IAN ADAM & HELEN TIFFIN (eds), Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
Post-colonialism, one of the recent arrivals to a tradition of western liberal pedagogies, is hot, controversial and curiously attractive. Its pedagogical prominence cannot be any less timely to a (post-)modern world where more than three-quarters of its inhabitants have had their lives shaped by the experience of colonialism.1 This is because post-colonial cultural texts have provided a significant basis for understanding the many and varied experiences of these people. They can range from accentuating their differences from the cultural priorities of the imperial centre, and therefore their tension with the imperial power, to showing signs of complicity with imperialist priorities. The essays in this book represent a collection of post-colonial voice(s) and they provide insightful journeys into experiences on post-colonial terrains.
The fact that most of its contributors have "live(d) or work(ed) in countries formerly colonized by Britain" (ix) means that their essays are not impersonal. They are mostly informed, and some, particularly the debate between Hutcheon and Brydon, are passionate. This is because, as Homi Bhabha points out in an interview,2 the emphasis on post-colonial work by post-colonial intellectuals is largely a consequence of those people from colonial historical provenances asking questions that specifically come from their own histories. The euphoria in the battlecry, "The Empire Writes Back", is now a post-colonial clichŽ. The historical universe of the imperialist narrative discourse appears to have been punctured by post-colonial intellectuals who have ironically learned and mastered the spirit of the post-colonial clichŽ embodied by Caliban's defiance: "You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse".3 The essays in this book thus constitute various significant ways of articulating post-colonial politics, "prominent among which is resistance to colonialism, colonialist ideologies, and their contemporary forms and subjectificatory legacies" (vii).
One major limitation in the book, however, is its reduction of imperialist centres to Europe and America only. While the essays focus on "local historical and geographical specificities" (xi) of the colonial encounter to theorize on a pluralistic post-colonial culture and its contradictions, they assume imperialism as a monolith, devoid of any local, historical or geographical specificities. Such labelling as European or American imperialism fails to reveal the complexities of such imperialisms. And perhaps because of this limitation, the book fails to focus on the development of much of the socialist imperialism in the twentieth century.
Also, by privileging post-colonial writing as dominant post-colonial cultural text, the book is basically revealed as elitist. Linda Hutcheon, as something of an exception, however, looks into Joyce Wieland's political film trilogy, True Patriot Love, as a way of theorizing an experience of post-colonial Canada, "a land raped and colonized by England and then by the United States" (182). The inclusion of Wieland's film validly extends the field of post-colonial cultural texts.
Annamarie Carusi's title for her essay, "Post, Post and Post. Or, Where is South African Literature in All This?" expresses a legitimate concern which points to a preoccupation in post-colonial studies with exclusive texts. "Where are the popular cultural texts in All This?" is a question which one can rightly pose about this book. Where are the pulp fictions? Where are the films? The television? Surely, post-colonial cultural texts do not merely find expressions in English alone, despite its international currency and the language obviously privileged in this book. In a former British colony such as India, English has become the language of the elite and educated class, a language which is generally not a part of the cultures of the Indian workers in the fields or factories. How do these workers express their post-colonial experiences? In their songs and dances? Through their music and drawings, perhaps? Hong Kong remains a British colony until 1997 but English is not the main language used there. What can the prevalence of non-English cultural texts in Hong Kong suggest and perhaps add to the debate of post-colonial theory and criticism?
The book nevertheless is a very valuable contribution to the field, but is limited in the way it "seeks to characterise post-modernist and post-colonial discourses in relation to each other and to chart their intersecting and diverging trajectories" (vii), within such narrow discourse frames. Of the post-modernist and post-colonial nexus, Ian Adam says it most succinctly:
The post-colonial and the post-modern: how they converge, merge, diverge. They converge in appearing as prominent literary practices in post-colonial cultures, equally committed to a subversion of authoritative and monocultural forms of genre, history and discourse. They merge in such overlapping formal practices as discontinuity, polyphony, and derealization ... They diverge in historical reach, so that the post-colonial may be detected, in some cases, in the heyday of colonialism ... while the post-modern stays resolutely contemporary; they diverge in generic variety ... they diverge in their sites production, the one emerging from social and political self-assertion, the other from a resolute skepticism about such possibilities of identity(79).
But not all in English surely?
1 Bill Ashcroft et al., The Empire Writes Back (London: Routledge: 1989), p.1.
2 D. Bennett & T. Collits, 'The postcolonial critic: Homi Bhabha interviewed,' in Arena, 96 (1991), p.47-63, here p.48.
3 The Tempest: The BBC TV Shakespeare (London: Pitman, 1980), p.43.
TAN See Kam
University of Melbourne
ANTITHESIS. Special Issue, 4.2, (1991) 'Thinking About Performing Thinking', University of Melbourne.
Edited by the Melbourne Performance Research Group, this special issue of ANTITHESIS sets itself an ambitious task: the redressing of a "perceived imbalance" in publications dealing with the performing arts in Australia. The Editorial argues that there has been a "marked reluctance, outside the academy, to make connections between contemporary critical theory and performances practices." I would also argue the case from the other direction: within the academy there is often a severe case of performance-blindness, with little allowance made for the difference that movement of bodies in space make to questions of text and theory. Given this split within performance theory itself, it is not surprising that this journal is also split: between papers which attempt to read critical theory by the light of performance, and those that "review" performances through the glass of critical theory.
Among the former variety of articles, I found Rachel Fensham's 'Performing the City' and Glenn D'Cruz's 'Illuminating Gestus' the most useful. Fensham's focus on the ways in which performance-based theory "can again make space for agency on the part of the reader/spectator" was echoed by D'Cruz's elaboration on the notion of the "punctum", which he claimed "can move the actor towards communicating the relationship between subjective processes and the symbolic structures which construct the actor's internal space". Alison Richards' 'The Uttering I' was also provocative in pointing towards a re-evaluation of Stanislavski in the light of post-structuralist theories of the subject.
I found the papers which attempted to "write" a performance less satisfying. This has more to do with a fundamental problem with the whole project, than with any individual inadequacy in these particular examples. How can we "theorise" a specific performance or process without losing the very physicality and immediacy, the "presence", which makes it a performance? It was refreshing to see here writers even grappling with issue.
This special issue offers an excellent challenge to theorists working in the area of Australian performance studies. It is also a valuable resource, especially the bibliographical material on the 'Work of the Dramaturge'. Furthermore, ANTITHESIS itself is an enterprise worthy of support: it offers a rare forum for both postgraduates and academics trying to write across disciplinary battle lines. It is available from the English Department, University of Melbourne.
Stephen Alomes & Dirk den Hartog (ed.), Post Pop: Popular Culture, Nationalism and Postmodernism. Footprint: Footscray, 1991.
There seems to be a lot of dissociated sensibility left after the Airborne Toxic Event that hit Melbourne in 1991. Much of it is on display in Post Pop, a lament for the foreignness and decadence of extra-Victorian Australian cultural theory. The "hothouse cultures of the 'new' universities of sunny Perth and Brisbane" are noted for the way in which their output is influenced by the fact that many of their authors were born in Britain or - worse yet - elected to study there (10 and 16); there should be no room in this world for "playful hedonistic intellectual pleasures" (38); we all need to be watchful in case of seduction by "French thought" (10) or, perhaps, "Meaghan Morris" (46). Hope is at hand. A journal called Arena (not the one started by the guy from i-D; it's British and a fashion magazine about street culture, hence hedonistic and lacking in self-knowledge) can help us to remain tied to the wheel and avoid the sirens of jouissance.
