Monthly Archives: October 2008

‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

1993, 237 p.

This is a very post-modern novel of the African diaspora, written by a West Indian author, raised in England. There are multiple narratives, bookended by an opening lament of a father forced to sell his children into slavery in Africa, and closed by a lament about diaspora and dispossession which ties together the four stories in between.

The four stories are those of the sold children, but untethered in time and place.  The first voice is that of a slave liberated by his master to move to Liberia, writing letters back to his master. The letters are unanswered, and he is unaware that his master is travelling to Liberia to meet him.  The narrative shifts between an epistolatory form, and the ‘straight’ narrative of the master’s journey from America to Liberia in search of his former slave.

The second voice is that of Martha, the second sold child, an old Negro woman, travelling for the West Coast in the post civil-war era.  She is abandoned because she is too old and slow.

The third voice comes through the journal of the slave trader, moored off the African coast for an inordinate amount of time while he collects more cargo. He reports on the deaths and escapes of his cargo as the boat waits in humid waters until there are sufficient bodies for the trip to be profitable.  The author captures the tone of the journal well, couched in the language of late 18th century piety and commercialism, and it is chilling in its banality at times.

Finally, the fourth story is a long one, taking up about one third of the book.  This voice belongs to Joyce, the white wife of a man arrested for black market activities during WWII who starts up a relationship with a black GI, who represents the third ‘sold’ child.  This section is told in very short (1-2 page) discontinuous entries; weaving back and forth over the war years.

So- the three sold children, but told at different jumps in the unfolding history and in different countries (Liberia, US, UK), and interwoven with the stories of the grief-striken African father, the slave-trader, and an omniscient narrator intoning rather academically on diaspora as a phenomenon.  I really wondered how the author was going to carry this off- how on earth was he going to draw all these disparate bits into a whole? But he did, deftly, cleverly and succinctly in the last few pages.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I feel deep admiration for the sheer virtuoisity and intent of the book, but I found myself rather distanced from the stories: it was almost as if the technical cleverness of the author’s intention and execution overshadowed the human aspects.  And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if this is what the author intended all along.

An economic downturn 1840s style

What strange times we live in.  Each night, the news bulletin starts off with the financial report, extending over about ten minutes, then briefly the “other” news, then a return to the usual financial report, sport and weather.  Each morning I unwrap the paper and marvel at the increasing size of the headlines reporting on the latest falls on the Australian Stock Exchange, or Wall Street, or the FTSE,  or the Hang Seng.  How do I even know about such entities?  I think it’s probably indicative of the recent financial bubble that we’ve all been caught up in over the past 10 years,  that even before this crisis, every news bulletin has  the financial report as a staple item each night- I really don’t particularly remember it having such prominence, say, twenty years ago.  Ah, but we’re all investors now-unwittingly and sometimes unwillingly through our compulsory superannuation, and cajoled to “unlock the equity in your home” by drawing back on our mortgages to spend on the sharemarket.

And of course, it’s all on such a global scale.  There’s no shutdown period at all on a sharemarket somewhere- Australia wakes up and looks at what America has done overnight, responds by a rise or a fall on the ASX, the day moves on, that night the UK market responds, the US market responds to that, and it all goes around again.  There’s no sigh of relief of “thank God that’s finished”- although at least the weekend allows a global breather, until the whole merry-go-round starts again on Monday.

Our whole system is predicated on credit in a way that is largely unconscious and invisible to us.  With just-in-time manufacturing, there are no storehouses any more of goods waiting to be sold- instead the credit system balloons forward to buy in a consignment as it is needed right now, retracts when it’s sold only to balloon out again to replenish the shelves next week.  We’re bombarded with “buy now, no deposit!!” advertising; we’re asked as a matter of course for every transaction with a swipe card “will that be on credit?”

And so, conscious of all this, I’ve been thinking about the recession (depression?) in the early 1840s in Port Phillip, and the way it impinged on the worldview of people there at the time.  I surmise that, like me, their understanding at the time was incomplete:no doubt more so, given the four-month delay in any information from Britain compared to our instantaneous communications now, and the dependent state of a colonial economy within the Empire as a whole. What they understood of the financial situation was filtered through the newspapers, gossip, and lived economy of their own experience.

