The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I listed ten works I thought were contenders for the Great Australian Novel (here). The list holds up pretty well, Voss is still clearly no. 1. I need to make room for Benang and The Swan Book. And The Pea Pickers, I’m not sure what induced me to leave it out back then, I wouldn’t now. The big problem is just how long it is since I have read most of them, more than forty years in some cases, including The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) which I see from the inscription “Happy Birthday, 1973, with lots of love from the Young Bride”, I got almost hot off the press.

It, as it happens, stands up very well to re-reading, though I’m sure I see things I didn’t see first time round, particularly Ireland’s problem with women. As I wrote earlier (here) David Ireland (1927- ) is a generation older than us boomers, he was in his forties before his first work was published and I think had been for most of the preceding years a blue collar worker, notably in the Silverwater (Sydney) oil refinery complex, the setting for this, his second, where he calls the complex ‘Clearwater’, on the ‘Eel’ River (Paramatta Eels football team. Get it?)

With hindsight I can see now that his politics are ‘Hansonite’: nationalistic, pro-worker and anti-union, the cry for help of a worker deep in the bowels of the system, hating the foreign owners who take all the benefit of his labour (all Ireland’s workers are he’s), hating the white collar parasites who have no knowledge of what his work entails, but on whose decisions he depends, hating that his ability to progress or even to remain employed is completely out of his own hands.

All the workers at Clearwater, at the refinery operated by the 100% foreign owned ‘Puroil’, are prisoners, prisoners of the system, bearing deep blue ankle scars genetically inherited from their shackled convict forbears.

… prisoners were allowed to drift jobless to the few large coastal cities from all over Australia as soon as they left school, to choose their place of detention… They weren’t compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country.

‘The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’ is a slogan graffitied overnight on oil storage tanks, is the name of a work fashioned from twisted paper clips, is an artwork of roughly cut and welded metal displayed in a gallery to the loud acclaim of people who have never seen a scrap-metal yard.

The work is divided conventionally into chapters: 1. One Day in a Penal Colony, 2. Termitary [a termite mound housing the shiny bums, overlooking the refinery], 3. The Home Beautiful … But is broken up again into short, named sections of half, one or two pages. I think Ireland prefers (or maybe, is only able) to write this way, in short bursts, so his novels are collages of ideas and stories.

If the novel has a narrative arc at all, it is the actions and reactions of the workers (operators) as Puroil makes a series of blundering upgrades to the refinery to get it to the stage where it will run without operator involvement. The protagonists are the Samurai, a skilled operator and mostly willing worker; and the White Father, who maintains ‘the Home Beautiful’, a few shacks in the mangroves on an island within the refinery boundary, where a beer fridge and six prostitutes on rotation provide the workers with more comforts than they enjoy at home.

They are opposites in that the Samurai believes in the power of a job well-done, where the White Father believes life should be enjoyed right now. Another worker, the Glass Canoe (a name used as the title of a later Ireland novel), represents a third extreme. He is incompetent, but believes that if he works, studies and puts himself forward Puroil will recognise his devotion to the job and raise him to foreman. His decline into madness illustrates the futility of expecting bureaucracies to make rational or even informed decisions. Every decision made by every person within Puroil, except the better operators, and they are never recognised, is driven entirely by self interest.

Is this a post-modern novel? I don’t have enough theory to say. But it is beyond Social Realism. Philosophically it is Absurdist, a demonstration that meaning cannot be found in work, that the bureaucratic workplace is inherently irrational. (Prime Minister) Malcolm famously said at about this time, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. What he meant, and this is Ireland’s thesis, is “Life isn’t meant to be fair.”

There are dozens of supporting characters – the plant manager, the Wandering Jew, who is kidnapped late in the novel and taken to the Home Beautiful to meet his workers, gets drunk and joins in the dancing; Blue Hills whose wife the Samurai uses, because he can, but she does manage to take a small revenge; Two Pot Screamer, one of two operators writing a book (this book?); the Python, the Black Snake, the Brown Snake, shiny bums with power over the plant operators; and so on.

The operators sleep on the job, are led into dud agreements by the company union, drink, steal, lie or run with the prostitutes (the Sandpiper prefers doing it outside), make informed, ignorant and random adjustments to the plant causing chaos and constant pollution – in addition to the ongoing pollution of river and air that Puroil  pays to keep ‘hidden’.

This is a brilliant book; innovatively written; an insider’s account of the madness of large organizations; an account of modern slavery giving the lie to the myth of the independent, larrikin Australian worker.

 

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Angus & Robertson, 1971. My edition, A&R Classics, 1973.

Other reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

13 thoughts on “The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

  1. Thanks for the mention/s, Bill, I feel absurdly pleased that I have read as much of Ireland as I have, because I do find him problematic for all the reasons we have both explained.
    But I *still* haven’t read A Woman of the Future. I have taken it out of its hallowed space on my Miles Franklin shelf, and put in in my line of sight where I see it every day, and yet, and yet, truth be told, my reluctance overwhelms me.
    I am going to have to be very stern with myself.

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  2. And I havne’t read Ireland at all – I keep putting him at the back of the shelves!

    BTW Re The pea-pickers, I think it’s one of those books that grows and grows on you. I enjoyed it – loved the voice and language – but was a little challenged to know how to slot it into my reading of literature, but it just won’t let go. The voice is so strong.

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    • Ireland was important in the 70s, less so now, though it’s difficult to work out the stepping stones in the progress of Australian Lit. – was he on the main path or just an interesting detour? Ditto The Pea Pickers really – who was influenced by it? Patrick White maybe (we know he read it). That’s why I was pleased to be able to see in Waterway a clear step forward into Modernism. And why I look for trends in the ‘Gens’, to understand where the themes in today’s books – and in discourse generally about what it is to be Australian – originated.

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      • Yes, it’s interesting to see the beginnings of modernism there (or what sounds like it).

        I know I should read Ireland – he’s a glaring gap in my Aussie lit reading. When I got back into Aussie literature in the 1980s I really focused on the women. Earlier on, in the 60s and 70s, it had been Patrick White, and a few other men, like Vance Palmer and Frank Dalby Davison, and before that the kids book writers like Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce.

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