Glimpses of how life is lived
ing-class descendant of convicts and Tasmanian Aborigines, is resistant to the idea of Australia as an overarching construct.
The monocultural nationalism that drew the states together more than a century ago shares too much of its DNA with the Enlightenmentera gulag the British founded in 1788, just with more local-friendly branding and a different subset of society imprisoned.
Instead he regards ecological and social relationships formed on local ground as the truest determinants of culture and group, the most coherent and natural method of identity formation and boundary shaping. Like Noongar author Kim Scott, whose work seeks to renew a sense of the country as an assemblage of immemorial indigenous regions and groupings, Flanagan regards Australia as a group of nations rather than a single one. His nation happens to be Tasmania.
And what a Tasmania that is. As English academic Ben Holgate points out in his essay on the links between ecology and literary form in Flanagan’s early novels Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish, “what is unique to Flanagan is his portrayal of his home state’s south-west wilderness as a fictional landscape of the human spirit as much as a geographic terrain, in which European notions of ‘civilisation’ We are expected to maintain a socially acceptable amount of fakery. Push it too far and you risk being labelled a freak. Undercook it and you may be considered aloof.
In Woodcutter, one of the stories in David Cohen’s new collection The Hunter, a man is employed to act like a woodcutter whenever the Stringybark Express chugs past. Normally an office worker, he begins to identify with the outdoors role and starts hankering to cut some wood. Pretending to chop wood is fine but, as it turns out, actually chopping wood is a transgression too far.
There are many small transgressions by men on the margins, alone or solitary, in The Hunter. Protagonists are often single men, perhaps post-divorce, frequently in drab apartment blocks.
In Washing Day, Angus’s block is all men, and the solitary bra hanging on the Hills hoist is a question and an attraction, replaced after each short-term loan, one man at a time.
In a different story, set in a different apartment block, an older neighbour takes the rubbish bags out of the bins, removes recyclable items and cleans them. For some residents this is welcome. It starts a discussion on waste reduction. Gradually, the older neighbour has less to do because the residents work harder on their recycling. But our narrator is put out by this meddling. He doesn’t like being told how his recycling routine could be better. It becomes a competition he must win.
In The Archive, a character no longer remembers the names of people close to him, and he forgets to eat. As in Lament of a Bus Stop Outside the Benrath Senior Centre, we glimpse the inner world of someone with dementia, where small things are confusing.
Brisbane-based Cohen is attentive to people who are pushed to the margins. He’s interested in male violence, male silence, men who are too loud, men who aren’t assertive enough and men in small rebellion at the domestication of their lives.
At a false bus stop, aged-care home resi- are made redundant and humankind’s spiritual potential may be fully realised.”
Flanagan’s ecological imagination may have been formed across decades by close acquaintance with the region’s dolerite ridges and mountain lakes, wild rivers and sassafras stands, but his cultural imagination has been formed via world literature: by the postcolonial exoticism of Salman Rushdie, the intensely regional attentions of William Faulkner, the magical realism of the South American greats and the literature of witness furnished by Russian and European authors during the dark years of the 20th century.
Several of the essays in the volume address this paradox: the defiant localism that simultaneously admits the most disparate associations and international connections. For Liliana Zavaglia, co-editor with Robert Dixon of this book, Flanagan seeks in his novels to connect, through wormholes of imagistic and textual association, the institu- dents wait for a bus that never comes. They wait together and tell stories, and eventually the carers bring them in. This is a conceptually interesting story that is then extrapolated when the bus stop itself feels useless because it’s not doing the real job of a bus stop. It has cause to question what else around is fake.
Cohen’s humour is understated. In Frequently Asked Questions, we find out how a man feels when the cleaning company he no longer works for, the one he and a friend started, goes on to achieve substantial success. Cohen’s telling of the story allows for some amusement at the main character’s expense, but we are encouraged to relate to him rather than to sit in judgment. Cohen is gentle with his pathetic characters.
A couple of stories are cut short too soon, and it is difficult to extract meaning or entertainment from them. The Virus, about a disorder where patients eat themselves to death, has a bit of a naff ending. But endings on stories such as these can be hard and anything too dramatic may seem out of place in Cohen’s landscape.
