Monthly Archives: July 2021

‘Fury’ by Kathryn Heyman

2021, 328 p.

You can start reading a book thinking that it’s going to be about one thing, then it ends up being another. When that happens, it can be disappointing, or it can be exhilarating. For me, with Kathryn Heyman’s Fury, it was the latter. It’s a tightly constructed, human, affirming memoir that took me to places where I had never been, but also took me back to places that are less comfortable to visit.

I first heard of this book when I was in the car, listening to a sliver of Richard Fidler’s Conversations program: I didn’t catch the start, and I missed the ending, as you do when you’re in the car. The title of the program was The girl who ran away to sea: the making of Kathryn Heyman. With her rounded vowels and obviously well-educated speech, I was under the impression that the book was about a young girl who joined a fishing-trawler fleet – and indeed, at one level, that is true, but it is much more than this. When I saw Kathryn Heyman speaking via Zoom at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, she was just as she sounded: cultured, quite beautiful, confident, animated, middle-aged (but younger than I!). But she was not always this way. In her telling, she was overweight, from an unhappy family and acutely conscious of wanting to have friends and be accepted.

The book starts with her hanging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, handing down tools to a co-worker as huge waves swamp them. We return to this precarious situation near the end of the book, but in between we learn about what has led her to join a fishing fleet. This is not a straightforward chronology, but instead she jumps back and forward, always with consummate authorial control.

As a child, she was “a biter” and her father christened her “Little Fury”. Her father was a policeman, a violent and explosive man. Unhappy both at school and at home, reading was her escape. She tried hard- too hard, probably – to win the friendship of female friends, and as she grew older, the attention and affection of men for whom she was expendable and, at times, exploitable. The fury in this book – implacable, focussed – is more a product of the mature, adult woman she is now, rather than the needy young woman she was then.

Women tend to excuse and forget the small, mounting accumulation of male abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical violation: it can be the leer, the jeer, catcall, the mirth of a ‘flash’, the opportunistic grope. When you add them up, it’s a pathetic litany, and one that I had almost forgotten until she took me back there. She writes so well that I could almost feel it again: the anxiety and desperation of being a young girl, unsure of yourself and your body. When she was raped, she was belittled at the police station, and again in the courtroom. It was her impatience with herself – with her anger, with the repetitions in her life, and her weariness of being the victim – that led her up north. Wanting the money to travel overseas to re-invent herself, she signed onto a fishing trawler as a cook. It was a risky decision. In the first place, she was not, and never had been, a cook. But more importantly, given what she wanted to escape, she was going into a confined, live-in situation with only men. The potential for it all going wrong was high.

This is such a well-written book, so carefully structured and so controlled. All memoirs are constructions, and the more skilled ones go beyond chronology, as this one does. Here is a writer who knows her craft. It is a reflection on class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves. It has emotional rawness and fidelity, but it is also lyrical and evocative in its descriptions. There is a slow-burning fury, but because she has moved beyond it and can look back, there is also forgiveness and tenderness for herself. This book was so much more than I expected it to be.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

Read because: I was so impressed with Kathryn Heyman at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival.

I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

Con subtítulos en español: Alma (2018)

Another short film offering from Instituto Cervantes in their LGBTQI theme for July, this time from Colombia.

Alma has transitioned and has started at a new school. A boy is attracted to her, but unsure of herself and still only part-way through her transition, she rebuffs him. She really doesn’t seem very happy. Things seem a bit more optimistic at the end. It must be so hard to be so young, so nervous about a new body and having to negotiate a new life.

‘The Countess from Kirribilli’ by Joyce Morgan

2021, 313 p.

Perhaps Joyce Morgan is channelling the spirit of Mary Beauchamp/Elizabeth von Armin, the subject of this biography, in choosing such a deceptive title. Particularly for those of us who do not live in Sydney, Kirribilli is synonymous with the ‘second’ Prime Minister’s Residence located on the shores of Sydney Harbour ( a cause for some interstate disgruntlement when the incumbent Prime Minister is from NSW and spends most of his time on Sydney Harbour rather than in Canberra). So who is this Countess?

