An­i­mal in­stinct and a boy’s best friends

Kathy Hunt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THOSE lit­er­ary the­o­rists who would ex­cise the writer from the creative equa­tion take an axe to a nov­el­ist such as Eva Hor­nung. In­deed, a proper un­der­stand­ing of her work is im­pos­si­ble without a glimpse into her fam­ily life, a fam­ily and a life so strange she is com­pelled to ex­plain it to her­self in prose. And she has much to un­ravel.

Born in Bendigo in 1964, she was whisked off to Ger­many as a child. Her fa­ther, Richard, a vi­o­lin­ist, and Pales­tinian by birth, had been a mem­ber of a Ger­man re­li­gious com­mu­nity in Pales­tine be­fore be­ing de­clared a Bri­tish pris­oner of war and sent to an Aus­tralian de­ten­tion camp in 1948.

Here he mar­ried a New Zealand artist. To­gether they would have nine chil­dren in 15 years. The fam­ily re­turned from Ger­many when Eva was eight and moved into a small farm in the Ade­laide Hills. In her novel Fire Fire , she calls her mother Acan­tia. Ap­proach­ing their new home, Acan­tia says: ‘‘ But we are re­treat­ing from the world . . . to live out our days in full cre­ativ­ity.’’

Moody and vi­o­lent, Acan­tia sees the world as evil and wants to cre­ate a new so­ci­ety. The key is home school­ing, the only way to a ‘‘ pure mind’’ and Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity. ‘‘ You’ll be like Ye­hudi Menuhin. Marie Curie and Louis Pas­teur!’’ she de­claims, adding Sher­lock Holmes for good mea­sure. ‘‘ You’ll put Aus­tralia on the map. We’ll show ’ em.’’

Thinly dis­guised, Eva’s sib­lings are up at six, prac­tis­ing on cel­los and vi­o­las. They are miniMozarts in the Aus­tralian bush. She will later de­scribe her child­hood as fraught and her ed­u­ca­tion as elit­ist and danger­ous. En­thralled by her fa­ther’s tales of Pales­tine, she be­comes fas­ci­nated with all things Ara­bian. She stud­ies clas­si­cal Ara­bic, elopes with Roger Sal­lis, a man of Le­banese-Druze ex­trac­tion, and gains a PhD in com­par­a­tive lan­guages.

A co-founder of Aus­tralians Against Racism, she writes four nov­els ex­plor­ing the ‘‘ same­ness and dif­fer­ence’’ in­her­ent in the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence and the in­evitable cul­tural alien­ation that shad­ows life in a new coun­try. In an in­ter­view pub­lished on her web­site she wor­ries ( need­lessly) that such writ­ing is seen as plead­ing and not art and, worse, that a writer who is an ac­tivist is viewed as de­fec­tive.

Clas­si­fy­ing her­self now as cul­tur­ally hy­bridised and ‘‘ an out­sider ev­ery­where’’, Hor­nung has dropped her mar­ried name and shifted her fo­cus from the Arab world, in­spired by an ar­ti­cle she read about a Rus­sian child raised by feral dogs. Pre­vi­ously she has said that ‘‘ the land­scape dom­i­nates Aus­tralian artis­tic ex­pres­sion’’, as in ‘‘ land­scape as char­ac­ter’’. A home­land, as an en­tity, how­ever, goes even deeper, es­pe­cially when it is purely in­dige­nous ( def­i­ni­tion: be­long­ing nat­u­rally) and in­vested or­gan­i­cally with the power of leg­end and fa­ble, some­thing it shares with the ‘‘ un­end­ing wilds’’ of Rus­sia that in Dog Boy ‘‘ stretch north­wards into myth’’.

Against this back­drop, Hor­nung has set a grim and pri­mal story of un­nat­u­ral se­lec­tion.

Ro­mochka is four when he wan­ders from his de­serted Moscow apart­ment and falls in with a pack of stray dogs. One of Hor­nung’s en­dur­ing themes is what she calls ‘‘ the pro­vi­sional iden­tity’’. In adapt­ing to change and in or­der to sur­vive, the boy un­der­goes a bru­tal and, as the sec­ond-last sen­tence graph­i­cally con­veys, not so tem­po­rary trans­for­ma­tion. And here the think­ing reader is forced to make a de­ci­sion: is there a fun­da­men­tal dis­tinc­tion be­tween hu­mans and an­i­mals, one based on the pre­sump­tion of our su­pe­ri­or­ity? Or, as Ro­mochka’s res­cuer Dr Dmitry Pa­tushenko be­lieves, is the an­i­mal in us real but hid­den and over­rid­den by ‘‘ the amaz­ing, sculp­tured arte­fact of per­son­al­ity’’?

Ei­ther way, as the novel shows, no per­son can op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently. Be­yond the in­di­vid­ual and the fam­ily, he must rely on the com­plex or­gan­ism known as the com­mu­nity.

Yet, iron­i­cally, in the spir­i­tual and ma­te­rial waste­land on the ragged edges of Moscow, it is the hu­man com­mu­ni­ties that splin­ter and dis­in­te­grate, forced into a moral vacuum by a failed state while Ro­mochka’s pack en­dures, strictly, ex­clu­sively fa­mil­ial, dis­ci­plined, loyal and or­gan­ised. On the edge of ex­tinc­tion, it is the only liv­ing unit to main­tain its in­tegrity.

Work­ing against this ef­fec­tive but frag­ile ar­range­ment is Dog Boy’s fear that he is not com­pletely one of them, and that the very tools he uses to pro­tect and help his fam­ily set him apart. And so we come back to the alien­ated and the marginalised.

Looking at Hor­nung’s much-awarded body of work it is pos­si­ble to see a pro­gres­sion in her pre­oc­cu­pa­tions beginning with Hiam in 1998.

This tough new novel rep­re­sents an im­por­tant shift in em­pha­sis and a broad­en­ing of her vi­sion as she con­tin­ues her foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the hu­man con­di­tion.

Kathy Hunt is a critic based in ru­ral Vic­to­ria.

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