In the opening story, a construction site manager is trying to deal with more than 1000 ibis. People protest against their removal. “They take the line that ibis, although obnoxious at times, has something valuable to contribute to our culture.”
But would these same people be happy to have ibis in their own back yards? Cohen’s observations about the human condition are wry and topical; they gently encourage, among other things, the consideration of ways to avoid ending up alone.
When I Saw the Animal is a collection of more than 40 stories by Sydney writer Bernard Cohen. The stories vary broadly, from tional violence that marked European conquest of Tasmania and enforced its decades-long penal regime with kindred “constellations of violence” elsewhere in place and time. Writing of the terrible events on the ThaiBurma Railway that Flanagan vividly describes in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Zavaglia observes that rather than “offering a simplified account of Japanese atrocities in wartime within a moral framework of good and evil, the novel’s exploration of this ‘careless’ and ‘terrifying’ force is examined at a transnational site of collective memory”. “For Flanagan,” she continues, “the cultural accretions of militarism, nationalism, biological racism and the ‘poisonous’ forms of religion to which any faith can turn, can bring about the conditions through which these sorts of atrocities might occur.” This observation links back to Dixon’s opening essay, in which the University of Sydney professor of Australian literature observes the straightforward or quirky short tales of barely a page, to long ones that require lots of unpacking.
Many are experimental. Some don’t so much finish as just stop. Some resemble the results of creative writing class prompts, and perhaps do not achieve everything they are aiming for. But they are never boring and there is delight to be had in reading a book so relentlessly ambitious, one with such a strong sense of play.
The humour is dry and often mischievous: “I’d previously had a rat issue, and occasionally referred to it when a context could be extended to contain rodentism, such as any mention of Norway or feral mammals.” Cohen often moves the story forward with an amusing turn of phrase: “He followed a foully content couple through the door.” This couple is easy to picture.
Realism sits astride speculative fiction, but most of the time things are awry in numerous small, complicated ways. There are moments of Franz Kafka, moments of Jean-Paul Sartre, and a humorous line in contemporary existentialism prevails. “The city was crowded with fantastically beautiful young people as though for deliberate contrast with the sense of his own decrepitude.”
The angle at which Cohen approaches a story allows the reader an unusual entry point, showing perspectives we might otherwise not be afforded. The dialogue replicates the way people talk. Each sentence brings with it a story of its own, and there is a strong sense that there is a lot left unwritten. “‘ Oh, for f..k’s sake. How much f..king thoroughness do I need in my life?’ He only thought it, but he thought it intensely.”
The writing is animated and immediate. From a short observation, we glimpse how a life is being lived. “My wife’s mother simply ignored me, or addressed me through her daughter: ‘ Would he like a cup of coffee? Did he sleep badly?’ ”
This appears in a painful but droll story about a couple arguing in a restaurant. They are fighting about the meal but their disagreements are about more than the food. Humans behaving badly are seen in direct contrast to the animals depicted. May we all achieve the contentment and quiet introspection of a frog philosophiser who muses, “My parents lived on garbage juice … and they were neither happy nor unhappy.” division in Flanagan’s writing between the straight line — the infernal efficiency of Enlightenment reason, which has taken us from Protestant work ethic to hyper-capitalism, the musket to the bunker buster — and the circle, an organic form that reflects the endlessly recycled materials of human history and the oral culture of Tasmania, of its indigenous owners and the convict interlopers who came after.
This circularity marks the visionary arc of Flanagan’s writing. It is an approach that takes him to the outermost edge of an island at the world’s end yet speaks eloquently of the central forces and phenomena of global modernity. It is a form that makes space for the stories of the dispossessed, the illiterate, the despised, the forgotten. And it is an aesthetic that, in Dixon’s words, allows Flanagan to “blast” Tasmania “out of the logic of narrative history, with its telos of nation and empire”. A circle, in other words, that has achieved orbit.
The image is a powerful one. It recalls Vladimir Nabokov’s own play on the same theme: “The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.” literary critic. is a writer and critic. is The Australian’s chief