Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

I’ve been think­ing a lot lately about re­vis­it­ing books that were im­por­tant to me in my youth. This is partly to see if the words still stand up, and for that rea­son there are a cou­ple I’ve not yet dared put at risk, such as Kurt Von­negut’s Slaugh­ter­house-Five. But more than that it’s for the nos­tal­gic plea­sure and an in­ter­est in com­par­ing my past and present read­ing selves. I wrote re­cently about reread­ing Wil­bur Smith af­ter 40 years. The ex­pe­ri­ence has put me in the mood to con­tinue with this when I can.

One novel I have been mean­ing to reread for a while is Robert Drewe’s The Sav­age Crows, which came out in 1987. It is a fic­tional ac­count of the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of Tas­ma­nian Abo­rig­ines, told both as a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive and by a con­tem­po­rary nar­ra­tor, Stephen Crisp, who is writ­ing a the­sis on the mat­ter. It was the first book that made me think about our indige­nous peo­ple. Some of its mo­ments have never left my mind, such as an un­hinged Crisp on a pub­lic phone, call­ing a bloke who owns the pre­served head of an Abo­rig­i­nal man. It led me to other books about colo­nial con­flict, such as Bruce El­der’s Blood on the Wat­tle and Eric Will­mot’s Pemul­wuy: The Rain­bow War­rior.

All of this came to mind this week as I read our lead re­view, Stephen Fitz­patrick’s in­ci­sive take on three new books about indige­nous Aus­tralia. I didn’t have time to read The Sav­age Crows, but I will soon. Drewe, by the way, has a new novel out soon, a mod­ern com­edy-drama called Whip­bird, which pub­lisher Pen­guin bills as “a clas­sic Aus­tralian fam­ily saga as it has never been told be­fore”. When I say I will read The Sav­age Crows soon, that de­pends a bit on whether I can find it in the chaos of my home li­brary. I know I own it — I can clearly vi­su­alise the stark cover — but I couldn’t find it this week. It may mean an­other trip to the pub­lic li­brary, some­thing that has hap­pened a bit lately and which takes me to an ar­ti­cle in the lat­est is­sue of Over­land mag­a­zine. Ti­tled “On the Books I Kept”, it is by New Zealand-based Ital­ian writer Gio­vanni Tiso. He starts by not­ing that books and read­ing “were tools of eman­ci­pa­tion” for his par­ents. Books took his mother to univer­sity. His father had to leave school at 14 to earn money. But both be­came se­ri­ous read­ers, es­pe­cially when his mother’s eyesight fal­tered, mean­ing his father had to read aca­demic text­books to her.

“I grew up in a house full of books,” Tiso writes. “They weren’t just any books — are they ever? — but rather a spe­cific col­lec­tion that mapped the his­tory of my par­ents’ in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment and their re­la­tion­ship.” As a boy he de­vel­oped the habit of read­ing any­thing that came to hand. “For me, it was a per­fectly nat­u­ral thing to do, to read a Rus­sian or French novel in trans­la­tion sim­ply be­cause it was within reach, or had an at­trac­tive cover, even if it spoke of things I couldn’t re­ally un­der­stand, or was full of names I couldn’t sound out.”

Tiso’s story takes a sad turn when his father dies and his mother has to move to an aged­care home back in her old vil­lage. There she has room for just 50 books. Tiso helps his mother choose which ones to take, climb­ing the lad­ders in his par­ents’ li­brary, read­ing out the ti­tles. “The first se­lec­tion was heart­break­ing. Mum could barely let go of one book in 10 out of the thou­sands she owned.” But af­ter sev­eral dif­fi­cult nights, they “set­tled on what needed to go in that al­most fate­ful box”.

Time moves on and the books now be­long to Tiso and his sis­ter. “You shall know me by the books I kept,” he writes. “… we are in con­ver­sa­tion with our books … they help to de­fine who we are, like other as­pects of our taste and our style. Or like the peo­ple we love.” Read­ing this beau­ti­ful es­say made me call off some­thing I had been think­ing about: win­now­ing my own li­brary. I’ve de­cided to keep all the books. Now I need to work out how to make more space for them.

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