BOOKS READ AUGUST 2020

Heather Rose: Bruny, p/b, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2019

HEATHER ROSE

New novel by prize-winning Tasmanian author Heather Rose who did well with The Museum of Modern Love in 2017. Bruny is  set on Bruny Island  in South east Tasmania in a future time not far from the present. The plot involves the political tangle and controversial manoeuvring by various parties  involved in a $2 billion joint national and state venture to build a bridge between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island, taking the place of the small ferry system currently operating. Heather Rose’s style mixes thinly veiled satire with enough sense of down to earth reality that makes the unlikely plot at least worth consideration if not believable

The key player, Astrid Coleman is a former Tasmanian of a powerful political family, now living in New York and working as a trouble shooter for the United Nations as well as covertly for the CIA. Coleman is persuaded by her father, JC, who happens to be the Premier of Tasmania, to return to Tasmania and do damage control after a terrorist attack damaged half the bridge at near completion stage.  The Premier wanted a quick fix in time for the next election and needed his daughter  on hand.  A controversial new law had just been passed allowing a significant force of Chinese labour to assist with the rebuild along with Australian workmen and the State had used Chinese belt and road money to help finance the scheme.

The novel has a vast array of involved participants including political figures on the left and right, greenies and nimbys, engineers, the bridge designer, the site foreman, anti bridge pressure groups of various types,  a Buddhist religious centre, Chinese heavy weight politicians, ASIO agents and other key operatives for various pressure groups.  The plot is tangled and a list up front of some of the key participants would have made reading easier to follow. Many issues of current Australian life style and policy  as well as political division are on display and the serious issue of Chinese investment in large tracts of Australian land and significant Australian business operations is at the centre of the book’s argument. Coleman herself is an interesting character..highly trained, disappointed in love, torn between New York and home at the same time as delivering on a highly paid commitment  but coming up against personal values and ideals that could be trashed by her efforts. 

For me this novel started very slowly and with some fairly banal overviews of the Australian political scene which seem to come from an unseen author rather than any of the characters. The plot does take hold however and builds a credible head of steam. The climactic final events build to a  powerful and thought provoking crescendo  but then the novelist seems to have had trouble wrapping things up and the story line wanders along at a very gentle pace it would seem for not much reason and too much repetition.  Like all taut thrillers some of the helpful coincidental events in the closing stages were unlikely and weakened one’s faith in the narrative. 3 stars.

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight, p/b, London, Vintage, 2019  

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Michael Ondaatje came to everyone’s attention through the dramatic film version of his fourth novel  The English Patient.  Ondaatje is Sri Lankan born and living in Canada and has written novels, a large amount of poetry and a non-fiction work on editing film. His eighth novel, Warlight, is a masterfully constructed puzzle based around the twilight world of post world war 2 intelligence.  The story line is held together by Nathaniel, the youngest child of two British intelligence agents who basically left their children to the care of boarding schools and assorted characters of varying character including the faithful but mysterious Moth and the greyhound faker Darter.

Whist their parents maintained their secret and dangerous lives mostly in still violent and confused postwar Europe, Nathaniel and Rachel had to bring themselves up rather rapidly in this arcane and sometimes violent gathering of virtual strangers who regularly appeared in their home.   The other two key characters are the hard to know Balzac loving mother Rose Wiliams  (code name Viola amongst others) and the equally mysterious thatcher, broadcasting naturalist, cathedral climber and intelligence agent Marsh Felon The intelligence agent Father is written out of the novel very early at work somewhere in Asia.

This is less a “spy” adventure story but rather a story of children in search of parenting  (and in search of their parents)  whose characters were formed by a motley collection of adults on the edge of society whom their mother had organised to keep tabs on her children. There is humour, grave danger, and intriguing character portraits here a plenty. 

Ondaatje writes with a learned delicacy and as one reviewer commented, writing that is “rare and beautiful” and gently guides the reader through a mysterious half-lit world of underground London and the rank confusion that inevitably followed a bombed and impoverished post war city.  

Ondaatje’s historical and  war research is deep and meticulous as shown by his acknowledgements at the end of the novel. There are literary references to Thomas Hardy, Lorca, A E Housman, Kilvert’s amazing rural diary and a host of other writers less known to me but these references are not intrusive and a simply part of the flow of consciousness that surrounds and finally consumes the reader as we struggle to put all the pieces together. Even so there are surprises. I really enjoyed this novel. I learned much about immediate postwar London and its underbelly and about the sort of people who make useful intelligent agents. Above all I felt at all times that I was in the hands of a master story-teller. I now want to read all Ondaatje’s other books!  5 stars.

Lou Klepac: Russell Drysdale: 1912-1981, h/b, Revised Edition,  London, Murdoch, 2009 (1983)   

LOU KLEPAK

RUSSELL DRYSDALE

 

Born in England but from childhood living and growing up in Australia Russell Drysdale is arguably the first Australian artist to bring Australian art to the world (with a little help from Kenneth Clark who organised Drysdale’s first London exhibition).  In my limited experience of reading about artists Drysdale is rare in not starting off his painting career starving in a garrett or relying on wealthy patrons. Drysdale’s grandfather and father had sugar interests in Queensland and owned a large farming property at Boxwood Park, north of Albury. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar where his exceptional skill in drawing was quickly recognized. He initially intended to join the family business but was encouraged to consider being an artist and joined the fledgling art school in Melbourne run by George Bell, who became a lifelong friend and supporter.

