Personal truths in a traveller’s tales
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