Jour­ney into the past, via killing fields

Land­scape of Farewell By Alex Miller Allen & Un­win, 288pp, $ 35

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Hib­berd

ON the ev­i­dence of Land­scape of Farewell, Alex Miller is a som­bre and sober au­thor whose prose in­ter­locks adroitly with his lugubri­ous the­matic con­cerns. Not for him the scep­ti­cal fab­ri­ca­tions and comic di­ver­si­ties of modernism or the an­tic rel­a­tiv­i­ties of post­mod­ernism. Alex is no smart alec.

Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, the novel be­gins in Ham­burg, a bas­tion of bour­geois so­lid­ity and pru­dent con­ser­vatism, quite un­like Ber­lin or Vi­enna, so never a lo­cus for in­tel­lec­tual, artis­tic or sex­ual fer­ment. Yet, like Dres­den, Ham­burg found it­self lev­elled by fa­nat­i­cal Al­lied bomb­ing and firestorms dur­ing World War II. It is this dev­as­ta­tion, and that of the Holo­caust, that early on haunts Land­scape of Farewell ’ s cen­tral fam­ily.

The book be­gins with its piv­otal char­ac­ter, Max Otto, de­liv­er­ing his fi­nal pro­fes­so­rial pa­per to a con­gre­ga­tion of col­leagues and some in­ter­na­tional peers. The sub­ject is mas­sacres, one that has pre­oc­cu­pied Max through­out his aca­demic ca­reer, an ab­sorp­tion that has failed to evolve into a work of his­tor­i­cal sub­stance. This in­ef­fi­cacy, the in­tel­lec­tu­ally anaemic stamp of the pa­per and the re­cent sud­den death of his wife, Winifred, do not con­trive to make the oc­ca­sion a fes­tive one. In­deed, the pa­per is ac­corded a civil and luke­warm re­cep­tion, ex­cept by Pro­fes­sor Vita McLel­land from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. This black fire­brand pub­licly as­sails an al­ready crum­bling Max.

A florid and ebul­lient cre­ation, Vita re­minds me of a sable Dorothy Hewett. Un­ex­pect­edly, Otto goes up to Vita af­ter­wards and, among a group of her ad­mir­ers, apol­o­gises for his va­pid and stock lec­ture. Much im­pressed by this hon­esty and hu­mil­ity, Vita en­gulfs the glum Teu­ton in her tent of lurid clothes and con­fronting blunt per­son­al­ity.

That night Max had a ren­dezvous with sui­cide. He now finds him­self in a ren­dezvous with an avatar of the fe­male life force. Vita is a grand char­ac­ter and I wish Miller had lav­ished more of her on us. They get drunk and Vita wastes no time in prob­ing Max’s fam­ily’s role in the war, es­pe­cially that of his fa­ther. A code of si­lence ruled the home.

This is ter­ri­tory much tra­versed by Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, but Miller treads it lightly, de­tail­ing Max’s love for his fa­ther, an im­mense depth of sup­pres­sion and fear; Max’s un­cle had told him when a child that his fa­ther did ‘‘ se­cret work’’.

Vita will have none of this si­lence and scolds Max: ‘‘ Why you didn’t in­sist on know­ing the truth about your fa­ther is the big­gest thing in your life. It’s af­fected your whole life. It haunts you, but you don’t do any­thing about it.’’ To es­cape Ham­burg and maudlin yearn­ings for his beloved Winifred, she in­sists he at­tend a cul­tural stud­ies con­fer­ence at Syd­ney Univer­sity ( hardly likely to dis­pel de­pres­sion), then, for a real tonic, Vita fur­ther in­sists that Max visit her un­cle Dougald, a saga­cious Abo­rig­i­nal elder in out­back north­ern Queens­land. His ac­cep­tance of th­ese pro­pos­als might seem im­plau­si­ble were it not for Vita’s ‘‘ soft vul­ner­a­ble smile’’ and ma­ter­nal grandeur, ir­re­sistible to a chap when he is down in the dumps.

Land­scape of Farewell is laced and in­ter­larded with flash­backs, dreams, pre­scient Jun­gian pre­mo­ni­tions and bi­nary selves, some of which knit past with present, place with place.

Born in 1936, Max spent the war years at his pe­g­legged un­cle’s farm. On the first day this un­cle forces his nephew to kneel and kiss freshly ploughed soil, an ini­ti­a­tion into heimat : Ger­man for home, na­tive land, sacro­sanct home­land, a cul­tural ad­her­ence that has in­formed much of Ger­many’s na­tion­al­ism.

A me­mory that tor­ments Max is his be­ing ac­costed on the farm by a young Gypsy girl whose fam­ily has been slaugh­tered that morn­ing. She begs for bread. Max re­fuses. This is as close as the Holo­caust gets, but it is close enough for the pur­poses of the book at hand.

The land, in all its plen­i­tude and ex­i­gu­ity, is of course sa­cred to Aus­tralia’s Abo­rig­ines. Max learns this in de­tail from Dougald when the lat­ter re­lates the story of a 19th- cen­tury mas­sacre ( whose un­ex­pected twist I shall not re­veal). Dougald, a pow­er­ful, tac­i­turn pres­ence, pre­vails on Max to write it down, which process bizarrely lib­er­ates the his­to­rian from the twin yokes of melan­choly and si­lence: he will re­turn to Ger­many and re­search his fa­ther.

Miller’s ex­tremely am­bi­tious dove­tail­ing of post- war Ger­many into post- colo­nial Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia leads to some awk­ward­nesses. In­dige­nous Aus­tralians have en­dured ex­ter­mi­nat­ing forces, as have the Jews. De­spite liv­ing in a re­gion de­nuded of tribes, this con­nec­tion ap­pears to have no im­pact on Max, even within his ex­pres­sive Jun­gian un­con­scious.

This sad, self- ab­sorbed, tun­nel- vi­sioned aca­demic re­quires iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the per­pe­tra­tor of a past mas­sacre to at­tain ‘‘ a cer­tain calm’’, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that has noth­ing to do with Nazi racism, and the heal­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with sur­viv­ing blacks at hand ( and par­tic­u­larly Vita, who dis­ap­pears).

Read­ers’ ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this novel will hinge on whether they can em­pathise with Max.

Many of his ru­mi­na­tions and spec­u­la­tions, whether psy­cho­log­i­cal or quasiphilo­soph­i­cal, I found or­di­nary, and they im­peded the for­ward can­ter of the nar­ra­tive.

I thought the pep­per­ing of Vita’s con­ver­sa­tions with Amer­i­can­isms in­con­gru­ous, the un­likely death of a nanny goat ( by fall­ing off a cliff) melo­dra­matic, and the name of a lead­ing white set­tler’s wife ( in­volved in the mas­sacre) — Winifred — as con­sti­tut­ing a se­ri­ous lapse in taste and artistry, a co­in­ci­dence that would have gob­s­macked Jung him­self.

Som­bre and sober: Au­thor Alex Miller doesn’t al­low

Pic­ture: Kate Miller

modernism or rel­a­tivism to dis­tract him from his cen­tral theme

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