Animal instinct and a boy’s best friends
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.