It’s all a bit misleading, because when young Mary Beauchamp lived at Beulah House in the suburb of Kirribilli, she was certainly not a countess. She was born in Australia in 1866, with an English-born, merchant father, and a Tasmanian-born mother Louey. After living in several houses in Kirribilli, they finally shifted to a (now demolished) waterfront house, Beulah, close to their wealthy maternal uncle Frederick Lassetter and his family. When she was three, her father decided to follow the Lassetters when they returned to England. Mary – or ‘Elizabeth’ as she was better known through her first book Elizabeth and her German Garden, a name which she adopted permanently as a widow, – never returned to Australia again. She made no claim to Australian identity, and it’s interesting that she has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

So where did the ‘Countess’ part come from? She gained the title through marriage to Count Henning August Arnim-Schlagethin, a Prussian aristocrat, fifteen years her senior who, while titled, had also inherited his father’s debts. They lived in Germany, and she soon found herself burdened by serial pregnancies with three children in less than three years, five in total. She and her husband spent much time apart. Mary and her children lived in Nassenheide, in a dilapidated schloss, which she renovated. It was a marriage marked with conflict. After Henning died, her next marriage, to Earl Frank Russell (grandson of Lord John Russell the Prime Minister) and brother of Bertrand Russell, was no happier. She kept her ‘Countess’ designation, but now she was Countess Russell. She seems to have swung between happiness and misery in a tempestuous and emotionally labile second marriage. After this marriage broke down, she had other affairs, possibly with her friend H. G. Wells, and with Alexander Frere, who later became a noted publisher, 27 years her junior and literally half her age.

Her former brother-in-law Bertrand Russell warned his children “Do not marry a novelist”. He was right. Elizabeth’s life and experiences very much informed her books, and she drew on both her husbands as characters in her books, and not to their advantage. Framed humourously at first, but then in a more sinister light, she called the Henning-like character in first book Elizabeth and her German Garden ‘the Man of Wrath’. When she wrote The Pastor’s Wife in 1914, the epynomous pastor was Prussian, and took his innocent English wife Ingeborg to provincial life where (like Henning) he studied agricultural developments, and kept her constantly pregnant until an artist (not a writer, as H. G. Wells was) came into her life and convinced her to leave. Vera, seen as the darkest of her books is a “terrifying portrait of domestic tyranny” (p. 185). The husband in this story, Wemyss, takes his young wife Lucy to a gloomy house The Willows (very similar to Frank Russell’s house Telegraph House) where he works to exact total submission from his wife through his moods, vile tempers and manipulation.

Elizabeth worked hard as a writer, almost constantly working on a book. She made sure that she had a working studio in each of the homes she created, and would keep working even when hosting an ongoing stream of visitors. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of any of her 21 books, which seem to range from whimsy to some rather dark domestic themes and back to memoir again. In a literary biography, there is a narrow line for authors to tread between giving the flavour of their subject’s writings for those who have not read them on the one hand, and delving into a more detailed analysis that assumes that the reader is familiar with them on the other. I think that Morgan handled this well, demonstrating the variety that can be found in von Armin’s writing, integrating these largely-autobiographical works into her telling of von Armin’s life, and encouraging the reader to actually read her books.

Most striking is just how well connected in a literary sense Elizabeth von Armin was. Her cousin was Katherine Mansfield, with whom she had a close, but at times, strained relationship. She counted H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, D. H. Lawrence amongst her friends and acquaintances, and she knew innumerable people amongst the English intelligentsia. She lived through both the first and second World Wars, fearing for two of her daughters still in Germany, and apprehensive about the Jewish connections in her first husband’s family. Even though she hated travelling by sea in a time when air travel was not yet available, she travelled and lived in various places in Europe and visited those of her children living in America.

She was an idiosyncratic mixture of exhibitionist and dissembler. She wrote best-sellers under a non-de-plume for almost 30 years before her identity as ‘Elizabeth’ was definitively established. She kept secrets from her friends and family and she burned many of her letters (which fortunately the recipients kept). Yet she treated her life as raw material for her semi-autobiographical writing, thus putting her family and friends into the public arena, without consulting them.

Joyce Morgan has presented an enigmatic, fascinating woman who lived a life very far removed from an Australian experience. She has a light touch as a biographer, starting each chapter or section with a narrative, scene-settling, imaginative paragraph or two, as if she is coming up for air, before diving down into description and analysis again. This leads to a fairly ‘choppy’ sort of reading experience, but it also keeps the biography at an easily-accessible level. It is only when you turn to the back of the book that you realize how well she has integrated primary sources into her narrative, drawing on journals and letters by Elizabeth, Katherine Mansfield and H. G.Wells. A rather odd coda has been added to the book where Morgan delves further into von Armin’s Australian family history, almost as if the author feels that she needs to ‘prove’ her Australian-ness which is otherwise incidental to the rest of Elizabeth von Armin’s life.