All of this is to say the Post Pop favours a means of self-formation that differs from the one often associated with semiotics. The line run maintains that we are all visitors to an alienation from ourselves, subjects removed from an adequate sense of our real social conditions. This unhappy state of affairs is a product of the abstraction that goes with the displacement of the determination of our space and our time by ourselves and a consequent misrecognition of our points of identification. The correct sense of self will presumably be mortgaged by reinvesting ourselves with history and truth as technologies of definition and change. Where semiotics is called to the bar for infinite regression into the textual from the social, the truth of Arena will come from perceiving colonialism, atomic weaponry, Ernest Mandel and masculinity in the everyday, linked to each other by capital and nation. Where the semiotics it challenges seeks a reintegration of the self via points of resistance to dominant forms that are complicit with those forms, this line promises transcendence via harsh confrontation. Either way, cultural criticism is unquestioned as a worthy conduit to the self. Whatever signs are valorised or criticised, knowledge of them will make us better able to know ourselves. It is this faith in the gymnastic efforts of the aesthetic athlete which binds Post Pop to its despised other.
The book's conceptual modesty is sworn to by its ability to explain "The Social Origins of Postmodernism" in 3000 words. (You need a little over 4000 to be told about both "National Form and Popular Culture" and "Postmodernism and Popular Culture"). It does provide an essay of survey on the study of the audience and a useful bibliographic guide to popular culture. Both are reliable signposts to the literature they cover. But some fairly advanced, if polemically partial, contributions to complex debates blended with banal overview chapters finds Post Pop not so much caught between stools as sitting in its own. If you're in search of ancient ways in which to define yourself as a cultural critic forever incomplete and alienated, then read on Macduffer.
CAROLE FERRIER (ed.), Gender, Politics and Fiction: Twentieth Century Australian Women's Novels. (Second Edition), University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1992.
This re-publication of what is by now a very well known and widely used collection of essays on a range of Australian women writers (tagged a 'key text' in the advance publicity) acknowledges the shifts that have taken place within both feminist politics and literary theory - and importantly, in the intersection of these fields - over the seven years since its first release. Essentially unchanged but enlarged, this edition now has its own Preface, and three significant new essays - Carole Ferrier's 'Aboriginal Women's Narratives', Bronwen Levy's 'Now What's Erotic? Sexuality, Desire and Australian Women's Writing', and Gillian Whitlock's 'Graftworks: Australian Women's Writing 1970-90', which replaces Margaret Smith's original overview of Australian women's novels of the seventies - as well as an updated bibliography.
The original collection was in many ways a quirkish one. Held together by their "socialist and/or feminist standpoints", as the Introductory Commentary to the first edition at once announced, the essays were solidly researched pieces that did open up new ways of thinking about the texts they dealt with. In addition, the same political tendencies were evident in the work of the majority of the writers used. It was nevertheless not evident why these essays, rather than any other collection of broadly socialist/feminist work on this or another group of women writers, had been brought together. Only Sneja Gunew's essay on migrant women's writing examined a broad grouping of work located in a particular political relation to, and within Australian writing, and re-viewed it.
Thus the existence of the collection seemed primarily due to the energy and commitment of its editor. Ferrier's impact on, and contribution to, Australian feminist literary scholarship and feminist politics in Australia has been definitive and far-reaching, especially through her initiation in 1975 and continuing editorship (with Bronwen Levy latterly) of Hecate, an interdisciplinary journal concerned with issues of women and Australian culture. Through Gender, Politics and Fiction, Ferrier identified the materialist issues of women's lives and literary production as significant for Australian feminist literary scholarship when it first came out. But it seems valid to ask, why a second edition?
Gender, Politics and Fiction by now has its own history, and can be situated and read in what has become an established narrative of contemporary feminism in Australia. It generated widely divergent critical responses on its first release; responses not unconnected with Ferrier's challenging and sometimes combative stance vis a vis more entrenched, so-called traditional, views of the role and place of women in relation to critical and literary productions. So the orientation of that first publication came from both feminist reworkings and marxist literary theory. It was to "reflect", as Ferrier said then "the current questioning of the literary establishment's construction of the institution of literary criticism, its notions of 'literary value', and its concept of 'literature'." That this now seems itself traditional represents the extraordinarily rapid changes that have taken place in ways of thinking about these concepts since that time. In her new Preface, Ferrier points to the "refiguring" of women's writing which has taken place in Australia over the past decade - in articles, in the several new feminist or women's journals, in the publication of out of print texts, and in biographical writings. This provides the field of debate within which a pioneering text like Gender, Politics and Fiction is situated today.
Many of these preoccupations are taken up in Gillian Whitlock's new final essay, which provides a comprehensive documentation of the shift from the feminist writing of the seventies to the feminisation of women's writing in institutional practices in the eighties. She then makes a "series of sorties" to describe the ways contemporary women's writing, in three quite different modes, continues to offer subversive scripts to its readers. And the essays on Aboriginal women's writing, and the erotics of women's writing in Australia, scrutinise - as they add to the preoccupations of the earlier essays with the intersections and contradictions of gender and class - the discriminatory positioning of women through their colour, and the repression of female sexuality in Australian literary production.
At the end of her Preface, Ferrier makes a familiar gesture, locating the new Gender, Politics and Fiction where it "will provide a further stimulus to the production of radical critiques of the situation of women and women writers in Australia." While this text cannot be claimed as itself subversively interventionist in the dominant discourses in literary studies, since its revamping, while worthwhile, is hardly radical, it may re-stimulate debate, combining as it does the established and familiar essays with the new, necessarily producing a different text.
University of Western Australia
TONI O'BRIEN JOHNSON & DAVID CAIRNS (eds.)
Gender in Irish Writing. Open University Press: London, 1991.
Gender In Irish Writing is not so much the point of departure for gender issues, that it claims to be as a valuable contribution to a project that is already active: the attempt to confront images of Irish women as they appear in both modern and ancient forms. Like much contemporary writing on Ireland it challenges dominant masculine perspectives and deconstructs oppressive social constructions of the feminine that arise at the point where colonialism, gender and language meet.
There are eight essays in this book, each using aspects of one or more methodologies to interrogate the ideological frames of a wide variety of texts, including old and modern versions of the Deirdre tale, Bram Stoker's Dracula, political propaganda from Sinn FŽin, plays of Samuel Beckett and W B Yeats, and poetry of Yeats, Seamus Heaney and John Montague, and novels of Jennifer Johnson.
The elopement tale of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, in which the woman, not the man, instigates the action, is taken up in several essays in this collection and proves particularly useful in illuminating the different kinds of values that can attach to constructions of the female, depending on the ideological conditions of their production. M‡ire Herbert deconstructs pre-Christian and Early Christian versions of the tale and concludes that the way Deirdre's action is encoded in Christian versions empowers male authority, whereas the encodement of the same action in the pre-Christian versions offers the possibility of co-operative authority.
Cairns and Richards map out and critique the Deirdre tale, as recently dramatised for British television, and challenge the adequacy of the form in relation to the present, even where the director's explicit intention is to deconstruct and overcome socio-political limitations which are understood to inhere in the destructive resolution of the original tale.
