On a man­hunt into colony’s dark heart

In­famy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce Peter Pierce

By Lenny Bar­tulin Allen & Un­win, 352pp, $29.99

BORN and ed­u­cated in Ho­bart, Lenny Bar­tulin is the au­thor of a se­ries of three crime nov­els, A Deadly Busi­ness (2008), The Black Rus­sian (2010) and De Luxe (2011).

In his new novel, In­famy, crime is still cen­tral to the plot but Bar­tulin ven­tures back in time to tap Tas­ma­nia’s rich­est fic­tional lode: the early colo­nial era of con­victs, pas­toral ex­pan­sion at the ex­pense of the Abo­rig­ines, blood­shed, bug­gery and bushrangers.

There’s the iron rule of the evan­gel­i­cal Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Ge­orge Arthur, the es­tab­lish­ment of strug­gling small towns and ru­ral prop­er­ties that vainly sought to mimic those re­mem­bered by their set­tlers from Europe.

Arthur has a key role in the novel, as does the mes­sianic bushranger Brown Ge­orge Coyne, whose of­fer of 20 gal­lons of rum for Arthur’s ar­rest bor­rows from the vaunt of the ‘‘ gen­tle­man’’ bushranger Matthew Brady (hanged in Ho­bart in 1826).

Coyne lives with his des­per­a­does in a fast­ness in the moun­tains of south­ern Tas­ma­nia. There are no­table sim­i­lar­i­ties with Christo­pher Koch’s Lost Voices (2012), in which the cul­ti­vated out­law Lu­cas Wil­son holes up in Nowhere Val­ley.

Coyne’s luck has been to stum­ble on ‘‘ an Eden as was hid­den be­yond the cave in the moun­tain’’. There, also, he ‘‘ found the nugget, as though it was fate, wash­ing in the shal­low river’’. Be­cause of its river of gold, Coyne names the place not Nowhere but Al­lu­vium.

Both Bar­tulin and Koch trace the col­lapse from within of th­ese crim­i­nal utopias. Be­fore then, Bar­tulin sets in mo­tion a hec­tic nar­ra­tive, as fast-paced and given to cliff-hang­ing as a se­rial at long-ago Satur­day mati­nees.

In the pro­logue to In­famy, Wil­liam Burr is wounded while hunt­ing ma­hogany pi­rates in Bri­tish Hon­duras in Cen­tral Amer­ica. Re­cu­per­at­ing, he re­ceives a let­ter from John McQuil­lan, his for­mer em­ployer and now chief mag­is­trate of Ho­bart Town. This in­vites him to come and earn a re­ward ‘‘ from our dear old friend Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou)’’ for cap­tur­ing Coyne.

By the sum­mer of 1830, Coyne is in Van Diemen’s Land.

Bar­tulin briskly as­sem­bles his cast: the ve­nal and phi­lan­der­ing po­lice mag­is­trate Stephen Vaughan and his con­temp­tu­ous wife, Ellen; the mys­te­ri­ous Charles Tren­tham, ‘‘ a ship trader’’ and pur­ported friend of the Chief Sec­re­tary in Lon­don; Arthur’s man Mon­tagu and Tren­tham’s man Perkins, fre­quenters of the tav­erns of the town; the main­land Abo­rig­ine Robert Ringa (‘‘they wanted him to track down men for hang­ing’’), Coyne’s spy in Gov­ern­ment House, Tilly Holt.

Burr is soon filled in on this nether­part of the world by McQuil­lan: ‘‘ You’ve not seen hell, lad, un­til you’ve seen Mac­quarie Har­bour.’’ This was the worst of the four places of in­car­cer­a­tion and tor­ment in Mar­cus Clarke’s great sem­i­nal novel of the con­vict sys­tem, For the Term of His Nat­u­ral Life (1874).

More cheek­ily, not least in the brio with which he mar­shals peo­ple and events into bloody col­li­sion, Bar­tulin may have the Van­de­mo­nian his­tor­i­cal fan­tasias of Bryce Courte­nay in view.

Burr has failed to pre­vent the kid­nap of Ellen Vaughan but gal­lantly sets out to the res­cue. Mean­while Coyne, whose ‘‘ dreams are full of signs and por­tents’’, awaits his des­tiny seated on a chair ‘‘ like a throne wrought of twisted tree roots, thick as your thighs’’. His plan is to raise the na­tive tribes in re­bel­lion (he has mar­ried the daugh­ter of the chief of one of them), to sub­orn the lo­cal mag­is­trates, over­throw Arthur and use his own gold to rule the colony, not for­get­ting that he ‘‘ had to eat the liv­ers and the hearts, drink the hot blood’’ of his nu­mer­ous en­e­mies.

Rightly, many fear him. For the Abo­rig­ine Til­larten­ninna, ‘‘ the world had be­come small, as it would have been in the be­gin­ning, and the devils of the night had come to the day’’. Boldly, Bar­tulin has em­braced the ex­trav­a­gant mode of melo­drama that has pro­duced some of our finest and strangest lit­er­a­ture, from Mar­cus Clarke to Man­ning Clark, Christina Stead and Thomas Ke­neally, among many.

Bar­tulin shares their dar­ing and con­fi­dence in all that the reimag­in­ing of the Aus­tralian past can yield for fic­tion. His novel nearly overex­tends it­self, but that is the way of melo­drama. Of­ten, though, his best ef­fects are achieved through a plain style, as when — near the end of the novel — Coyne ‘‘ walked on, down, down, to­wards Ho­bart Town and des­tiny’’.

Bar­tulin has writ­ten a truly ex­cit­ing book, a night­mare tale of pur­suit glimpsed in vivid frag­ments. He has re­vealed a ca­pa­cious tal­ent, as­sured even as it seems reck­less. That haunt­ing, lost place — Van Diemen’s Land — main­tains its in­vig­o­rat­ing power for writ­ers.

Lenny Bar­tulin

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