Evocative tales of distant times and places
Two first-time novelists have brought their experience and fascination to works set far from home. Tony Grey’s The Tortoise in Asia takes place in the last century BC along the Silk Road, a trade route that ran for thousands of kilometres from Rome to Chang’an in China (the Han capital near modern Xian). East and west were linked across two continents. Grey, who has been a stage actor, mining entrepreneur and arts patron, has often returned to this historysteeped landscape. He was particularly drawn to one of the more curious legends of the road, which suggested that a cohort of Roman legion- naires, captured after the disastrous defeat by the Parthians at Carrhae in 53BC, became mercenaries, first for the Xiung Nu (or Huns) and then for the Han. Eventually they settled in Gansu province in western China. Improbably large traces of Caucasian DNA are still found in the local population, while every year at the town of Liqian there is a “much talked about Roman parade”. How this might have come about is the essence of Grey’s story.
Debra Jopson, who won a Walkley Award for independent journalism in 2014, “spent part of her childhood in Beirut and continued to visit her family there during the first rounds of the 1970s Lebanon civil war”. She has drawn on those memories for Oliver of the Levant. The protagonist is a Huck Finn figure whose adolescent games slide into bloody adult business. We first meet him at Bondi in 1969, when he has just turned 15. He has lost his mother to drug addiction: “the narrow-gutted man, up the Cross … took her away from us”. Together with his younger brother, Jess, and their glamorous stepmother, Babette, who “lived on cigarettes, apples, gin and nose-spray”, he is translated to Beirut. This is the latest posting for the boy’s airline pilot father, Lachlan Lawrence. By 1971, Israeli jets buzz the city daily, refugee camps swell with Palestinians and the Christian Phalangist militias vie for authority with the army.
That neither of these introductions to two new Australian novels is any longer likely to cause surprise is an indication of the unapologetic cosmopolitanism in their choice of subjects of a number of our authors. Grey’s and Jopson’s publishers tell part of this story. The Tortoise in Asia is from the small independent British publisher John Libbey, Oliver of the Levant from the multinational Vintage. Each novel displaces us to foreign parts and past times.
Much Australian fiction has dealt with uprooting: of convicts and settlers from Britain and Ireland, and consequently that of Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands. Grey and Jopson deal acutely with deracination of a different kind. The youthful Oliver has no say in his removal to Beirut, from which he is later banished in disgrace (for the serious prank of bomb-making), only to succeed in his wish to return as a war photographer. The legionnaire Marcus and his companions in Grey’s novel endure an exile from which there can be no homecoming.
The Tortoise in Asia opens ominously as “a lone eagle stares at the ancient road of manycitied Syria”. Four Roman legions, “the long serpentine line of might”, are ready to cross the Euphrates to invade Parthia. They are led by Crassus, the richest and most avaricious man in Rome, for whom the Parthians have reserved a condign punishment. Conqueror of Spartacus’s slave revolt, he is no soldier. Grey cuts to the court of Orodes II, “divine ruler of Parthia”, who is surrounded by oracular Zoroastrian Magi. Orodes dispatches his best general, Surena, to deal with the Romans, in the hope that this potential usurper might not return.
Historical research has been done with care but no solemnity. Grey is also adept at battle de-