by Kate Middleton
Reviewed by JO LANGDON
‘Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find obsessive’, begins Joan Didion in ‘Holy Water’, an essay from the author’s 1979 collection The White Album. It was this essay and its attentiveness to water and human responses to it that came to mind recurrently in reading Sydney poet and essayist Kate Middleton’s second poetry collection, Ephemeral Waters, a book-length poem that follows the Colorado River across five states in a poetic exploration of landscape and the human imagination. It is a stunning sequence, and a book that continues to pursue the intersections between poetry and other written forms, blending and blurring generic conventions in its focus on the ‘real’ world.
Poetry is often the language we turn to in order to express love, loss and other experiences of extremity. Poems appear frequently at weddings and funerals, and are often written or recited in response to violent and traumatic events. The mode is similarly associated with the extreme by way of the sublime: the ineffable or overwhelming extremities of immense environments and landscapes. At the end of the book, Middleton notes that the project offered an opportunity to ‘chase the sublime’. ‘Inevitably,’ she writes in a two-page epilogue (‘Reflection, After’), ‘the river kept expanding around me, and flooding over me. Even as my understanding of how much I would never know grew and grew, my own ardent naiveté kept me from sinking’ (124). Collaging archival materials, conversations, ‘found’ language, and moments of subjective experience and observation, Ephemeral Waters skilfully, seamlessly apprehends both the tangible and intangible force of the Colorado in all its immensity.
It’s important to stress that quoting from this bookcan do no justice to the poetry as it appears on the page. Along with the margin notes—ephemera that supplement, double, and at times diverge from the primary text—Middleton’s use of space and the shape of the poetry is itself a feature of this work. The enjambments are always accomplished and, importantly, the lines never slip into prose or the prosaic. When a story, fragment of history, or lines of conversation arrive, it is never at the expense of the poetry—or more specifically, the poet’s use of language.
Most remarkable is how much Middleton has included in what are sweeping and yet often spare lines: the landscapes arrive with a great sense of tactility, and dialogues rush forward, frequently in humorous, surprising ways. ‘No, you can’t see the river / from here – the sign says so’ (83), we read in Arizona (or overhear, rather, as the note ‘2nd Speaker’ in the margin suggests). Wry observations such as this appear elsewhere, such as at a scenic lookout pages earlier, where a young boy sits next to the poet and, ‘as if he has practised his sigh tells me in the voice of / a seasoned traveller Well, it sure is Grand’ (77).
Ephemeral Waters opens with ‘Instruction (Prologue)’, and immediately introduces both the river and poet’s proportions: ‘none of it / is yours It does not / acknowledge you’; ‘You will learn / something You will learn / nothing but absence, but rock’s / wonderful indifference’ (1). In the subsequent section, Part I, ‘Colorado’, the poem pans in on a ‘thread of water / you can easily straddle, if only …’ (5). The details, so keenly observed, offer glimmers of intimacy, accessibility: ‘Water just covers my feet / the rocks of the streambed bloom / in orange and lilac’ (6); ‘Listen This too is where waters are born’ (11).
By the Kauffman House Museum, Grand Lake, place is further inhabited, this time by its human history as the reader is introduced to the ambiguous figure of Mary, on whose story ‘[t]he women at the Historical Society / can’t quite agree’. We read: ‘They agree that she needed sunshine / They speak as if she lived / in the almost-snow’ (12). Mary’s biography plummets, then, into violent tragedy:
Gun in hand she killed them
The children on the floor
she then turned despair upon herself
An imperfect shot
Four days till death (13)
Surfacing, the reader is gradually returned to picturesque sites and panoramas, the kind of which are seen elsewhere in the book, such as in Arizona, where ‘The Colorado River’ is ‘Now clay-coloured / now brilliant jade // now glassy, now dirty milk’ (81). Likewise in Nevada, the poet writes: ‘Now in postcards / all we see is blue-green / and terracotta, water’s glass // laid over more redrock’ (92). These glimpses of landscape are never simply pleasing pictorials, however, and the reader’s gaze is continually redirected as the poem zooms in and out, shifting in often unexpected directions.
In Part V, ‘California/Arizona, Border Water’, Middleton writes: ‘Somewhere here world unworlds / itself, weirds into desert planet’ (105). ‘Weirds’ might be a verb that drives moments of this collection, documenting as it does the sublime and the extreme. Yetthere are recognisable experiences glimpsed here also: the small talk of tourists, the gingham of restaurant tablecloths, drinking water carried in bottles and cooled in streambeds.
At ‘Adventure Park’ (according to the marginalia), we are offered an evocative, eerily beautiful portrait, beginning: ‘I swam in the famous pool at twilight // As steam / rose off / the weird aqua / bodies soaked into dusk’ (21). The poem’s speaker observes a couple seated on the pool’s steps, reading ‘his and hers pulp novels, never speaking / to each other’, both tuning out ‘the chatter of bikini-clad teens who discussed beauty / under the darkening sky’ (21).
The pairing of corporality and beauty, and of beauty and violence, is prevalent throughout the book. In the subsequent section, Middleton hears of a boy—presumably another teenager, or perhaps a younger child—who disappeared at ‘No Name creek’.Contemplating the time it took for his body to travel the river’s course (twelve days), the poet invites us to ‘Picture what remains—the washed up // dead arrive abraded; skinless; / smashed beyond reconstruction’ (22). On the following page—marked ‘erratum’ in the margin—Middleton notes: ‘Only later I learn that the body floated / four more days than I had heard / before the current offered up the leavings // thirty-five miles downstream’ (23).
In Utah, horses appear via film footage from John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), and the presence of those wonderfully uncanny animals heightens the intensity of the familiar and unfamiliar: ‘The opening reel shows us horses / easing their black and white bodies / into the waters, muddy and green’ (35). Bodies are continually entering and emerging (although not always) from the vast and often unfathomable body of water.
Elsewhere, human figures step in and out of the poem with ease. Children appear frequently, as do family groups and various couples. ‘Park Service volunteers’are dressed in ‘matching ranger-green’ (14). In Kremmling, a couple are ‘Two at odds’:
thin and tells me she can clack needles
with the fluency of puppet strings
He’s sturdy, votes right They disagree
but enlighten me on fire, on water
rights, on local names and on how
loneliness grows more elastic How
unchanged debates give comfort
In Part III we meet Joe, an asbestos worker on his way to Utah to see his daughter De Challey, ‘Like the canyon’ (73). ‘Holding apricots’, ‘He laces the story with water / and we drop / into my rental, drive miles away’ (73). Here, as elsewhere, the language doubles the water’s movements and shifts, its inherent fluidity.
