Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee

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J.M. Coetzee – the initials stand for John Maxwell, I had to look that up – was born in South Africa in 1940 and there he made his name as a novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. A year earlier he had migrated to Australia and has since become a citizen. We are blessed to have him.

His eighth novel Disgrace (1999) would seem to mark the end of his South African ‘period’. Since arriving in Australia Coetzee has written five more novels, of which Diary of a Bad Year (2007) is the third. In his introduction to the Text Classics edition (2012) Peter Goldsworthy writes of Coetzee that “each of his novels seems almost wilfully different from its predecessors.”

Diary is certainly “wilfully different”. It is written in three voices. The first, which occupies the top two thirds or so of each page is a series of opinions, varying in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages. The second is separated from the first by a horizontal line across the page and is the voice of an ageing author, living in an apartment tower in Sydney. The third, likewise separated from the second by a horizontal line, is the voice of his typist, the sexy Anya.

I read, and I will say right here, and enjoyed, the novel more or less as it appeared on the page. So, I would read the opinion piece until I reached a convenient stopping point on the following page. Then I would read the ageing author’s and then Anya’s sections, often, because they were shorter, a couple of pages at a time.

The novel is further divided, beginning with ‘Strong Opinions, 12 September 2005 – 31 May 2006’ with pieces from ’01. On the origins of the State’ to ’31. On the Afterlife’; and then a second section ‘Second Diary’ with softer opinions from ’01. A Dream’ to ’24. On Dostoyevsky’.


When I was young and politically active it was common to engage in debates about peoples, nations, governments and states, the distinctions between which are deliberately obscured in these days of government-induced anti-terrorist hysteria. As always, the class in control of the state apparatus must have an ‘other’ whom we the people are made to fear in order to justify their tightening hold on the levers of power. Coetzee in his first opinion discusses our complicity, but also what he regards as our helplessness, in living (and dying) within the bounds of the state, and cites the film The Seven Samurai as an example of people choosing to be ruled in return for being protected.

The Kurosawan story of the origin of the state is still played out in our times in Africa, where gangs of armed men grab power … Though these African military gangs are often no larger or more powerful than the organized criminal gangs of Asia or eastern Europe, their activities are respectfully covered in the media … under the heading of politics (world affairs) rather than crime.

The second opinion ‘On Anarchism’ begins well but ends in pessimism. We may choose Servitude or Revolt, but there is a third way “chosen by millions and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism …”

And so we go on, from the general to the particular, discussing today’s ‘other’, Islamist terrorists, and how our quietism makes us complicit in the horrors which our governments perpetrate ‘on our behalf’.

Coetzee writes both as an Australian: “The Australian government … has been the most abject of the so-called Coalition of the Willing, and has even been prepared to suffer with no more than a tight little smile the humiliation of getting nothing in return.” And as a (former) South African: “The generation of white South Africans to which I belong, and the next generation, and perhaps the generation after that too, will go bowed under the shame of the crimes that were committed in their name.” And so will we, under the crimes, the indefinite imprisonment of non-white refugees, the war in Iraq, that are being committed in our names.

The opinions drift on to other matters, finally pitching up against God and the afterlife where I am less comfortable, and so on to the second section where they become more or less his random thoughts on life and literature, but well worth reading for all that.


The ageing author while doing his washing in the common laundry room runs into a pretty Filipina and attempts to engage her in conversation. Her name is Anya. She lives in a penthouse apartment with Alan, an accountant/financier. She is about 25 and she has a nice arse. After a while he offers her well over the odds to type up his work for him – a series of pieces for a book with contributions from six notable authors, to be published in Germany, entitled Strong Opinions.

He writes, “The passions and prejudices out of which my opinions grew were laid down long before I first set eyes on Anya, and were by now so strong – that is to say, so settled, so rigid – that aside from the odd word here and there there was no chance that refraction through her gaze could alter their angle.” But it does.


Then, 20 pages in, we start getting Anya’s thoughts too. Though as the ageing author – mostly referred to by Anya as Senor C and later, by Alan, as Juan, under a misapprehension that he is Colombian – reports what Anya says, and as Anya reports what Alan says, it is easy to lose track of whose opinion it is that we are reading.

