Monday, 21 April 2014

The Train to Paris

The Train to ParisOver the weekend, I read Sebastian Hampson's debut novel 'The Train to Paris'. The premise of the novel was appealing: a young traveller (Lawrence) meets a French woman (Elodie) at a train station and his plans to get back to Paris are delayed; an adventure unfolds. The front cover has a wintry, black and white image, a scene from the end of the novel, one assumes after reading. It was only when I got home that I read about the author, a New Zealander born in 1992; at this point the aging author in me became both jealous and suspicious - a combination of the worst traits of Lawrence and Elodie, perhaps. I read the first few pages and began to scoff at the unlikely meeting and the stereotypes of the French. I kept reading, however, and found the novel engaging on a number of levels. First, the dialogue and relationship between the two characters and the shady third wheel, an American pornographer named Ed, was engaging and true to itself. The settings were well imagined, on the whole, particularly the fading opulence of the Biarritz hotel and the dingy apartment Lawrence returns to in Paris and shares with his musician friend, Ethan. In terms of plot, there was enough fear and suspicion in Lawrence's first sexual encounter to balance the erotic moments (which I think have been well handled and I imagine, well edited). I expected worse from Elodie - but perhaps Hampson's restraint here was well-advised (my own thinking would have taken her into a darker world more directly than is hinted at here). Altogether, I found the novel engaging and crisply-written and imagine on this evidence that this young New Zealander will go on to write many more published novels. Part of the effect of the novel is that it does make you think about your own travels and inspire an immediate sort of nostalgia for the past and lost youth. I hope Lawrence doesn't end up as Elodie teases: married with kids in the suburbs of Auckland, a lawyer who has given up his artistic dreams. One imagines perhaps not.

There is an interesting tradition of young Australian novelists (and perhaps New Zealand writers; I am only aware of this one) writing about sexual encounters in Europe, with backgrounds in the antipodes, these characters are often in search of something in themselves and torn between the authentic but safe former-self and the possibilities of the new (a sort of European artistic decadence). I am thinking here of a few examples on my own bookshelf (Rod Jones' Nightpictures set in Venice, with much darker tones; Larry Buttrose's The Maze of the Muse set in Barcelona in the time of Franco; Julian Davies The Boy, set in Paris and New York; Michael Meehan's Deception, a novel with an historic premise but the same sort of discovering young artist character. On a different level and written in a different time, Henry Handel Richardson's Maurice Guest is an early and still wonderful prototype: a provincial musician from England in love with an Australian in Leipzig but in the shadow of both European culture and the genius of a German composer and pianist.

The European cities of these novels pit the young protagonist against new and sometimes dangerous experience; they are about the sort of new understandings of self that come from travels beyond a visit to the local Westfield or its equivalent. And for this reason (let alone any more complex cultural readings) they have my interest, perhaps especially as an Australian traveller and writer who has lived overseas and returned home to tell the tale but found it difficult to do so in any normal, conversational sense. People don't want to hear about your travels. A novel with an intriguing premise, on the other hand, allows the reader to recall and converse with that most open of listeners - the inner ear of the writer's lingering voice.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's latest novel, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' and thought I would write a few lines about it, while it's fresh on my mind. What follows is not so much a review as a few thoughts and observations.

Flanagan knows how to write about suffering, and sometimes this is not easy to read. For example, in this novel, the Australian POWs (Prisoners of War) are deep in the Siam jungle, building an impossible railway as part of the Japanese war effort. In one scene, a character named 'Darky Gardiner' (on account of his Aboriginal heritage, we discover late in the novel) is beaten relentlessly and without reason, already a broken man, dragged from the hospital to appease some loss of face between the commandant and a visiting official. The commander, Nakamura, has left the scene but comes back, surprised that the beating continues in the dark (he hasn't ordered it to stop), '[Darky] ... no longer looked like a man, but something wrong and unnatural' (p.308). What is most affecting here is the simplicity of the understatement, coming after some pages of a description of the scene from a variety of points of view.

The fact that the commander cites poetry should not be surprising; at one point the central protagonist understands and to a degree admires the 'terrible will of Nakamura' (p.304). I was reminded at such points of Gould's Book of Fish, another story of immense suffering, this time in Australia's colonial past, at Sarah Island (a penal colony). In what could be described as a Marquez-like leaping of ideas, the Commandant seeks to transform Sarah Island into a New Europe, which includes the development of a railway. The obsession with will and empire are points of comparison in these two very different novels: "'time! dear Surgeon is what our Nation does not have!' because now in his mind His Destiny & that of His Nation were one & the same ..." (Goulds ..., p.204)

In a different way, I was also reminded of Death of a River Guide in the clever management of time in this novel. Whereas the past and present scenes wash over a drowning man and the stories he recalls are generational, in The Narrow Road North, Flanagan centres around the life of the central Australian protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, from the perspective of old age, to memories of his Tasmanian childhood, to the bitter days of his strange heroism as a surgeon and leader on the Thai-Burma death railway. There is a danger in writing about such a man as Dorrigo Evans that he could become too heroic, or too prophet-like in his leadership of other man. Flanagan avoids this trap by making the character self-conscious of his 'act' (and confession of really being a bastard, deep down) and through the depiction of him as a womaniser with a long-suffering wife. The stories of his surgical success and adulation in life are not really the point of the novel and so much here is unexplained; the truth is reserved for the moments at the centre of the novel where he embodies the sort of Australian spirit which in war is deeply mythical and yet (it seems) embodied in such men. Like Death of a River Guide, the Tasmanian colonial stories reach well into the 20th century, and continue to affect and shape such men.

I haven't mentioned the love story at the heart of the novel, or the Japanese scenes, or the possible faults of the novel (if there are some). Towards the end, as Dorrigo faces his fate, the sense of the past we have witnessed in the novel rushing forward into the future is palpable and profound, and I (for one) read the novel with a sense that Flanagan once again has managed to write something of cultural and historical significance. Here's such a paragraph from towards the end of the book. The last words in this non-review go to the author:

He was in any case hurtling backwards into an ever fast swirling maelstrom of people, things, places, backwards and round and deeper and deeper and deeper into that growing, grieving, dancing story of things forgotten or half-remembered, stories, lines of poetry, faces, gestures misunderstood, love spurned, a red camellia, a man weeping, a wooden church hall, women, a light he had stolen from the sun ...(p.463).