Middleton’s presence as the poetry’s speaker, as an observer and collector of moments, is always light. Although the first-person ‘I’ appears frequently, the speaker’s subjectivity never encroaches upon the poetry, and the focus of the work is always elsewhere: ‘ – gathering, gathering –’ (8), to quote the poet. The poem is continually sieving through the water’s history, populated as it is by shattered bodies and ghosts, speculation, historical documentation, and the imaginations of others: filmmakers, explorers, locals and those visiting.
‘I have lived with the river much more in imagination than in actuality’, notes the poet at the end of the book. For readers of Ephemeral Waters too, the Colorado and its political and personal histories will live on as haunting, shifting presences. Middleton reintroduces the reader to the world, to the strange and familiar, in ways that stay on, dwelling in the imagination with a sense of something akin to the obsessive reverence described by Didion, decades ago.
Didion, Joan 2009 (1979), ‘Holy Water’, The White Album, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, pp. 59–66.
JO LANGDON is the author of a chapbook of poems, Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012). She is currently a literary studies PhD candidate at Deakin University, Geelong, where she teaches in literature and professional & creative writing.
Indigo Morning: Selected Poems
By Rachael Munro
Grand Parade Poets, 2013
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Rachael Munro’s second book, Indigo Morning: Selected Poems, is intriguing on at least two levels, the autobiographical and the aesthetic. Her first book, Dragonshadow, was published in 1989. Although this new collection is highly personal in many ways it offers no definitive clues as to what’s happened to the poet in the intervening 24 years. In poems such as “Proof of a Day” and “Profiteroles” there is a hint that alcohol may have had a role but it would seem to have been a more complex and elusive story than that word alone might suggest.
The collection is divided into five parts of which the first two graphically evoke a classically happy Australian rural childhood, near the Hawkesbury River and on the Monaro. Munro’s empathy with animals is evident throughout and she clearly understands that horses (and cats) vary as much in their personalities as humans do.
This talent is felt particularly in poems such as “Wanting” and “The Old Bay Mare” where, in the latter, the poet remembers:
She wouldn’t be caught.
She’d defy, elude me.
In the hundred-acre paddock
we’d have to herd her
from the four-wheel-drive
and even in the yard,
bribe with lumps of sugar. (p.44)
The language here is simple, perhaps overly so, but true also to the experiences described. One sees comparable risks taken at the end of “The Last Summer” where Munro recalls “Climbing out of my own window / after midnight / just to watch the stars.” (p.29) There are times when simple, honest statements like this can seem naive but there are also times when they are the most powerful strategy available. This is one of those occasions i.e. when elemental language does justice to the comparably elemental experience of “watch(ing) the stars”.
The same emphasis on literal description is seen throughout the section, “Cat, My Child” — which, as a whole, with its scrupulously close visual attention and thoughtful speculation, is almost an up-date of Christopher Smart’s famous poem, “For I will consider my Cat Jeffrey”. A nice sense of the section’s mood as a whole, along with some extra metaphoric energy in the middle, can be felt in the second stanza of “The Faint Fragrance of Clean Damp Cat”:
The grey kitten is upstairs
performing his toilette
in the hills and hollows of my unmade bed.
Soon the crumpled sheets will wear
the faint fragrance of clean damp cat.” (p.59)
In the book’s last two sections, Munro moves away from animals and childhood into more problematic areas. They include passing references to alcoholism already mentioned — and a sense, at times, of intense loneliness. The latter is evinced strongly in “From a Suburban Window” (“I sit in my niche by the open window / and listen to the aura of silence — / heater whirring, occasional bird calls, / palms fronds restless in the slight air”) (p.77). The poet’s (or the speaker’s) rather desperate efforts to counter such loneliness with a Christmas party are convincingly evoked in the prose poem, “Profiteroles”, — which concludes:
I’m feeling mild pangs of enthusiasm and it’s so disconcerting and slightly painful to change a mind set. I wonder if two Panadol would help?” (p.73)
Even more forceful, in a different way, are two “set piece” poems at the end of the book, “The Newborn of Ashkelon” and “Love and Despair”. The first is a complex meditation on the recently-discovered bones of baby skeletons (95 % of them male) found in a third century AD Roman sewer under a bath-house/brothel in what is now Israel.
Like “Love and Despair”, a sinister poem about AIDS transmission which follows it, “The Newborn of Ashkelon” is a graphic consideration of issues such as prostitution and infanticide which persist through time and across cultures.
Girls could grow up
in the bath-house and become the next
generations of prostitutes, an investment
by the mother, an insurance against aging. (p.86)
These two pieces make a strong climax to the book — and some readers, including this one, may well wish there had been more of them along the way. They tend to make the poems about cats, horses and childhood, evocative though they are, seem a lead-up to something more powerful and less personal. Perhaps Munro’s third collection will feature more poems which confront such inherently dramatic material — though it’s hardly the reader’s (or reviewer’s) role to be so prescriptive.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra-based poet and critic. He has published twenty-one collections of poetry as well as two novels and five verse novels. His awards include the Grace Leven Prize and the Patrick White Literary Award, among others.
By Margaret Bradstock
Puncher and Wattmann, 2013
ISBN (paperback) 9781922186126 (e-book) 9781922186133
Reviewed by JOHN UPTON
‘You will go back through the quiet bush’, says the eponymous poem in this collection, ‘past Aboriginal middens / rainbow lorikeets nesting / in tree knolls / to the uninhabited beach’ (Barnacle Rock). And during this journey through time and space, the reader encounters a full-length portrait of Australia – geographic, social and moral. The examination is close and critical. The title’s metaphor imagines white settlement and society as a layer of barnacles fastened to this continental rock, and the book explores ecosystems of beach, basalt and brutality. There’s elegance in the writing, freshness in the imagery and pace in the telling, but there’s also heart – Margaret Bradstock cares about Australia, and the direction in which it is headed.
The collection is in five sections, each focused on an aspect of the story: early white contact, settlement and exploration; landform and landscape; a personal suburban life; a closer focus on Sydney’s landscape of water, beach and cliffs, with a lighter tone and a sprinkling of humour; and an enraged protest about the direction of the country and the world with issues such as global warming and the nuclear industry. Bradstock’s favoured free verse trimeter gives past and present a unifying heartbeat. The collection offers a generous 120 pages of poetry and gathers in a busy lifetime’s work and thought.
In the early exploration poems, short lines, vaulting detail and quick dips into historical fact give a pace like a stiff wind behind a clipper ship. Some might argue that these poems are irrelevant to the theme, but they provide a context. An introductory piece ties Marco Polo to Captain Cook, Donald Horne and today’s Bra Boys: ‘Life’s a beach, all right … waves rolling in forever / and the slide of sand. / The “sacred geometry” of ocean’ (Country of Beach). Then we’re back to a Portuguese shipwreck in 1520, and a 1522 map showing a sunfish like ‘a dinner plate with staring eyes / bird’s beak of a mouth / fins like trencher handles’ (Sunfish). There are Dutch traders, British buccaneers, French scientists, and a mad thrust by Captain Cook into Antarctic waters that grimly prefigures a heroic expedition led by Douglas Mawson a century and a half later.
