New di­men­sions en­rich Gal­lipoli sniper’s saga

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

The lat­est work in Ouyang Yu’s re­mark­able lit­er­ary tra­verse of two lan­guages and cul­tures — China and the Aus­tralia to which he came in 1991 — is Billy Sing. Though sub­ti­tled ‘‘a novel’’, for the imag­i­na­tive li­cence to come, it draws ex­ten­sively and sym­pa­thet­i­cally on what is known of the most cel­e­brated Aus­tralian sniper of World War I, in par­tic­u­lar at Gal­lipoli.

Born in 1886 in ru­ral Queens­land, Sing was the son of a Chi­nese drover and farmer, whose fa­ther had in turn come to Aus­tralia from Shang­hai, lured by gold. Sing’s mother was an English­woman born near Shake­speare’s home town. Af­ter en­list­ing in the First AIF, Sing was sent to the Dar­danelles, where he was cred­ited with killing more than 200 Turk­ish sol­diers. He was nick­named The As­sas­sin and awarded the Bri­tish Dis­tin­guished Con­duct Medal, the ci­ta­tion of which read in part that ‘‘no risk was too great for him to take’’.

Sing’s story has been told pre­vi­ously by John Hamil­ton in Gal­lipoli Sniper (2008) and in a 2010 ABC TV minis­eries, The Le­gend of Billy Sing, but never with the dark in­ten­sity Yu musters. Yu’s ca­reer (to stay only in Aus­tralia) in­cludes work as a critic, ed­i­tor and trans­la­tor, as well as a poet and nov­el­ist. Cross-cul­tural en­gage­ments, usu­ally fraught, have given a trou­bled en­ergy to his writ­ing.

In Billy Sing he im­poses on him­self the dis­ci­pline of a no­table Chi­ne­seAus­tralian’s given bi­og­ra­phy (for all that ‘‘large tracks of [his] life re­main un­recorded’’). From there he ex­plores no­tions of iden­tity and her­itage, as they can en­rich and de­form. The nar­ra­tor lives in a world of ghosts, as his fa­ther did. We are in­vited to think of our­selves as be­ing in the con­fi­dence of a ghost: ‘‘In my grave, my spirit lingers, the un­dead, if you be­lieve that sort of thing, which I think you ought to.’’

Cer­tainly Billy’s fa­ther’s voice is of­ten present, usu­ally with ad­vice, never un­kind: ‘‘learn the skill of ig­nor­ing peo­ple’’; ‘‘you were born of two truly in­com­pat­i­ble lan­guages and cul­tures’’. A less con­sol­ing in­ter­nal voice also speaks to him: ‘‘You were wrongly born. You were born wrong.’’ Billy as­sim­i­lates this coun­sel with sto­icism rather than bit­ter­ness.

Yu por­trays the com­plex­i­ties of the hap­pily mixed fam­ily of which Billy is part. When his son de­ter­mines to be­come a marks­man, Billy’s fa­ther re­lates the story from an­cient China of the archer Ji Chang, whose mas­ter taught him ‘‘to prac­tise with his eyes … to look at the small­est things un­til they be­come big­ger’’. For Billy, his gun be­comes ‘‘a con­cen­tra­tion of held breath, aligned eye and men­tal still­ness’’. This is a choice of soli­tari­ness, apt for the mil­i­tary spe­cial­ity that he would pur­sue. The amoral ef- fect of such a dis­po­si­tion is that ‘‘I had the free­dom of wan­der­ing in my land, Sing­land, with to­tal un­con­cern and to­tal aban­don’’.

Nev­er­the­less, and ar­moured with a bronze amulet from his fa­ther (and a back­story about Abo­rig­ines and the Palmer River gold rushes), Billy en­lists and is soon thrown to­gether with hun­dreds of others on a ship ‘‘like a huge float­ing build­ing, or, more ex­actly, a float­ing pad­dock in lev­els’’. He is be­friended by a writer who has wan­dered the out­back for years and who will be­come one of Billy’s tar­get spot­ters at Gal­lipoli. This is a cameo ap­pear­ance from Ion Idriess, a pro­lific au­thor of Aus­tralian tales of fact and fic­tion — the two not al­ways dis­tin­guished.

For Billy, Gal­lipoli presents bar­ren­ness such as he has never seen be­fore, ‘‘hills … as bare as my gun bar­rel’’. Idriess’s note­book de­scribes the sniper as ‘‘a pic­turesque look­ing mankiller’’, whose story he even­tu­ally pub­lished as Lurk­ing Death in 1942. Yu gives vivid but not ex­ten­sive de­tail of how Sing killed, ef­fect­ing ‘‘the in­stan­ta­neous bloom­ing of a flower where the head had been’’. Idriess gives him di­rec­tions in ‘‘a voice as clear as crys­tal and low as the shrub­bery’’, while ‘‘to sur­vive the whole day, from dark­ness to dark­ness, I had to keep in­hal­ing the smell of dry tobacco’’.

Fi­nally, Billy is wounded. He has di­a­logue in delir­ium about war, death, mem­ory. He wan­ders ‘‘like a lost cloud. All the dead were with me, too.’’

As he eases away from war, Billy meets the fair-haired Fenella, from ‘‘a fam­ily of non-blue­blooded Scots’’. She is more wor­ried above a move to sup­pos­edly con­vict Aus­tralia than the num­ber of Turks Billy ad­mits to hav­ing killed. He tells her to ex­pect kan­ga­roos and kook­abur­ras in­stead; he brings her home to his hero’s wel­come in Pros­per­ine, though ‘‘I was in ru­ins, my body rid­dled with wounds’’.

In a so­ci­ety to which such a revenant can never com­fort­ably re­turn, Billy finds him­self among ‘‘bat­tle-worn and bat­tle-maimed sol­diers’’, with a wife not keen on Aus­tralia and work that is dispir­it­ing and un­pro­duc­tive: ‘‘Now it was my turn to sur­vive my own fail­ures, in the Sol­dier Set­tle­ment Scheme, in the gold-dig­ging and the kan­ga­roo-killing.’’

There is a strange trip, as if in a night­mare, to his an­ces­tral vil­lage in China, where ‘‘ev­ery­one turned out to be a Sing’’ and his grand­fa­ther’s damn­ing voice speaks through a medium. Then the story turns to the sad, fi­nal stages of a life no longer cel­e­brated — and soon to be all but for­got­ten for a half cen­tury.

Billy Sing is com­pressed in a man­ner un­com­mon in Yu’s fic­tion, all the more sharply to fo­cus its un­set­tling, pow­er­ful anal­y­sis of where a man, both strange and or­di­nary, came from, and how we are to reckon with the many res­o­nances of his story. edited The Cam­bridge His­tory of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture.

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