Contemplation of this- and I’m doing quite a bit of reading on this which I shall, dear reader, share with you- is not completely irrelevant to my Judge Willis thesis work.  As sole Resident Judge, he heard all of the civil cases that came to the Supreme Court; he oversaw (but was not directly involved in) the Insolvency Court, and his own propensity to “sift to the bottom of things” characterized his approach to the bankruptcy cases that crossed his bench.  I feel sure that the general ‘anxiety’ and ‘excitement’ of Port Phillip reflected both the economic and political currents of the day, and directly fed into his dismissal.

So how did the Port Phillip communications of the day portray the financial crisis?  Newspapers had always carried a column showing the price of goods on the local market -wheat,  bread, spirits, sperm candles, parsnips etc. (The parsnips have particularly taken my attention because at my local supermarket they have been $5.95 per kilo for the last few months.  For bloody parsnips!!!!! Fine words may butter no parsnips, but obviously $5.95 a kilo will!)  The shipping reports were often followed by correspondence from the wool agents in London, reporting on the wool sales- generally chiding the Australian suppliers for lack of quality, and sighing at the dearth of buyers.

Much of a four-page Port Phillip newspaper of the 1840s was devoted to Court reports, and as the judicial system expanded in Port Phillip, so did the scope for court reporting- the Supreme Court, the Insolvency Court, the Police Bench, Quarter Sessions, the Court of Requests.  The tales of drunkenness and violence that ran through these courts were increasingly supplemented by stories of insolvency, defections from debt, unemployed immigrants, forced sales etc. as we move from 1841 into 1842.

And increasingly as we move from late 1841 into 1842 there are also  the required advertisements of bankruptcy posted in the newspaper, notifying of the first, second or third creditors’ meeting of one bankrupt after another.  By April 1842 (which is where I’m up to at the moment), the Port Phillip Herald regularly published a table of insolvent debtors, their assets and liabilities, and the dates of their scheduled meetings with creditors.  Real estate advertisements spruiked  “we’re at the bottom of the market- so buy now!!” . Occasionally there would be a high-profile insolvency case that demonized a particular individual, surely read  and gossiped about with a sense of schadenfreude by the subscribers to the newspaper.

And all of this occurred within the bullishness and heightened expectations of people who thought they were coming to “Australia Felix” to make their fortunes!

‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk

1990, 524 p

The Great Game commences with an execution- that of Capt Charles Stoddart and Capt Arthur Conolly by the Emir Nasrulla Khan in Bokhara in 1842.  Ironically enough, it was Capt Conolly who coined the term “The Great Game” , later adopted by Rudyard Kipling, to describe the political, military and strategic manoevres in Central Asia. There are many such vignettes in this book of crazy-brave  explorers and adventurers, both Russian and British, who surveyed and fought over the remote but strategically crucial area of the ‘stans’ that separated Russia from India.

Although the book covers the nineteenth century, the book has a cyclical feel as one set of adventurers takes up the baton from the previous ones, and borders move northward then southward only to move northward yet again.  Taken from the long view, it is clear that the political parties in Britain had consistently different foreign policy approaches: the Tories were always Russo-phobic and more inclined to opt for a military solution while the Liberals or Whigs feared overstretch and preferred to work through treaties.  Likewise, there was an ongoing tussle between the military and the politicians for control of the agenda, in both Britain and Russia. Neither approach yielded a permanent solution or outright victor.

Hopkirk’s use of vignettes helps to tether our attention and emotional response on particular men and events in what is a relentless succession of campaigns.  His book is engagingly written, although I found his cliff-hanger questions at the end of each chapter rather tedious after a while.  Although he commenced the book being fairly evenhanded, by the end of the book the Russians were more clearly identified as “the enemy”, and he increasingly resorted to that dead, pompous military citation language that is used to describe “our” heroes.

There were only three maps, but I found them indispensable and far more exhaustive than I would have imagined- almost without fail I could locate the positions he was describing.  I would have appreciated a 20th/21st century map superimposed over the 19th century one- although such a map would run the danger of being outdated, I suppose, as different countries assert their independence, as recent events in Georgia have shown.

I am left with the overwhelming impression that this is one wild place that is largely impervious to the designs that ‘great powers’ might have on it.  I think I’m with the UK envoy to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (surely a name truly fitting for a Great Game player!) : this is a no-win situation.

