Rigid doc­trine’s false path to re­demp­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diane Stub­bings

In the early 19th cen­tury, 38 Ger­man Lutheran fam­i­lies, es­cap­ing the threat of per­se­cu­tion un­der the Prus­sian king, ar­rived in Port Ade­laide, even­tu­ally estab­lish­ing a small set­tle­ment in the Ade­laide Hills. It was the first of sev­eral waves of Ger­man im­mi­gra­tion to the area, the new­com­ers build­ing vil­lages and cul­ti­vat­ing the land, all the while hold­ing to their own re­li­gion, cus­toms and tra­di­tions.

In The Last Garden, Eva Hor­nung takes the bare bones of this his­tory and trans­forms them into an al­le­gor­i­cal tale of faith and re­newal. Her first novel since the ex­tra­or­di­nary Dog Boy (which won a Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Award in 2010), this is a quiet and sub­tle piece of writ­ing, ex­plor­ing not only the stul­ti­fy­ing ef­fects of so­cial and spir­i­tual iso­la­tion but also the prodi­gious heal­ing power of the nat­u­ral world.

Fif­teen-year-old Bene­dict Orion re­turns home from board­ing school one sum­mer to find both his par­ents dead. Bene­dict’s fa­ther, “com­pelled to de­stroy any­thing that he con­sid­ered to be part of him­self”, has shot his wife and taken his own life. Only the time it took Bene­dict to walk from the sta­tion to the fam­ily’s farm­house saved him from the same fate.

Walk­ing along the dusty roads to­wards home, Bene­dict had de­ter­mined it was time for him to fin­ish school. He was “filled to the brim with prom­ise”: he would prove his place on the farm, work be­side his fa­ther, take up black­smithing as a trade. But with the dis­cov­ery of his fa­ther’s bru­tal act, Bene­dict’s fu­ture be­comes some­thing ter­ri­fy­ing and un­know­able.

The day his par­ents are buried, Bene­dict runs from the farm­house and takes refuge in the barn: “The barn alone gave him peace, for it was clean of mem­ory. The barn was filled with the breath­ing of horses.” The horses be­come his link to the world, to life. They dull the “in­tol­er­a­ble” pain of what he has ex­pe­ri­enced, af­ford­ing each day “a faint rhythm, a tempo that could draw him into each night and then the day be­yond”. And they give him a rea­son not to re­turn to the house, to the ghosts of the past (his par­ents, his younger selves) that live there still.

Bene­dict’s only visi­tor is Pas­tor Helf­gott, who brings food and other of­fer­ings from the com­mu­nity. Helf­gott watches as Bene­dict grows in­creas­ingly dis­tant, liv­ing “like a wild beast” and com­mu­ni­cat­ing only with the horses around him. He begins to won­der whether Bene­dict isn’t per­haps the Mes­siah for whom the com­mu­nity has been wait­ing: Pas­tor Helf­gott saw the boy … as if for the first time: a gold-haired and ar­rest­ing young man with burn­ing blue eyes. Angelic, some­how … He now truly felt a sense of des­tiny or de­sign to the boy’s suf­fer­ing.

It was Pas­tor Helf­gott’s fa­ther who es­tab­lished the con­gre­ga­tion, bring­ing them to this place of ex­ile so they might live se­cluded from the rest of the world, freely prac­tis­ing their re­li­gion and pre­par­ing for the Mes­siah who would take them to “the last garden”. They are a con­gre­ga­tion “welded to­gether by suf­fer­ing”, guided by the elder pas­tor’s teach­ings (gath­ered in The Book of Sea­sons, The Book of Build­ing and The Book of Prayer).

But the elder Helf­gott hadn’t an­tic­i­pated that his own death would come be­fore the “Aeon of Glory”. With­out his strin­gent rule, the bound­aries of the con­gre­ga­tion have been pro­gres­sively breached: mem­bers (in­clud­ing Bene­dict’s fa­ther) have trav­elled to the New World and brought back un­ortho­dox no­tions; a grow­ing pros­per­ity oc­ca­sions trade with “out­siders”; and the hard­ship on which the com­mu­nity was founded has given way to “wealth, com­fort and de­sires”. Alert to his in­abil­ity to hold the com­mu­nity to­gether, to be the same iron hand his fa­ther was, Helf­gott per­sists with Bene­dict. He wants to keep him alive, bring him back to the con­gre­ga­tion; to have the con­gre­ga­tion again open their hearts to “their lost son”. But the more Helf­gott and Bene­dict are in each other’s com­pany, the less cer­tain it is who is lead­ing whom to­wards the light: “The boy had be­come more com­pelling and con­fronting to him than any sin­gle per­son had ever been. Lord, what are You teach­ing me?” The Last Garden is a novel of jux­ta­po­si­tions. The Book of Sea­sons (the canon that de­crees how each month will be spent) con­trasts sharply with the life Bene­dict leads, his close con­nec­tion with the nat­u­ral world and his acute sen­si­tiv­ity to its moods and vari­a­tions. The God-fox that haunts Bene­dict’s dreams echoes with the ever-loom­ing fig­ure of the elder Pas­tor Helf­gott and the dogma he rep­re­sents. And Bene­dict’s es­trange­ment from the con­gre­ga­tion is mea­sured against Pas­tor Helf­gott’s own in­sights into the pur­pose and good of their ex­ile. There is a strange align­ment be­tween Bene­dict’s and Helf­gott’s lives, and through that — each qui­etly tak­ing from the other, each un­know­ingly giv­ing — they are able to con­front darker truths tor­ment­ing them.

In Bene­dict’s re­la­tion­ship with the horses — the way they en­able him to en­dure — there are traces of Dog Boy (which tells of a young child kept alive by a pack of dogs). But where that novel con­cerned it­self with the por­ous bor­ders be­tween an­i­mal and hu­man, with raw phys­i­cal sur­vival, The Last Garden is more in­ter­ested in the spir­i­tual; in the way in which rigid doc­trine, blind to the re­al­i­ties of a chang­ing world, cor­rupts and stunts the soul.

This is a novel that is calm and pa­tient in its telling, and al­most hyp­notic in its ef­fect. What Hor­nung em­pha­sises is that it’s nei­ther our hopes for the fu­ture, nor the suf­fer­ing of our pasts, that saves us.

Rather, it’s in the act of liv­ing — the way we at­tune our­selves to the shift­ing de­mands of the world around us; the use we make of the time be­tween “the first garden … and the last” — that re­demp­tion is to be found. is a writer and critic.

Eva Hor­nung

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.