Ipsita Sengupta reviews David Walker’s Not Dark Yet
Not Dark Yet
by David Walker
Giramondo Press, 2011
Reviewed by IPSITA SENGUPTA
Despite its humour and ebullience, Not Dark Yet has a Beowulf frame of loss, death and violence. Shadows of the author’s memory, his sight and familial love are played out in a mediterranean climate. Not all of the eighteen chapters of this “personal history” are located in Adelaide or other South Australian settlements, though David Walker hails from that state, from where he explores his ancestry. Family anecdotes seamlessly blend into the macro-history of Australian nation and nationalism. Allusions to the British Vanguard and American culture rehearse traditional Antipodean links, which define the sense of self at personal and national levels.
Yet Asia is a recurrent presence, from the opening line’s reference to Frederic Prokosch’s The Asiatics: A Novel, to David Walker’s charisma as the Israeli Ambassador in a Canberra-based film which redefines Australians as “We Asians”. Asia models various roles, both intimate and atrocious throughout Not Dark Yet.
Luke Day is an affectionate Chinese father to his adopted British daughter, Molly Day. A relative, and Colonel William Light who planned the layout of Adelaide had a Malay mother. For Walker, Japan remains a complex memory resisting easy classification. The Japanese had brutally murdered his uncle Laurie during the Second World War. Yet Japanese culture remains the source of exquisite hobbies like bonsai and dry arrangements for his family. His ancestors source their imports from Japan, along with Europe. In his travels, Walker encounters an exquisite Japan of geishas and tourist-enthusiast schoolgirls; he’d already fallen for the complex, elegant and mannered Japan discovered in translated novels.
The book does not domesticate or arrange Australian responses to a looming Asia; they are presented as tangled contradictions. While The Advertiser describes intruders like rabbits or Chinamen as ready targets for annihilation if White Australians aspire to keep the continent to themselves, Sir Phillip McBride succeeds in securing for Luke Day an old-age pension.
Travel remains the other leitmotif through the text. If Asians, as forbidden outsiders, have trickled into the Australian land and national psyche, how could the new settlers remain home forever? The World War disperses Australians in all directions across the globe. Walker’s relatives translocate between continents during the war. Laurie is posted at Darwin and Ambon in the Netherlands East Indies, Alan at Canada, the UK and Europe, Eric at Tobruk in Libya, New Guinea and Borneo. Walker’s quiet and respectable parents became Frommer-inspired independent world-travellers, journeying through Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cairo, Athens and Italy. Though ready to admire and record in travel diaries and photo slides the unfamiliar territory of their oriental destinations, unease and danger await them. Bewildered by the chaos of Hong Kong, they take refuge in tours. In Cairo they are troubled by hostility and the fear of contamination of ‘flea-bitten & moth-eaten’ guides and thugs. On a smaller scale, but no less pioneer style, are the interstate family travels.
Blindness and memory are described as cultural as well as personal. The troubled journey into darkness of an Alzheimer’s patient eludes the reach of her family. Walker, an Australian historian, had resisted family history before turning to this genre, when macular degeneration blurs the distinctions in reading, writing, seeing:
“When I became legally blind, I had to rethink the kind of history I was able to write. I had to find another, more personal voice and another way of writing. The mix of the historical and the personal seemed promising.” (124)
Not Dark Yet is a quiet discourse on Australian nation and history, its fears and myths, like that of the Lasseter’s Lost Reef, a mighty gold deposit which had eluded early explorers. The author engages with Vance Palmer’s model of nationalist literature with its affiliation to bush-honed brawn; historians of Australia like J.A. La Nauze and Keith Hancock are characters in his story. He engages with various national obsessions in the early decades of the century, such as physical culture and the mission to breed a fit race as custodians of a continent.
War and its impact, civic and private, are structurally central to the book. Walker devotes several chapters recasting the horror of the taboo death of Laurie and narrating disturbed or distant responses to war, by his two surviving uncles. This parallels representations of Australian war strategies on a broader canvas during the Second World War, while reinstating Laha as an Australian war-shrine inexplicably neglected. Violence and derangement seethe in episodic undercurrents. Oswald strikes his wife, when he is unhinged by the confirmation of his son’s beheading. The Olympic water-polo semi-final between Hungary and the Soviet Union erupts into wild riots of Cold War hatred.
The book is a shrine and museum, not merely of innocence, but of an era to which his elusive, polite, hat-wearing father is “an enigmatic visitor”. It seeks to salvage what Walker’s memory and vision permit from the chronicle of his losses. His father’s horticultural pursuits are lost, as are the Burra of his ancestors, Cadell and Freeling of his childhood, his mother’s self and his world of books. Many buried links are unearthed, some accidentally, like Alan’s long-lost fiancée from Wales or Laurie’s comrade and friend from Ambon. Among the buried links in this history of nation and family, the author succeeds in confining himself to a role of Shakespeare’s fool, omniscient of the plot yet reluctant to narrate the self.
That a veteran historian like David Walker should conquer his reluctance for a personal genre and narrate some very difficult stories makes this a remarkable book. It is national history from a fresh perspective of family documents, photographs and remembered quirks. And it seems to be a profoundly ironic, though finally accepting vision, of the dominant version of this history. War is accorded a pivotal position and it is indeed the crux of these stories. Walker’s father may never have been ‘the red-blooded Australian male that Palmer sought to mythologise’, but he is surely no deviant with his rabbit-shooting skills and the heart of a country boy.
Tiresias was blind, a metaphor for the searing vision that enabled him to know and speak the unspeakable crime and guilt of innocent Oedipus. Certain versions of Shiva with his eyes almost closed and the third eye open re-play that metaphor of access to depth dimensions. Though macular degeneration is a loss beyond words for a scholar like Walker, devoted to books and writing, his outwardly shrinking universe and timeless solitude permit this erudite and disturbingly intimate comic elegy.
IPSITA SENGUPTA is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at South Calcutta Girls’ College, Calcutta University and a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, researching Australian encounters with India during the colonial period. She was awarded the Australia-India Council Fellowship in the 2009 round. She has published nationally and internationally on Australia-India connections, most recently on the Indian Mollie Skinner in Southerly (2011).