Elin Ap Hywel takes up the Deirdre tale as part of an overall assault on cultural nationalism. For her the views of women espoused in Douglas Hyde's version of the tale, and in the pages of Sinn FŽin, eliminate the possibility of them actively participating in the battle for cultural and political independence. Hywel's view directly challenges the credibility of cultural nationalism, seeing in its depictions of women, an effect which negates its usefulness.
The problem is that in her haste to rehabilitate the feminine, Hywel fails to engage with cultural nationalism within the context of its resistance to imperialism. And this context, it should be remembered, was transcendental with regard to Irish women and men, requiring only that they accept the unequal colonial relation. Much of the material which she treats in terms exclusive to female gender was part of a Sinn FŽin propaganda campaign which inverted the dominant imperial order of racial superiority and made it a rallying force for Irish interests. Given that cultural nationalism had an interactionary basis in imperialism, and thus reproduced many of its discourses, the campaign was necessarily biased towards males. Also, given that the cause of Irish independence required secrecy, discipline and the effacement of the individual for the benefit of the group, it was necessarily limited with regard to individual liberty. But despite such limitations, the cultural nationalists' propaganda campaign was reformative and progressive in so far as it was able to undermine imperial power in Ireland. Both the Sinn Féin and The United Irishman journals of 1904-06 are marked by aescetism and concentrate on mobilising every aspect of Irish life for the nationalist cause. The fact that such writing appropriates women and men within an already unequal paradigm needs to be addressed, but not in a way that sublates the main historical chance for political and cultural independence to issues of gender.
Perth, Western Australia
MANFRED JURGENSEN, Eagle and Emu: German-Australian Writing 1930-1990. University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1991.
In Eagle and Emu Professor Jurgensen discusses in detail over one-hundred works with an Australian Theme or setting by writers from German backgrounds. Each discussion is a medley of biographic and bibliographic facts, plot synopsis, and assessments of the work's literary or historical significance. At their best these commentaries are both comprehensive and succinct. Jurgensen gives us an almost encyclopaedic overview of recent German-Australian writing, and a valuable companion piece to the bibliography of German Australiana (1990 by Bodi, Jeffries and Radvansky). The array of information Jurgensen assembles is marred by just one error: the misspelling of the author Behrend von Tiesenhausen as Tiefenhausen.
The study is also like an encyclopaedia in that the various discussions remain discrete and disconnected. The integration of the array of information into a cogent history or account of German-Australian writing proves troublesome. The principal problem is, of course, defining the place of a variety of works that are, by and large, peripheral to both conventional German and Australian literary histories, and are in danger of being considered 'antiquarian curiosities' (p.10). Jurgensen's solution is to resist fixed and conventional categorizations and definitions altogether and instead to trace an (often unsteady) development. This is the development 'towards the "mainstream"' as the final chapter of the study is called.
With the notable exception of Egon Erwin Kisch, the earlier writers are generally travellers or tourists who look on Australia from a vast distance, as a foreign and faraway place; they are unable or unwilling to 'abandon the tourist's vision and take a closer look at the real country' (p.72). Conversely, the more recent writers have largely overcome this distance by living in Australia, engaging with it as immediate reality, and contributing to the "mainstream" of Australian writing. This later writing represents the fruit of German-Australian writing and bears the bulk of the study's weight.
There are two groups of these later writers. First there are writers from the former G.D.R. who lived for extended periods in Australia and, true to social-realist prescription, dealt with the local sociopolitical reality. Jurgensen has long sections on the attempts of Walter Kaufmann (twenty pages) and Joachim Specht (twelve pages) to deal with Australia's 'sociopolitical problems' (p.293). Second, there are the writers who live in Australia and play a significant role in contemporary Australian literary life. In particular the 'contribution to Australian literary culture' (p.340) made by the work of Walter Adamson (twenty two pages) and by that of Jurgensen himself, discussed by Elizabeth Perkins and Marga Lange (forty three pages), is covered in detail. Indeed, the discussion of contemporary writers is so detailed and enthusiastic as to sometimes approach triviality and overstatement, as is indicated by Jurgensen's description of the poet Margaret Diesendorf as: 'a verbal prophet, a witness, an enchantress, an enticer, a conspirator of sense' (p.306).
Between the earlier and contemporary poles of the survey lies the finest part of the study: the discussions of those writers of the 1950s and '60s who began to grapple with the realization that their accustomed ways of thinking and their language conditioned and even falsified their understanding of local reality. Jurgensen adroitly analyses the problem of 'intercultural linguistic alienation' (p.216) and the attempts of self-reflexive writers to render Australian reality. David Martin's work is discussed as an illuminating treatment of the dilemma of out-of-placeness and uncertain identity, of the author's 'fluctuating between his native and his adopted culture' (p.192).
The analysis of Martin's work amongst that of other German writers offers an interesting contrast to Irmtraud Petersson's (1990) discussion of Martin's work in relation to that of other Australian writers. And Jurgensen's contention that Paul Hirsch/Hatvani's self-critical articles offer a strategy of 'how to write when a belief in writing has gone' (p.191) augments existing commentary on the compelling work of this writer. This middle section of the study fully justifies Jurgensen's conclusion that it is fascinating to observe 'a creative, imaginative adoption of what was considered to be different' (p.396).
This study does not delineate a continuous or a particular German spiritual or cultural response to Australia, such as has been postulated by David Malouf in various contexts and most recently by Walter Veit in Striking Chords (eds. Gunew and Longley). Jurgensen writes that 'after 150 years of German-Australian literature, very little real information or specifically German interpretation has been forthcoming' (p.231). What Jurgensen does give us is a wide-ranging and diverse overview of recent German writing about Australia, and an indication of the new impulses which a self-reflexive and self-critical 'ethnic' writing creates as it develops towards, and begins to influence and alter, "the mainstream".
JENNY CHESHIRE (ed.), English Around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1991.
English around the world is a substantial volume, with a complex internal structure. It is to be seen as corrective in its emphasis. Two thirds of the book deals with the 'New Varieties' of English, while the UK and the USA are treated together with (excellent) brevity in a single paper by Cheshire. Like the journal English World-wide the book is strengthened by the treatment of the 'Old varieties' and 'New Varieties' side by side.
The focus is on the 'English-speaking world': the principle is to exclude countries where English is used mainly as a foreign language (Cheshire, p.10). In general this aim is achieved, although some of the regional groupings result in references to countries where English is undoubtedly mainly a foreign language.
The world is divided into eleven national and regional groups which provide the sections of the book. Apart from the UK and the USA, it so happens that each of the 'Old Variety' countries (Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) gets its own section. Cheshire emphasizes the importance of separating New Zealand from Australia, breaking away from "the tradition of treating ... [them] as a single linguistic unit" (p.9). It is a pity that these scruples did not sometimes extend to the 'New Variety' countries.
The rest of the world is grouped regionally, and, as Cheshire admits (p.10), in these groupings "some countries ... sit uneasily". Authors allocated miscellaneous regions have attempted to cope in different ways. One of the most uncomfortable regions is the non-contiguous 'Southeast Asia and Hong Kong' in which Singapore and Malaysia form a logical regional grouping, while the Philippines has a different history of English, and Hong Kong is different again. Thailand and Indonesia (covered in Tay's overview), where English is virtually entirely a foreign language, should not have had any place in this book at all. Abdulaziz, given 'East Africa', has restricted his discussion to Kenya and Tanzania, which, like Singapore and Malaysia, can be usefully discussed together despite their differences. This restriction however results in the total omission of Uganda. Bokamba (West Africa) gives an overview of the whole of the geographical region, and subsequently focuses on English-speaking West Africa. Winford (The Caribbean) zooms in on the anglophone Caribbean, which even then is "anything but a linguistically homogeneous area" (p.569), and Romaine (The Pacific) gives a brief account of German and French in her "vast area" (p.619) before concentrating on English. Those authors who were assigned large, non-contiguous and non-autonomous regions should have got together and should either have guided Cheshire to a reorganization or have been guided by her to a unified treatment.