We also encounter convicts in chilling penal conditions: ‘Six months in irons, 100 lashes / for rebelliousness, insolence, refusal to work / the flogger dipping the Cat’s tails in sand’ (Convict Davis, 1824). The rhythm is edging now into five-beats, free verse but based on English poetry’s comfortable pentameter, which emerges fully-fledged in the early Sydney colony of Leichhardt As Headland: ‘Rum, horseracing, cock fights and prize fights – / Sydney’s a city now, known smugglers / and thieves accepted as city councillors’. As the nation matures, Douglas Mawson is in Antarctica, with vivid imagery as ‘Adele penguins confer like tribal elders’, and a line of people is ‘a papercut of small black figurines / in a vast expanse of white-out’ (Mawson: The Heroic Era).The salient detail of big, heroic deeds is rendered in memorable but economical language, understatement reflecting the character of the men involved. Colour and movement were not the issue then, nor are they here.
The second section introduces the Australia of landforms – Glasshouse Mountains, Recherche Bay, Uluru, Katherine township, the mental landscape of Sidney Nolan and Ern Malley – and, interestingly, the language is back in that three-beat free verse pattern that comes, I think, most naturally to Bradstock. The section opens with The Promised Land (p.44), a group of four short poems in which landforms become religious symbols. The second poem, Asylum In Eden, sees the light after thunderheads and wonders: ‘does it pre-empt the covenant / perhaps, or yellowcake? // Asylums offer sanctuary / but quickly become prisons. / Was it like that in Eden / fall upon fall of cages / in a stairway of descent, simulating / the free fall of angels?’
We’re also in Sydney’s geography, with high-rise plate glass windows occupying air once owned by pterodactyls, with black rats jumping ship ‘like absconding sailors’ to introduce bubonic plague, and Barnacle Rock, a 31-line summary of this sweep of history and landform, where ‘A man and his shadow / stride across the skyline / in the footprints of worn sandstone’.
These first two sections account for half of the book. The third section pulls the focus tighter, into ‘the detritus of domesticity’, life in the suburbs where ‘rust never sleeps’ (Patrolling The Balustrade For Rust). The focus upon ‘then’ and ‘now’ moves from broad history to personal memory – journeys to Marseilles, Bali, Vietnam: ‘If you could choose your past / where would it be? / back in the seventies, fifties[?] / … / I climbed the Bridge once … poised on the brink of something / burr of a wingbeat / the city gridlocked beneath us. // We feed coins into the automated / pay station / locate the car’ (Wheel and Turn).
The section ends with two strong pieces on the poet’s father: ‘You hear your dead brothers / calling from a different lifetime / their blackbird voices’ (Ask Not), and‘You drift in and out of memory / in and out of sleep / a receding tide of the river’s delta / … / A foghorn sounds on the river. / Wanting to be gone, you are still here’ (The River).
In the fourth section, the focus is again upon ‘place’, but the lens is set even more tightly – we’re now on Sydney’s beaches and headlands, in and on the water of ‘the glittering city’ (Morning, Bondi Beach). There’s sly wit: ‘Your board stands idle / behind the washing machine / … / another bottom of the harbour scheme’. That wit is on show again in Harbour Tolls Are Changing With the Times as it mourns Slessor in affectionate parody: ‘no ships’ bells or ventricles of light // the harbour flicking over / echoes a machine’s voice / North and South Head // a border crossing now. / You are upside down in the water / words written on the ocean floor’. This poem later suggests the reader ‘google underwater.com.au’. The tone in this section is playful, the happiest in the book. But it’s setting us up for something very different.
The fifth section is a howl of rage, just seven poems, but the lines are longer and the rhythms pound. In the first poem, The Catechism of Loss, nuclear radiation has been loosed upon the world: ‘Lost cities hammer out makeshift plans / the flattened landscape stripped / of its clockwork trappings’. In The Ranger Mine we’re told that for 30 years about 100,000 litres of contaminated water a day has been leaking from the tailings dam into fissures beneath Kakadu. In The Sure Extinction we’re warned that ‘The North Pacific garbage patch / is the graveyard where marine plastics gather / like nylon shirts in the wardrobes of old men’. In Walking in the Wetlands there’s more wonderful rage as she invokes Eliot, flaying the sad, self-centred anguish of Prufrock:
There will be time / before rain lashes against the skin of sea / melding into horizon / time to take in the Picasso exhibition / another journey, a Doris Lessing novel. / Rivers of ice that run forever / tectonic plates that shift and shift again / their earthquakes gathering force / won’t interfere with our idea of Christmas: the chant of carols, / feel-good donations’ (p.112).
The mood softens a little in the final three poems, but the threat is still there. Bees and polar bears struggle in changing environments. ‘Autumn arrives early, while we’re still not done with summer / or summer with us, sending me back to the bay’ (How Large Each Death Will Be). The collection ends with the cycle bending towards another winter: ‘Everything is waiting and still / this tenuous, fragile feeling / like a hand-held soapstone sculpture’ (Mississauga: Spring and Fall).
Because it’s a portrait, this collection limits its scope, forms and style. There aren’t villanelles and technical virtuosity. Thematically, it identifies important and topical issues – climate change, degradation of the land, the value society places on what it has inherited, and what all this means for Australia’s future. It’s a sober balance sheet, and one that isn’t optimistic, but it’s a grown up perspective – gloomy while still relishing life. Margaret Bradstock fulfils the mission of the evangelising poet – to seize and hold the attention of her reader, to fascinate and enlighten, and to address spiritual hunger in a satisfying way.
JOHN UPTON is a theatre critic. His poetry has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, Quadrant, Famous Reporter, Eureka Street and other literary magazines.
An Elegant Young Man
by Luke Carman
Reviewed by ELIZABETH BRYER
Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man, a formally innovative bildungsroman, is composed of eight story cycles set in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs. The shortest of the cycles are the most experimental; these alternate with longer, more structurally conventional ones. The idea of the narrator as a version of the author is foregrounded from the first sentence, when the narrator tells us that his name is Luke.
In the opening story cycle ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ the sentences are short but, given the way they reel from one topic to the next, the effect isn’t to slow the reading down; instead, the sentences come like rapid-fire bursts that pepper the reader from every direction. The collection’s novel-of-education intentions soon become clear: the narrator recounts, in quick succession, different sources of wisdom—certain poets, children’s authors, musicians and films—alongside the often contradictory pearly words themselves, without ever making clear to which of these, if any, he subscribes. Thus there is the sense of the narrator throwing himself into the world, absorbing what comes into his orbit and seeking out whatever catches his interest, but not necessarily settling on anything concrete just yet. There is a breakneck energy, here, the impatience of youth, the feeling of needing to know now, of pushing boundaries and of a constant, insatiable thirst for knowledge. The confusion that is the world—its immensity and its perplexing incongruities—is also highlighted through this structure.
