BOOKS: Tom Ke­neally’s Two Old Men Dy­ing. A.S. Pa­trić’s The Butcher­bird Sto­ries. Lu­cia Ber­lin’s Evening in Par­adise.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

Tom Ke­neally has been at the game of writ­ing nov­els for a long time now. Al­though he has al­ways been an un­even writer, the best of his work is made to last. If 50 years ago his Catholic Church novel Three Cheers for the Par­a­clete – with a hero who ac­cord­ing to leg­end was based on that dash­ing and per­son­able priest Ed­mund Cam­pion – seemed like a thin­nish en­act­ment of a bright idea, there had al­ready been Bring Larks and He­roes, which made Ke­neally look like the nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to Pa­trick White and which is a pas­sion­ate dra­matic work that called out for com­par­i­son to The Cru­cible or Ca­mus’ The Plague.

Ke­neally’s Abo­rig­i­nal bushranger novel, The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith, does some­thing Aus­tralian fic­tion had never done be­fore, with a bright and sav­age elo­quence. Then there’s Schindler’s Ark (filmed as Schindler’s List with a painstak­ing aus­tere grandeur by Spiel­berg), a work of fac­tion with a hero who took on the worst things in the world – the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps – and has a tremen­dous nar­ra­tive en­ergy. Was the English critic D.J. En­right right to say the story had bet­ter be true? Well, yes and no, be­cause Ke­neally has al­ways ne­go­ti­ated the busi­ness of fic­tion-mak­ing with a com­plex dou­ble-hand­ed­ness, en­ter­tain­ing and try­ing to keep it real, in some­thing like equal mea­sure.

With the pas­sage of the years, the supremacy of the crafts­man­ship has tended to win out. His new book about an old An­glo doc­u­men­tary-film­maker dy­ing and an an­cient In­dige­nous fig­ure, Learned Man, jux­ta­poses – at once ex­ot­i­cally and mun­danely – their jour­neys to­wards death and rec­ol­lec­tions of the blood and sparkle of life.

The doc­u­men­tary-maker did a vérité film in Viet­nam and saw his artis­tic part­ner die be­fore his eyes, whereas he lived to win an Os­car for their joint ef­fort. He wants the bones of the an­cient In­dige­nous man who lived more than 40,000 years ago to be put in the right place, and plagues prime min­is­ters with his re­quest.

Learned Man is seen pu­n­ish­ing and, in prac­tice, killing a young man who has raped a girl, and we see his own con­fronta­tion with the fig­ure the film­maker calls Jack the Dancer, who is Death. The In­dige­nous sec­tions of Two Old Men Dy­ing avoid Abo­rig­i­nal nomen­cla­ture and cre­ate a dense mist of lived mythopoeic re­al­ity that serves to coun­ter­bal­ance the more mun­dane rec­ol­lec­tions of an old doc­u­men­tar­ian on the way out who also re­calls the passions and achieve­ments of a life try­ing, only some­times vainly, to be true to the best im­pulses of his heart.

The doc­u­men­tar­ian be­comes cru­cially in­volved with an em­i­nent, zeal­ously ac­tivist eye doc­tor, trans­par­ently based on Fred Hol­lows, who launches first a na­tional, Abo­rig­i­nal-fo­cused and then in­ter­na­tional cam­paign to rid the world of the kind of eye dis­ease that Western civil­i­sa­tion has be­queathed to the rest of the Earth, not only in Aus­tralian deserts but in war-torn Eritrea and the Su­dan.

All of this is done with a tough en­ergy and a very sure nar­ra­tive com­mand. The sub­ject mat­ter of this book – not to men­tion its ti­tle – may seem dis­may­ing, but Ke­neally is one of those se­ri­ous writ­ers who will never al­low a sub­ject such as the grind­ing down of age to di­lap­i­date a good yarn. It’s con­sis­tently in­ter­est­ing to see him wrestling with the twin spir­its of An­glo-Celtic se­nes­cence and the spirit-haunted and morally in­tense world of an im­memo­rial Aus­tralia.

Two Old Men Dy­ing has a light shin­ing through its dark­ness be­cause the great eye doc­tor is ob­sessed with the idea that some mon­u­men­tal thing was trig­gered in the DNA of hu­mankind, which cre­ated Homo sapi­ens, and that the same kind of quan­tum leap – into a deeper moral­ity and a height­ened spir­i­tual sen­si­tiv­ity – will one day, some­day, hap­pen again.

The idea is ne­go­ti­ated with tact and a de­gree of dif­fi­dence in this im­pres­sive sketch of ghostly affini­ties be­tween a man who makes im­ages at once artis­tic and real out of the life he records and shapes, and an­other who con­jures and kills and wills him­self on the tightrope of jus­tice and mercy in a time that Ke­neally is very adept at an­i­mat­ing – even if the coun­ter­point be­tween a pe­riod of unimag­in­able dis­tance, be­fore ever we were, is made to en­rich a present that is fail­ing and, per­haps by ne­ces­sity, pre­sented with a some­what faded re­al­ism.

The moral is some­thing like the bi­b­li­cal one that the old should dream dreams as well as – via the arch of any lived life – tra­verse the strange walk­way be­tween youth­ful vi­sion and aged wis­dom.

There is a strange­ness in this book writ­ten by a fa­mous Catholic nov­el­ist that in­vokes no par­a­clete but is nev­er­the­less vi­brant with a spec­tral pres­ence of de­scend­ing birds and whis­per­ings from con­gru­ent worlds.

Two Old Men Dy­ing nec­es­sar­ily comes across as a kind of rag­ing against the dy­ing of the light and a sug­ges­tion that Jack the Dancer, the char­ac­ter ush­ered in by the ban­shee, will not have do­min­ion, not quite.

It’s also, in the fa­mil­iar mun­dane man­ner of the en­ter­tainer and re­al­ist Ke­neally, a book about fal­ter­ing mar­i­tal in­fi­deli­ties, abid­ing loves, old flames, stark and fierce vengeances, the slow sad­den­ing pull of in­evitabil­i­ties.

It’s a rather brave book for all its overt lame­ness. It leaps to Africa, it re­sounds with the shadow-world of an­cient Aus­tralia, it can evoke a back­ground of the Inuit, of any damn thing per­ti­nent to the pur­poses of a master crafts­man who has no in­ten­tion of tak­ing any­thing ly­ing down. Who could deny that Ke­neally has his do­min­ion?

When I was a boy, grow­ing up in the vicin­ity of a mother who had left school when she was 14 but who read four books a week, mix­ing and match­ing the Agatha Christies with the Anna Karen­i­nas, she told me that al­though her favourite book was Thack­eray’s Van­ity Fair she would rather write best­sellers. Some­one once said, a bit un­fairly, that Ke­neally started out as the suc­ces­sor of Pa­trick White but ended up as the suc­ces­sor of Mor­ris West. Well, in some ways he’s both and good on him. QSS

Vin­tage, 336pp, $32.99

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.