Lou Klepac, an art historian, has produced a detailed and well documented account of Drysdale’s complex life and character and this large scale second edition contains 170 high quality full page colour reproductions of Drysdale’s paintings and a large number of drawings as well as many helpful photographs. Drysdale did not produce a vast number of paintings and the majority of his works are in private hands including his most famous works such as The Cricketers, West Wyalong, Old Larsen and Man with a Galah and many others. Handicapped by major defective sight in one eye Drysdale was unable to enlist in WW11 and continued to paint including many wartime studies of soldiers on leave in lonely railway stations.

Drysdale travelled widely from an early age in Europe, USA and many times across and around Australia.  In Europe he was influenced by the French modernists and was caught up in the art culture wars of Australia in the 1950s and 60’s where  gallery administrators and many of the public struggled with the question what makes a “picture”. Drysdale did not paint easily or quickly. He had periods of not painting at all, sometimes lasting over two years and he was his own greatest critic, destroying and painting over many of his own paintings.  He held only 11 major exhibitions and one retrospective and was always struggling to meet deadlines and create the required number of paintings. He loved to talk and discuss with friends and family and developed a passion for Australian geology, the outback and its people, vast expanses and wild life.    

This book dramatically illustrates the extraordinary gift of Drysdale’s ability to interpret the beauty, trauma, humour, ancient lineage and terrifying mystery and yet joy of the Australian outback, its peoples ,and especially its indigenous community and their ageing locations surrounding the very limited edges of civilisation.  The art is bewitching and engulfing and repays careful study. Perspective, colour, loneliness, and staunch courage and determination appear in painting after painting.  Looking at Drysdale’s work is a spiritual experience although he was not a religious man. His personal life was tragic losing both his much loved but troubled son and his wife of longstanding to suicide but he recovered to be happily married again to the widow of a good friend. 

I am glad to have “got to know” this reticent but exceptionally talented man who paved the way for so many to follow. 5 stars.  

John G. Niehardt: Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition, p/b, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2014 (1932)   

Black Elk Speaks: Revised Edition.

Portrait of Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1863 – 1950), 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

John G Neihardt

American poet, philosopher, historian, journalist,and religious visionary John G. Neihardt was born in 1881 at the end of white American settlement of the Western plains. As his writing career developed he became deeply involved in the story of the gradual resettlement of the native plains Indians into ever decreasingly sized reservations and the concomitant assault on their populations, languages, freedom and spiritual beliefs.  In the course of his research , he came to form a deep relationship with Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1860-1950),  who as a young boy was an observer at the battle of Little Big Horn (General Custer’s last stand),  was second cousin to indomitable Sioux/Lakota war leader Crazy Horse and present and fought at the massacre of women and children at Wounded Knee. As a young boy Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) was swept up by a powerful spiritual vision which transformed his life with its calling to him to lead his nation into a period of intense struggle, opposition and challenge. 

Black Elk had never told anyone of this vision, inside or outside of his own people but sensed a similar visionary spirit in Niehardt after the two met.  In an intense period of four weeks and after an “initiatory ceremony” for Niehardt, marking him as a faithful holy man and friend to the Oglala, he communicated his life story to Niehardt. The story  included the complex uninterpreted vision and both the vision and the life story were carefully transcribed in shorthand by Niehardt’s wife Enid and eventually put into writing by NIehardt as “Black Elk Speaks” published in 1932. One curious factor linking the two men is that Niehardt was brought up as a committed Protestant Christian believer and Black Elk himself converted to Roman Catholicism in later life. These factors do not significantly influence the narrative although there are occasional hints linking Black Elk’s vision of the sixth grandfather with the Messiah.

A major interpretive challenge of the original published version of Black Elk Speaks is that Niehardt already had a deeply researched knowledge of the Oglala Lakota spiritual understanding. When the shorthand transcript is compared with NIehardt’s final version it is clear that Niehardt has “filled in some gaps” with his own spiritual understanding and substantial poetic gifts. It is sometimes difficult to determine which is Black Elk writing and which is Niehardt. This was made crystal clear by the publication in 1984 of Enid’s original transcript by Raymond DeMaillie which was called The Sixth Grandfather, omitting all NIehardt’s additions. 

This new 2014 edition of Black Elk Speaks solves this problem by the inclusion of an introductory essay by Harvard historian of Native American, Philip J. Deloria and a set of detailed footnotes by Raymond DeMaillie which clearly shows Niehardt’s additions by footnotes to the original transcript and also clears up some of Niehardt’s mistranslations of Lakota words. 

A further aid to understanding Black Elk’s vision in this version is the inclusion of 30 full colour plates of drawings by Lakota artist Standing Bear, a close friend of Black Elk which were in the original text and are now held in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri. In addition there is a helpful list of translations of Lakota words used in the text. 

 Two further useful essays are included in this volume: Lori Utecht, Director of the Niehardt Centre has written a useful essay describing the depth of NIehardt’s knowledge of and research into the literature of the settlement of the Western plains. Alexei N. Petrie has contributed an essay on Niehardt’s extensive work beyond Black Elk and his numerous academic awards and honours which help us to understand the depth of his contribution to American social history including his work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At a time when the USA is in turmoil over its race relationships with its Black population it is sad to read these accounts of the Indian wars and the gradual subjugation of proud plains Indian civilizations. These essays also give us pause in Australia as we read more carefully into the records and history of our own occupation of Native Australian territory.   I found this story to be deeply moving with images that remain in the mind long after reading.  5 stars.                                                                                                        

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