The reader’s narrative expectations are interrupted at every turn. The narrator’s associations are often unpredictable; the story appears to be going in one direction but then heads in another, often in the space between one sentence and the next. It’s worth taking a detailed look at the first five sentences of the second story of ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ to see the considerable degree to which this occurs.
The passage begins: ‘My name’s Luke and sometimes at parties when people ask me what it is that I do I say, “I’m a professional fraud, how ’bout you?” Nobody ever laughs.’ (6) On my first encounter with this opening, I expected it to lead to an exploration of identity, and it does, in a sense, but by way of an unexpected route of association: ‘To be honest I don’t go to a lot of parties.’ The admission comes from left of field and feels somehow dejected, a subdued confession after the previous story’s hyperactive energy, and after the more recent recollection of the narrator’s failed attempt at a party joke. In this way, the change in narrative direction is often accompanied by a change in key in terms of tone and emotive register.
The pattern of unexpected association continues when the next sentence similarly barrels off in a related, but surprising, direction: ‘Y’know I read in the newspaper yesterday that cocaine use has skyrocketed in Sydney despite police efforts.’ The association the reader makes between this sentence and the previous three might be expressed as: OK, so those parties that Luke just admitted to missing out on—this is what must happen at them. The perspective is detached; it reads as a serious consideration from a narrator abreast of current issues. But just in case any of those conclusions start to seem stable or definitive, then comes the next sentence, a humorous, contradictory take on the situation that might also evoke in the reader sympathy towards the narrator and his apparent aloneness: ‘I guess that it’s good to know that somewhere out there people are having fun’.
Throughout this and other stories, the effect of the narrative technique on the reader is as an almost schizophrenic vacillation between chuckling with the narrator, feeling sympathy for him and simply trying to keep up with the associative leaps of his mind, which seems to take in everything at once and to draw unexpected connections. That Carman manages to achieve this tumult of feeling in the space of just a few short sentences is a remarkable feat.
Place is an important feature in all the stories. Geography is, for the protagonist, not separable from its inhabitants. Granville is not Granville unless viewed through his father’s interactions with the world, just as Liverpool is nothing without Niki and Hadie, and Newtown nought without the university-educated creative denizens he meets.
In these and other places, Luke is a keen observer of the several milieus with which he comes into contact, not least because he often struggles to interpret cues and to act in accordance with them, especially when he isn’t comfortable with their implications. On the train from ‘Livo’ to Cronulla, his friends direct lewd comments at girls. He recounts, ‘I tried to join in. I yelled out, “Show us your milk duds.’ Mazzen said, “Bro, that was a mum. Don’t disrespect.” And everyone was disappointed in me’ (43). Later, he mentions how no-one shakes hands in Livo, but slaps palms together or does fist bumps. ‘I didn’t like it. For one thing, I never knew where their hands were gonna go and if you missed it was bad for both of you’ (53).
This awkwardness makes the narrator an ideal, sensitive observer of the kinds of social interactions that might go unremarked in another work of fiction. One of the shorter story cycles begins with musings on irony, on how Luke believes that people shouldn’t be ironic all the time; the droll title of this cycle is, of course, ironic: ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’. One of these interactions is between Luke and a woman in a cafe: she comments on the book he is clutching, The Odyssey, and he is so startled he starts sweating and decides to hide the book under his arm in future. Indeed, the only easy interactions here are the ones Luke shares with his imaginary friend.
The narrator’s navigation of the social landscape often involves a navigation of violence. His aversion to it is at times apparent, such as when Niki throws stones at a streetlight, which sail into the night beyond the fence: ‘Every shot she took made me twitch and I worried about them hitting the cows that were mouthing and moving through the grass.’ (52)
The stories explore the notion of violence as a way of life and as a social ritual tied to class through the lens of Luke’s perplexity. The coming-of-age rituals to which Luke’s father subjects him sometimes involve violence, or the threat of such. The first time Luke meets Niki’s boyfriend he, on opening the door, throws a furious, poorly aimed punch at Luke. When a denim-clad, mohawk-wearing ‘scumbag Aussie’ punches Luke in Cronulla, Luke perceives ‘a strange ceremony going on that I needed to do something about. A ritual was taking place, and I was a major player, but I didn’t know my role. I felt afraid that I wouldn’t make the right moves and the crowd would be disappointed in me.’ (49) Luke is even more perplexed when, after he wins the fight, his attacker puts his arm around him and tells him that, as ‘Aussies’—Anglos—they need to stick together.
The end of the collection sees the narrator fulfil the bildungsroman’s coming of age, which takes the form of a melancholic story cycle that connects Luke, his mother and his brother in a triangle of trying to make do, of attempting to find various ways to invest in life enough to keep on with it despite their keen awareness of ‘the murmur of something gone’ (184) and how easy it would be to ‘go to sleep’ (182). It is an affective ending and has, at its centre, a great poise and calm, in contrast to the frantic beginning of the collection.
But perhaps the heart of Luke’s growth comes in the penultimate cycle, which details his encounters with a number of women. Here, he embarks on a journey to warn a friend that everything he told her was wrong, that Kerouac did not have all the answers: the world is not an ecstatic masterpiece but instead ‘moves from order to disorder just like black holes and middle-class families’ (143). In the sites where Kerouac found meaning and epiphanies there is nothing, at least not here, in this context: ‘in Australia there is no beat to keep’ (145); ‘Australia is not the place for ecstatic truth’ (148). He objects to ‘steamrollers flattening the whole culture’ (147), and it is this bland homogenisation, this imitation of idols and ideologies formulated for other times and faraway lands that is key here. It seems Carman has responded to Luke’s agitated realisation: both speaker and author have delivered a work that’s far from derivative or affected, and speaks to and from this country in a way we have rarely seen before.
By Maria Takolander
Reviewed by PRITHVI VARATHARAJAN
We are fascinated, as a culture, with doubles and doppelgängers. This fascination is evident in our collective cultural consciousness: in our art. Think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the protagonist stays forever youthful, and able to indulge in sensual decadence, while his locked-up portrait grows hideous and progressively older with each sin he commits. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century science fiction is populated by doubles in the form of clones, in stories and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro, among many others. And there are several films that present doubles as uncanny or disturbing, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent Solaris and Duncan Jones’ more recent Moon. From a few of these examples it seems that, at least in art, it’s when we seedoubles together—such as in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, whena young boy turns a corner in a remote and supposedly abandoned hotel, and encounters a pair of identical twin girls, holding hands, in a picture of perfect symmetry—that we’re gripped by a sense of the uncanny, of something not quite right, even vaguely terrifying. This sense of the uncanny, as something not quite right, is notably absent from performative but non-artistic contexts: in Elvis Presley impersonators, for instance, or in the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, who were part of a nineteenth-century travelling circus. While such doubles may strike us as curious, they rarely provoke the sense of dread that accompanies literary and filmic portrayals of the double.