For me, Morgan has piqued my curiosity sufficiently to seek out one or two of Elizabeth von Armin’s books, and Gabrielle Carey’s biography as well. For a biographer, I’m sure that means ‘mission accomplished’.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

Con subtítulos en español: Snap (2018)

Continuing on with the series of LGBTQI films from Instituto Cervantes in July, Snap is an 18-minute Chilean film.

Actually, this trailer is almost as long as the movie was! The directors saved postings from Snap Chat, which usually disappear after a day or so, and chose three to form the narrative of this small documentary. (I assume with the permission of the poster? Interesting question- if you put something on Snap Chat does that mean you’re alright with a documentary being made of it?) The first is of a teenager who is haranguing his mother into buying him an i-phone; the second is of a drag queen; and the third is of a young man undergoing genital surgery to become a woman. I felt rather voyeuristic watching this, and the self-absorption, particularly of the drag queen, I found quite off-putting. I finished it, feeling very old.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-23 July

Democracy Sausage. I’ve only just started listening to this podcast by Mark Kenny, who used to write for The Age (he may still, for all I know because I stopped subscribing once it became Herald-Sun-Lite). The Prosperity Gospel features Peter Martin (who writes for the Conversation) and Marija Taflaga (from ANU Centre for the Study of Australian Politics, with a research interest in the Liberal Party). This podcast is from May and before the budget, so it’s a bit outdated, but it starts with an interesting commentary on Scott Morrison’s talk to a Christian conference about God speaking to him through a picture of an eagle, and his habit of ‘laying hands’ on people he was comforting. That certainly creeped me out, and despite their Christian affiliation, it creeped out Peter and Marija as well.

Heather Cox Richardson Her Facebook video of 11 June 2021 is Part Two of her series on Native Americans. She returned to the Northern Plains people, and the spread of settlers into indigenous land encouraged by the homesteading acts. The invention of barbed wire, mining, and technological change that made it possible to use buffalo skins commercially all put indigenous land under pressure. I obviously didn’t watch enough cowboys and indians or Saturday afternoon matinees, because I really didn’t know much about the Battle of Little Big Horn, which she discusses here.

China If You’re Listening (ABC). The final episode of this series is Are the ‘drums of war beating’ over Taiwan?. He starts off with the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which China has constructed and is now claiming. We might not go to war over the Paracel Islands, but we might over Taiwan. He goes through the history of Taiwan and Hong Kong, and how they fit into China’s world view in the 21st century. Rather chilling.

The Real Story (BBC) With the recent demonstrations in Cuba, this episode Cuba at a Crossroads features commentators from outside Cuba (including an academic, a former US diplomat, an author and an economist). I’m not sure that they are particularly well placed to speak for Cuba, but they do agree that the US sanctions and bans on remittances re-imposed by Donald Trump are doing real harm. They also all agreed that the US should not get involved, even though Díaz-Canel is blaming the US for instigating the demonstrations. There’s no Castro charisma there any more.

The Last Archive This episode was a cross-posting from History This Week, a History Channel podcast. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced when television licences were strictly controlled and highly sought, but it was overturned in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine decreed that television news should present both sides of an argument, but over time both people on the left AND right came to see it as problematic, for very different reasons. Since it has been abolished, it has given rise to the stridently partisan nature of media in US in particular, although cable TV and the internet would not have been covered by it anyway.

‘In the Night of Time’ by Antonio Muñoz Molina

2009, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman 2013, 641 p.

On page 1, a man is standing in a crowd at Pennsylvania Station. On page 457 he finally alights from the train. Clearly, this is not a fast-moving book. At 640 pages in length, it is a real door-stopper, with bulky convoluted sentences that extend over half a page at a time. Will it never finish? And yet, must it finish? As I found with other books that immerse their reader into a rich and complex inner world, I didn’t want to leave.

