Gen­er­a­tions dogged by big- pic­ture grief

Burn­ing In By Mireille Juchau Gi­ra­mondo, 310pp, $ 27.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mary Rose Liverani

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY en­thu­si­asts may soon find Mireille Juchau’s Burn­ing In top­ping the blogs of­fer­ing dark­room tricks to novices. Quite prop­erly, since the au­thor has rein­vented the cam­era’s eye approach to sto­ry­telling, push­ing it with pa­parazzo en­ergy to a provoca­tive ex­treme.

Juchau’s pro­tag­o­nist, Mar­tine, born in Syd­ney to Lotte, a sur­vivor of the Nazi regime, is a ca­reer pho­tog­ra­pher who ar­rives in New York keen to make a rep­u­ta­tion.

Turn­ing 30 at the start of Juchau’s novel- cumex­hi­bi­tion, Mar­tine ‘‘ burns in’’ — a mul­ti­lay­ered term — on the world, ma­nip­u­lat­ing what she sees by view­ing her prints through aper­tures that give ex­tra ex­po­sure to the parts she se­lects, a pro­ce­dure not too dif­fer­ent from that adopted by the grief- stricken on whom her myr­iad eyes alight briefly. Still or mov­ing, in a plane, a train, or taxi, Mar­tine is al­ways in cam­era mode, her trusty Pen­tax across her chest, view­ing life at a dis­tance.

This dif­fi­culty in con­nect­ing she has learned from Lotte, an as­sim­i­lated Jewish Ber­liner, whose ab­sorp­tion in guilt and grief over the way she chose to es­cape the camps makes life hell for her daugh­ter and hus­band. Mother and daugh­ter re­sent each other. Fa­ther, the only char­ac­ter with a de­gree of equi­lib­rium, is lov­ing to both. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, sheer amor pro­prio leads him to leave Lotte to her monumental mis­ery. He quits Syd­ney’s des­o­late outer sub­urbs where Lotte had iso­lated the lit­tle fam­ily and moves to Bondi, thank­fully re­stored to the warmth and se­cu­rity of his Yid­dish- speak­ing com­mu­nity.

Juchau en­meshes within two mys­ter­ies grief and loss that cross gen­er­a­tions and con­ti­nents. The mys­ter­ies come to the fore in old pho­to­graphs, and pho­to­graphic tech­nol­ogy helps re­solve them.

Aside from the demise of her fam­ily, Lotte grieves over a se­cret she some­times hints at dis­clos­ing, but Mar­tine, ac­cus­tomed to her mother’s past re­fusals to ex­plain her­self, ig­nores the over­tures. Etched in her me­mory are in­stances of ap­pallingly in­sen­si­tive and self­ish be­hav­iour that her mother jus­ti­fies by what she has en­dured.

With some kind of syn­chronic­ity, Mar­tine, the new­est New Yorker, eyes a scruffy fel­low out­side a theatre dur­ing an in­ter­val be­tween acts; he is not a theatre- goer, just a passer- by walk­ing his dog. Af­ter a few cryp­tic ex­changes they lock them­selves away for a week of sex and, he be­ing a cin­e­matog­ra­pher, at one point they achieve a witty and bawdy ex­change based en­tirely on pho­to­graphic lan­guage, a rare light mo­ment for ev­ery­one. But mis­ery soon shows up in the dark­room. The cin­e­matog­ra­pher too has been im­pal­ing him­self for years on a ter­ri­ble se­cret.

A child is born to the cou­ple. It’s not long be­fore Mar­tine, too, suf­fers heartache and loss. The cin­e­matog­ra­pher has given the dog to an old friend and the re­sult­ing squall sees him move out. The child dies in­di­rectly from a fun­gal in­fec­tion in her lung, caught through par­tic­i­pat­ing in a child’s party game, prob­a­bly the most bizarre in recorded his­tory. Mar­tine, de­mented by grief, looks set to fol­low Lotte as a res­o­lute, tru­cu­lent wailer and railer, blam­ing her­self though her ma­ter­nal de­vo­tion has been ex­em­plary.

In the end, new perspectives come from Ber­lin, where Mar­tine’s de­tec­tive work at last pro­duces the liv­ing sub­ject of a cru­cial photo with a prom­ise ( can we be­lieve it?) of so­lace for Mar­tine, the age­ing Lotte, Dad, the Ber­liner Lotte had left be­hind and maybe even the cin­e­matog­ra­pher.

This novel is Juchau’s sec­ond. With her first, Ma­chines for Feel­ing, it sug­gests she has an on­go­ing in­ter­est in alien­ation and dis­con­nec­tion.

The pho­to­graphic mind­set and method­ol­ogy in­cor­po­rated into her novel is bound to make Burn­ing In a talk­ing point at writ­ers fes­ti­vals, es­pe­cially since her prose is charged with an ef­fort­less flow of pow­er­ful, po­etic im­agery and her craft­ing of com­plex shifts in time, place and con­scious­ness metic­u­lous. The cam­era can show, but not delve. For all its con­cen­tra­tion on grief and loss, Burn­ing In of­fers a level of in­sight into neu­ro­sis no greater than may be found in a mag­a­zine health sec­tion, while the raw ego­ism of the grief- ob­sessed char­ac­ters makes them un­sym­pa­thetic, their fate a mat­ter of in­dif­fer­ence. Christo­pher Ish­er­wood and Cabaret , rather than pho­tog­ra­phers Diane Ar­bus and Dorothea Lange, may have been live­lier mod­els for this kind of opus. Mary Rose Liverani is the au­thor of The Win­ter Spar­rows.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.