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Winner of the 2008 David Unaipon Award for unpublished indigenous authors, Every Secret Thing explores the Catholic missionaries’ efforts to educate and ‘civilise’ a mob of aboriginals in the far north of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