Tas­ma­nian grotesque

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

THE more con­tem­po­rary Tas­ma­nian lit­er­a­ture you read, the clearer it be­comes that Aus­tralia’s most ge­o­graph­i­cally re­moved state has be­come the repos­i­tory of our col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion. From Richard Flana­gan’s colo­nial-era Want­ing to Christo­pher Koch’s ele­giac 19th-cen­tury fi­nale Lost Voices, Tassie is the place to go if you want a sense of who we are as a coun­try, the grit and the grotes­querie of our com­ing into be­ing. Tas­ma­nia is, by virtue of its size and its sev­er­ance from the main­land, a kind of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­cen­trate: the hard-boiled ver­sion of el­e­ments that made us who we are.

Most re­mark­able is the con­ti­nu­ity be­tween lit­er­ary gen­er­a­tions. Koch, the elder states­man, and Flana­gan, the cur­rent leader (though the quiet achiever Amanda Lohrey de­serves equal rank) have handed down their story-mak­ing to the young. Un­like those fledg­ling writ­ers in, say, Syd­ney or Mel­bourne, who mostly see virtue in mak­ing an en­emy of their na­tion’s past and all who would keep them mired in its flaws, Tas­ma­nia’s new blood have in­stead in­jected their found­ing cir­cum­stances with a vigour and in­tel­li­gence drawn from the best of the wider cre­ative world.

Take Lenny Bar­tulin, whose re­cent novel In­famy man­aged to re­cast the early years of Van Diemen’s Land in terms as close to Dead­wood, HBO’s master­piece of long-form tele­vi­sion, as to Mar­cus Clarke’s trans­porta­tion-era melo­drama For the Term of his Nat­u­ral Life. Or take the dark fic­tional trans­ports of Ro­han Wilson, whose first novel The Rov­ing Party, win­ner of The Aus­tralian- Vo­gel Lit­er­ary Award in 2010, was de­scribed (in wholly ad­mir­ing terms) by Tim Win­ton as “Blood Merid­ian with wom­bats’’.

To Name Those Lost also shows fealty to the gothic in­ten­sity of Cormac McCarthy. But un­like Wilson’s de­but — which, though pow­er­ful in terms of its prose and ut­terly orig­i­nal in its use of his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­als, at times threat­ened to shade into McCarthyesque pas­tiche — this new work soon shakes its coat of ear­lier in­flu­ence. Wilson writes here with an econ­omy and en­ergy that are his alone. This new novel may be a se­quel of sorts to The Rov­ing Party, that tale of racial an­ni­hi­la­tion and metaphysical dis­qui­etude based on the Tas­ma­nian Black Wars of the early 19th cen­tury, yet this time the story has a less flam­boy­ant man­ner, a keener edge.

The time is 1874. Tas­ma­nia is now a post­fron­tier so­ci­ety, a place of laws and ris­ing wealth for the gov­ern­ing class. The wider pop­u­la­tion has not shared in the gains, how­ever. Its men and women, many of whom are for­mer con­victs, keep one foot firmly planted in the an­ar­chic past. When the gov­ern­ment of the day im­poses a levy on those liv­ing near the Delo­raine-Launceston rail­way line after the col­lapse of the company that built it, the re­cal­ci­trant pop­u­la­tion goes out in riot. The state replies with a large and well-armed po­lice force.

It is against this back­drop of pub­lic pan­de­mo­nium that Wilson’s cat-and-mouse nar­ra­tive plays out.

Thomas Toosey is a grey-haired journeyman whom read­ers first met as a boy mem­ber of John Bat­man’s ex­ter­mi­na­tory band in The Rov­ing Party. He has since spent 10 years in Port Arthur pen­i­ten­tiary, hav­ing been found guilty of an un­speak­able crime. When we first meet him in th­ese pages, he has stolen 200 in ban­knotes from an erst­while prison mate, Dublin-born Fitheal Flynn.

Wilson takes th­ese brute facts and grad­u­ally com­pli­cates them. We learn that Toosey has a son whose mother died sud­denly: the money is in­tended for him. Flynn, mean­while, turns out to be a man of proud and in­tran­si­gent bent, ca­pa­ble of great vi­o­lence. He trav­els to Launceston in search of the thief, ac­com­pa­nied by a mys­te­ri­ous hooded fig­ure, who when ques­tioned claims to be an ex­e­cu­tioner, but turns out to be not what peo­ple think.

Wilson re­mains a gifted trans­la­tor of his­tor­i­cal de­tail into fic­tional terms. The ripe id­iomatic lan­guage of the day is re­pro­duced in such a way as to seem real with­out be­ing anachro­nis­tic. Like­wise, the sen­sory world he sum­mons up, boozy and pun­gent, makes the present feel bor­ingly sani­tised. The bru­tal­ity that punc­tu­ated The Rov­ing Party is less in ev­i­dence here. When it ar­rives, how­ever, there is a shock­ing verisi- mil­i­tude to Wilson’s de­scrip­tions. Al­ready, the novel sug­gests, vi­o­lence in Tas­ma­nia has be­come more ab­stract, dif­fuse. It in­creas­ingly be­longs to own­ers of cap­i­tal and politi­cians, and it is dealt out by uni­formed men.

This is not to say that the au­thor is on the side of the mob ri­ot­ing against the forces of law and or­der; rather, he con­cen­trates on those in­di­vid­u­als who evince a rec­ti­tude or self-suf­fi­ciency rad­i­cally at odds with the fren­zied mass. ‘‘His­tory,’’ as Toosey says, ‘‘is the art by which we live our lives.’’

Aside from mak­ing for a tale that read­ers will not be able to wrench their eyes away from, this mi­cro-macro ap­proach points to another, more sub­tle link be­tween Wilson and McCarthy. The Amer­i­can au­thor has spent the lat­ter part of his ca­reer rewrit­ing the his­tory of the US fron­tier via such an­ti­heroes: cre­at­ing new myths of ‘‘the West’’ out of a de­mo­li­tion of the old.

To Name Those Lost sug­gests Wilson has em­barked on a sim­i­larly am­bi­tious project for his home state. Like so many Tas­ma­nian nar­ra­tives, it is a more ro­bust it­er­a­tion of our larger na­tional story.

Ro­han Wilson by the Esk River in Launceston

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