Each section contains three 'case studies' (except East Africa which has only two) and an 'overview' by another writer, which gives background information on the region, and includes a critical review of previous studies in the region. The overviews were supposed to have been written to a plan, but Cheshire explains that the authors did not always follow the instructions very literally. The basic structure seems to have been something like: Background; Status/Autonomy of English; Variation; Language Attitudes; Conclusion/Future Directions for Research. I cannot help feeling that those introductions which do follow this structure are easier to read, easier to compare, and more useful as overviews than those which are more idiosyncratic. However, writers dealing with large and diverse regions naturally have more difficulty in developing coherent overviews than those dealing with single countries.
Some writers give excellent politico-historical summaries of their regions especially Harris (Ireland), Abdulaziz (Kenya and Tanzania), and Chishimba (Southern Africa) which make no assumption of background knowledge. These will be of considerable value for student reading throughout the world. Bokamba (West Africa) and Winford (The Caribbean) include maps and tables of demographic information, a useful feature which could have been extended to other overviews.
It is of particular importance for scholars that the overviews indicate, as most do, the directions for future research or gross gaps in knowledge. On this basis, Southern Africa, where there have been "few significant studies" (Chishimba, p.443) seems to be the place sociolinguists in search of pastures new should head for! The overviews do on the whole provide a degree of unity to the book and most of them are valuable surveys of the current state of research in the regions.
The case studies are said to be "representative examples of the sociolinguistic research that has been carried out in that part of the English-speaking world" (Cheshire, p.9). In some regions the sample is more representative than in others, either geographically or methodologically. For example, two of the Caribbean case studies are on Guyana, and one on Belize. The absence of Jamaica (the largest Caribbean country and of great interest to creolists) prevents this from being in any way representative. Conversely all the case-studies in the South Asia section refer to India (the biggest and most studied country of the region). Despite the extensive research on multilingualism in Canada, Canada is the only regional group to have no case-study which has reference to multilingualism or language contact.
The case studies seem to me to be more tasters than representative. They give an indication of some of the possible approaches - attempted in some areas, untried in others. The scale of this lies somewhere between stimulating and mind-boggling. Anyone who reads them as I did, one after another (which I imagine few readers will do), cannot help asking cross-study questions. I always feel that collections of this sort would benefit from greater unity; from making these inferable links explicit. The editor, however, does make one rather puzzling contribution in a footnote (p.416) making a link between Kanuoro's case-study and Abdulaziz's overview, but there are other more important areas of contrast and contradiction.
Why, for example, are certain types of studies favoured in some regions and not in others? This is not necessarily a case of the situation determining the approach, but more because of research tradition, and this collection lends itself to readers picking up on approaches to English which are untested in their own regions. Methodologically, the studies cover a wide spread, as they are intended to, though wider in some regions than others. The three Canadian case studies are all of phonological variation, while all the Caribbean studies are of syntactic variation. This is in sharp contrast to the range of approaches used in the Australian and New Zealand case studies.
Why do researchers in some areas still use British English/RP as a base line for comparison (popular in East Africa but not in the Caribbean)? Why are there no dialectological studies in India, where there are regional varieties of English (as is mentioned in passing by Sahgal, p.304)? Geographical variation is not referred to in Kandiah's rather personal overview of South Asia.
What concepts of social class lead Chambers (p.90) to propound the view that in Canada "as in the New World societies of the United States and Australia" there is a "relatively monochromatic class structure", with Canada being "overwhelmingly middle-class", while the application of this "cherished belief" (Bayard, p.169) to New Zealand and to Australia is rejected by Bell and Holmes and by Guy respectively? Why do Žlites suddenly appear when we enter the ESL context?
This is an exciting collection, although some articles have too many footnotes consisting of material that could have been in the text. More worrying is the fact that four writers refer to their own use of surreptitious recording: we should be more concerned about doing ethical research than about overcoming the Observer's Paradox.
For researchers in the field both the overviews and the case studies nevertheless indicate the state of the art, the scope of the field, and should stimulate further work. For teachers, the overviews especially will be invaluable on reading lists for students in quite a range of courses, and in all parts of the world.
Anthea Fraser Gupta
National University of Singapore
JACK DAVIS, Black Life Poems. University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1991.
A quality that makes Jack Davis's poetry so attractive is that while remaining quintessentially Aboriginal, it speaks to a broad audience. This breadth of reference is accomplished in a language that is clear, precise, and void of pretension. Thematically, this latest collection of poems is comprehensive extending from reflections on Charles Darwin, to kangaroo hunts. Many of Davis's poems concern themselves with earthly transience and the travesty of "Western" materialism.
Not long after the arrival of the first white settlers at Botany Bay, English Romantic poets affected a similar stance. Indeed, Wordsworth's line "The world is too much with us" might well have told of selfish preoccupations of the late twentieth century. But what may have been a lofty revelation to the Romantic poets, is an acrimonious inheritance with far greater cogency to the Australian indigene. This book is not so much a new tintinnabulation of that Romantic decree against the dangers of getting and spending, but more a native paradigm, modified and enhanced by a broader range of topics, within eighty-nine pages covering a like number of poems.
With his inherent sensitivity to the beauty and the tragedy of life in the changed landscape that tolls of "Western" settlement, Davis seems to speak for both indigene and interloper. In the business of acquiring, the Europeans laid waste their sense of propriety, human decency, and beauty. In this sordid boon of white materialism, Davis's poem "No Name" is an eloquent metaphor for restraint against the further aggrandisement of the land and of the human spirit:
I whispered of
a world of love
she looked askance
and softly said
this space in time
of mundane things
and then she fled
to break the dream
The dream ends intimating the problems of the world cast shadows of doubt upon the inward eye, and upon prospects for quick, felicitous change. But in awakening from the vision, what next confronts the speaker of the poem?
Rather than giving way to pessimism, the tone of many of these poems is a muted optimism. "Summer Scene", for example, captures the stark verities of the natural world but implies only a tangential human partnership within that scene of displacement. And yet the speaker seems somehow to permeate this scene with contemplative reverence.
In still another 'tone poem', "A Lament for All Those Who Have Passed On and the Arrival of Black Bureaucracy", controlled anger and sorrow are expressed over the loss of friends by death or by supplication to the white idolatry of dollar and dime.
Most of Davis' poems employ a startlingly simple language, a style reminiscent of African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks: spunky terse verse punctuated by vivid imagery. These poems, often deceptive in their apparent simplicity, have a worth which may be measured well beyond rhythm and metre. They suggest a fragility and delicacy to the world which cannot be appreciated by those who would shroud purity with complexity. Consider, for example, "Roses":
They were beautiful
in the morning light
Today is their living
in all their glory splendid
But tomorrow they will wilt
bow their heads
leaves become bedraggled
to signify their dying
In Davis's poetry there is too the purity of the unadorned melody of Triton's wreathed horn, a melody unlost on the urban Aborigine who might easily say, "Yes, I know." While echoing Wordsworth's sentiments that we are out of tune, this poetry employs Nyoongah strategies attuned to our times, not merely a simulacrum of the past. This point is emphasised by the poem "I Am" in which persona closely images poet in proclaiming,
I am irrefutably
Here is a genealogy to which we might all aspire - sans heroics.
