One of several very good things that the Labor government has done since taking power is to discontinue the case against Bernard Collaery, charged with helping his client Witness K who acted as a whistleblower over East Timor oil negotiations (I reviewed Collaery’s book here). This is not the only case that has been brought by the Australian government that is shrouded in secrecy and non-disclosure (indeed there may be others under way- how would we know?) Just recently we have learned that senior intelligence officer Witness J. was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in secret under s22 of the National Security Information (Criminal and Civil Proceedings) Act 2004. For the individuals involved, their cases might be discontinued, inquiries might be held, sentences may be commuted – but what happens afterwards?
Ric Throssell could tell you. The son of Australian writer Katharine Susannah Prichard (see review of Nathan Hobby’s biography here) and war hero Hugo Throssell, he found himself caught up in the surveillance of his openly-communist mother, was identified by Petrov as a spy, and was brought before the Royal Commission on Espionage 1954-55. He was cleared by this commission, but the allegations never went away. He had already been employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs before these accusations surfaced, and for the rest of his life he found himself passed over for promotion. The allegations continued to be promulgated by media figures and historians.
Karen Throssell, Ric’s daughter, takes up her father’s fight in this book that was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript It is very much a labour of love, as you see the adult daughter continue her father’s vigilance against repeated public accusations made by historians and commentators, balanced against her memories of a father, a familiar (in both senses of the word) presence in her life. There’s an element of the wounded child there too, as her father took his own life on the same day that her mother died.
The typesetting is very important in this book. There is a lot of white space, with a heading on each left-hand page and sometimes as little as a sentence on the right hand side. It is presented as a series of 103 “Items”, each numbered “Item #103” as a file might be. This evocation of the file is important, because Ric and his daughter’s fight was against files: files made, files with-held. The items comprise a range of genres: poetry, paragraphs, newspaper cuttings, letters, more extended writing over one or two pages.
I’m not particularly keen on a recent form of memoir where the author throws everything onto the table, leaving it to the reader to piece together a narrative (see here and, to a lesser extent, here). I’m old-fashioned enough to expect that the authors have a responsibility to structure the narrative. Throssell’s book does have a narrative, in that there is a roughly chronological order, and the book is divided into sections as the long campaign for justice moves forward. The “item” layout gives a sense of the fragmentary and disconnected.
However, the ordering of the book seems strange to me, although this possibly says as much about me as a reader as it does about the book. There is a system behind the typography, but you only discover the ‘key’ if you turn to the notes at the back of the book. There you learn that the white type on black boxes are Ric Throssell’s own writings, as distinct from Karen’s. Bold format within quotes denotes words written by the author. I would have appreciated this information at the start, because the white on black boxes particularly puzzled me – who is writing this? is this fictional or not? While I acknowledge that this confusion can be interpreted as a meta-comment about truth/allegation and the file as artifact, it did not contribute to my reading at the time.
The book finishes with an essay by historian Phillip Deery which gives the historical context to ASIO, the Royal Commission and the Venona Project but I felt that this would have been much better placed at the beginning. In fact, I’m a little surprised that the author didn’t want to have the last word, instead of turning it over to someone else- after all, the “last word” is what her father had fought for all his adult life.
And, as long as ‘secrecy’ trumps ‘justice’, he won’t be the last to do so.
My rating: 6.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library