Anya is bored by the political pieces and encourages the ageing author to write on other subjects, the books he reads and the birds he watches in the park. We think that she is keeping her distance, but later we learn that she is always aware of her power as an object of desire and subtly encourages the author to think that way about her, and right at the end we learn what genuine affection she has for him.

For a while this part of the novel is dominated by Alan’s schemes to steal the author’s considerable wealth, but after a drunken dinner à trois, this all comes to nought and Anya leaves him and moves up north to live with her mother.


Coetzee is obviously an important world writer, but he is also an important Australian writer. He writes yes that life goes on, but also that all the while our government is shaming us, and we would do well to heed him.

 

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, first pub. 2007. This edition Text Classics, 2012

see also:

Sue at Whispering Gums approaches from a different angle altogether (here)
Kim at Reading Matters says “a great read if you’re looking for something meaty and clever” (here)

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1788 (2), Watkin Tench

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1788 (1996) is a book in three parts: I reviewed previously the first two, Tim Flannery’s, The Extraordinary Watkin Tench,  and Tench’s account of the voyage out (here). Herewith a review of Tench’s –

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: According to this web site for visitors, “the Eora, Cadigal, Guringai, Wangal, Gammeraigal and Wallumedegal people … were the original inhabitants of Sydney’s harbour foreshore.” Governor Phillip had hoped that his new settlement and the local Aboriginals would live side by side, though I think he was planning on the Aboriginals doing most of the compromising. Tench writes early on:

With the natives we were very little more acquainted than on our arrival in the country. Our intercourse with them was neither frequent or cordial. They seemed studiously to avoid us, either from fear, jealousy or hatred… I was inclined to attribute this conduct to a spirit of malignant levity. But a further acquaintance with them, founded on several instances of their humanity and generosity … has entirely reversed my opinion and led me to conclude that the unprovoked outrages committed upon them by unprincipled individuals among us caused the evils we had experienced.

At the end of 1788 with the locals showing signs of armed resistance Phillip determined to capture some both as hostages and hopefully to provide a link between the white and black communities. In the event, they captured one man, naming him ‘Manly’ as it was some time before he allowed his captors to call him by his Aboriginal name Arabanoo. He was taken to tell his people what had happened to him but that did not result in any further contact.

In March 1789 a party of convicts left their work and attacked some Aboriginals at Botany Bay. They were repulsed, one convict was killed and a number were severely wounded. Arabanoo witnessed the flogging of the survivors, unhappily despite understanding its cause, and the later hanging of six marines for the theft of stores.

In April and May the bodies of Aboriginals were found who had obviously died of smallpox. This mystifies Tench as the last smallpox case amongst the whites had been 18 months earlier in South Africa. Some sufferers come into the settlement to be nursed, a couple of the younger ones survive and are fostered. The dead are interred by Arabanoo who is infected in turn and dies on 18 May.

His fidelity and gratitude, particularly to his friend the governor, were constant and undeviating and deserve to be recorded. Although of a gentle and placable temper, we early discovered that he was impatient of indignity and allowed of no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power, but the independence of his  mind never forsook him.

At this time an inlet between the cliffs of Broken Bay (in the northern part of the maps below) is discovered to be the mouth of a freshwater river which they name Hawkesbury, and farming is commenced on its banks, at Richmond Hill. The locals, bearing signs of smallpox, “showed every sign of welcome and friendship.” Tench who has his own small outpost at Rose Hill, upstream from Sydney Harbour was inspired to conduct his own explorations inland, towards the Blue Mountains. On the second day “we found ourselves on the banks of a river nearly as broad as the Thames at Putney”. It was given the name Nepean though as they later discovered, it is actually an upstream extension of the Hawkesbury.

Traces of the natives appeared at every step; sometimes in their hunting huts …; sometimes in marks on trees …; or in squirrel traps; or … in decoys for the purpose of ensnaring birds.

By the end of 1789 supplies of food were running out and thievery had become rife. Our first ‘police force’ consisted of 12 night watchmen selected from the most reliable of the convicts. Access to the locals’ knowledge of resources becoming daily more desirable, two more men were captured, Baneelon (Benelong) and Colbee, who soon escaped.