Ignatio Abel is a Spanish architect who has been contracted to design University City, just outside Madrid in 1935. Always conscious of his humble origins as the only son of a factory worker, he has married into a stolidly middle-upper class family and has two children, even though his love for his wife Adela faded over the years. Despite his left-leaning politics, he is accepted into his wife’s staunchly Catholic, conservative family, although he is increasingly disturbed by his brother-in-law’s increasing involvement in Falangist activities. Ignatio had travelled to Germany in the late 1920s and studied in the Bauhaus – a contact that bolstered his career and reputation, and gave him entree into the intellectual and wealthy elite.

His first glimpse of the American Judith Biely is when he inadvertently opens the door to a room where she is playing the piano. He then encounters her again when she slips into a lecture room where he is presenting, and in the crowded room, she sits beside his wife. He is quickly swept into an affair with her which is carried out in sordid hotel rooms and cafes where no-one he knows will recognize him. Already a distant husband and father, he becomes immersed in the affair, betraying his wife and disappointing his children. As a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.

The tension and danger of the affair mirrors, in the personal realm, the slow descent of Spanish society into the Civil War in the political realm. The Republicans in Madrid, with whom Ignacio aligns himself, are continuing to proclaim themselves the legitimate government and trumpeting their victories while the rebels are inexorably moving towards Madrid. Once again, as a reader, you are just waiting for it all to come unstuck.

I was attracted to this book because of its Civil War setting, especially after recently seeing the film While at War and having read Hotel Florida and Amnesia Road. I guess that I’m on a bit of a Spanish Civil War kick at the moment. But this is not about the war itself in terms of geography or politics. Instead, it is a view of war stripped of ideology, capturing so well the juxtaposition of the banal and the horrific, and the distrust of former colleagues as life becomes more and more surreal. Against all this trauma and dissolution, Ignatio’s obsession with Judith seems even more discordant and self-absorbed.

There is a first-person ‘I’ narrator who appears at various places in the book, commenting on what he is observing. This narrator is not a constant presence, and he/she does not explain their connection with the story. I found this erratic commentary rather intrusive, I must admit. There is also a great deal of introspection from Ignacio’s perspective, and we spend most of the time in this book in his head, and looking through his eyes.

The book also captures so poignantly the way that an exile – especially one who has left to escape to safety- takes his memories and fears with him. He cannot unsee what he has seen, and his own relief at escape is tempered by his guilt over those left behind.

This book has been likened to War and Peace and Lisa Hill, whose review prompted me to read it, saw parallels with Proust. For me, I was reminded of Doctor Zhivago although it must have been forty years since I read it. It’s interesting that all of these are big books, just like this one is, and it speaks to the power of this book that it keeps company with such classics. It is not an easy read. It is damned long: probably too long, although I don’t think that a 300 page paperback would do it justice because the length and introspection and slow unravelling is part of its strength. It is also very dense, with very long sentences, and a forensic almost obsessive pulling apart of Ignacio’s thoughts. It’s the sort of book that makes demands of you as a reader, and you need to give it space and time. I admit that I veered between eyeing the number of pages left to wonder how much longer it was going to take, and ruing the small number of pages as I neared the end, because I wasn’t ready to leave it yet. It’s a remarkable, frustrating, immersive read.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Online colloquium: Imperial Emotions and the De-Colonial Move

I mentioned the other day that I was missing conferences. Well, even before the current spate of lockdowns, I enrolled for this two-day colloquium that was originally planned as a joint face-to-face/online event. With the recent lockdown in Adelaide it pivoted to being completely online, just as the Yarra Valley Writers Festival did last weekend.

The colloquium was conducted under the auspices of the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. If I were writing my thesis today, I would probably be attracted to this ‘turn’, and I wish that it had been more prominent fifteen years ago. Although several of the speakers were familiar to me, I have none of the theoretical background for the approach, and probably would have felt a bit out of place, were I there physically. So, in spite of the dearth of muffins and absence of name-tags, online probably suited me better this time.

The colloquium started with Prof. Jane Lydon speaking on Imperial Emotions: the homeless of empire? In this paper, she explored ‘compassionate emotion’ through two contemporaneous books, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Bleak House (1852-3) by Charles Dickens. We might call it ’empathy’ today, but the term was not used at the time. Both novels sought to evoke pity – in Stowe’s case for slaves, and in Dicken’s case for Jo the crossing sweeper. But Dickens’ book also critiques ‘telescopic philanthropy’, as exemplified by Mrs. Jelleby, who is oblivious to the needs of those around her because she is so invested in distant benevolence. Lydon pointed out that even though readers expressed horror at the thought of Eliza and her child being separated in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was little critique of the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.

