2013, 245 p.
I must confess to feeling silenced by this book. I finished it about a week ago, and have been turning over in my mind how, and whether, I should respond to it. I’m proceeding on the basis that the act of publishing one’s writing is, on the author’s part, some form of invitation to engagement and response, and so write I will, even though I feel inadequate to do so.
Robert Kenny is a historian formerly based at La Trobe University and now at Deakin. I know him by sight only. He read the opening pages of the book at a seminar earlier this year, and it seemed that the whole room held its collective breath, not just because of the beauty of the writing but also because of an awareness that we were being offered a perspective from the heart and from the head.
Fire. When I that that word now I see a crazed red dancer surging up the slope, at whose feet I train the hose of spraying water to no effect. Its dance mocks me. As I face it, it has personality. Wilful. Contemptuous. It is the enemy at the my gate. Literally at my gate, for I am standing at the gate of the high metal fence that protects the north side of the house. I can feel the searing heat on the parts of my face not covered by mask or goggles. And the flame producing the smoke provides the only light. A dreadful light. The wind pushes heat into me. All there is is this fire and, behind me, my house, and inside that house my cat. The rest of the world has gone. (p. 4)
The fire at Redesdale that destroyed Kenny’s house on Black Saturday is told over the first hundred or so pages of this book. But it is not told as a continuous narrative. Instead, almost as if it is too painful to touch, Kenny steps towards telling of the physicality of the fire, then steps back into abstractions – history, philosophy, reflection- before venturing again to try to put into words the experience of being inside the fire. On one level, I found it frustrating that he was inching through the narrative in this way, but in many ways it reflected his own emotional response to the experience: that it was too hard to face head-on again.
These digressions are not merely distraction, however. Instead they are the ‘investigations’, as the title suggests, of a well-read, insightful reader and historian as he ranges across European and Aboriginal mythology, colonial history, art, environmentalism and philosophy. It is an argument, built incrementally, of the relationship between man and fire: that it is fire itself that makes us human.
Halfway through the book, the fire has ravaged and passed on. The Redesdale fire was capricious, taking one house and leaving another. Because the township was spared, the fire doesn’t have the public profile of Strathewen or Marysville, where the whole town was wiped out. His narrative shifts to the emotional and community aftermath of a fire and runs the gamut of grief, resentment, bewilderment, poor judgment and shaken pride.
Robert Kenny was well prepared for this fire. A fire nearby some years earlier had shown him how quickly this grassland could catch, and he kept a whole fire-fighting kit beside the back door in readiness. When I recall how oppressively and drainingly hot Black Saturday was, I can only admire his foresight and discipline in dressing himself in long trousers, woolen socks, heavy shirt, jumper and beret before venturing out with the pump and hose that was to let him down so badly. When I see footage of people dwarfed by flames, fighting for their houses dressed in shorts and thongs, I forget that to be better protected would involve deliberately covering up in heavy clothing before the fire was anywhere near. My head would tell me I should, but I don’t know that I would have the determination to actually do it before it was too late.
There is bitterness in this book, and it is his anger against the co-option of grief and commemoration by people who lost nothing that makes me feel hesitant to write this response. Do I, as an outsider, kilometres away from these fires, a spectator only, have the right to say anything here? I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the perverse logic that planned a community ‘celebration’ to reclaim fire for good instead of loss, so prematurely amongst people literally seared by Black Saturday. I shift uneasily at his vehemence against commemoration by the community at large who have lost nothing and yet vicariously appropriated the trauma of Black Saturday for themselves.
This book is also the work of an academic and writer who uses his intellect and knowledge to try to make sense of an experience that is almost beyond words. In this regard, it reminds me of John Tulloch’s book One Day in July about the London bombings that I reviewed here. Kenny’s exegesis on the Strutt Black Thursday fire painting is masterful, especially in comparison with Edmund Capon’s weak and cliched commentary in the recent Art of Australia documentary. It’s offered as just one of the many ‘investigations’ that thread throughout this book. You are very much aware that you’re reading the work of a historian. He engages with the recent debate elicited by Bill Gammage’s controversial and acclaimed recent book The Biggest Estate on Earth, which challenges the settler fantasy of an untouched country. He juxtaposes Gallipoli and the multiple commemorations of fire (Black Thursday, Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday) as an expression of national identity within place. He attends conferences; he gives papers; in the midst of his own ruptured world he is awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History, among other accolades, for his book The Lamb Enters the Dreaming. He has the book-lover’s grief for his library and the impossibility of replacing the spatial layout of his book collection and the memories of buying that particular book in that edition.
My books no longer survive. It is as simple as that. I have no catalogue of what was on those shelves and what I remember is fragmentary. Even if I could recover in my memory all the titles of those books, and manage to find copies of them all, they would not be the same books, they would not have been the physical things I handled so often over the years, and this is important. Colleagues offer me books they no longer need. I am grateful, but puzzled- don’t they know how personal a library is? How it is the history of encounters? What would be the point of shelves of strangers’ books? (p. 161)
This is a very human book. He makes bad choices, he responds brusquely and angrily. He is clear-sighted and yet blinded at the same time. The fire has burnt off layer upon layer. I can’t do the book justice. Read it.