Real-life feats of der­ring-do

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - An­drew McMillen

The Abyssinian Con­tor­tion­ist: Hope, Friend­ship and Other Cir­cus Acts By David Car­lin UWA Pub­lish­ing, 244pp, $29.99 A bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten across sev­eral years in real­time, in the im­mer­sive style of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion, The Abyssinian Con­tor­tion­ist is a book as strik­ing and mem­o­rable as its cover art. Its au­thor, Mel­bourne-based writer and teacher David Car­lin, charts the course of his friend­ship with a cir­cus per­former named Sosina Wo­gayehu, who was born in Ethiopia, vis­ited Australia as a teenager in the late 1990s, and has lived and worked here since.

It feels strange to sum­marise Wo­gayehu in a sen­tence as stark as that, how­ever, as hers is a story of such emo­tional depth and com­plex­ity that it is cer­tainly de­serv­ing of a book-length nar­ra­tive. In Car­lin, we have a nar­ra­tor of rare hon­esty and bald self-doubt. On nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions he makes clear to the reader that this story was writ­ten in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with its sub­ject: he writes of por­ing over early drafts of the manuscript with Wo­gayehu, tak­ing in her feed­back and sharp­en­ing his prose ac­cord­ingly.

At one point, while vis­it­ing an Ethiopian lo­cale of spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance, he writes, “I look across at Sosina re­lax­ing in the cool air, chew­ing on her lunch. ‘Do you think this is where the book should end?’ I ask her.” (The an­swer is self-ev­i­dent, as the story con­tin­ues for an­other 10 pages.)

This meta, self-re­flex­ive style of writ­ing eas­ily could have been a gim­mick, and quickly tire­some, but from the out­set it is clear Car­lin is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller who is well-equipped for the chal­lenge of cap­tur­ing the life of a woman about whose cul­ture, at the out­set, he knows prac­ti­cally noth­ing. The sub­ject of The Abyssinian Con­tor­tion­ist is clearly a re­mark­able per­son of un­usual so­cial mo­bil­ity and abil­ity, yet Car­lin man­ages to nav­i­gate the high-wire act of as­tute ob­ser­va­tion with­out fall­ing into ha­giog­ra­phy.

Wo­gayehu’s story be­gins in her birth­place, the na­tional cap­i­tal of Ad­dis Ababa, where the eight-year-old en­tre­pre­neur earns pocket money by sell­ing sin­gle cig­a­rettes to passers-by each af­ter­noon af­ter school. (This fact alone speaks vol­umes of her canny char­ac­ter.) Life in Ethiopia is tough, and although her fa­ther has a job at a lo­cal brew­ery and her mother runs a com­bined ho­tel, restau­rant and cafe at­tached to the fam­ily home, their means are limited. Sosina teaches her­self how to bend her body into seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble shapes by watch­ing a weekly Ger­man va­ri­ety show on the only tele­vi­sion sta­tion in the land, and it is in the fam­ily lounge room that her ca­reer as a con­tor­tion­ist and cir­cus per­former takes root.

So she joined Cir­cus Ethiopia, a group that per­formed on Broad­way in New York, in Lon­don and Europe, and in Australia. A scan­dal erupted within the ranks of the per­form­ers, who were dis­turbed by their ex­ploita­tion, fi­nan­cial and sex­ual, dur­ing a visit to our shores. The man at the cen­tre of sub­se­quent charges, Marc LaChance, com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter con­fess­ing his sins of pe­dophilia. A splin­ter group of 15 per­form­ers, mostly teenagers, fled Cir­cus Ethiopia seek­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian asy­lum from the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, which even­tu­ally re­lented by agree­ing that Sosina and her friends could stay.

It was while work­ing as a direc­tor for Cir­cus Oz — “among trapeze bars and tightwire walk­ers”, as he puts it — that Car­lin crossed paths with the young per­former, who had re­cently grad­u­ated from the Aus­tralian na­tional cir­cus school. As he notes at the be­gin­ning, he was drawn to make a book “that traced the con­tours of the gap” be­tween the two of them. Car­lin states early in the piece that he was also look­ing to write about some­thing other than him­self, hav­ing pub­lished his ac­claimed de­but in 2010, Our Fa­ther Who Wasn’t There, about his fa­ther’s sui­cide when Car­lin was six months old, and his re­sul­tant search for pa­ter­nal fig­ures.

This story, how­ever, would have been a far less com­pelling read if it were a straight bi­og­ra­phy, as Car­lin-as-nar­ra­tor is present through­out its telling. His regular asides are by turns poignant and comedic, as the nar­ra­tive smartly jumps be­tween re­con­structed scenes from the past and first-per­son ob­ser­va­tions in the present with­out jar­ring the reader. This is quite a skill, and it is one of Car­lin’s chief achieve­ments here, as the book was writ­ten across sev­eral years and in­cludes two vis­its to Ethiopia. The closing chap­ters see Car­lin tag­ging along to his sub­ject’s home town fol­low­ing a death in the fam­ily, where he is al­lowed the rare priv­i­lege of bear­ing wit­ness to the star­tlingly wide-screen, sur­round-sound man­ner in which Ethiopi­ans mourn and grieve. In th­ese scenes, Car­lin’s fishout-of-wa­ter pres­ence — as a tall white guy among a sea of dark skin — is never clearer, and his in­sights into this for­eign cul­ture are many and wor­thy. Through­out The Abyssinian Con­tor­tion­ist, his writ­ing is so crisp and vivid that, on read­ing its fi­nal pages, I felt a deep sat­is­fac­tion and a long­ing for more.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.