Crys­talline tri­an­gle of hu­man­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Oak­ley

THE ex­pe­ri­ence of be­gin­ning a novel could be com­pared with board­ing a boat. One starts to row ( the act of read­ing) in the hope that the nar­ra­tive, the cur­rent, is go­ing to take you some­where you haven’t been be­fore: slowly, as in Proust; steadily, as in the great Vic­to­rian nov­el­ists; or, as in Hem­ing­way or Gra­ham Greene, at speed.

When I went aboard The Red Book and started sculling, I hardly moved. The novel is al­most en­tirely in the form of col­lage, in­volv­ing three char­ac­ters who move back­wards and for­wards in place and time so con­fus­ingly that I had to do a chart, row­ing very hard in­deed. But the aching mus­cles are worth it be­cause it was soon ob­vi­ous that Meaghan De­lahunt is a beau­ti­ful writer: clear- sighted, crys­talline and calm.

The Red Book is cen­tred in In­dia, and th­ese virtues are what In­dia re­quires. In­dia over­whelms and, un­less, like Salman Rushdie, you can over­whelm back, only lu­cid­ity will see you through. De­lahunt’s trio con­sists of Fran­coise, an Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher; Arkay, a Scots al­co­holic; and Naga, a Ti­betan refugee. Each tells the story from their point of view and each tells it with such clar­ity that one can peer deep into their se­cret selves.

The Red Book By Meaghan De­lahunt Granta, 291pp, $ 29.95

Fran­coise, like the au­thor, grew up in Melbourne. She has an eye that shapes and fo­cuses ev­ery­thing she sees, and when her skills gain her an arts res­i­dency she de­cides to use them in Bhopal, 20 years af­ter the gas leak at the Union Car­bide fac­tory that killed thou­sands. She wants to take ad­van­tage of ‘‘ the abil­ity of a pho­to­graph to stop time. The ter­ri­ble abil­ity to call up the dead for us.’’

Arkay, the strangely named Scot, des­per­ate to slip off his for­mi­da­ble al­co­holic self (‘‘ At 17 I could drink 20 pints’’), is also drawn to In­dia. He starts on the Bud­dhist path in a monastery and it’s there he meets the most re­mark­able mem­ber of De­lahunt’s trin­ity, Naga. Born in an army truck while his par­ents were flee­ing across the moun­tains from Ti­bet, Naga faces the great­est chal­lenge of his life when he goes to Bhopal im­me­di­ately af­ter the dis­as­ter and finds that all his fam­ily, save for an ail­ing sis­ter, are dead.

Naga gives the shift­ing planes of the book a moral cen­tre. Anger at the dev­as­ta­tion in Bhopal chal­lenges the foun­da­tion of his be­liefs, yet some­how he turns th­ese neg­a­tives into pos­i­tives. He’s a pow­er­ful and per­sua­sive fig­ure, and Fran­coise and Arkay are drawn to him ( though his say­ings can have a frus­trat­ingly gnomic qual­ity: ‘‘ The mind is aware­ness, but the watcher is il­lu­sion. Like a knife cut­ting it­self, or fire burn­ing it­self.’’).

This sum­mary is sim­plis­tic and se­quen­tial, and The Red Room is nei­ther. The col­lage tech­nique, the over­lap­ping planes, re­sult in con­fus­ing shifts. Per­haps it’s an il­lus­tra­tion of one of Bud­dhism’s cen­tral truths. (‘‘ All was change. This was the an­swer and the ques­tion. This was the only pat­tern.’’) Per­haps it’s the post­mod­ern be­lief in the mo­saics of jux­ta­po­si­tion: ‘‘ like ob­jects aban­doned in a ho­tel room’’, as the world cham­pion frag­menter, William S. Bur­rows, put it.

What­ever the ra­tio­nale, it soon had at least this reader’s lit­tle skiff drift­ing, de­spite stren­u­ous work with the oars. Then, rather too late, things start to con­verge. Fran­cois and Arkay fall in love, then sep­a­rate. (‘‘ I loved him. But it wasn’t enough. With the drink, the way he was, and the dreams.’’)

Sep­a­rated, their prob­lems mount. Fran­coise is stunned to find she’s preg­nant. Wor­ried that this

will jeop­ar­dise her artis­tic ca­reer, she’s tempted to abort, but re­sists.

Arkay’s trou­bles are worse. De­ter­mined to find Fran­coise again, he leaves his monastery, but his abused liver is in ter­mi­nal de­cline.

It’s the re­doubtable Naga who man­ages to re­unite them for the last time. At his urg­ing, Fran­coise finds Arkay in a tent in a Delhi slum and moves him to the guest­house where she had spent her first weeks in In­dia. They pre­pare him for death. ‘‘ To speed his con­scious­ness,’’ as Naga puts it, ‘‘ to a pure place.’’

Arkay’s death, in the Bud­dhist way of things, pu­ri­fies Fran­coise and Naga. He burns the ter­ri­ble files he has col­lected about Bhopal and for­gives the man­ager of the fac­tory, who fled to the US and ap­par­ently still has not been in­dicted. And she will make a book of her pho­to­graphs for the com­ing child.

‘‘ ‘ Take it, it’s yours,’ I’ll say. ‘ This book. My gift to you.’ ’’

Th­ese last sec­tions are as beau­ti­fully writ­ten as the ear­lier ones, with one cru­cial dif­fer­ence: they build, they fol­low on. To sound like Naga for a mo­ment: keep row­ing, un­til the cur­rent picks you up and takes you some­where you haven’t been be­fore. You’ll also see why In The Blue House , De­lahunt’s first novel, won so many prizes.

Jour­neys, the fifth col­lec­tion of sto­ries Barry Oak­ley has edited for Five Mile Press, is out now.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.