Michele Seminara reviews Fixing the Broken Nightingale by Richard Allen

Fixing the Broken Nightingale

Richard Allen

Flying Island Books (2013)

Reviewed by MICHELE SEMINARA

Fixing the Broken Nightingale, Richard Janes Allen’s tenth poetry collection, is a small treasure of a book – one you might pop into your bag and dip into at idle moments for bursts of inspiration, contemplation or solace. Indeed, the physical design of the book (it’s part of Flying Island’s petite Australian Pocket Poets Series) recalls a more romantic time when poetry was indeed carried and savoured in this way; while the title – evoking Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – suggests that similar themes of mortality, bliss, suffering and the power of words to save us will be explored.

Allen’s background as a yoga teacher and the influence of eastern spiritual traditions are immediately obvious in this collection, which is divided into five sections plus an epilogue and a prologue – where we are invited to ‘Step with me now’ into an ‘eternal moment’, one which paradoxically ‘cannot last forever’. The poet begins by deftly exploring the ‘insanity’ which we are ‘indigenous to’ (21) – the ‘Natural Disasters’, as the first section of the book is entitled. Here we are presented with small, humanistic disasters – spider-webs that entangle us, broken glass waiting to slash our tyres – in a series of glistening vignettes which explore how our everyday moments and actions are interrelated. In the whimsical poem ‘how many umbrellas or love letters’, the poet muses on the fate of his lost umbrellas, imagining that

                                                                                                 … these
randrom forgetfulnesses may have been the major contribution of my
life, popping up in the lives of others like the tips of islands emerging
in a world where the sea levels are actually dropping to save beautiful
but bedraggled shipwrecked wayfarers in a lost play by a man still
named Bill.

It seems that in Allen’s interconnected world there is no option of remaining separate, and what first pulls the speaker out of the illusion of himself and into the ‘connection’ he longs for is love; or perhaps, more accurately, intercourse (in the fullest sense of the word). In ‘Perils of Unfindability’, the speaker fears that if he fails to hold back his heart ‘a seismic event / of epic proportions’ may seep through ‘every corner of the eco-system of my life’. But of course, it will anyway, and in the second section, ‘Unanswered Questions’, the inside and the outside merge – ‘I was vibrating / inside / your room’ (37) – as boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are probed:

I feel like
I have lost something
and am wondering
if I’ll find it
inside you
I am hoping
a part of me
will find it
somewhere in the waters
of you

(‘13 Acts of Unfulfilled Love’)

Here the poet, as spiritual seeker, searches for the source of eternal bliss, actualising a temporary nirvana through the union of male and female (a method reminiscent, once again, of Eastern spiritual traditions).

Moving us further into territory that is both Keatsian and Eastern in flavour, the third section of the book, ‘Occasional Truths’, explores themes of ageing, change, loss and death. The poems here focus in and out on moments in space / time that are always happening ‘now’; everything is viewed as being in a state of flux and interconnection. A standout poem, ‘Kokoda’, functions as a type of poetic ‘breathing meditation’, with Allen using the breath (as it is used in yogic practise), to yoke us to the only time, the ‘now’:

I breathe in          this moment is
the same as any other

I breathe out        beneath every action, every situation,
the sameness of the moment

The same breath, and technique, is also used to unite us to each other:

I breathe in         we are the same
my moment is your moment
your breath is my breath
my blood is your blood

I breathe out       all that separates us
is the illusion of time
the illusion of life
the illusion of death

Similarly, ‘Abiding’, the final poem in this section, resembles a classic Buddhist meditation in which one visualises oneself surrounded by all living beings (whilst cultivating a view of separation as a mere matter of perspective), in an attempt to equalise the strength of one’s feelings towards others.

It’s as if those who you knew
are in the foreground,

and those who you knew about
are in the middle ground

and those who you didn’t know
are in the background.

And that’s everywhere
you look.

For a book so concerned with the spiritual, it is interesting that not until the fourth section, ‘Flickering Enlightenment’, is the term ‘God’ explicitly used, with God’s ‘fragile’ people presented as ‘vessels / For the pouring / Of the spirit’ (81). In ‘A Poem For Other People / As I Have No Doubts Or Regrets’, one feels that the poet is experiencing his ‘dark night of the soul’, as he explores aspects of the human psyche which ‘wake you in the middle of the night’. Now, in this poetic search for ultimate meaning, the poems become less visceral, more subtle, as we head toward the ‘borders’ beyond which words cannot take us:

Here it is.                              The final gate.
When you pass this gate                  no one will know
that you’ve passed this gate             or where you’ve gone
and soon it will be forgotten                 that you ever existed.