Dr. Jordy Silverstein followed with a fantastic paper: Discourses of ‘Care’: Public Servants, Child Refugees and the Production of National Feelings where she conducted oral interviews with two senior public servants who worked from the 1970s to the 1990s at the highest levels of the public service. We often associate ministers and political parties with particular policies, but we are largely unaware of the secretaries and advisors whose positions are not dependent on the election cycle (well, they weren’t in the past) and who, if they have a lengthy career, work with politicians of both persuasions. She interviewed John Menadue about multiculturalism and Wayne Gibbons about immigration, refugee policy, the Intervention. It was a rather chilling, distubing paper.

Prof. Margaret Allen spoke on Sympathy, disgust and disdain, women writers’ representation of Indigenous peoples and the colonial project in some South Australian novels. She examined the novel Kooroona, published in England in 1871 under the pseudonym ‘Iota’. The author was in fact Mrs. Mary A Meredith, who lived in South Australia between 1858 and 1868. Allen describes it as a ‘sojourner’ novel, which has strong autobiographical elements, narrated by a woman with strong Anglican principles who sees herself as a more cultured visitor to the colony, as distinct from the more aspirational, acquisitive, locally focused Dissenter settlers. Through her character Mrs Vernon, Meredith critiqued indigenous dispossession by these grasping, immoral settlers, but she then turned her attention, much as Charles Dickens did in Bleak House to metropolitan benevolence instead.

I loved Dr Claire McLisky’s paper ‘Colonial emotions’ and Indigenous peoples in mid twentieth-century Australian history writing: Apathy, anger and calls to action in the histories of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw’. She examined closely M. Barnard Eldershaw’s 1939 book My Australia, written as a collaboration between two women writers and historians Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both were historians and both trained under George Arnold Wood at the University of Sydney. However, neither worked in academia, and their My Australia is very different from the other histories being written at the time by male historians. Both were activists, engaged in the politics of the day, and this is reflected in their approach to Aboriginal history in their book. The book began with a prologue ‘A Mask of Australia for Inaudible Voices’, speaking from five different perspectives: ‘Voice of the Continent’, ‘Chorus of the Trees’, ‘Herald of the Future’, ‘The Black Man’ and ‘The Black Man’s Future’ – a very imaginative and perceptive approach. The bulk of the book was divided into two parts: New World and Old World, but in an coda of two chapters, they returned in a chapter titled ‘The Dispossessed’ to critique settler Australia’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. Yet this coda stands, with no integration at all, alongside long pages of ‘dying race’ rhetoric in the body of the text. Fascinating.

The first day finished with Faye Rosas Blanch speaking on Looking through the Frame, what are the shifting sensory and affective relations? There was no written paper for this presentation where she described a photograph of her family standing outside a wooden church at Pinnacle Pocket, near Atherton in Queensland. She did not show the photograph. I assumed that, as an indigenous presenter, she declined to display the photograph because some of the people depicted had died, but that was not the case (information about the church was placed on YouTube by the family in any case). Instead she chose not to show the photograph as an act of refusal, and to force us to “listen” to the photograph. Interesting approach- but I wonder if I was the only one who then looked it up on YouTube?

The second day started with Ass. Prof Sharon Crozier-de Rosa presenting Emotional Politics at Play: Ridicule, Embarrassment and the Limits of Reimagining Colonial Relations. You might not guess it from the title, but it examined the response of British Anti-Suffrage activists to the defeat of the conscription referendum in Australia during WWI, where they blamed women (who had the vote in Australia) for being too emotional in the ballot box. Stung by this criticism, anti-conscription women voters, through their large political organization the Australian Womens National League, moved away from their language of Britain as ‘Mother’ and Australia as ‘grateful child’ to see Australia instead as ‘motherland’. The paper talked about family metaphors in describing political networks and affiliations.

