Per­sonal truths in a trav­eller’s tales

Christo­pher Bantick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IF there is one thing that dis­tin­guishes Arnold Zable’s writ­ing, it is the strength of his nar­ra­tive voice. Melbourne- based Zable has cap­tured the deep res­o­nances of that city and, more specif­i­cally, its Jewish voices since the post- Holo­caust di­as­pora.

The in­ter­weav­ing of sto­ries in his fiction and non­fic­tion forms a coun­ter­pane of per­sonal rem­i­nis­cence.

Still, to sug­gest that Zable is an au­thor for whom the past is more im­por­tant than the present would be wrong. Yes, nos­tal­gia is clearly one of his lit­er­ary touch­stones. In­deed in his new and search­ing novel Sea of Many Re­turns one of the cen­tral char­ac­ters, Men­tor, notes: ‘‘ Nos­tal­gia may be a curse, yet it is one of life’s plea­sures, a pas­time for the mind. In my age­ing it is a salve to con­jure the past. It en­ables me to play with time rather than be its slave.’’

While nos­tal­gia and its role as a trig­ger for imag­i­na­tive ex­plo­ration may be one of Zable’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, his grow­ing cor­pus of books deal with jour­neys of all kinds. More­over, they re­peat stylis­tic ten­den­cies and tonal qual­i­ties. Sim­ply put, Zable is a great re­specter of the past. It is no for­eign coun­try for him and he finds his tal­is­mans of truth there.

In his much ac­claimed 2001 novel Cafe Scheherazade , where ‘‘ old worlds were be­ing recre­ated, and fes­ter­ing wounds were be­ing healed’’, Zable set out his stall as a writer: po­etry and rem­i­nis­cence, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the past re­vis­it­ing the present and the sanc­tity of me­mory are his wares.

In his first book Jew­els and Ashes , writ­ten in 1992, Zable re­flected on the sack­ing of Bi­a­lystok Jewry in Poland, say­ing through his char­ac­ter Bu­nim: ‘‘ Ev­ery­one has his story; ev­ery­one his re­frain.’’

And in the ten­derly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work Scraps of Heaven , we ob­serve Bloom­field, a sym­bolic pres­ence rep­re­sent­ing the bro­ken and bereft who made their homes in in­ner- city Carl­ton: ‘‘ He is as much a part of the park as are the More­ton Bays and the pos­sums that scoot about the elms.’’

The Fig Tree ( 2002) was an ac­count of the in­flu­ence on Zable and his fam­ily of Ithaca, the Greek is­land from which his wife’s fore­bears came.

The new novel is also about Ithaca, and ex­plores the sense of phys­i­cal and emo­tional jour­ney­ing. In it, Xan­the is com­pelled to re­turn to the birth­place of her fa­ther, Manoli, and her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Men­tor, prompted by fam­ily and lit­er­ary as­so­ci­a­tions. Xan­the is trans­lat­ing Men­tor’s man­u­script, an ac­count of leav­ing Ithaca and his sub­se­quent life in Aus­tralia.

There are clear as­so­ci­a­tions with Homer’s The Odyssey and with the start of Ten­nyson’s poem Ulysses , when Zable in­vites us to lis­ten to a fairy­tale. ‘‘ Come,’’ the nar­ra­tor says to us. ‘‘ Sit by the fire. Al­low the voice of the sto­ry­teller to soothe you while you gaze at the flames.’’

Sea of Many Re­turns re­minds us that dreams are an­other of Zable’s themes. As a lit­er­ary de­vice, the role of the dreamer gives Zable lim­it­less pos­si­bil­i­ties: in this case, Xan­the dis­cov­ers Men­tor’s ethe­real dreams dis­tilled into words.

This is a su­perbly crafted, at times ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ed­i­fy­ing, novel that asks us to let go and catch, as does Xan­the, the ‘‘ Ithaca dis­ease’’, while we dally in the sun­shine of Zable’s prose. Christo­pher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and reviewer.

Sanc­tity of me­mory: The past in­forms the present in the work of au­thor Arnold Zable

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