(‘Armistace’)

As with so many of the poems in this collection, here, in ‘Armistice’, the unusual layout of the poem expresses physically what words cannot: as the words become sparser and sparser, they frame the negative space through which the poet seeks to disappear. This technique is taken even further in the disappearing poem, ‘Chimera’, where words –

like a kind of heavy water that must be
        evaporated leaving only a mist
            with no more substance
                than the wisps
                      of a

– are abandoned all together. Like a spiritual teacher attempting to point the way to liberation, the poet strives to articulate that which is beyond conception and therefore cannot be expressed through the conceptual tool of words. This is a conundrum Allen solves to great effect by manipulating the physical form of the poems on the page; perhaps his background as a dancer is also at play here.

Finally however, Allen, like Keats in ‘Nightingale’, must return from his flight of fancy to the realm of the mortal, and in the last section of the book, ‘A Scheme for Brightness’, he does so, but is left asking, in ‘The Neverness of Speech’, what is the point of speaking, striving, when:

… love
vibrates at a frequency
outside of the range

of what we
normally can hear.

The answer emerges in ‘A Scheme for Brightness’, a bird-shaped poem whose form suggests that Allen is flying on both Keats’s ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ and the dual wings of compassion and wisdom said to be necessary for reaching enlightenment. Here, the speaker, having had everything ‘stolen’, his identity stripped so that ‘It is hard to say what remains’, sits ‘on the edge of infinity’ searching for something to make him ‘believe that the / human race is worthwhile after all’. Having mentally travelled to the furthest corners of the universe, Allen now returns to his normal consciousness, his desire to connect, through words, calling him back – in the Epilogue – to the ‘Forgotten Nectar in the Sleeper’s Cave’: ‘I will wake up to poetry once more’ he proclaims, because ‘In this dark, my only candles are – the poets’(105).

This grand poetic quest for unity, for connection, now ends – as another poetic great, T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, told us it must – ‘where we started’, in a return to the union of male and female, in:

… the memory of our first kiss
that moment
when we tasted
in that wet and sparkling fuse
in that dewy firecracker
a few flashing drops
from the blazing river of the Soul

(‘Forgotten Nectar in the Sleeper’s Cave’)

While poetry cannot offer salvation, it can, Allen suggests, offer solace. The ‘Nightingale’ may be broken, yet like the poet, he still sings, and perhaps his song is all the more beautiful for being fractured.
  

MICHELE SEMINARA is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in SeizureBluepepperTincture JournalRegime and Verity La. She is managing editor for Verity La.

Paul Giffard-Foret reviews The Other Shore by Hoa Pham

the-other-shore-cover-192x300The Other Shore

by Hoa Pham

Seizure/XOUM

ISBN 978-1-922057-96-9

Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET


The Diasporic Unconscious

‘…scattered to the winds
Are the seeds of my good heart
Each branching connected to the source
To see with the eyes of compassion…’

(Epigraph, The Other Shore)

I have previously reviewed in this magazine recent Asian Australian fiction whose authors increasingly depart from archetypal diasporic tales with a theos (origin: Asia) and a telos (destination: Australia). Michelle Aung Thin’s The Monsoon Bride (2011), Merlinda Bobis’s Fish-Hair Woman (2011), Lily Chan’s Toyo (2012) as well as Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore (2014), are all concerned chiefly with Asia – its history, but also its contemporary societies. To what extent, thus, may we still consider those novels Asian Australian, or Australian at all? Although some of these writers may object to such labels, the imaginary space of “Asian Australia” in particular remains useful in situating – and anchoring – Australia in the Asian Century. This constitutes an attempt at “provincialising” Australia, not so much vis-à-vis the geographically distant West, but vis-à-vis its regional neighbours, with respect to whom Australia has retained a sense of exceptionalism (not to say superiority). As Olivia Khoo concurs, one must now reach an “understanding [of] Asian Australian identities and communities within regional and transnational contexts.” (461)

The Other Shore re-views superficial Orientalist pulp fiction about Asia designed to elicit in the reader a domesticated sense of frisson through the conjuration of phantasmagoric characters – spies, double agents, war heroes, reporters, natives in need of salvation, corrupt, despotic leaders and “sexotic”, easily available Eastern women. Here, Pham’s narrative is about trauma and its implications. Kim Nguyen, the first-person female protagonist, is a sixteen years old teenager recruited as a psychic by the Vietnamese government to identify the bones of people dead during the Vietnam War: soldiers, Americans, children, civilians. Those remains (restes) must be laid down to rest and returned to their family for the past to be exorcised, mourned and buried once and for all. This past also involves Kim’s family: “In our house many people died, but all of Viêt Nam bleeds ghosts from the wars.” (1) Pham alerts us to the possibility of a Freudian “return of the repressed”, despite the fact that Vietnamese, half of whom are under 26, have little memory of the war, seeking to enjoy the bounties of consumer capitalism (46) following the end of the trade embargo imposed by America in 1994, Vietnam joining the World Trade Organisation in 2007, and the subsequent rapprochement between the two nations.