[Baneelon’s] powers of mind were certainly far above mediocrity. He acquired knowledge, both of our manners and language, faster than his predecessor had done. He willingly communicated information, sang, danced and capered, told us all the customs of his country and all the details of his family economy.

By mid 1790 the food (and clothing) situation was getting desperate. The salt pork and rice was now three years old and crawling. Rations were reduced. Baneelon couldn’t stand it and took off. More than 200 convicts and marines were offloaded to Norfolk Island (where they could presumably live off the land) but there, the colony’s larger ship, Sirius, was lost leaving them only with the little Supply. Finally, the Second Fleet began to dribble in, first the Juliana with a cargo of convict women, then the Justinian carrying supplies, then three more ships with convicts. Tench is (rightly) indignant as the death rate, approaching 40%, amongst convicts this time was almost entirely due to private contractors withholding rations, some of which they were able to sell at enormous prices on arrival.

Baneelon was later discovered, though not recaptured, with Colbee and a large number of their fellows at Manly beach, cutting up and eating a whale carcass. He expressed a wish to speak to the governor, who came a day or so later. For his trouble Phillip copped a spear in the shoulder, apparently from a man from a tribe further north.

Soon after, the colonists began a more regular intercourse with Baneelon in particular and with the locals in general. Baneelon introduced them to his wife, Barangaroo, and with a number of other men visited the settlement, no longer fearing that he would be detained.

In November 1790 the Supply returned from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies) with fresh supplies having completed the first circumnavigation of the continent (then New Holland, now Australia). Tench reports that attempts at cultivation in Sydney have been abandoned,  and that “necessary public buildings advance fast”. At Rose Hill, 200 acres have been cleared of which about 90 are given over to crops of wheat, barley, maize etc. They have fowls and hogs, but no cows or sheep.

With the natives we are now hand and glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome.

James Ruse, a former convict turned farmer reports, “The greatest check on me is the dishonesty of the convicts who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night.”

A “brick house of twelve feet square” was built for Baneelon at a site chosen by him (Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House). There is an episode at the house where Baneelon attempts to cut off the head of a young Botany Bay woman he has taken prisoner. He is subdued and the woman is hospitalized but it is two days before his rage subsides. Tench remarks he saw no other instance of hostages being sacrificed.

In December a sergeant who was greatly disliked by the locals is speared and dies. He is the seventeenth colonist to die in this way and the Governor dispatches Tench with 50 men to exact retribution from the Bideegal people on Botany Bay. Phillip initially asked for ten men to be killed, though on Tench’s suggestion this was watered down to two to be hung and six to be sent to Norfolk Island. In the event, Tench’s party was bogged down in the swamps around the bay and no one was taken.

At about the same time a party of convicts including a woman (Mary Bryant, not named by Tench) seize the governor’s cutter and succeed in making their way up the coast and around the top of Australia to Timor. The Dutch there send them on to London but they are only required to see out the one or two years remaining on their sentences before being released.

Tench points out that the white convicts working in Sydney often put up with much hotter conditions than those prevailing in the West Indies and that the arguments of apologists for slavery are nonsense. ” Shall I again be told that the sufferings of the wretched Africans are indispensable for the culture of our sugar colonies; that white men are incapable of sustaining the heat of the climate!”

The greater part of this account is about relations between the colonists and the locals. Every effort is made to call each person they meet by his or her proper name and as many other words as possible are learned and recorded; even Rose Hill is in 1791 given its local name, Parramatta. Where convicts are caught stealing from Aborigines they are flogged, a process which incidentally the Aborigines did not enjoy having to observe.

Tench is a good writer and has a wry humour, as when, discussing a desolate lookout point in the bush, he writes “His Excellency was pleased to give [it] the name Tench’s Prospect Mount.” Or when he notes of 20 convicts who set out to walk overland to China. “I trust no man would feel more reluctant than myself to cast an illiberal national reflection… But … all these people were Irish.” Prior to his departure at the end of 1791 he makes a tour of all the farms around Rose Hill/Parramatta, which are producing tobacco and grapes as well as grain. Then of Sydney he writes, “This place had long been considered only as a depot for stores. It exhibited nothing but a few old scattered huts and some sterile gardens.” There is absolutely no reason for this account not to be more widely read.

