Daily Archives: September 28, 2019

‘Fortune’ by Lenny Bartulin


2019, 292 p.

Everyone knows the gods love a good joke, and look… They grinned and nodded between themselves and then pointed down at the crowd, made more random selections: him, her, her, him et cetera. Choices made, they whipped up the sticky tendrils of fate and loosed the surging winds of change (those puff-cheeked cherubs) and ..then the gods took a well-deserved afternoon nap. All that’s left for us are the incomplete maps, to conjecture and argue their scale. (p. 33)

We’re often uncomfortable at the thought of the randomness and contingency of our lives. Even if we don’t believe in a host of gods up in the sky, playing us like chess pieces, it’s unnerving to think that our scheduling and planning can be upset without warning. These capricious and heedless gods of chance pop in and out of Lenny Bartulin’s Fortune, smirking and upending the life trajectories of a sprawling cast of characters reaching from Napoleon’s Berlin of 1806, through to the convict settlements of Australia, ending up on the killing fields of the Western Front.

Characters move in and out of this novel but there is particular interest in four: Johannes Meyer, who is press-ganged into Napoleon’s armies and bounces from one dire situation to the next; Elizabeth von Hoffman who traverses the empire through her connections with different men; Claus von Rolt who deals in the objects of empire, and a questing philosopher Krueger.  This is not a straight-forward narrative, but instead bounces from one character to another, leaving some behind without warning, bringing someone in for little reason before bundling them out again.  It is almost like a film in the way that it cuts abruptly from one scene and storyline to another.  It reminded me a little of Barthes’ The Sotweed Factor or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman in its quick scene changes, large cast of characters and its insouciance about their fates.

The text is divided into ten ‘books’ that move chronologically. Each book is divided into  multiple ‘chapters’, each with a subheading, some only a page in length, others longer. I found the last two ‘books’ unnecessary, where the action jumped from the late 1830s up to 1916. I’m not sure why the author felt he had to do that – some misplaced Anzackery perhaps? The settings are well-known to us through books popular image and film – Napoleon on his horse, a bit of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore or For the Term of His Natural Life, the colonial excesses of Joseph Conrad. Nonetheless, there has been good research go into this book – for example in the Dutch sugar plantation cities of the South American coast – and the book wears the research with a chuckle.

I read this book in one sitting, on a cold Saturday afternoon which I think would be the perfect way to enjoy it. I don’t think that I could have kept all the characters in mind had I read it in my usual 15-minutes-before-bed mode.  It has glowing blurbs from young(ish) Australian male writers and journalists – Geordie Williamson, Paul Daley and Chris Womersley, and there does seem something ‘masculine’ in the writing [says she, not quite knowing what she means by this] – perhaps the nihilism, sexuality and virtuosity that pervades the book?  I enjoyed it for the romp and its vitality. It requires concentrated reading, and it rewards it.

My rating: 8.5 and possibly 9 out of 10

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t like it: Melanie Kembrey of the SMH did.