The action takes place in 2010, a year or so after the little-reported destruction of the Buddhist Prajna Temple part of the Bàt Nha monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam. “ ‘Officially’,” as the abbess explains to Kim, “‘Bàt Nha monastery was destroyed by a rival group of Buddhists.’” (90) However, there is a long history of religious persecution by the State in Vietnam. Bàt Nha monastics are followers of peace activist and founder of Engaged Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh, whose non-violent and non-partisan approach to conflicts would force the latter into exile in the aftermaths of the Vietnam War. Thanks to her supernatural gift, Kim is able to relive the event of the assault on the Prajna Temple by the secret police through the revived thoughts of a monk who was there that day. In this monk’s mind, “fear and anger is the enemy of mankind and the Communists are afraid of the Buddhists, President [of US-backed South Vietnam] Diêm was so long ago.” (85) In the same way that Thich Nhat Hanh was, Kim is accused of national treason and has to leave Vietnam for America for refusing to take side and discriminate between the remains of North and South Vietnamese. We see here how the history of Vietnam’s internecine wars is a nightmare from which the country, along with the narrator, is still trying to awake. The cause, as in James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses, is imperialism’s Great Game:

I closed the door…and lay down on the double bed. My eyes closed and I descended into chaos. I was being raped by American soldiers. My body turned to ash in the fire and a gag was being forced into my mouth. I killed children. They were spies for the [USSR-backed] Viet Minh. (104)

Unless Vietnam becomes truly independent, subaltern masses will remain (reste) in the fringes of society as permanent reserve (réserve) army of labour for future military uprisings (relève) that masquerade as liberationist revolutions. While the Cold War is long over, the hangover of imperialism looms large, with growing US-China geopolitical rivalries in the South China Sea. Once enemies, the Vietnamese communist government and the USA now work hand in hand as part of the Obama administration’s China Encirclement Policy and Pivot to Asia. To that effect, a revisionist work is underway. As historian Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox has shown, “After 1990, researchers began to deemphasize the 1954–1975 period in Vietnamese relations with the United States in favor of the 1941–1945 period. During the latter, the United States cooperated with the Việt Minh, and several members of the United States’ Office of Strategic Services [now the CIA] became personally acquainted with Hồ Chí Minh.” (par. 14)

Pham’s novel also points out the double standard enforced by the government, simultaneously ignoring – unless bribed (61) – to honour the southern dead while rolling out the red carpet for US contingents seeking to claim the remains of MIA (missing in action) soldiers. As Kim deplores, “this was wrong that we were pleasing the Americans and could not find peace among our countrymen.” (72) Indeed, there is something wrong in the way history, as Marx famously put it, repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Fleeing Vietnam (but not its history), Kim discovers in Orange County, Los Angeles the conundrum of Viêt Kiêu (overseas Vietnamese) community politics. As Khôi, also a psychic, and whose parents are boat people, tells her, “They will call anyone a Communist for daring to have anything to do with Viêt Nam. Even going here on holiday. If you use the southern flag in an artwork they will accuse you of dishonouring the flag no matter what your intentions were.” (93-4) There, too, Kim gets caught up by the phantoms of the past, as she is unable to disentangle reality from the daymares she gradually succumbs to. When she is denounced for overstaying her visa, ending up her journey in a prison-like (179) refugee detention, it becomes clear that the Vietnamese government, in the eyes of which she is a threat, has had a hand in her arrest. Here, psychic ubiquity becomes an allegory for totalitarianism – as in the case of Bác Phúc, Kim’s right-hand man, who turns out to be a fake and a dangerous con for the Communist Party.

