Journey into the past, via killing fields
Landscape of Farewell By Alex Miller Allen & Unwin, 288pp, $ 35
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
modernism or relativism to distract him from his central theme