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

2008, 300p.

I really don’t like my chances of reading the Booker Prize shortlist before it is announced on 14 October, especially as this is the only one I have read!  I always try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist of Australian literature, and usually finish the night before it is announced! But the Booker is usually beyond me.

But I was excited about reading The Secret Scripture when I realised that it was written by Sebastian Barry. I read A Long, Long Way last year, and along with The Book Thief, these are the two books that have had me audibly sobbing whilst reading.

As with A Long, Long Way, this book is set in Ireland and takes for its main characters people, events and perspectives that are often overlooked.  Indeed, the main character of The Secret Scripture, Roseanne McNulty- or is it Roseanne Clear?- has certainly been overlooked.  She has been incarcerated in an asylum for about sixty years, and it is only at the age of 100, as the asylum is being deinstitutionalized, that questions are again raised about why exactly she came to be placed there, and by whom.   The story is told in alternating voices- Roseanne’s own testimony surreptitiously written on scrap paper and hidden under a floorboard, and that of Dr Grene, her recently-bereaved psychiatrist who has to decide on the appropriate placement for her when the asylum is closed.

Roseanne has truly been a victim of Ireland’s ‘big’ history in her own little life: all the distrust and hatred of religion and politics comes right into her most intimate and precious relationships.  She is a passive victim- perhaps to stop resisting is the ultimate defeat. Tragic things have happened to her,  often not of her own making, and yet there is a simplicity that shines through her. Or is there?  The major theme of this book is history- its evasions, its slipperiness and its unreliability.  And Dr Grene himself, who at first seems to be the anchoring ‘truth’ in the narrative becomes increasingly suspect as a narrator.  You find yourself wondering if either of these narratives- Roseanne’s and Dr Grene’s – can be trusted.

Barry has written about these characters, and their situations before.  Eneas McNulty had already appeared in his The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and was an officer in Thomas Dunne’s policeforce.  Dunne was a main character in Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom, and his son Willie appeared in A Long Long Way, and Willie’s sister appears in Annie Dunne.  So while each book is self contained as a narrative, there are allusions and resonances in Barry’s other work as well.  Of course, Barry is not the only author to construct an interconnected web of characters like this- Tim Winton does it too- and there’s a frisson of recognition when you make the connection.

In this case, Barry takes his characters from his own family tree.  He’s not the only writer to do that either-  Kate Grenville seems to be devoting herself to it  (her new book The Lieutenant pairs up with her earlier The Secret River) , and Peter Behrens (whose Law of Dreams I reviewed earlier)  also based his story on an ancestor.  On one level I can understand the attraction of recovering and making your own family members come alive again through your writing.  I guess that it’s a form of self-reflection, wondering whether certain characteristics have come through to you.  And there’s also the element of identification and indebtedness: that I am who I am because of them.  But all this seems very “me” oriented.  I think about the ‘celebrities’ on the increasing formulaic Who Do You Think You Are? wide-eyed with  wonder at their forebears’ lot and determined to squeeze every possible supposition out of the flimsiest of evidence- and culminating, always always always with trembling chins and tears at the injustice and hardness of other people’s lives. Ah, but they are OUR other people’s lives- hence our empathy and imagination wells up for them, when it has laid dormant for any other of the millions of other people who trod the same paths.

Not just characters- Barry also revisits his earlier work in his narrative voice too. The scene that affected me so much in A Long, Long Way was where the young boy stood up and sang Ave Maria- I don’t have the book here, but it was beautifully written with a sob of pain in each sentence.  Beautiful, beautiful writing.  And then, in The Secret Scripture, I found another lamentation which evoked the keening of his earlier work as well:

…that he hanged himself.  Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh oh, oh, oh, oh.  Do you know the grief of it? I hope not.  The grief that does not age, that does not go away with time, like most griefs and human matters.  That is the grief that is always there, swinging a little in a derelict house…..

But I have a little lamentation of my own- the ending.  Barry has unsettled us throughout the book over issues of truth and secrecy, and yet has tied up all the ends neatly and plonked it on our laps as a finished product.

So I have mixed feelings about the book.  The writing was beautiful; Roseanne was a haunting, tragic character; it is a very sad, sad book.  The ambiguity of truth, invention and forgetting keeps you wary and watchful as a reader.  But oh- the ending- (oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh….).