Keeping with the war theme, Prof. Joy Damousi followed with Empire, evacuations and emotions in war, which also spoke to Jordy Silverstein’s earlier paper on child refugees. In this case, she spoke about the child evacuation program conducted under the auspices of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, which sent British children to Canada, Australia and South Africa. Harry Foll was the program’s most public champion in Australia. Drawing on the archive of memoirs of the child migrants themselves, Damousi has been interrogating the scheme, which definitely preferenced blue-eyed, fair haired, sturdy children, with the hope that they would stay in Australia, rather than Jewish children who were in more immediate danger.

This was followed by Dr Natalie Harkin, a critical Indigenous scholar, who gave a presentation titled Archival-poetic Witnessing/ Decolonizing Domestic Labour Stories in South Australia where she integrates oral and intergenerational blood memories with the official state records on indigenous domestic service in South Australia. Even though South Australia did not become involved in the 2006 Inquiry into Stolen Wages, claiming incorrectly that it did not apply to them, she has found an archive that spans cruelty and brutality through to kindness (although not equality). Historians often speak about ‘the archive’ and their response to it, and while wary of the state archive, she likened it to a ‘medium’ through which the past speaks. She found that the archive, both written and oral, underplayed instances of cruelty, and captured surveillance, the constant hum of anxiety and the threat of child removal. Smells, food, and cleaning agents could trigger memories amongst her oral informants, and she has uncovered letters from parents and the girls themselves, anxious to know what type of white family the girl was working for, and whether she could come home for Christmas.

The final paper by Ass. Prof Jane Haggis was called Imperial Dispositions: Then, Now and Mine: (Mis) Adventures in Unknowing and Common Sense. Unfortunately, the only ‘unknowing’ one was me, because the sound quality was really poor and I just couldn’t hear. From her slides, I know that she was talking about Martindale Hall, the National Trust Mansion (used in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) but I’m afraid that’s all I know. It was a rather incomplete and disappointing way to finish off, and having been a ‘lurker’ throughout, I slipped away half-way through the Plenary Discussion. But I really enjoyed listening to a really strong selection of papers, that fit well into their different themes and yet spoke to each other, and spoke to me too.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 July 2021

99% Invisible. One of the few things that I DO like about budget airlines is that no-one can put their seat back. Instead, everyone sits bolt upright, in full possession of the meagre space in front of your knees. This episode “Mine” is a cracker – talking about the concept of ‘owning’ something – a physical object, land, space, sunlight – based on the book of the same name by Michael Heller and James Salzman. They suggest that there are 6 deliberately-ambiguous conflicting ‘stories’ of ownership: 1. I’m here first 2. Possession 3. It’s attached to something that is mine 4. I worked for it 5. It’s part of my body 6. It belongs to my family. Really interesting.

China If You’re Listening (ABC) ‘Chinese Students: Commodity or Opportunity?’ looks at the dependence of universities on international students, especially from China. Education is seen as Australia’s third most important ‘export’ and this has skewed funding models and educational provision shamelessly, in my opinion. Not just in universities either- TAFEs too have allowed themselves to be compromised by their English language class provision. I hadn’t really thought of it from the students’ perspective either: that they don’t want to be in a class entirely of Chinese students any more than the few Australian students do.

Travels Through Time. I love this podcast but it’s steadily adding to my list of To Be Read books! In The Quest for the Lost City (1833), historian Edmund Richardson speaks about Charles Masson, a deserter from the East India Company, who after merging into Kabul society, is driven to search for Alexandria Under the Mountains, one of the many cities across the Middle East that Alexander the Great established in his own name. The book Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City sounds fascinating.

Heather Cox Richardson It’s NAIDOC week in Australia, and it seemed appropriate to tune in to Heather Cox Richardson’s short series on Native American History (even though she recorded it in June). Her episode of June 4 starts off with the Plains Indians – I’m not really sure what terminology I’m supposed to be using here – during the Civil War. At the same time that Americans were fighting for human rights via the Civil War on the east side of the country, wholesale dispossessions were taking place in the middle of the country as settlers swarmed across indigenous traditional lands.

The Last Archive During the second season of the Last Archive, historian and writer Jill Lepore has been looking at the rise of doubt over the last 100 years of American history. The episode Epiphany brings this right up to date, with the storming of Congress on January 6. But before that, there was the little known Iron Mountain hoax of the late 1960s- a publication that lingers on far-right websites to this day.

‘Civilisations’ by Laurent Binet

Translated from French by Sam Taylor 2021, 310p.