However, the polysemic meaning of “the other shore” – the title of the novel – stands against monologic allegorisation, reflecting instead the multi-layered structure of Pham’s fictional work. It may refer, successively, to; the spirit other world of ghosts; “Asia”, from the perspective of an Australian author with family roots in Vietnam; southern Vietnam, from the viewpoint of Kim, who was born and grew up in Hanoi. Similarly, Kim’s “indigenous” ability to communicate with the dead (len dong) allows for the understanding of the radical otherness of colonial encounter, as well as for the confrontation of alternate meta-realities and various sites of discursive knowledge-power: the simulacrum of American paranormal TV shows (70); the scientism of academic psychology (78); the medical jargon of doctors who believe Kim to be brainsick (103); the arbitrary truth-seeking judgment of a court tribunal (173); or the classist functioning of the State apparatus, represented by Bác Phúc, for whom “spirits and ghosts are real, but loyalty to the old gods and goddesses is only for the masses.” (109) Seen as backward, ancestor worship was forbidden during doi moi, a period of economic reforms in the 1980s aiming at modernising Vietnam.

In The Political Unconscious, literary scholar and critical theorist Fredric Jameson writes of “magical naratives” that they challenge the “threefold imperatives of authorial depersonalization, unity of point of view, and restriction to scenic representation.” (104) Instead, as he adds, the subject in magical narratives can “accommodate a far greater sense of psychic dispersal, fragmentation, drops in “niveau,” [planes] fantasy and projective dimensions, hallucinogenic sensations, and temporal discontinuities.” (124-5) The double consciousness characteristic of diasporic subjectivity translates here into the collective subconscious of a scattered nation whose population includes about 3 million Overseas Vietnamese. From the Greek diaspeirein (disperse: dia “across”+ speirein “scatter”), diasporic consciousness as elaborated by Pham explores axes of transnational solidarity with Asian America, “emphasiz[ing] mobility and travelling as major tropes for unpacking the identity formations and knowledge productions of diasporic communities with cultural allegiances and political connections across a number of sites within and beyond the nation.” (Lo, Chan and Khoo xvii) The epigraph of the novel, taken from a family ancestral lineage poem and reproduced at the start of this review, is an invitation to sow the seeds of a transplanted Vietnamese wish fulfillment living on, and surviving in, the unconscious dream-like vision of a nation at last reunited and at peace with itself. Born in Tasmania of Vietnamese ancestry, Pham, who today works as a psychologist in Melbourne with her partner and two children, is a living embodiment of this cultural re-routing/rooting.

Notes

1. reste or restance: remain(der); réserve: reserve; relève: lifting up. These terms are borrowed from Francophone philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist lexicon. The third one (relève) has a double meaning. Alluding to Hegel’s “unity of opposites onto a higher plane”, la relève always-already risks translating into a mere “changing of the guard” instead, if and when conceived, psychoanalytically speaking, as a discourse seeking to “conceal its own contradictions and repress its own historicity by strategically framing its perspective so as to emit the negative, absence, contradiction, the non-dit, or the impensé.” (Jameson 109-10)
 
WORK CITED

Gadkar-Wilcox, W. W. “An Ambiguous Relationship: Impressions of the United States in Vietnamese Historical Scholarship, 1986–2009.” World History Connected 7.3 (2010): 43 pars. 21 Feb. 2015.  <http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/7.3/gadkar-wilcox.html>.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981. Print.
Khoo, Olivia. “Regionalizing Asian Australian Identities.” Continuum 25.4 (2011): 461-464. Print.
Lo, Jacqueline; Chan, Dean; Khoo, Tseen. “Asian Australia and Asian America: Making Transnational Connections.” Amerasia Journal: the national interdisciplinary journal of scholarship, criticism, and literature on Asian and Pacific America 36.2 (2010): xiii-xxvii. Print.

 
 
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained a PhD in postcolonial writing from Monash University. His doctoral thesis focuses on diasporic identities in Australian women’s fiction from Southeast Asia. Paul’s academic work appears in various literary journals, and he has been a regular contributor to Mascara.

 

Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar

cover-madame-mephisto-136x208Madame Mephisto

by A.M. Bakalar

Stork Press

ISBN 978-0-9571326-0-3

Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET

If the artist is a trickster, then Polish British writer A. M. Bakalar’s debut novel Madame Mephisto (2012) shows great mastery – albeit never in an entirely gratuitous or wanton way. A.M. Bakalar belongs to a generation of writers that have embraced the triumphalist illusions of the global capitalist market, only to better subvert it in covert, subtler ways. In so doing, these writers have chosen to bypass and reject the grand narratives of modernity, about the worker’s revolution, about women’s liberation, for what they really were – yet another (dis)illusion. This may be explained by the fact that writers such as Bakalar are new players to the game, coming from so-called emerging economies and eager to partake in the trafficking of world literatures across cultures. At the same time, they depart from certain postmodern currents dominant around the 1980s-90s, for which the art of simulacrum had become an end in itself. As an illustration, a certain type of manufactured magic comes to mind. In the words of Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet: “In a continent [Latin America] that was once ultra-politicized, young, apolitical writers like myself are now writing without an overt agenda, about their own experiences.” Fuguet defines this literature to be quite “unlike the ethereal world of Garcia Marquez’s imaginary Macondo” in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and closer to what he dubs McOndo, “a world of McDonald’s, Macintoshes and condos.”