Maria Takolander’s The Double is named after a novella by Dostoevsky, published in Russian as Dvoynik. Dvoynik is the story of a Mr. Goliadkin, a lowly titular councillor who lives alone in St. Petersburg and talks in a roundabout and deferential way that reflects his extreme timidity. Goliadkin consults his doctor, who tells him to be more outgoing, and advocates forcefully, “you need to reorganize your whole life radically and in some sense break your character” (12). Soon afterwards, Goliadkin is standing forlornly in the rain and snow, following an episode in which he—completely out of character—gate crashes an aristocratic ball and is evicted in disgrace. The mortified Mr. Goliadkin now wants “not only to escape from himself, but to annihilate himself completely” (44). What follows is the story of an opposite Mr. Goliadkin—a bold, cruel, and cunning Mr. Goliadkin—who comes into being and slowly insinuates himself into the first Mr. Goliadkin’s life. The story is full of a dreamy uncertainty about what is actually happening at any time (“he, ladies and gentlemen, is also here, that is, not at the ball, but almost at the ball” (34)), and implausible events that nevertheless feel inevitable. Mr. Goliadkin’s reality is unstable—I’m tempted to say “dreamlike,” but the story ought not to be reduced to a dream—and full of multiple doublings and mirrorings; these produce a pervasive sense of uncanniness and dread in the story.
Takolander’s The Double isn’t exclusively about doubles and doppelgängers, but it has the eerie foreboding of Dostoevsky’s tale. This sense of foreboding springs partly from structural doublings, from inexplicable repetitions that occur in both Dostoevsky’s Dvoynik and in the stories that make up Takolander’s The Double (Takolander may have learnt to double in poetry, which revels in repetition: she’s an acclaimed poet and essayist, and this is her début book of fiction). However, some of the stories in The Double—most notably the Roānkin sequence in part two—are also characterised by an extremely playful whimsy that’s opposite in spirit to Dostoevsky’s Dvoynik.
The Double is comprised of one large section, containing eight stories including the title story, “The Double,” and a smaller section, containing four interlinking stories centred on the fantastical character Zed Roānkin. A foreboding mood infuses the stories in the first section, while the second section is characterised by playfulness, bordering on absurdity, but these moods sometimes bleed into each other. The first section features stories that are doubles of other stories, stories which revel in inter-textuality. Their titles are suggestive of this: “The Red Wheelbarrow;” “Three Sisters;” “The Double;” The Obscene Bird of Night;” “Mad Love;” “Paradise Lost;” “The Interpretation of Dreams;” and “The War of the Worlds.” Takolander’s interest in inter-textuality is a distinguishing feature of her work. It also underpins her second collection of poetry, Ghostly Subjects.
Many of the stories in the first part of The Double are about migrants, and feature barren, almost gothic landscapes, tinged with melancholy—though it’s hard to generalise, as the stories are quite different to each other. But, in general, there is a lot of oppressive silence (“the windmill clunked, and then its wheel began to churn. It was more noise than he had ever heard out here” (130-31)); stark corporeal imagery; strained romantic relationships; and occasional violence. Takolander is adept at portraying family scenes that are imbued with a quiet drama, but she can just as adeptly portray the dramatic in a quiet but arresting way, such as in “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Along with structural doublings and mirrors, which turn up in a few stories, men are doubled or paired, in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Mad Love.” Both of these stories feature an undesired man that a female character is married to, and another man or boy who represents what her lover could be. In “The Red Wheelbarrow” there is a disinterested, violent father and an interested, loving son, who cares for his mother after an episode of violence. These scenes are charged with an unexplained eroticism:
Kneeling on the linoleum floor in front of her, I started cleaning the protruding thumb with the damp clump of paper. I noticed the breasts and nipples under the threadbare cotton of the nightie, and I saw that her lean thighs were smeared with blood. Her face, curtained by her hair, was streaked with tears. (6)
The most significant doubles in the first section—significant for being actual rather than metaphorical—occur in the title story, “The Double,” where a man encounters another who looks exactly like him. His wife, meanwhile, keeps recalling a doubling that occurred in Finland, before she migrated to Australia; both man and woman are haunted by the memories of these doublings.
The mode of storytelling is varied, and Takolander switches dextrously between male and female points of view, and third, second and first person narration. The intermittent second person address in “Three Sisters” felt like an experiment, but a successful one (“Do you see the derelict cottage out back? Three sisters live there” (31)). “The Obscene Bird of Night” was an unexpected delight: it features an eerie urban landscape, comprised of inanimate objects that speak to the narrator, in the manner of a surreal children’s story:
‘Help me,’ the fire had called, trying to make itself seen through the sooty glass.
The man hesitated in the hall. He should have gone in to feed it another log. The cold, after all, was something they all had to contend with.
‘Why bother?’ said the night, pressing its weight against the kitchen window. (87)
However, the more conventionally realistic stories in this section (“Mad Love,” “The Interpretation of Dreams”) are also the strongest. Put another way, Takolander is masterful when she returns to portraying an everyday reality, having exercised her imagination on the uncanny. The weakest story by far is “Paradise Lost,” a post-apocalyptic scenario featuring a somewhat paranoid narrator, which lacked movement, in the absence of dialogue or any other character interactions.
The book’s second section, on the elusive Zed Roānkin, abandons the forebodingly uncanny and revels in the hilariously absurd. These stories are also where the double is most powerfully present: Roānkin haunts these episodic and interwoven stories as the poet-philosopher that the narrators recoil from, aspire to be, and eventually become. His nonsensical but strangely compelling ideas, expounded in a little pamphlet titled The Roānkin Philosophy of Poetry, are worshipped for their “realness”: but he is a grotesque fabrication, and mirrors the other characters’ own self-fabrications. These stories are about pretension and fakery, particularly in the world of poetry; this is underlined by the other book that keeps turning up in the stories: Workplace Fraud.
This is a fine collection of short stories, both jarring and pleasurable to read, from a wonderfully novel imagination. Takolander wrote her PhD thesis on South American magical realism, and subsequently published a book of literary criticism titled Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground. The Double certainly has elements of magical realism in it—most strongly in the Roānkin sequence—and these are grounded, so to speak, in the figure of the double. Doubling here is not only an event but also a structural mechanism for blurring the lines, in fiction, between the real, the unreal, the surreal, and the magical.
Clarke, Arthur C. Imperial Earth. London: Gollancz, 1975. Print.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Double and The Gambler. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. 1846. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. London: Faber & Faber, 1989. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Nine Lives.” The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.
Moon. Dir. Duncan Jones. Stage 6, 2009. Film.
Solaris. Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Visual Program Systems, 1972. Film.
Takolander, Maria. Ghostly Subjects. Cambridge: Salt, 2009. Print.
—. Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.
The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick.Peregrine, 1980. Film.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Mighall, Robert. 1890. London: Penguin, 2006.
PRITHVI VARATHARAJAN is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, and a freelance producer of radio programs for ABC Radio National’s Poetica. His reviews have been published in Australian Book Review and Islet, and his poetry and prose have been published in Island, Meanjin and Voiceworks.
Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow & My Family
by Gabrielle Carey
ISBN 978 0 7022 4992 1
Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND
The quest memoir, poorly defined as a genre, is an ancient form with roots, most likely, in pre-literate times. Briefly, it is a narrative, told usually in the first person, of the progress of a quest. The protagonist sets out to find something or someone and, after the search is over, tells an audience what happened along the way. A peculiarity of the form is that failure often figures as a peril of the quest and, paradoxically, part of its successful outcome. This sounds more enigmatic than it is: a gatherer who sets out in search of yams and comes back with bush tomatoes has both failed and succeeded; so has a hunter who goes after kangaroo and comes back with nothing at all: each will still have a story to tell. The success/failure axis of the quest, and the uncertainty it presupposes, is one of the driving forces of narrative in this form of non-fiction; and the multiple outcomes it proposes make, often enough, for literature that is both flexible and engaging; sometimes very moving too.
Thus, the protagonist of a quest memoir does not necessarily find what s/he is looking for; but might find something else. The form is adaptable and capacious and requires of its reader absolute trust in the narrative voice. There is no place here, and no point to, the unreliable narrator. Self examination, however, is very much of the essence and in this respect quest memoir has strong affinities with memoir in its standard form; but has a different relation to time than either the standard memoir or its near cousin, autobiography. Although it can take the form of a chronological account, it does not need to and frequently does not. In sophisticated hands a quest memoir may more resemble a work of fiction; you may not ever know quite what is coming next and its time chart might look more like a mosaic or a collage than a progression.
Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers is a quest memoir with just such a complex, mosaic, time structure. It is also a quest that in some respects fails to achieve its objective; but in that failure discovers other things. She tells her story with grace, delicacy and precision. And with a kind of circumspection that is, to use a by now almost obsolete word, mannerly. This quality, this reticence, is not simply characteristic of the writing in Moving Among Strangers, it is one of the themes of the book; and, inter alia, a virtue possessed by its principal subject, the writer Randolph Stow. Carey writes several times of the old virtues, of which reticence is one; others include simple good manners, respect for the privacy of others, quiet observation without the need to proclaim the results of that observation; and the ability to withhold judgment, not just for a year and a day but over the course of an entire lifetime. As the quest memoir might fail and yet thereby attain paradoxical success, these old virtues may be seen as a set of negatives which, to use a photographic metaphor, when properly developed show up as incontrovertible positives.
Gabrielle Carey has, as we say, always known there was some kind of family connection between her mother’s people and the Stows but has never investigated it fully—until now. The book opens with her mother beginning to die of cancer, a process that will take three weeks. A week into that brief period of exit, Carey brings her mother an anthology of Randolph Stow’s writing and is astonished when she, who has apparently ceased to be able to read, delivers a near perfect recitation of her favourite Stowe poem called, appropriately enough, ‘For One Dying’: Now, in that place where all birds cease to sing . . . Carey tries to persuade her mother to write to her old friend, then living in England, but she will not. In the end, the author writes herself and so initiates a brief correspondence which initiates the quest that animates the rest of the book: that is, a search for the hidden connections between her mother, Jean Carey, neé Ferguson, and her rather younger confrère, Randolph ‘Mick’ Stow.
It is not my intention to detail the stages of this quest, which is various and strange and leads the author far afield—to Western Australia, where she meets or re-meets multiple among her lost and/or forgotten relatives, from both sides of her family; and to England where, under an oak sapling in Wrabness Wood outside the village of Harwich in Suffolk, she visits Randolph Stow’s grave. For by this time, before they have had a chance to meet or even to talk upon the telephone, he too has died: one of the most poignant missed connections in this quest is a result of Carey’s failure to notice the telephone number written at the bottom of the page of one of Stow’s letters to her until it is too late to call. When she returns from the furthest of these pilgrimages, there is another death, the third, this time that of her older sister, with whom she has, somewhat fractiously, nursed their dying mother in the earliest stages of the book.
In some respects, then, the book cannot help but become a meditation upon dying. And, concomitantly, a meditation upon what is lost to us with the death of those who are close to us, whom we have known or loved, admired or respected. Carey’s accomplishment here is two-fold: while on the one hand she expertly notes the gaps in memory that can never be filled, the personal information that was stored only in someone’s mind, and then imperfectly, the documentary traces that were too insignificant or too troubling to be preserved; on the other she uncovers a rich cast of living characters who by their palpable presence on the page, bring back much that seemed irretrievable and add more that was not known before. I refer here not only to the rediscovered extended family in WA but also to Stow’s friends in Suffolk who do so much to fill out his portrait.
That portrait is, for me, the central achievement of this book. Again, it is deft and economical, elegant and intricate: accomplished as much by omission as by inclusion. There’s a kind of tact involved here which is supremely important in this kind of writing: you are going to have to speculate but, by the same token, there are few things more tiresome than an author who speculates too much. Those texts infected with might-have-beens and would-have-beens, perhapses and of courses, only serve to erode the reader’s trust in the authorial voice. Here we have something almost opposite: it is Carey’s refusal to speculate that somehow allows Stow, that silent man, a voice. Here, again, it’s the negatives that develop a positive that is far more convincing than any speculative portrait might have been.
Her refusal to speculate also allows Stow to preserve his privacy, which was evidently of great importance to him as a man and as an author; he remains an enigma to the end. There were just eight novels, five of them written before their author turned forty; a handful of poems, again mostly written in the first half of his working life; a few other heterogeneous works, including libretti and children’s books. The latter part of his life, which was spent in England, living quietly in that part of the country from which his English ancestors came, produced just three books: the twinned Visitants and The Girl Green as Elderflower; and the last book, called The Suburbs of Hell, published in 1984. For the next quarter century, until his death in 2010, Stow published nothing.
Silence in a writer is provocative: witness the swirl of conjecture that still surrounds the author of The Catcher in the Rye. More recently, in the plethora of books that have come out to mark the centenary of the birth of William Burroughs, we have his own startling testimony: that he believed an evil spirit entered him at the time in the 1940s when he shot his wife dead; and that his literary career was a sustained attempt, ultimately successful, to exorcise this demon. Stow is a very different writer from Burroughs but it does seem that in his case, too, there was a need for the kind of exorcism that writing can accomplish; and when he had said what was in him to say, or what his daemon required of him, he was content simply to live. His conflicted relationship with his home country was certainly one of the engines of his writing and it is quite possible that it was only by leaving all that behind that he could attain a modicum of happiness in his personal life. Carey’s evocation of Stow’s last years, courtesy of his English friends, is exquisitely modulated and very moving, intimate even as it leaves Stow’s essential privacy intact.
Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers is a relatively short book, beautifully designed and presented by the University of Queensland Press, in which the strangers of the title turn imperceptibly into friends or, at the very least, acquaintances; a quest which does not achieve its aim and yet somehow manages to illuminate its subject in such a way that we as readers feel, howsoever briefly, that the unknown may yet be known; an evocative, highly descriptive, journey to places as far apart as the dusty coasts of south western Australia are from the green shade of a Suffolk village; most of all, a foray to the edges of that undiscovered borne from which no traveller returns.
Near the end of the book is a section which is rather like the old rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built’, summarising the path of incident and co-incidence that made up her quest. Then, in a lovely paragraph that begins: This, then, is what I have learned about the dead . . . she writes her conclusion. There is a profound sense here that it is in conversation with the dead we most become ourselves: something that pre-literate peoples have always believed. I kept thinking of the words of a Warren Zevon song, from his late album, Life’ll Kill Ya, itself a kind of quest memoir, and written within sight of his own early death. The refrain suggests: we take that holy ride ourselves to know. It is a holy ride that Carey takes and, on the evidence of the book’s ending, increased self-knowledge was a consequence; as well as an understanding of the beguiling phenomenon of the effervescence of elderflower wine. For readers there is something more: an insight into the mystery at the heart of a writer’s vocation.
MARTIN EDMOND is an author, poet, screenwriter who teaches at UWS. His awards include the Jessie Mackay Award and the Montana Book Award. He lives in Sydney.
Brenda Saunders is a Sydney poet of Aboriginal and British descent. She has published three collections of poetry, her most recent, The Sound of Red (Ginninderra Press, 2013). Her work has also featured in anthologies and journals and was included in Best Australian Poems 2013 (Black Inc.) In 2013 she was awarded a Resident Fellowship to CAMAC Arts Centre in France where she worked translating into her poetry into French.
He’s suddenly there on a platform at Central.
With a voice like a teacher, he bends to ask.
Where are you going today, my dear?
What is he saying? He’s leaning too close
long teeth, chin, a grey fedora.
I think of red-riding hood, ‘stranger danger’.
Spittle gathers at the edge of his mouth
I say nothing, wondering will he bite?
I’m taking the train to Grandma’s I say.
But we’re not in the woods and I don’t have
a basket, so I show my schoolbag, just in case.
And who are these ladies? he cries even louder,
Watching my Aunties, dark hands holding mine.
He’s eyeing our faces, from one to the other
Waiting in silence, to find an answer.
Everything’s still, but they don’t say a word.
Their eyes look down to the dusty ground.
Searching for something they fear they’ve lost.
As he turns away, he yells to the crowd.
Never can tell with these Abos today,
mixing the blood will lead to disaster.
I don’t understand, but I hear the threat, feel
the pain in familiar faces. I look around
reading the signs. Anxious to find a new way out.
I met her at the lights with her plastic bags
food bought at Woollies
with a Salvo’s card
making for the taxis on Pitt and Park
She’s used to cabbies, knows the drill
never mentions high-rise
The Block or Waterloo
Goes to the first one waiting in line
Calls through the window
asks ‘Are you free?’
Waits, as he looks up from the ‘Form’
Suspecting trouble, he hedges his bets
says he’s booked
The man in a Silver Cab examines
his windscreen, has no answer
to her open smile
her missing teeth counted against her
It’s clear round three is up to me
I demand a ride from a waiting cab
while she dumps her stuff
and jumps inside
‘I’ve got their numbers, I’ll follow through’
I yell to the street, as she moves away
Her strong voice trails a defiant response
‘I always ring, but it don’t change nothin’
Same old story with this black skin’
Joel Ephraims lives on the South-East Coast of NSW. He studies creative writing, philosophy, and literature at the University of Wollongong. In 2011 he won the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and in 2013 his chapbook of poetry, Through The Forest was published as part of Australian Poetry and Express Media’s New Voices Series.
Vipassana Frog Pond after Meditation and Dawn
Dragonflies synch in misted dawn air
around mutated fingers of a dried dog turd white ash
tree; through the hyperbola your tea cup
spoon-end makes with the unseeablely starlight lipped sun.
Pond new birthed as a biologist stirred mid-dream,
usual as his motions vacuuming up fondue fountain crumbs.
Lilies lie green Pac-men recovering nonchalantly
from heavy drinking with mouths still open for ghosts.
Ripple of rain’s pear explosions programmed
by Blue Mountain weather intermittent in petroleum
tinctured water where larvae by gradations form.
All ghosts long eaten their eyes hover in room at bottom
unseen by orange fish mothers amongst their eggs.
Frogs reincarnated Pali teachers sing final chorus chants
echoing morning pond before Nirvana incognito;
Pac-men power pellet nourished drift over digesting sankharas.
On wooden tree walk rail your elbow crooked
player’s hand splayed toward clock and hushed breakfast hall…
Anicca Anicca Anicca…
Breakfast in the Hall of Shadows
blue blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
blue blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
attentions tune to metamorphosis of steams
mists movements of underworld personalities
lugubrious gods unravelling vista hides
raisins rice grains floating volcanic islets
mirage filmed tongues oasis held spoons
curling yogurts water machine clarity
sighing form behind green mesh glides
melody of beasts burning in nestled forests
blue blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
blue blue blue blue blue blue blue blue
The Question of Red
by Laksmi Pamuntjak
Gramedia Pustaka, 2013
Reviewed by JENNIFER MACKENZIE
From where she was standing, on the backyard of the hospital, the only objects she could make out were the parts chosen by the dying light. Idlehorse carts, bamboo bushes deep in sleep, an abandoned pile of buckets. She walked on, into a garden that suddenly opened up, ending in a tight barricade of trees. She heard the slapping of wings as birds tried to sneak into pockets of warmth amid the leaves. She could hear the gentle snap of twigs and their descent to the ground. There was nobody around. Then she saw a flash of light, a strange sheen from the direction of the thicket of the trees. It refracted through the landscape infusing it with sadness. Strangely it was the colour blue.
Later, Amba would learn that Bhisma had never taken colours for granted. He would ask her endlessly about how she perceived different hues, listening intently to her descriptions, whether a poetic burst about a sunset or a reflection on a fruit as banal as the aubergine. When she finally understood the reason for this rich strangeness it would be too late: he would be long gone. For now, she walked toward that light. (181)
Colour is central, as we may ascertain from the English title of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red (Amber in the Indonesian edition). The novel was launched at the Ubud Festival in October last year and colour glows with symbolic resonance over the surface of the narrative. In the passage quoted above, Amba is walking towards a light, which in its portentousness, will be the occasion of irrevocable change. But if it is the colour blue which appears to signify the embodiment of love, it is the colour red which appropriates and dominates, a volatile red broadcasting the dangerous, unpredictable and bloody world of revolutionary Indonesia in the 1960’s. And it is red, with all these connotations as we will come to understand, which the colour-blind Bhisma is unable to perceive, which will separate the doomed lovers, Amba and Bhisma.
