.  I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult.  I think a second reading would illuminate them even more.  There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense.  What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous.  It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it.  This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people.  Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose.  The environment is wonderfully drawn too.  There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242]. 

I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things.  There are some nice ironic inversions too.  For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.”  [my emphasis]

Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels.  There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship.  There is love.  There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing.  There is murder and loss. 

Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food.  He understands the land has been seized from them.  “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24].  But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils!  Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy.  These people chase us from our own country.  They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.”  Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument.  It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us. 

Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”.  This is the story’s theme in a nutshell.  He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts.  We see him dancing on a ship’s deck.  He is a leader.  It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them.  Bobby is playful, comic, a performer.  His stories come with a smile and ready wink.  When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.”  For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”.  Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings.  He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself. 

Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran.  It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing.  Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.”  But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders.  Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.   

Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine.  He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales.  He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats.  For a time there is a shared pursuit.  There is ‘plenty’.  Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing.  They sang for him.”  Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is.  He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches.  He knows they will run out.  

In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks.  There is fear.  Over time the balance of power shifts.  By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority.  Food is scarce.  The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction.  When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them.  Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing.  Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.  

In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time.  He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps.  But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity.  He needs that showmanship to earn a crust.  He says, [106]:

Me and my people … My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought.  We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours.  We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours… 

He is then forced to add directly after:

But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends.  The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?

And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar?  Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:

All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was.  Stay is his place.

With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well.  Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders.  Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists. 

Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:

… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin.  As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. 

The end is poignant, powerful, memorable.  When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images.  Turn them over in my mind.  Feel them resonate.  I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’  We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family.  Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else.  In the meantime we should face him.  For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story.  Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future. 

That Deadman Dance is an important book.  

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks.  That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival.  Can’t wait.      

Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books). 

And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too.  See her SMH review.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Picador

2010

ISBN: 9781405040440

395 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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I’ve wanted for some time to read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) back-to-back with Oscar and Lucinda (1988).  My (distant!) memories of Illywhacker was that it was every bit the classic that O&L turned out to be, but somehow it seems to have been overshadowed by the latter’s Booker Prize-winning success.  An example of this is on the front cover of my old edition where it is pointed out that Illywhacker was written “by the author of Oscar and Lucinda”!

There are some interesting parallels between them.  They both have first person to third person narrative ‘frames’.  I’ve noted with O&L that this seemed illogical, but with Illywhacker the wonderful open silences any similar concern we might have … in this story, anything goes:

My name is Herbert Badgery.  I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. … I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.  I say that early to set things straight.  Caveat emptor.

What a wonderful open.

The narrative frame works better in Illywhacker for other reasons too: though some of the scenes are a stretch for our first-person narrator, he does have connections and shares correspondence with other characters which makes this ‘reach’ believable.

Illywhacker is a big rollicking picaresque romp covering three generations, with helpings of lyrical ‘hyper-realism’ and a dash or two of magical realism.  There are so many story threads it’s hard to summarise the plot.  Herbert is an early Australian aviator and car seller and dreams of making Australian planes and Australian cars.  He almost secures funding but his scheme to make planes fails and he seems to give up on selling cars because none are Australian.  This notion of industries being sold or owned by Americans and then later Japanese interests rather than being our own is perhaps the central underlying theme of the novel.  When Herbert’s son Charles buys a Holden and proclaims it an Australian car, something his father should be proud of, Herbert can’t contain his anger, saying that Holden is American-owned and that the car is not Australian.

Alloyed to this theme of ownership is the associated question of national identity, how strong it is and how it places us in the wider world.  Much has changed in the past 26 years since the book was first published, though our ‘local’ car industry is still owned by the major international conglomerates.  I wonder what Carey must think of the economic situation in the US now (where he lives), the run-down of the uncompetitive US car manufacturers and the unrelated fact that most of the US government debt is owned by China…

In any event, events spiral out from Herbert’s efforts to secure the funding from a man named Jack McGrath who puts up Herbert in his rambling well-to-do mansion after Herbert crash-lands his plane into a farm next to where Jack and his wife, Molly, and daughter, Phoebe, are picnicking.  Herbert, an inveterate liar and womaniser, eyes off Phoebe as well as her old man’s money, selling him the dream of an Australian aeronautical industry.  Poor Jack dies, possibly of shame when he introduces Herbert to his business associates and the truth begins to unravel.  He comes back to haunt Herbert as a ghost after old Herbert shacks up with spoilt Phoebe.  This is poignant given Herbert and Jack’s earlier conversation where Jack told Herbert he did not favour older men with younger women.  Herbert builds a make-shift home for Phoebe (who he marries, although it turns out he already is!) and Molly out on the mudflats on land he doesn’t own, but it is not enough for Phoebe who, after bearing him two children, takes off with her female lover for Sydney.

And this is just the start of the novel!

We learn of Herbert’s upbringing, how he was taken in and reared by an old Chinese man, named Goon Tse Ying.  Ying teaches Herbert the trick of disappearing.  He warns Herbert not to use it as one of the repercussions of the trick is the making of dragons which bring evil into the world.  Needless to say Herbert uses the trick in order to impress a woman, Leah Goldstein, who becomes his lover.  While the trick impresses Leah it does indeed summon tragedy into Herbert’s life after his children try to imitate him.