Born and raised in Poland, the London-based narrator in Bakalar’s Madame Mephisto does not have any illusions whatsoever towards her homeland’s Communist past under Soviet rule: “Under the banners of the Polish United Workers’ Party to the victory of socialism! The Polish-Soviet friendship! Bollocks.” (4) Neither was she ever deceived by the significance of Poland joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, seen as yet another case of (western) imperialism: “Western Europe realised that the countries of the former Soviet bloc would soon become goldmines of opportunity. McDonald’s had just opened its doors and we all queued for hours to taste the West.” (5-6) All the same, Magda consciously tricks herself into believing in the fables of free-market ideology as a means to an end: leave Poland, its corruption, its ultra-nationalism and religious extremism, which for women means being treated as second-class citizens forced (for those who can afford it) to abort abroad. As Magda’s twin sister Alicja observes: “All this talk about Muslim fundamentalism in the press and television but nobody says that right in the heart of Europe, Catholic fundamentalists are quietly gaining more and more power.” (75)

Magda’s ruthless journey into the English corporate world confronts the latter with another kind of fanaticism: market fundamentalism. Her career path, from being hired to being fired and hired again elsewhere, works as a cover up for the lies we hear and like to tell ourselves: that wage labourers choose freely (read: they have no choice but) to sign and terminate a job contract; that workers in the neoliberal age need to be flexible and mobile (read: dispensable and disposable), multi-tasked (read: made more easily redundant), performant (read: profitable), competitive yet able to work as a team (read: contemptuous of other colleagues and subservient to the hierarchy), and, especially for women, amenable and smiling (read: malleable and ready to be hurled abuse at). Magda does not hold any delusions of grandeur concerning the world of men, marriage or motherhood either. A self-proclaimed single and childless young woman with few attachments, she is neoliberalism’s embodiment of the monadic/nomadic Self, for whom love consists of “on-and-off relationships” (26), and the family, a burden with which to cut off ties, except around Christmas time. As she remarks in one of her many aphoristic moments: “All relations in life are temporary. Losing your job is a given. It is only a matter of time but it will happen eventually.” (57)

Here we find a parallel between sexuality, the family and the workplace to the extent that each of these three spheres have become increasingly deterritorialised, turned into mere performatives emptied out of their content. London itself is, in some unexpected ways, a most deterritorialised city, despite having once been at the centre of the British Empire, now home to economic migrants, financial traders, multinational corporates, luxury escort girls, casual lovers and cosmopolites of all kinds, here one day, gone the other. In Bakalar’s novel, sex often comes down to to a mere bodily function to be satisfied rather than the expression of love; and the family, to an arbitrary social construct rather than the undiluted transmission of blood. For its part, the workplace looks more like a mercenary world of white-collar sharks than (allegedly) benevolent patriarchs or captains of industries. However, by manipulating and outsmarting the artificial conventions that most people around her live by and impose upon others, Magda does not so much become an empty shell as a carapace, succeeding in staying true to herself in spite of all the subterfuges she must use and the elaborate camouflages she must adorn herself with.

Magda becomes a drug dealer, not so much out of necessity but by choice, or better still, by conviction. She sincerely and quite selflessly believes that the cannabis business she sets up between Poland and England and smuggles across the Schengen Area will do infinitely more good than, say, accepting a “cover job” for an insurance company, a global finance consultancy or a diamond dealer. Speaking of her clients – an actress, a top-end prostitute, a City trader, an undercover policeman, or even “an acclaimed British writer” (149) – she says: “You see, I am very proud to be part of their creative process.” (150) An artificial paradise, marijuana represents many different things for the latter. Yet, contrary to the other illusions listed earlier (the matrimonial market; having a “normal” job; remaining part of the family and cultural nucleus one was born into and must submit to), Magda achieved her cannabis dream enterprise – and an immensely lucrative one at that! – of her own volition. As Magda understands, selling cannabis is in theory no less ethical than the commodities she used to be associated with until dealing drugs became for her a full-time occupation. To take but one example, are financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs and Lehman brothers not directly accountable, through speculation, for the soaring food prices in Africa, for the United States housing bubble, or for the Eurozone debt crisis, which have left millions of people in dire straits?

