Glimpses of how life is lived

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louise Swinn Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

Richard Flana­gan

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