ALLEN CURNOW. Selected Poems 1940-1989. Penguin Ringwood: 1990.
For decades Curnow has been known as New Zealand's leading poet. This new selection presents him as more, even, than that. In 1982 a Selected Poems of two hundred and forty six pages appeared as one of the Penguin Poets series: chronological, from Not in Narrow Seas (1939) to An Incorrigible Music (1979). It was thus easy to discern and admire the several stages of his achievement and development. Put crudely, the beginning was as troubled spokesman and critical analyst of his New Zealand, a settler society still marked by the violence with which it invaded and subdued the land of the Maoris.
Not that the Maori filled much of the foreground for Curnow the South Islander. In the landmark poem of 1941, 'House and Land', old Miss Wilson, whose conversation resounds with phrases like 'People in the colonies...', asserts, 'Why, from Waiau to the mountains / It was all father's land.' Surely, this poem, had it been written some years later, would have hinted at Miss Wilson's blindness to the fact that before it was all father's it was all someone else's. (New Zealanders have prided themselves in the Treaty of Waitangi's acknowledgment of the Maori right to the land, in contrast to Australia's denial of its indigenous people's right.)
Curnow's preoccupations were with the slowness of the settlers to adapt, to put down roots; with failures of many sorts both outward and inward. A personal use of Christian myth animates many poems: 'Morning by morning incorruption / Puts on corruption... Failed at the one flood we do not count / On miracles again.' ('At Dead Low Water', 1944) Later Curnow is a virtuoso of form and unparaphraseable mimetic playlets of a mind in motion.
These poems resist, so far, appropriation by our burgeoning academic discourses on postcolonialism. And the arrangement of the new Selected Poems, unchronological, and playing down early 'national' Curnow, renders almost invisible that once-dominant narrative. Beside the two 'early' poems already mentioned, only ten survive from the 1982 Selected, and these pop up in part two of a three-part book. Why?
The design of this new presentation is to show the world more than 'New Zealand's leading poet'. He is now one of the 'Penguin international poets', and a 'modern master', with back-cover accolades from Peter Porter and Michael Hulse ('greatness'). This seems right to me. A slow trot through much early Curnow might have impeded recognition of the versatile and adventurous poet he has become. So, as he says in his new Preface: 'The earliest come nearest the middle, touching the history and identity of my country, "a scrap of green ground at the hub" - words from a play I wrote nearly fifty years ago - less to suggest a centre on which everything else turns, than simply to mark the spot on the map from which I have sailed or paddled all this time.' How different this sounds from the 1982 'Author's Note': 'it was a poetic and personal need that got me into history (or 'unhistory'). The question of my country was, for me at that time, an intensely personal one. there is indeed a claptrap of the subject, we have heard enough of 'national identity', but this doesn't mean that it will go away. There is also, I hope, a poetry of the subject.'
There is indeed (or was) for Not in Narrow Seas is now de-selected, along with 'Country School', 'Wild Iron', 'Discover', 'Sailing or Drowning', and even 'To Forget Self and All', with its resoundingly diagnostic second line: 'This whimpering second unlicked self my country'. This particular self, if not forgotten, is temporarily sidelined.
Other Curnow selves enjoy full play. Recent poems re-envision his childhood. This prompts mention of the Summer 1991 number of Verse from St Andrews University, with its forty-page celebration of Curnow 'at eighty'. Another brilliant poem of childhood is here, 'A Busy Port'; and poems and tributes by several hands, which show how far beyond his scrap of green ground he is now being appreciated, especially by younger poets.
Placed last in this new 'international' Curnow is a poem, 'An Evening Light', which brings back the South Island Maori who were overlooked by the early 'House and Land'. The new poem evokes, in late-Curnow's most poised, judicious manner, his early life among bowler hats, butchers' and cabbies' horses, and Church of England Curnows who epitomise late-colonial New Zealand:
The foreground fills
with a fallen light which lies about the true
colours of absconded things, among
which I place this child whose tenth birthday happens
to have been my father's, that will be
a hundred years next Thursday. We were to meet
at a time of precisely such radiant
discolorations, the city of his mind.
The whole poem of thirty four lines is brought to focus in memory-images that seem vividly personal, set in a long perspective of South Pacific and settler history (Anglican Canterbury), staking out the land and preaching Christ (but what gospel?) to the Maori:
his back, which aches
to think of riding wet to the girths
and stirrups cutting up a country the size
of England with a sackful of pegs.
Under the one fallen firelit sky the Ngai-tahu
kainga and excavated paa
mark time by moa-bone middens, oceanic
migrations. What gospel will my father
preach to Tuahiwi, counting communicants
and the collection?
In a dry little note on this poem, Curnow provides a minimum of help for his international readers: notes on kainga and paa; and: 'The Ngai-tahu tribe occupied, and still claim, a great part of the South Island of New Zealand.' On reflection, Tuahiwi, a tiny settlement north of Christchurch, may well have had no Maori Anglicans. And the Ngai-tahu settlements referred to may be unpeopled. Excavated?
At Auckland University in the late 50s, we thought Allen Curnow, demonstrating how to read out The Wreck of the Deutschland, such an aesthete! Of course he was always many things beside that, but a poem like 'An Evening Light' reminds me of his lifelong calling to maintain poetry as an art, not as a vehicle for opinion, attitude or idea. These he reserved for his weekly exercises in light verse, published under the name of Whim Wham, for decades in more than one New Zealand newspaper. What ideology lurks in 'An Evening Light'? I should like to say that it is about the effects of passing time, changing light, a place that grew into a city, an environment that impacting on all the senses lit up a succession of (shall we say?) pakeha minds.
La Trobe University
ANTHONY J. HASSALL (ed.), Randolph Stow,
University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1991
Randolph Stow's reputation and work have a somewhat indeterminate status in Australia: stigmatized by expatriotism, he is revered in a vaguely distanciated manner. Early novels - those set in Australia - have been efficiently canonized as secondary school texts, on the grounds, one suspects, that these may be pedagogically co-opted to service a particular literary-critical orthodoxy; one concerned principally with what John Docker identified as a species of nationalist metaphysics. Later novels, by contrast, have been enthusiastically reviewed but otherwise treated with a certain bemused disregard; the foreignness of their settings (the Trobriand Islands and East Anglia), rendering them unamenable to easy institutionalization and thus suspiciously 'difficult', 'alien' and un-Australian. The poetry is meagrely anthologized and barely acknowledged; the stories similarly inconspicuous and without due scholarly attention.
Anthony Hassall's excellent omnibus collection of Randolph Stow's work may well redress or reconfigure this peculiar critical situation. It admits no meretricious evaluative divisions, but gathers ecumenically a broad range of Stow's works, his early and later poetry, 'episodes' from his major novels, interviews, articles and a convenient bibliography. Its particular editorial virtue, however, lies in the pre-eminence it accords the novel Visitants (1979) - here reproduced in its entirety - and the generous selection of poetry, recuperated from over thirty years of production.
