Friday, 17 April 2015

Amnesia

In Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the chief protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is born on the exact moment of India's Independence, and is imbued with special powers as a result. So, what might an Australian version of such a novel be? This is a little unfair as a question - but Peter Carey's latest novel, Amnesia has its subject (if not protagonist) Gabrielle Baillieux born on November 11, 1975, at the exact moment the Whitlam Labour government is being dismissed from office by the Governor General and conservative forces. This is the era of the cold war, of the coup against the elected Allende government in Chile, and in Australian terms - of the dramatic end to the first Labour party in office since the end of the Chifley government in 1949. Gaby's birth date, like Saleem's, is symbolic of the novel's intent and themes. In this case, it suggests the American influence over Australian politics; the retributive power of conservative forces when threatened by "the left"; the passion simmering, perhaps, behind a mundane and orderly society.

Amnesia, as a title, might refer to how this passion is quickly buried in the return to normality after tumultuous events, such as the Whitlam dismissal, which as the novel suggests, had the potential to bring bloodshed on the streets through a mooted but not acted-on General Strike. Thematically,  Felix Moore, the protagonist, seems to be in a state of semi-alcoholic forgetfulness,  charmingly unaware at first that his patron - Woody Townes - is also a dangerous enemy. Townes is one of those power-behind-the-scenes types; a property developer with Labour and journalist connections; someone who has played golf with powerful Americans and may or may not have been involved in CIA-affiliated work through various dubious friendships, looked on from a conservative point of view. At first he appears as a comic, "Richo" type - and Carey is very good at these Australian macho caricatures. Here's Felix, "locked away" at the top of an executive high-rise:

I returned with my gorgeous silk and cashmere suit still not understanding that I had signed a contract with a property developer and not a publisher ... It took me only a minute to discover that he had locked his temperature-controlled wine cellar and left nothing but a can of Foster's in the fridge.

Felix has been employed by Townes to write the story of Gaby's life, to humanise her and win pubic sympathy before she is grabbed by the Americans for treason. In her hacking activities, she has pulled a stunt which has opened high security prison doors and detention centres in Australia and America - heavily symbolic of not only the age of terror, but of the age of anti-immigration and fears of various kinds, stirred by media and governments alike. So, what's not to like about Townes? It seems he is playing a double-game, and Gaby's minders and her mother, Celine, wish to hide him away somewhere else, where he can write without interference . Who controls the story, in other words, is the point of these tussles over Felix ("Feels") Moore - a drunken 'Michael Moore', a former commercial radio host (like Mike Carlton), a writer who has never quite lived up to his radical yearnings because money is needed on the table to keep his two girls in private school and his house in Rozelle.

There are many locations in this novel to enjoy as an Australian reader. There is Melbourne and its outskirts; inner-city Sydney; the Hawkesbury River (where Felix writes, out of sight, in a shack with no windows and a poor supply of wine); and even - a local feature - a fly past the Pennant Hills golf club. The use of first person narrative allows Carey to embody the voice and slight-madness of Felix Moore, and bring to life his upbringing (like Carey's, in Bacchus Marsh). Flashback scenes to Monash University come closer to anything like life-writing that I can remember in Carey (though he often has drawn from his family stories, such as aviators and car dealers in Illywhacker). As a story, even a page-turner, there is action based around Felix and his subject (Gaby) and their safety, which is under threat from sinister government forces. There are stories within stories, and Carey moves the narrative very skilfully and simply to embody past events of Celine's life; Gaby's upbringing and radicalisation; and Felix's own, disappointing but humorous life.

Without giving away too much about what happens to bring all this together in a typically-clever Carey ending, I'd like know (were the author to stroll by my window) - why all the confusion over Townes' real intentions? Is the movement from comic caricature to brutality convincing, especially in regards to his long time friendships with Celine and Felix? And what of the gap between childhood Gaby and the present, enigmatic activist/hacker/terrorist? Is it enough to have her near the protagonist but never close, in a novel that deals with their lives intensely but separately? The answer to these questions is probably that I have missed the point - that Felix can only write on the basis of the information he receives, that any attempt to create an authentic Gaby for the reader (and in the novel, for the wider-public) misses her ultimate political plan. She is a missile, and one who must be kept hidden and whose identity must remain shrouded in mystery for it to have the power she wishes for - to avoid victimhood and the powerlessness of even (often) Australia's highest political figures.

After several books set elsewhere and historical in nature (Parrot and Oliver in America; The Chemistry of Tears) - Carey returns to what he probably does best - episodic stories with flawed, manic Australian male voices and great sympathies for those men and women who take on the powers-that-be, in Australia and elsewhere, in imperfect struggles and triumphant defeats. A character born at the moment of the death of a progressive Australian political vision is very Carey, very Australian and illuminative for any reader of Australian cultural life.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Snow Kimono

Mark Henshaw's The Snow Kimono begins in a deceptively straightforward manner with the introduction of Auguste Jovert, former police inspector, now retired Parisian. He meets a Japanese man of his age who introduces himself as Tadashi Omura, a former professor of law, now resident of the same apartment block as Jovert. Henshaw utitlises an omniscient narrative technique that allows him to move between storytellers with ease. For example, Omura's narrative, begins as such: 'One afternoon, Omura was saying, I decided to take Fumiko to see her mother's grave' (p.10). The next six or seven pages follow this line, and then we are reminded of Jovert's place as listener in the present: 'Jovert sat looking across at [Omura]' (p.17).

So far, so good, as we learn of Omura's love for his adopted daughter (or the girl he has brought up as his own, from the age of three). Things get complicated from here, so that it is in many ways hard to distil; Omura tells of his childhood friend, Katsuo Ikeda, a somewhat self-destructive but brilliant young writer and the real father of Fumiko. The question of daughters and fathers is echoed in a separate quest of Jovert's, who has recently been contacted by a woman claiming to be his daughter from his time in Algiers during the war or revolt, depending on your perspective, when he worked in a rather duplicitous capacity for the army, to identify trouble-makers and revolutionaries.

Moving between the lives of three main characters and their relationships creates challenges for the reader, and I found myself re-reading some sections to make sense of all this. Because the editing is crisp and the writing is engaging and pleasurable, I didn't mind - though I suspect that the novel will alienate some readers in the process of weaving together stories, memories, and narrative voices (some of which are unreliable and deliberately so). How an Australian writer can create a Japanese story distilled through French eyes and still produce a novel that feels like it belongs on these shores and elsewhere, too - that's an impressive feat. In technical terms, the movement between times, places and character stories is a little like Peter Carey's latest novel, Amnesia - though the location and distinctly Australian voices in Amnesia means there is no comparable cultural ambivalence. This said, other Carey novels are set in far-away places with non-Australian characters, and Australian writers have always claimed the right to roam in their collective imaginations.