Dragons and snakes form a recurring motif throughout.  Herbert’s son Charles becomes expert in the handling of snakes and then all creatures.  This skill is used by Herbert to run scams in country pubs.  It is also a talent which Charles then uses to create ‘The Best Pet Shop in the World’ in an arcade between George and Pitt Streets (reminiscent of our lovely Strand arcade) in Sydney in later years when Herbert is in jail.  Charles makes this into a success with his bare hands, but it transpires that some of the funding for the venture has come from an oil company in the US.  It seems that even pet stores have been sold off to foreign interests!

There is so much to love about this story.  The writing is Carey at his best: the historical details are vivid, the character sketches Dickensian, the descriptions of landscape lyrical.  Take for instance, [p62]:

The line of dwarf yellow cypress pines along Blobell’s Hill was smudged by dull grey cloud and nothing in the landscape was distinct except the particularly clear sound of a crow above the saltpans flying north towards O’Hagen’s.  It sounded like barbed wire.

Leah has a laugh [p209] which is “a tangle like blackberries, sweet, prickly, untidy, uncivilized…”

There are wonderful descriptions of wildlife too, glorious parrots.  (Any story that has king parrots in it is, in my view, a winner.)

And there is this advice on Sydney that Herbert gives Hissao, [p508]:

I showed him, most important of all, the sort of city it was – full of trickery and deception.  If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air.  It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial and I would not be surprised to wake one morning and find the whole thing gone, with only the grinning facade of Luna Park rising from the blue shimmer of eucalyptus bush.

The plot continues to spiral and I won’t try to describe it any further.  Suffice to say there are shenanigans aplenty when Herbert gets out of jail and comes to Sydney to live with Charles and the menageries of people and pets he has acquired – including his wife, Emma, who decides she’d rather live in a cage.  There is more triumph and tragedy.  There are tales of communists and smuggling.  There are deserved digs at the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ of the mid 2oth century.  There is Carey touching on aboriginal issues too, albeit briefly.  There is Herbert’s grandson Hissao’s desperate effort to rescue the shop, which he does by securing Japanese funding, turning the pet shop into a bizarre and macabre show of people rather than just pets.  Herbert himself becomes one of the displays.  The selling off of Australia is complete – we begin to sell ourselves.

There are, of course, differences between Illywhacker and O&LO&L’s characterisation is deeper and sharper, more thoughtful – there is a lot of symbolism in Oscar and Lucinda’s characters.  These facets are to be expected in a book that focuses on two people.  Illywhacker spreads time across three generations and multiple wives and lovers.  Back stories are always fleshed out, even for minor characters.  There is a lot more ‘going on’.  But the theme of the selling out of Australian industry to overseas, of demurring to older or more confident nations, of being unsure of ourselves, comes across quite strongly.  There are a lot of characters serving the overall thematic structure.

If it has faults, say its length and its long back-stories to minor characters, they are for me easily overlooked by the richness and joy in such diversions and how Carey ties them together.

In the end you can’t compare apples with oranges.  Oscar and Lucinda is a tragic love story built upon a folly.  There is almost folly here too, but only to show the extremes with which the selling of Australian business to overseas interests is taken, to heighten the deep comic thrust of the narrative – for Illywhacker is a very funny book.  For me, Illywhacker is every bit as good as Oscar and Lucinda.  Rather than being cast in the latter’s shadow, it deserves its own spotlight.  It is a great book, Carey at his exuberant best.  It has kept me silent company all these years and it remains one of my all time favourites.

As an aside, it seems to me that Illywhacker and Steve Toltz’s Booker shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole share the same DNA.  They are both big rambling multi-generational comic tales that shine a light on what it means to be Australian, though each through their own unique lens.  (Their protagonist narrators both spend time in prison too.)  Lovers of one will enjoy the other.  What other books do you see as fitting into this particularly Australian comic story-telling cast?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and/or whether you think Illywhacker stands up to Oscar and Lucinda.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 5/5

Illywhacker by Peter Carey

faber and faber

1985

ISBN: 9780571139491

560 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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It’s that time of year again (yay!).  The Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is but a few weeks away and the programme has just been released. 

There’s a great selection of local and international writers.  A quick perusal has got me lining up the likes of:

  • Our very own Kim Scott, talking about his recent, highly acclaimed novel, That Deadman Dance, up for Best Book Award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
  • Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question;
  • The very imaginative David Mitchell, talking about his most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, (see my review here);
  • Tea Obreht, member of The New Yorker magazine’s “20 under 40”, talking about her acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife; 
  • Michael Cunningham of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours fame;   
  • Markus Zusak of The Book Thief fame, (see my review here); 
  • Interesting indigenous sessions, covering culture, art, fiction, poetry;
  • Poetry and Sydney-centric sessions, including the likes of Cate Kennedy and too many others to mention!;

The Festival also sees theawarding of several high-profile literary awards, including The Commonwealth Writers Prize (will Kim Scott win for That Deadman Dance?), the NSW Premier’s Awards, and the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writers’ Award.  I plan on attending the awarding of the Commonwealth Prize as well as a session the next day in which the judges will talk about their deliberations (and arguments?!) and how they arrived at the winner. 

There’s plenty of non-fiction-focusses things on too.  Politics, culture, environment, food.  Indeed, foodies should not be disappointed with Anthony Bourdain and critic AA Gill featuring.  There’ll also be many sessions for children, and other interests far and wide. 

Looks like a busy few days for me, although Sunday seems strangely clear.  A little imbalance in the programme perhaps?  Whatever the case, there’s plenty of interesting things to listen to and get involved in across the week and I can’t wait to blog about it. 

Anyone esle going along?  What are your festival highlights? 

The D!

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