Dealing with cargo-cultism in the Trobriand Islands, Visitants is a novel of extraordinary technical and imaginative audacity. Ostensibly centred on the existential misery of the protaganist, Alistair Cawdor, a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea, its heteroglossic method in fact disperses narrative information structurally and epistemologically between seven different 'characters', three of them indigenous. (Cawdor himself, a white man born in the Solomon Islands, is neither truly indigenous or truly European, but a kind of emblem of anomie and dislocation.) This problematic torsion - between an emotional centre, as it were, and narratological decentring - gives the novel an unusual degree of dramatic and investigative amplitude. It constructs the subject of the novel, which concerns a colonial enquiry into mysterious local 'incidents', in terms of a much more complicated and general search-for-meaning. In addition it raises issues fundamental to post-colonial literary studies: cross-cultural comprehension or incomprehension, the role of ethnography in cultural understanding, the nature and exercise of colonial authority, the linguistic specificity of dialect and pidgin, questions of relativism and incommensurability in cross-cultural studies. It is, in short, an enormously valuable text for exploring those particular psychic and social entrapments within what Anthony Hassall shrewdly calls "the disintegrating cage of colonialism".
The poetry in this collection also deserves renewed critical scrutiny. A lyricist, rather like Francis Webb, who combines meticulous imagistic precision and earnest conceptual complexity, Stow is more or less unmentioned in poetry histories. Yet his work is broadly explorative in form and mode, and particularly interesting when regarded as material which consolidates, redeploys, and in some cases, contests the concerns of the novels. Indeed the degree of conceptual interpenetration between the poetry and the fiction is both remarkable and illuminating, and it might be added that one of the benefits of edited collections such as this is that it brings into clear conjunction elements of a corpus hitherto dissociated. The relation between Tourmaline and 'From the Testament of Tourmaline' is already well documented, but there exist other intertextual critical possibilities that might aid the study of, say, Stow's mythological borrowings, his phenomenology of mind, his post-colonial strategies of representation and his persistent interest in the employment of icon and symbol.
One of the difficulties the editor has faced in the construction of his compilation is that of extracting significant 'episodes' from the novels. An invidious and thankless task to begin with, and one dogged by the burdensome can't-please-everyone syndrome, Anthony Hassall has nevertheless chosen with scrupulousness and good sense. His choice of the opening of Tourmaline - where one is inducted, it might be said, into the narrator's dissolving and insecure sensibility - perhaps works best of all as an introductory piece, though the incisiveness of the other excerpts illustrate well Anthony Hassall's editorial judiciousness. The absence of an extract from The Suburbs of Hell is notable, but this is presumably a consequence of that novel's reliance on, and over-determination by, a certain cumulation of tonal strain and narrative mystery which does not easily lend itself to intelligible fragmentation.
The excellent collection, longer, as I recall, than any others in this series, and equipped with a genuinely thoughtful and deft introduction, demonstrates that such volumes may well provide informative and useful guides. And if it has no other function than to re-publicize and instate the ingenious Visitants, Hassall's work will have served an admirable purpose.
OLGA MASTERS, Reporting Home: Her writings as a journalist. Selected by Deirdre Coleman, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1990.
In 1934, at the age of 15, Olga Masters began her career in journalism. She had to leave school and get a job. Many women of Masters' generation began work early. It was the midst of the Great Depression and the Depression was no less Great in the small towns of New South Wales.
She began work at the Cobargo Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving the south coastal area between Bega and Moruya. A newspaper advertising itself as devoted to "home" news and serving its country readers well. "No item was too small for inclusion: the comings and goings of local people, their achievements, their mishaps, their anecdotes, their health - and even the health of their livestock" writes Deirdre Coleman (p.xiv) in Reporting Home, which is a gem of a book, easy to read and an enduring record of Masters' journalistic chronicles. Coleman has saved one journalist from the predicament that most suffer: leader article one day, wrapper for fish and chips the next, because for women who want to write, Olga Masters is an inspiration.
Masters married in 1940 and for the next 20 years packed and followed her schoolteacher husband Charles. Child followed child, until there were seven. It was not until 1955, when her youngest child was 14 and the eldest had flown the nest, that she returned to journalism by working casually as a "stringer" (at a penny a line) for the Lismore newspaper the Northern Star.
Through all the vicissitudes of family life, Masters continued working as a journalist. The pay was small but necessary to supplement that of a country schoolteacher. More important, it provided an outlet for her emotional and creative energy: energy left over when she'd finished mothering, supportive "wife-ing" and cooking.
And yet Masters was still restless. The family moved, and moved again, usually at the instigation of the Education Department. But after Charles' retirement, some moves were made simply because she felt the need for a change to assuage the cravings of her own relentless energy. Throughout this time she continued journalism, mainly for the women's pages of country and suburban newspapers. For most of those years Masters wrote anonymously. It was only in the 1970s, when working for the Manly Daily, that she first wrote under a by-line.
Coleman claims that Masters' years at the Manly Daily were "crucial to her development as a writer". She was learning her writing the hard way. No courses in "creative writing"; she was a "seat of the pants" writer. Instinctively getting it down on paper, seldom correcting. She wrote quickly, attacking an old typewriter and creating a story from fragments collected. But feeling limited and wanting to reach more people, she retired from the Manly Daily in 1977 and started writing radio plays, with mixed success.
Masters was 63 when her first book - a collection of short stories called The Home Girls, was published in 1982. Her apprenticeship in journalism had been long. But what a worthy apprenticeship it was. However, the "simple" style of writing learned through years of journalism caused her some anxiety when she finally started writing fiction. She felt inadequate because the tribe of new Australian authors like Murray Bail and Peter Carey seemed to be using much more "sophisticated" language. But as Coleman puts it: "despite the self-doubt, she was unable to make any fundamental alterations to her style;" (p.xviii).
Asked to comment on the different approaches adopted for journalism and for fiction, Masters nevertheless, denied there was much difference:
"I didn't find I had to change very much when I started to write fiction. I still wrote in a fairly simple, straightforward style, but I had this wonderful bonus of being able to describe, to indulge in a little description, that you couldn't do as a journalist" (p.xviii).
In December, 1984 she was tempted back to journalism by the Sydney Morning Herald to write the "Style" column. "Here, for the first time," Coleman notes, "we see Masters writing outside the format of the women's pages" (p.xxix).
But time was running out. Olga Masters died less than two years later, in September 1986 at the age of 67.
In the four busy years since the publication of her first book, she wrote four more. Despite worries about Charles' health, despite tragedy in the family and despite the dreadful headaches that were the precursor to the brain tumour that eventually killed her, she continued writing - both fiction and journalism.
Deirdre Coleman, who lectures in Sydney University's Department of English, has offered us a new look at Masters. This collection of about 40 articles, written throughout Masters' 30 years of journalism, defuses the myth that writing is something "other". Masters wrote about her life as it was: as wife, mother, house-keeper. All women can recognise the minutiae of her days. She is like the rest of us with the same big and small disasters - the same big and small triumphs. What is different is that she, without any fuss, sat down and wrote about it. And earned a salary from it.
VICTOR KELLEHER, Wintering , University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1990.
JOHN CLANCHY, Homecoming, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1989.
ELIZABETH JOLLEY, Cabin Fever, Viking: Ringwood, 1990.
PETER CAREY, The Tax Inspector, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1991.
Wintering is curious for its crossing outs. Certain passages are crossed out by a black diagonal line. The sense of this is that the main character, Jack Rudd is attempting to write an account of white male cruelty from the aspect of a black female victim. The crossing outs are by Bridget, a former lover and Aboriginal activist. The corollary is a questioning of whether a white man can understand the atrocities committed on the Aboriginal people, particularly from a female perspective. The author of the novel is male, London born, has spent twenty two years in South Africa and was an associate professor of English in New South Wales till 1988 when he started writing full time.
