Where truth lies

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ni­fies only dis­tance, phys­i­cal and cul­tural. ‘‘For a long time now,’’ the nar­ra­tor tells us, ‘‘I have had the im­pres­sion that I ob­serve life but don’t par­tic­i­pate in it, that some­how life flows straight through me as if I were trans­par­ent.’’

He makes a study trip to Rome and when he re­turns Wolfi is gone, to Berlin it is said. ‘‘It was as though he had never ex­isted, and a cou­ple of weeks later I re­turned to Aus­tralia with­out hav­ing seen or heard from him again.’’

So, in the space of 20-odd pages, we have cause to won­der about the very ex­is­tence of our nar­ra­tor and our pro­tag­o­nist.

At the end of part one, the nar­ra­tor, back home in Aus­tralia in Septem­ber 1982, re­ceives in the post a ‘‘care­fully wrapped card­board car­ton’’ that con­tains Wolfi’s writ­ings, along with photographs, news clip­pings, let­ters, post­cards and other mis­cel­lany. This is ac­com­pa­nied by an ‘‘in­fu­ri­at­ingly brief’’ note: ‘‘Per­haps you can make some­thing of this.’’

In part two of the novel, the nar­ra­tor re­treats be­hind a cur­tain, be­com­ing the un­seen ed­i­tor pars­ing Wolfi’s pa­pers to try to re­con­struct his life: his in­tense re­la­tion­ship with his mother and sis­ter, Elena; his de­flow­er­ing by An­drea, a pros­ti­tute hired by his grand­mother; his in­volve­ment, in Berlin, with the mem­bers of an ex­per­i­men­tal the­atre group, most sig­nif­i­cantly the charis­matic, crim­i­nal Karl.

This long sec­tion con­tains the ex­plicit sex and vi­o­lence that con­fronted some read­ers when the novel was pub­lished. The scene with the pros­ti­tute is piv­otal. It also has one of the fun­ni­est lines I’ve read in fic­tion: ‘‘For the first time in my life, with An­drea bent ten­derly over me, I be­came con­scious of the real im­pli­ca­tions of the Hegelian dia­lec­tic …’’

The ex­pe­ri­ence is trans­for­ma­tive in other ways, too. ‘‘I am a man,’’ Wolfi an­nounces to his fam­ily. Elena is im­pressed. She kisses him on

Out of the Line of Fire the mouth, and ‘‘After that night things were never to be the same.’’

In the short and pow­er­ful fi­nal sec­tion of the novel the nar­ra­tor, on an aca­demic trip to Berlin in June 1986, stum­bles across in­for­ma­tion that leads him to find out what hap­pened to Wolfi, the role Karl played in his fate, and the true na­ture of Wolfi’s re­la­tion­ships with his fa­ther, mother and sis­ter. Or maybe not. As I have said, the reader has a sur­prise in store that puts phrases such as ‘‘what hap­pened to’’ and ‘‘true na­ture’’ on shift­ing ground.

Hen­shaw makes no se­cret of his metafic­tional in­ten­tion to in­ter­ro­gate the lines be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity, be­tween writer, character and reader. Four pages in, the nar­ra­tor muses: So there ap­pear to be at least two prob­lems con­fronting the writer writ­ing about real events. Firstly, the words he or she uses seem to add some sort of fic­tion­al­is­ing dis­tor­tion to the events they pur­port to de­scribe and, se­condly, even when a writer thinks they have got it right there still ap­pears to be in­fi­nite room for am­bi­gu­ity and im­pre­ci­sion. You be­gin to won­der where truth ac­tu­ally lies.

“Where truth lies’’ would be a good al­ter­na­tive ti­tle for this novel. The ac­tual ti­tle words ap­pear once, when we read of the late-teen Wolfi be­ing awo­ken one morn­ing by a shaft of sun­light reach­ing through the shut­ters of a ho­tel bed­room he shares with his sis­ter, who is 16. He moves his head ‘‘out of the line of fire’’ and looks at his sleep­ing sib­ling. Her left breast has come free of her night­dress. This ‘‘sud­den con­fronta­tion with Elena’s emerg­ing beauty’’ is over­whelm­ing, ag­o­nis­ing, a rend­ing of the soul. ‘‘It was as though, un­able to raise my hands quickly enough, I had sud­denly been blinded by the

Crit­i­cal bou­quets as well as brick­bats greeted Mark Hen­shaw, left, when was first pub­lished in 1988

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