The Trout Opera
By Matthew Condon Vintage, 592pp, $ 32.95
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.