Wintering is about guilt and the wintering of doubt. To winter is to survive the coldness of broken relations, to go on to renewal in spring. The implication is that we can overcome the difficulties of political, social and sexual divisions. But, it is up to the reader to work out if Jack Rudd, or Victor Kelleher can achieve the sensitivity necessary for appreciating the Aboriginal female point of view.
Homecoming is a collection of three novellas. The first, 'Homecoming', is about bringing home the truth of the Vietnam War. Jack and Mary Streeton of Coleraine, a country town, lose their sole son Simon in Vietnam. There is a mystery surrounding Simon's death which the defence department will not divulge. This political impotency is transferred to a commensurate inadequacy in their sexual relations. Eventually, Jack is able to pin the department down and he determines that Simon suicidally stepped into a hail of Viet Cong Bullets out of self disgust for the atrocity of Vietnam. Meanwhile, Mary in Coleraine has an affair with Jack's war buddy, and Jack in Melbourne succeeds with a prostitute. So everyone comes, but home is another question.
'Islands' involves a couple who have an arrangement whereby they share an exotic 'dirty' holiday, but for the rest of the year they are separate, continuing their own lives and relationships. Initially this may have suited both, but eventually the man wants to change the 'rules': he wants the islands to join. This poses a threat to the relationship for the woman is caring for an invalid husband and does not want to leave him. Ultimately, they return to their respective homes, with the universal question prevailing of whether their trust and love can endure the waiting, but this is doubtful. Clearly these 'islands' occur in all relationships and signify something beyond physical parting. They allude to discontinuities in communication, which the individual cannot overcome directly. A desperate effort to overcome this undermines the trust of love.
The final story is 'Alexander the Great'. The central character is Dr. Alexander Porteus, a tutor in Classics and a practitioner of man's love for man. Alex's sinecure of senior tutor at a university college provide him with accommodation and allows him the time to devote to his life's work, a military history of classical Greece entitled Eros in Arms. The position of senior tutor is Alex's cocoon which protects him from the demands of competition in the outside world. Others in the college see him as an unproductive, indulgent anachronism. His ultimate downfall is tragic. He is seen in flagrante delicto with a male student and the machinations of university politics catch up with him. But Eros in Arms is finally recognised as "A work of fundamental and far-reaching scholarship ... likely to become the defining text in its field" (p.259).
Cabin Fever is a terribly alienating book. The title refers to an agoraphobic condition where a person's wariness of taking risks in the outside world becomes a fear of going out. It alludes to travel (a metaphor for the 'journey of life') where the afflicted person remains in a ship's cabin for the duration of a journey eschewing company and missing the point of travelling to exotic places. While the fever of confinement is stifling, the outside is too open, bright and cold.
Cabin Fever is a metaphor for birth, the forced egress from the warm, dark, safe womb to the bright outside. Hospitals and pregnancy feature in the novel. The central character is a nurse in an English hospital. She becomes pregnant by a doctor and has to leave the hospital and survive as an unsupported single mother.
The novel screams metafiction: look I'm a book about itself. The title 'Cabin Fever' recurs through the book, as a title for the novel, chapters and sections within chapters. The novel opens with a vignette of a person's observation, via a mirror, of a man in short sleeves at a table in an apartment across the street. The observer's apartment is the 'cabin' where she stays, fearing to go out to attend a conference. Where the main narrative thread concerns the observer's mother in England, New York becomes that exotic place which is never explored, and contrarily England is the stifling cabin.
But, in the metafictional mode of overt mise en abyme (the setting of the abyss, for example a novel about a writer writing the same book ...) there is a cabin within the cabin. The observer's mother, the nurse, is cut off from the warmth of human intercourse. She yearns for a return to the warmth of the doctor's arms (he dies in a war) or a lesbian embrace, both of which connote womb and cabin, but her life always has the coldness of an observer.
Perhaps Jolley is making a grand statement about the remote position of a novelist, how they observe and vivisect human relations. Or a statement about the coldness of society's treatment of single mothers cut off from family and friends, though this has somewhat changed. But, without the warm gutsiness of humanity, I would suggest leave the book and cuddle up to someone.
Incest and corruption feature in Carey's latest novel The Tax Inspector. The central thread of the novel is that the Tax Inspector, Maria Takis, is going to give birth. She comes from a family with a strong moralistic streak: "We never did like people with money in this house. We grew up mostly thinking they were crooks" (p.191). Her job sets her apart from the mainstream of Australia: "almost everyone I know works for the Australian Tax Office ... We divide the world into the people who work there and the people who don't" (p.195). Nevertheless, she is proud to be in the Tax Office because of its moral purpose: "I'm a very Tax Office sort of person ... It makes me sick ... to see all these skunks with their car phones and champagne and I see all this homelessness and poverty ... You don't need socialism to fix that, you just need a good Taxation Office ..." (p.216). Nevertheless, the insularity of Maria's world is threatened when she is sent to do a tax audit on the Catchprice Motors, a seedy family business in 'Franklin', a fictitious Sydney Western suburb.
From the start it is evident that if the audit was enforced Catchprice Motors would fold. The investigation was initiated at the request of Gran Frieda Catchprice as an attack against her daughter Cathy and son-in-law Howie. They were trying to get her committed so that they could follow a career in country music. In the novel's words, the Catchprice family is "a fucking minefield ... a snake-pit. They all hate each other" (p.148). However, Maria is not interested in this familial infighting: "I didn't join to piddle around rotten insignificant businesses like your family's ... I'm crazy enough to think the world can change, but not like that" (p.216). Her goal was the "investigations that brought millions into the public purse ... major corporations, multinationals ..." (p.123).
There is an endemic corruption in the Catchprices, a sort of 'original sin', which is illustrated in the symbolism of milk. At the novel's end, Maria is able to suckle her new born baby, a life affirming image. However, when Maria first arrives at Catchprice Motors, Frieda Catchprice offers her a glass of milk but finds hers is sour (p.37). She has had a total mastectomy and has no milk to give (p.92).
As the matriarch of the Catchprices, Frieda believes in her ability:
Granny Catchprice had made her life, invented it. When it was not what she wanted, she changed it ...
There was no poultry farm, she made one. There was no car business, she gave it to him, out of her head, where there had been nothing previously. (p.228)
But what she really wanted was a flower farm, and what she got was chooks and "the smell of rubber radiator hoses, fan belts, oil, grease, petrol vapour, cash flows ..."(p.60). She thought working on the poultry farm was the cause of her breast cancer:
... killing people in war, working in slaughter houses, putting chooks in rows in cages. This was something men can do and it will have no harmful effects for them.
But it sends a woman's chemicals into conflict. (p.92)
So finally, in the same vein as Bettina Joy, she lays charges of gelignite to blow Catchprice Motors to hell.
The climax of the novel involves the confrontation between sixteen-year-old Benny Catchprice and Maria, who has been abducted and is about to give birth. Benny is the victim of congenital child sexual abuse. As his father says, "My father did it to me. His father did it to him ..." (p.155). Benny's catch cry is "I cannot be what I am" (p.21), which is inscribed ad infinitum across the walls of his dungeon abode, along with names of angels that hang "like a woven web, a net, like a map of the human brain ... a long way from God" (p.114). He attempts a transformation, from a pimply pubescent who naturally attracts dirt, to an angel. He undergoes a $495 course of 'Self-Actualization' cassettes (which Maria had also done - a status yuppy sort of thing), removes all his body hairs, has wings tattooed on his back, and buys a $300 suit. His plan is to save the crumbling family business by becoming the salesman.