For Magda, the act of caring for plants is tied in with being the mother that she is not, while the seeds she grows, with a culture (from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’) she never really grew out of. Unlike other diasporic tales foregrounding the perspective of children to whose parents’ culture remains foreign, Magda knows her background all too well as she only hopes to disengage herself from it. Both perspectives, though, lay bare the fact that cultures, too, are products of our collective wills and creative imaginations. As such, they ought not to remain monocultural fortresses fixed in time and space but may instead thrive through cross-fertilising contact with other cultures, other places, despite the risks. As Magda learns at her own expense, “black spots on the roots” (174) may, when faced with the plague of entrenched racism, lead to the rot of half of her marijuana crop because of a “bad mix” between her Polish seeds and those belonging to her (unofficial) black South African boyfriend and business partner Jerome, met in London.

However, Magda is ready to pay the price of her attempts to rewrite from the margins her cultural heritage as a hybrid, always in a flux and deeply unstable. Here too, she appears to the reader as neoliberalism’s dream incarnate, someone so unreliable and untrustworthy as to be laid off easily when necessary. But she is also more than that. Her uprootedness, reflected in the novel by the destabilising juxtaposition of a first, second and third-person narratives, is however not rootless, taking stock in the metaphorical family she has planted for herself: “If my family shunned me and subjected me to forced exile from their lives, at least my illegitimate dealings did not disappoint me.” (200) One of the chief demons of German literary tradition, Mephisto alludes to the narrator’s repressed family phantoms, but also operates as a broader allegory for Poland’s many monsters within:

I blame everybody for what led to that; the school which, instead of sexual education, employed a priest who told us that life was the most precious gift from God and that sex was only about procreation; my mother who was too ashamed to talk to me about contraception; the gynaecologist who said I was too young to have sex so I did not need anything to protect myself. I blame this country, which failed me, installing backward religious teachings instead of helping me, terrorizing women and doctors into submission. (76)

To conclude, perhaps the greatest of tricks has to do with the author’s own life. First of all, Bakalar’s mastery of the English language makes us forget that the latter is not a “native” speaker. As Madga herself half-laments in the novel with a perceptible grain of complacency at being a maverick:

Here in my own country, I was stripped of my birthright, I was a cheat who left for an easier life. Every wrongly accented word, every sentence which sounded too English, was proof that I was not Polish enough, that I had forgotten who I was […] And in London, I was almost a native speaker, but not quite. (166)

In the acknowledgments section of the novel, we also learn how Bakalar wrote her debut novel on the sly while doing a PhD with a full-time job. Ultimately she confessed to “receiv[ing] nothing but support and encouragement”(219) from her colleagues and friends in academia. Magda, her main character, was never that lucky, but what saves her is a tremendous sense of humour and irony, which never falls into sarcasm or cynicism. As she retorts to her ever-pressing, worried mother’s queries about her being not married yet: “I am a human traffic accident; no children, no husband and over thirty.” (104) Besides constituting an original twist to the genre of migrant fiction, Madame Mephisto makes extensive use of the trick of laughter to lead us to believe that wit and free spiritism are not dead yet as potential antidotes against the moribund state of our contemporary world. For anyone looking for a way at pissing off their boss, or getting more than a glimpse at dirty, crunchy office politics, or for a refreshing take at marriage life, or simply to learn more about Polish culture and how to grow weed and make a hell of a lot of money from an authentic renegade – Madame Mephisto is the book.

Notes
Fuguet, Alberto. “I am not a magic realist!” Salon, 11 June 1997.
<http://www.salon.com/1997/06/11/magicalintro/> (Accessed 3 March 2015)

PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained a PhD in postcolonial writing from Monash University. His doctoral thesis focuses on diasporic identities in Australian women’s fiction from Southeast Asia. Paul’s academic work appears in various literary journals, and he has been a regular contributor to Mascara.

 

Issue 17 – April 2015

MK_13
 
Madeleine Kelly is a German-born artist, who teaches at the University of Wollongong. Visit her art
 
This issue has been co-edited with the assistance of Libby Hart, Rebecca Allen and Jake Goetz

 
 
 

Mascara Literary Review gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australia Council for the Arts for Issues 3-18