Since learning Spanish with my various Latin American Spanish teachers (from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina – think of the terrible accent I must have!), I’ve been interested in Latin American history. When I heard the premise of this book, I was instantly fascinated. Imagine if Erik the Red’s daughter headed south from Greenland in 1000 AD and landed in Cuba. Imagine if Christopher Columbus was captured by the Incas and died there. Then imagine if thirty years later, the Incas arrived in Europe.

This book is told in several parts. Part One, ‘The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir’ is written in the form of a narrative, starting “There once was a woman called Aud the Deep-Minded”. Set in c.1000 it follows Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis as she leaves Greenland because of family conflict and ends up in Central America. They bring iron and horses, leaving them in the hands of the Panamanians and Cubans when they leave to return to Europe, aware that they are bringing disease (but unknown to them, immunity) to the defenseless populations that have given them shelter.

Part Two, almost five hundred years later is ‘The Journal of Christopher Columbus (fragments)’, starting on 3 August 1492 as Columbus sets sail. Written in the form of journal entries, Columbus’ crew find indigenous people with iron tools and weapons, and riding horses. The journal peters out as Columbus sickens and dies while the Incas around him are immune to disease.

Part Three ‘The Chronicles of Atahaulpa’ is by far the longest part of the book, written in the same narrative style of Part One, with an omniscient narrator and the formal distance of a ‘chronicle’. In the 1531 Ataphaulpa, the last Inca emperor, flees Central America using Columbus’ abandoned ships for much the same reasons as Freydis did 500 years earlier (i.e. family feud) and lands in Lisbon, just after the earthquake. It’s Europe, but not quite as we know it. Of course, Spain has not been enriched from her colonies, because Columbus didn’t find them. Europe is riven with the Reformation, the Inquisition is torturing its way to infamy, and Henry VIII is casting around trying to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Ataphaulpa does not have a large army, but he triumphs nonetheless by appealing to the down-trodden peasantry, and his sun-based religion sweeps Europe, co-existing with Christianity- or as Ataphaulpa describes it, the religion of “the nailed god”. He finds a good handbook for how to deal with these Europeans: nothing less than Machiavelli’s The Prince. Henry VIII converts to the Sun religion as a way to escape his marital problems; Ataphaulpa revolutionizes agriculture by terracing and the introduction of avocados and tomatoes; 95 theses are nailed onto the church door at Wittenberg but these proclaim the supremacy of the Sun religion. Meanwhile, the Aztecs arrive in France, and a battle between the Incas and Aztecs ensues, with alliances with various European nations playing but a minor part. It’s a long section, comprising 214 pages of this 310 page book, but it is broken up with correspondence like that of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and Ataphaulpa and his consort Higuénamota.

Part Four is just short, and in the form of an 18th century novel, with its little chapter summary at the start, it tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, who is living with El Greco in Michel de Montaigne’s tower and ends up being exiled to Cuba and not writing Don Quixote.

As you can see, there is a lot in this book, and for most of it, I found myself wishing that I knew more history. I’m vain enough to be uncomfortable about being made to feel stupid. At times little things had me laughing out loud- the Aztecs building a pyramid outside the Louvre for their sacrifices, for example – but it only made me realize that there are probably hundreds of allusions here that just passed me by.

The book is, in effect, a series of fictional historical documents – and I’m not unfamiliar with historical documents- but documents in themselves are not a novel. The reader has to work hard in this book, and I found my will to continue flagging. It’s more of an idea than a novel: there is little character development, and as many additional parts as the author had the energy to write could have been appended.

I’m glad that I read it, though. ‘What-if’ history is a guilty pleasure (very guilty) for a historian, and you come away from reading the book being knocked off-centre by its suppositions and alternative perspectives. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer at all- in fact, I was rather pleased to have even finished it- and I certainly feel as if I have been in the company of someone who is much brainier than I.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Con subtítulos en español: Victor XX

A young transgender girl, Mari is experimenting with her identity as Victor. She is in a gay relationship with another young girl, who doesn’t know about her illicit excursions as Victor. It’s really well acted, with Alba Martinez as Mari/Victor. For a film only 19 minutes long, it’s sad and beautiful.

I watched it through Instituto Cervantes, who have a number of short LGBTI films available during July. I choose to watch them with Spanish subtitles, but English subtitles are available too. Each film is only available for 48 hours.