'What am I', or, 'what is the limits and possibilities of my existence', is the universal question. 'I cannot be what I am' is a paradox. Self-actualisation involves the recognition of desire and the confidence to realise it. In other words: 'I can be what I want to be'. Benny attempts a transformation, from a dirty, sexually abused and psychologically damaged adolescent (his mother accidently shot him at the age of three on finding his father sucking him), to become an angel and the saviour of the family. He cannot stay what he is, for that is morally debilitating, but neither can he achieve the ideal purity of a rebirth. To become the salesman saviour of the Catchprices, in an application of end-justifies-the-means, he compromises his father.
His father, Mort Catchprice, suffers guilt and struggles against this seduction, but to Benny this is hypocritical: "You stopped liking me when you got that stuff [pubic hair] stuck between your teeth" (p.154). So Mort gives in: his sexuality is without conscience. He responds to Benny's 'angelic' hairlessness, and confesses:
O.K., I touched you ... fucked, sucked. I made you stutter and wet your bed. Made you a liar too ... My skin responded. It's physiology. The male skin - you touch it, you get a response. Like jellyfish ... Every time you turn on the television, someone is saying: child sexual abuse ... I am the one trying to stop this stuff and he is crawling into bed and rubbing my dick and he will have a kid and do it to his kid, and he will be the monster and they'll want to kill him. Today he is the victim, tomorrow he is the monster. They do not let you be the two at one at once. They do not see: it is common because it is natural. No, I am not saying it is natural, but if it is so common how come it is not natural? (p.157-8)
Here, the reference to television is to such moral brow beating as typified on 'Hinch at Seven' (p.153). Mort's question about incest - "if it is so common how come it is not natural" - has broad application in the decriminalisation of homosexuality, alcohol, marijuana, et cetera. Liberalisation is an anathema to such as Hinch for, without crime and despicable people, there is nothing to brow beat about. While the incest of Oedipus is symbolic in psychoanalysis, Freud's point is being reiterated in The Tax Inspector, namely that civilisation is built upon repression. It needs a stink to think that:
To put it crudely, the current memory stinks just as an actual object may stink; and just as we turn away our sense organs (the head and nose) in disgust, so do the preconscious and our conscious apprehension turn away from memory. This is repression ... that is to say, the affective basis of a multitude of intellectual development processes, such as morality, shame, etc. Freud, Origins of Psychoanalysis (p.232)
The prevailing question is, do we read The Tax Inspector as a lesson of essential evil, as manifested in the Catchprices? Or conversely, do we adopt the more Nietzschean, postmodern attitude of blaming society for the victim's 'crimes'?
The Tax Inspector is not a moral lesson about the presence of absolute evil in particular people. Equally, it is not a call for blanket laissez faireism. It is simply a neat novel which raises a range of contemporary and pertinent issues of morality.
LILY BRETT, Things Could Be Worse. University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1992.
What God Wants. University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, 1991.
Lily Brett's first novel, Things Could Be Worse, recently re-issued by the University of Queensland Press, received acclaim within Australia, and deservedly so. In this novel Brett offers a reading of life after the Holocaust, both of the men and women who endured, and their children in the new land, Australia, who come to bear the repressions of this endurance.
A sensitive subject, and a difficult one, but one which, I think, Brett handles very well. Things Could Be Worse is a switchback ride over time and place, such that all experiences of the characters come to rest as co-existent, with the past very much alive in the shifting 'now' of the novel. Spanning such an enormous field of experience, Things Could Be Worse can be bewildering at times as characters enter and exit, reminisce and relive. While a purist may complain of the odd fragments which are unresolved (whatever happened to Michelle?), by and large this is a satisfying book, thought provoking, disturbing and delicately interlaced with flashes of humour.
What God Wants, Brett's second novel with University of Queensland Press, is, I feel, less successful. In contrast to Things Could Be Worse, things are. The setting is similar, but a generation down in focus. And with this distance seems to come an absence of the delicacy which characterised Brett's first work. Rather than a sensitive portrayal of people living under enormous emotional burdens, What God Wants teeters on the edge of being an extended one-dimentional parody of the Jewish joke. Steeped in schtooping, chicken soup, suburbia and mothers-in-law, I found very little in Brett's prose, beyond the exotica of the expletives, to sustain interest for very long. It is possible that this second novel, What God Wants, is a necessary return of that which Brett repressed in the first novel, Things Could Be Worse. If this is indeed the case, I look forward to Lily Brett's third - for all my doubts of her second novel, Brett's first is indicative that Brett can write, and write well.
Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh & Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1992.
When the Pelican Laughed is the life story of Alice Nannup, a Yindjibarndi woman born in 1911, on the Abydos station in the Pilbara. Alice's mother was a member of the Yindjibarndi group and her father was 'white.' At the age of twelve Alice was removed from her family by the department of Aboriginal Affairs. It was promised she would be educated and then returned home when she was eighteen. Alice in fact, received little education. She spent some time at the infamous Moore River Settlement followed by many years in domestic service. She eventually married and raised ten children. Finally, sixty-four years after her removal, Alice returned to her home country.
Although written under the rubic of autobiography, this life-story extends the generic boundaries. Autobiography, biography and history combine in this text. The result is a counter-memory, one that highlights the human suffering and tragedy that has marked the establishment of Western Australia as one state. This life-story fills in the gaps that historic categories such as, 'The Growth of the Western Australian Pastoral Industry' omit. This life story is thus not merely an account of one person's life. It is a history of Western Australia, spanning eighty years. In When the Pelican Laughed Alice Nannup documents the repressive effects of the 1905 Aborigines Act on the lives of thousands of people. She describes how the instigation of legalised child abduction effected the everyday lived experiences of numerous women, men and children in this state. She explains in poignant detail the consequences of internment in the Moore River Settlement, including life-long loss of contact with family, identity and independence.
This book is written by Alice Nannup in conjunction with Lauren Marsh and Stephen Kinnane. Lauren is studying English and Comparative Literature and Stephen is studying for a degree in Communication studies, both at Murdoch University.
When the Pelican Laughed is the result of researching material on Stephen Kinnane's grandmother, Jessie Argyle, who had met and formed a friendship with Alice in the 1920s. Both women were, at this time, under the care of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Stephen Kinnane and Lauren Marsh spent much time with Alice, eventually recording her life-story. They transcribed and edited this work in conjunction with Alice Nannup. Editing as a powerful mechanism of control is acknowledged by both Marsh and Kinnane. Editorial intrusion in the text is however sanctioned by Alice Nannup.
While reading When the Pelican Laughed I was struck by the lack of overt anger that Alice Nannup projected. It is difficult to appreciate that a person, their family and people can endure the atrocities that so many Aboriginal people have endured and still maintain a dialogue with the people that enforced such oppression. However, by the end of Alice's story the reader is aware, if s/he is white, that s/he is not the 'ideal reader,' this privilege is reserved for Alice's family and people. This realisation makes one aware that When the Pelican Laughed is foremost a history of survival, as such it is a powerful, positive account while at the same time being a history of colonial oppression.
New: 18 April, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015