Felic­ity Plun­kett

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Thirty Days: A Jour­ney to the End of Love By Mark Raphael Baker Text, 243pp, $32.99 Also dis­cussed The Fifti­eth Gate: A Jour­ney Through Mem­ory Twen­ti­eth an­niver­sary edi­tion By Mark Raphael Baker Text, 368pp, $34.99

Joan Did­ion’s 2005 mem­oir The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing begins: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the in­stant. You sit down to din­ner and life as you know it ends.” Af­ter the death of her hus­band, writer John Gre­gory Dunne, she ex­am­ines grief the way a writer ex­am­ines any­thing: “In times of trou­ble … read, learn, work it up, go to the lit­er­a­ture.”

Mark Raphael Baker, di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Jewish Civil­i­sa­tion and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Holo­caust and geno­cide stud­ies at Monash Uni­ver­sity, be­gan writ­ing Thirty Days af­ter the death of his wife, Ker­ryn Baker. Like Did­ion’s, his work is framed by a mo­tif of magic and the quest for a kind of cog­ni­tive trick that might turn back loss.

Did­ion finds that, how­ever acutely she un­der­stands her ex­pe­ri­ence, ‘‘It still didn’t bring him back.’’ Arch and sharp, with switches of her glo­ri­ous but self-lac­er­at­ing wit, she notes that “bring­ing him back” re­mains the fo­cus of this mag­i­cal think­ing. She knows it to be il­lu­sory, not­ing she is ca­pa­ble of “see­ing this clearly”, but adding that “‘See­ing it clearly’ did not al­low me to give away the clothes he would need.”

Baker opens his mem­oir with a de­scrip­tion of his child­hood ob­ses­sion with magic tricks bought from Bernard’s Magic Store in Mel­bourne. “As­sid­u­ous prac­tice”, he comes to un­der­stand, is the key to mas­ter­ing ever-more­ad­vanced skills, from sleight-of-hand card tricks to the cre­ation of il­lu­sions. Thor­ough study of Enid Bly­ton’s oeu­vre leads to the con­jur­ing-up of do­mes­tic mys­ter­ies, from cig­a­rette butts in the gar­den to the num­ber tat­tooed on his fa­ther’s fore­arm.

The child­hood mystery of this num­ber is the start­ing point of Baker’s work as a his­to­rian and as the au­thor of The Fifti­eth Gate (1997), a work bear­ing wit­ness to his par­ents’ ex­pe­ri­ences of the Shoah. In a new in­tro­duc­tion to that book, reis­sued to co­in­cide with the pub­li­ca­tion of Thirty Days and for its own 20th an­niver­sary, Baker de­scribes the work as part of “a burgeoning cul­ture of tes­ti­mony”. It is a lu­mi­nous work of post­mem­ory, a word coined by Mar­i­anne Hirsch in a re­view of Art Speigel­man’s Pulitzer prize-win­ning Maus (1980-91) to de­scribe the re­la­tion­ships of fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tions to the per­sonal and col­lec­tive trauma ex­pe­ri­enced by their fore­bears.

One eth­i­cal ques­tion as­so­ci­ated with the ex­pe­ri­ence of post­mem­ory con­cerns the right to rep­re­sent oth­ers’ mem­o­ries. In the new in­tro­duc­tion, Baker con­sid­ers this, aware of the dan­gers of “skew­ing [his mother’s] life by re­fract­ing

THIS IS A MEM­OIR ABOUT LIV­ING, AS MUCH AS IT IS ABOUT DY­ING

Mark Raphael Baker and wife Ker­ryn

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