Monthly Archives: December 2010

‘Three Famines’ by Tom Keneally

2010, 320 p.

The three famines of this book are the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, the Bengal famine during WWII and the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s and 80s.  Keneally has written about two of these famines previously- the Irish famine in The Great Shame, and through his fictional work Towards Asmara– and so, in one regard, this is a well-tilled field for him.  This book, however, is a comparative text and  he draws out commonalities between the three famines- the role of the evil figurehead who comes to personify the famine; the whistleblowers who make the famine known to the wider world and the ideologies and administrative incompetence that lie behind the political acts that so often exacerbate the famine.  Indeed, instead of famine being the failure of crops or rain, it is the result of egotism, politicking, ideology and willful blindness, often during a time of war.  Plenty and famine perversely seem to be able to exist simultaneously.  He writes of the physical effects of famine and poverty, and the paradox by  which nutritional alternatives are spurned in the yearning for familiar food. He highlights the restlessness that drives the migration patterns of starving people – a timely reminder in the face of such anxiety over ‘illegal’ refugees and people movement.

I have a few quibbles over the book, however.  It is clearly written as a layman’s guide, rather than an academic text, and  even this is marred by several editorial mistakes including dates. At times chapters cover all three famines, while other chapters are devoted specifically to one famine alone.   I wish that he had written a final chapter, drawing the three famines together, but instead the book splintered off into a string of other smaller famines that blunted the impact of the book somewhat.  Keneally is a prolific writer on a wide range of topics and a much-loved public personality, but I just wish that this was a tighter book than it is.

‘The Land of Green Plums’ by Herta Muller

242 p. 1998

This was my selection for CAE bookgroup (aka “The Ladies Who Say Ooooh”) and within about three pages of opening it, I thought to myself: oh dear, The Ladies are not going to enjoy this book.  It is a book of unrelieved bleakness.

The unnamed narrator is one of a small group of student dissidents in Ceausescu’s Romania.  There is a nightmare-like dissonance and bestiality about this semi-autobiographical telling of their lives: people barter sex for offal; abattoir workers jostle to drink the animals’ blood; factory workers labour making tin cows.  The title of the book alludes to the childhood warning  given to the narrator that eating green plums would kill you, and yet the swaggering soldiers of Ceausescu’s regime stuff their pockets and saunter around with bulging cheeks full of green plums with impunity.

The friends write to each other in coded letters where certain phrases convey whether they are being interrogated or watched and each letter is sealed with a hair to alert that the letter may have been tampered with.  As a reader, I found myself hyper-alert to these words- so much so that much later in the book when one of the code  words was uttered just in passing, that I turned quite cold.  Running through the book is the narrator’s constant surveillance and inquisition by the chilling Captain Pjele of the Securitate.  Even when three of the four friends escape to Germany, they are aware of the tentacles of the Securitate and the impossibility of freedom.

The book won the International  IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996 and the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.  The language of the book is dense and throbbing, and reads more as poetry than plot.  In fact, the book itself is quite hard to follow during the act of reading, although you discern the plot almost without realizing it.  As a book in translation, the deeply political act of writing a book about Romania in German escapes us, as do the nuances of being part of a German-speaking minority in Romania in post-war Europe.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this book.  I found it oppressive and disturbing and rather unfortunately- very memorable.

‘The King’s Speech’

It had been a sad, strained Christmas Day for us this year, and so off to the movies we went for Boxing Day, along with many other burghers of the leafy suburbs over the Yarra.  We were sitting in probably the closest seats to the screen, and  who should be sitting behind us in the second closest seats to the screen but my good friend M.

The movie featured bravura performances from both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.  The embarrassment of the then-Duke of York’s speech at Wembley Stadium is still excruciating, and the movie succeeds brilliantly in channelling your attention away from the content of what he was trying to convey to a minute, breath-holding fixation on how he was saying it.  The casting was inspired  all round: you could see flashes of our present Queen in the young girl cast as the Princess Elizabeth, and Helen Bonham-Carter captures the vivacity of the woman we came to know as the Queen Mother before she became embalmed in dress coats and ostrich feathers.

It strikes me that poor Bertie was more exposed by live radio technology then than he would be today with almost effortless sound editing.  Unfortunate, really.

Still, I can’t help wondering if “the firm” is not doing a job on us all through cinema- first Helen Mirren in The Queen, and now this movie.  How cynical I am.

‘An Exclusive Love’ by Johanna Adorjan

2010, 185 p

At first blush, this might seem a rather inappropriate book to be reading just as Mum died, but I found it oddly soothing.  In the opening lines of the book we learn that the author’s grandparents committed suicide together in 1991, and the preparations for this suicide run throughout the text, written in the present tense, minutely hypothesizing about their movements on that final day.   It is a day of banalities: picking flowers from the garden and placing them in vases,  taking the dog to a neighbour who is oblivious to their plans, prising open the capsules containing the drugs that will kill them, and ignoring the phone call that they suspect is a family member.  There’s a calmness and purposefulness that I, at least, found reassuring- quite apart from the ethical questions that their actions raise.  As the title suggests, this was an excluding love as well as an exclusive one.

Interwoven with the present-tense rundown of their last day is a Who-Do-You-Think- You-Are type reconstruction of her grandparents’ lives, stitched together  from the accounts of relatives and her grandparents’ surviving friends.  Her Hungarian Jewish grandparents themselves had said little of their wartime experiences – “we don’t talk about that”.   Her grandfather had survived the concentration camps; her grandmother had spent the war in hiding.  Following the Russian re-occupation of Hungary in 1956 her grandparents fled to Denmark as refugees, where they spent the rest of their years, grateful to Denmark for the sanctuary, but steadfastly Hungarian.

This is only a short book, which is perhaps a good thing as the tension in waiting for the suicide is rather drawn out.  The book is beautifully written and I suspect, beautifully translated with a warm, loving narrative voice that is quietly accepting of her grandparents’ decision.  There is no fear of death here,  and this is a good thing for me to read just at the moment.

Betty Lumley 8.9.1925 – 17.12.2010

My beautiful Mum passed away last Friday.

Missing in action

The “Resident Judge of Port Phillip” has been missing in action recently, engulfed in the minutia of organizing the upcoming  Law and History Conference.   Never again will I take for granted the abundance of material in a conference pack, the elegance of the design of the conference theme,  or the elegant logic of the conference program (until late withdrawals bring it down like a pack of cards!).  I’ll see you, no doubt, on the other side of all this.