The Question of Red is in part a bildungsroman set in an era of political turbulence. A young girl, Amba, fulfils her dream to study at university, rejects her devoted suitor Salwa, and has a brief passionate love affair with Bhisma, a worldly doctor educated in Europe. Parallels are drawn, a little heavy handedly, with characters of similar names and destinies as in the classic tale of the Mahabharata. There appears to be no irony in the depiction of Amba’s father, Sudarminto, bestowing the fate of the name upon his daughter. The Question of Red tells the multi-vocal story of Amba and Bhisma’s love affair, which begins in a hospital in Kediri in East Java, and is played out in two short weeks, amidst the violent days surrounding the attempted coup and Suharto’s coming to power in 1966. Leaving the hospital Bhisma, who has left-wing sympathies, travels to Jogjakarta to treat a dangerously wounded revolutionary, accompanied by the apolitical Amba, a naïve student of literature at Universitas Gajah Mada. Significantly out of her depth and struggling to maintain the emotional thread to her lover, she is separated from him by the bombing of a protest rally they are attending, and never sees him again. Some years later, Bhisma is transported to the island of Buru, the notorious camp set up for political prisoners by the Suharto regime. When the novel begins Amba, now in her early sixties and having received a mysterious e-mail, travels there to discover his fate. The strength of The Question of Red lies very much in its evocation of place and mood. Changes in village life show traditional social structures being overtaken by new political agendas and a hardening of attitudes by an increasingly divided populace employing intense and heated rhetoric no matter what their political persuasion. Engaged to Salwa, but troubled by his undemonstrative devotion, Amba moves to Jogjakarta and at first her studies go well. Campus life is fondly described.
However, political strife both distracts and impedes her studies. To break the impasse, she takes the rash step of journeying to strife-torn Kediri to help out in the hospital office where she meets Bhisma. Bhisma has been working in the hospital where victims of communal conflict are brought in daily, and he has been treating patients of every political colour. But the properties of colour, the question of colour for him “can be a problem …I have to guess the colour by its light. I can’t tell if the berets worn by the soldiers who come to the hospital are red or green!” (227) Fundamentally, colour-blindness leaves Bhisma exposed, both politically and personally, as it compromises his capacity to clearly read signs of danger. It was on the third day of October when news came through that PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) leader Aidit had fled to Jogjakarta. At this point, Bhisma and Amba are drawn into the conflict.
The scenes in Jogjakarta are particularly well-drawn by Pamuntjak, as she conveys the volatility and crisis-charged behaviour of the revolutionaries. She also convincingly portrays the action of people attempting to retain some kind of normalcy through this situation. Bhisma takes Amba to an artist colony which he considers ‘safe’, a place raided by soldiers a few days later. Amba, desperately clinging to her love for Bhisma, Is shown choosing clothes as if she is going to a party, deciding on a red blouse as a suitable item to wear to the ill-fated rally, a choice which has tragic consequences for both of them.
The novel portrays locations vividly and incorporates key historical events without weighing down the narrative. With much sensitivity, Pamuntjak describes the response of a local man, Samuel, to Buru post-prison:
It is the afternoon. Amba and Samuel are sitting on the stone seats beneath an assembly of trees in a schoolyard in the village of Walgan … He [Samuel] sees anew how pretty the school is. Banana trees line the outer walls, while inside the courtyard is hedged by a row of duku and turi, and a durian tree. The sense of prison has gone, now its fences and borders resemble nothing of the Buru that raised Samuel. But at the back, where pinang, aren and tall grass spill out uncontrollably far into idle land, the school suddenly looks endangered and vulnerable, for there it is no longer sheltered under a signage, no longer fenced in. (64)
The scene suggests the absence of Bhisma, the silence emanating from many untold stories and the crisis to which Samuel is a witness. Pamuntjak is at her best conveying place, from village life to Jogjakarta, from Buru to the Jakarta art world.
Being a large rather unwieldy novel encompassing many time-frames and a large number of characters and settings, the book’s main difficulty lies with characterisation, a difficulty which could have been effectively addressed with astute editing. The narrative would have sparkled with the elimination of certain sub-plots; for example, the story of Samuel merely diffuses rather than encapsulates the intensity of Amba’s search for Bhisma. In the English version reviewed here there is also a problem with register, with the occasional colloquialism and anachronism having a jarring effect. In regard to characterisation, it is difficult to reconcile the early portrait of Amba with the woman viewed by Samuel, and pointedly, by Amba and Bhisma’s daughter, Srikandi, with the shift from interiority to appraisal being quite unsuccessful. The depiction of Amba growing up as a mild rebel in a fairly conventional family of wise father, thwarted mother and empty-headed sisters is followed by an extended piece delineating her insecurities in relationship to Bhisma, and this lengthy piece works against the image of her as a strong and independent woman, the version which the reader is supposed to accept. The reduction of this depiction of insecurity would have strengthened the novel considerably. The idealisation of male figures in Amba’s life is also something of a weakness, a problem that is somewhat addressed through the forthright character of Srikandi. There are also unexplained absences in the plot. It is not clear why Bhisma did not attempt to find Amba in the years following the coup, and for Amba to excuse her lack of action as due to a sense of unworthiness, is rather exasperating as issome of the second-guessing going on with various plot tie-ups. These deficiencies significantly reduce the impact of Bhisma’s Buru letters to Amba.
Despite these problems with plot and characterisation, The Question of Red is at its best in presenting the days prior to the Indonesian holocaust of 1966, and in its sense of the personal tragedies it brought to so many, when the country’s dream of freedom and independence lost all colour and was reduced to ashes. It is from this perspective that we can view a scene late in the book when Srikandi, daughter of colour-blind Bhisma, at her exhibition opening, is asked why there is so much red in her work:
I grew up with red you see, it has been the colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing: Communism, and I understood how that made us all fear it… At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red – ruby, scarlet, vermillion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon, and I knew the power of each of those names. And for that I have my mother to thank. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.” (332/3)
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge 2009) reprinted in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012)
Two Sharp, Sydney,
Darkening, Conflicting, Yearning, Struggling and twisting.
Neither did I have strong ‘Aussie’ coffee;
Nor walk to the hill growing a gumtree.
I suspect myself being sick.
Lost my soul,
Spelt “scapegoat” wrong into “space-goat”
I cried for home.
He came from the unlocked backyard door,
And straight to my kitchen,
When I was standing still in the rented roof,
Suddenly prepared to salute:
For he is the general of this foreign land,
I am the stranger who is prepared to intrude.