Where truth lies
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