The Trout Opera

By Matthew Con­don Vin­tage, 592pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son

AS spec­ta­cles go, it’s hard to beat the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Syd­ney 2000 Olympics. If any­one thought na­tion­al­ism was spent, the whole singing, danc­ing, horse- rid­ing per­for­mance proved it was alive and kick­ing. Two spin- off shows from the cer­e­mony’s creative driv­ing forces have kept the dream alive. David Atkins and Ig­natius Jones’s horse opera, The Man from Snowy River Arena Spec­tac­u­lar , and Jones’s The Aus­tralian Out­back Spec­tac­u­lar have suc­cess­fully tapped into the well­spring of en­thu­si­asm for grand, na­tional nar­ra­tives. Such spec­ta­cles, and sim­i­lar like­minded or­ches­tra­tions, are nec­es­sar­ily prob­lem­atic as ex­pres­sions of na­tion­hood. Un­ques­tion­ingly cel­e­bra­tory, they graft to­gether a range of pop­u­lar mytholo­gies to pro­duce some­thing with more co­he­sion than could rea­son­ably be drawn from the ideas be­hind them.

There is both a sense of won­der at how the whole pro­duc­tion hangs to­gether and a nig­gling ques­tion about whether th­ese are in­deed the myths that de­fine us.

Now the Olympic cer­e­mony has spawned its own novel: not a horse opera, but Matthew Con­don’s bold and im­pres­sive The Trout Opera . Ten years in the mak­ing, it is a big, am­bi­tious work, equally ar­dent in its cel­e­bra­tion of na­tion­hood but will­ing also to switch the fo­cus for­ward to re­veal the seamier un­der­belly of the myth. It tells the story of Wil­fred Lampe. Born on the Monaro plains in the year be­fore Fed­er­a­tion, Lampe has been brought from the high coun­try for only the sec­ond time in his life to be the un­wit­ting cen­tre­piece of the 2000 Olympic spec­ta­cle. He is a frail, be­wil­dered old Man from Snowy River, an Ev­ery­man fig­ure charged with rep­re­sent­ing a cen­tury of Aus­tralian life.

It’s a big ask both for Lampe and the reader, but it li­censes Con­don to range across the cen­tury’s stage to see how the foun­da­tion myths of na­tion­hood have trav­elled.

It’s not the first spec­ta­cle Lampe has been in­volved in. The novel opens with a won­der­ful set piece of two age­ing judges, up to the Monaro for the fish in 1906, watch­ing from the veranda of the Buck­ley’s Cross­ing Ho­tel as a gi­ant trout hob­bles across the Dal­gety Bridge. Inside the hes­sian fish is six- year- old Wil­fred Lampe mak­ing his way to­ward the Im­pe­rial Hall as the star of Mr Sch­weigestill’s Trout Opera’’.

Sch­weigestill’s opera re­places Dal­gety’s tra­di­tional na­tiv­ity pageant and cel­e­brates in­stead the in­tro­duc­tion of the Euro­pean trout to Aus­tralia. It drama­tises the mirac­u­lous jour­ney across the seas of the trout eggs in their breed­ing boxes and their re­lease into the rivers and streams of their new coun­try. It’s a life- cy­cle story of mi­gra­tion and re­birth; a mar­vel­lous white man’s dream­ing, set in the cra­dle of Fed­er­a­tion, that will echo into the cen­tury’’ and chal­lenge the way the peo­ple of Dal­gety see them­selves. Ap­pro­pri­ately, for all its grand as­pi­ra­tions and earnest in­clu­sive­ness, the opera is bril­liant un­til the in­evitable point of col­lapse. But it has a pro­found ef­fect on Lampe. It starts his life­long en­deav­our to en­ter the con­scious­ness of his beloved trout and forges a fraught re­la­tion­ship with his sis­ter Astrid that has sur­pris­ing con­se­quences close to a cen­tury later.

The Olympic plans are com­pli­cated by Lampe’s frailty and the search for a rel­a­tive to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for him. Aurora Beck knows noth­ing of great- un­cle Wil­fred un­til the state comes look­ing. A co­caine ad­dict on the run from an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, Aurora is an un­likely ve­hi­cle on which to pin the hopes of a na­tion. She is, how­ever, an ef­fec­tive dra­matic foil to the grand ideals pro­jected through Wil­fred.

Their two sto­ries sit oddly against each other. Wil­fred’s em­braces the ro­man­ti­cised tropes one would ex­pect: the high coun­try muster into Gipp­s­land; the lost bush child; a gen­er­a­tion of boys taken by war. It fea­tures a mythol­o­gised search for the source of the Snowy and the drown­ing of the Adaminaby town­ship, sac­ri­ficed to the great Snowy River scheme.

But lest we be­come too com­fort­able with the nos­tal­gic sen­ti­men­tal­ity, Aurora’s tragic, ur­ban grunge nar­ra­tive of failed dreams and bro­ken lives sets the bush idyll against the harsh re­al­i­ties of the streets. Hers is a marginalised world of self- loathing drunks and ad­dicts, cross­dressers and deal­ers. When the two in­evitably col­lide, it’s like wak­ing from the Aus­tralian dream to face the night­mare of what we have be­come. Shock jock Gra­ham Feather­stone plays the cho­rus, voic­ing the col­lec­tive mind­set of the peo­ple while bat­tling his own demons and strug­gling to ac­com­mo­date the Port Arthur mas­sacre into the Aus­tralian psy­che.

Con­don’s spec­ta­cle is a mar­vel­lous achieve­ment. Epic in scope, it is writ­ten out of a deeply felt love for Aus­tralia and gen­uine anx­i­ety for its fu­ture. His writ­ing is strong and as­sured. Page af­ter page de­liv­ers scenes and char­ac­ters that shim­mer with dra­matic po­ten­tial in prose that is in places breath­tak­ingly lyri­cal. Yet Con­don him­self ar­tic­u­lates the dif­fi­cul­ties of cap­tur­ing the ‘‘ full panoply of Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence’’ and ex­press­ing the na­tional char­ac­ter in a sin­gle chore­ographed pan­tomime. In the end, it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that the pro­duc­tion it­self is self­con­sciously grand and am­bi­tious, hold­ing to­gether against the odds and brashly aware of its own po­ten­tial and sprawl­ing im­per­fec­tion.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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