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover (2015) is a fictionalized life, written in the first person, of celebrated French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) who was of course a woman, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. I’ve been listening to it over the past couple of days and have constructed this review from my memory of the story, relying on Wikipedia for dates and names.

Ironically, in her memoir Histoire de ma Vie (1855), Sand writes, “I would not want to tell my life like a novel. The content would be overwhelmed by the form.”

Sand was the author of 60 or so novels and two memoirs. As well as I can gather, her themes were adultery, sexual satisfaction for women, and the unfairness of marriage laws which vested all of a woman’s property in the husband. She went about publicly in men’s clothes, lived separately from her husband, conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs, and hinted at being bi-sexual, particularly in her relations with the actress Marie Duval.

I am always looking out for antecedents for the strong anti-marriage theme in the writing of C19th Australian women novelists and feminists like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Gaunt and Rosa Praed, and Sand interests me in this regard. I’m not sure how much of her work was translated into English, though I’m sure she was well known. Berg quotes passages from Sand’s work and what I presume are genuine letters, particularly in relation to her views on sexual politics, but again does not suggest any influences.

The novel begins in 1831 with Aurore leaving her husband Casimir Dudevant and their two children at their country home Nohant – which she had inherited from her grandmother along with a substantial fortune, but which he controls – to join her lover in Paris and to set out on her career as a writer. We move ahead in two parallel streams – her career as an independent adult going on from that point, and her childhood and young womanhood leading up to the separation. The writing is good, but not excellent, and the story itself is fascinating. As we switch back and forth between the timelines each episode is dated but still with the potential to be confusing, especially listening and not paying full attention, for instance Aurore dealing inexpertly with a suitor in one timeline and dragging a lover into bed in the other.

As briefly as I can, the story is that her well-born father Maurice Dupin was an officer in Napoleon’s army. While serving in Italy he falls in love with Sophie, a courtesan, whom he marries secretly against his mother’s wishes. They have a daughter, Aurore and subsequently a son who is born when Sophie joins Maurice in Spain (I guess at the beginning of the Peninsular War) but who is sickly, particularly after the long trek back to Nohant in central France (about 300 km south of Paris) and soon dies. Maurice dies not long after, in a riding accident. Sophie does not get on with her mother in law and accepts an allowance to go and live in Paris while Aurore is brought up as a lady by her grandmother, and is educated by Maurice’s old tutor.

Aurore is probably a bit wild. She gets her first taste of men’s clothing riding around the countryside in trousers and a loose shirt. Her grandmother reacts by putting her into a convent school run by English catholic nuns in Paris where she spends a relatively happy couple of years until she is 16 and it is time to put her on the marriage market. Her grandmother dies and Aurore becomes mistress of the estate until at 19, she marries Dudevant and he begins to run it down.

Berg pictures her as inexperienced (of course) in bed but also unresponsive. Nevertheless they have a son, Maurice, and then a daughter, Solange, though by then Aurore has been experimenting with lovers, so Solange’s paternity is uncertain.

Dudevant offers Aurore no comfort intellectually and she is frustrated by his stewardship of her estate. After eight years they separate and Dudevant gives her an allowance (out of her own money!) to live in Paris. Initially the children stay with their father and the parents take turns living at Nohant.

Aurore and her lover Jules Sandeau jointly write Rose et Blanche (1831) which is published under the pen name Jules Sand. The following year she writes Indiana, using the pen name George Sand, which name she adopts for herself from then on (that is, people now call her George). She has a job as a theatre critic and starts wearing men’s clothes because only men are allowed to sit in the cheap seats down the front.

The problem of women achieving satisfaction is a running theme in her early novels, and Berg has her spending one never repeated weekend of sensual delights with Marie Duval at Nohant where Duval teaches her the uses of all her ladybits. This seems to make life more pleasant both for her and for the many subsequent men in her life.

Divorce was abolished in France by Napoleon, but after four or five years of independence Sand and Dudevant negotiate a legal separation in which she regains control of Nohant and custody of the children. Sand is in any case already a prolific and commercially successful author and so though her stated sympathies are with the poor, her upbringing and lifestyle put her firmly with the rich and famous.

We go on. Maurice is a good boy, Solange is a handful. George is friends with Franz Liszt and stays with him in Switzerland in time to meet baby Cosima (The Young Cosima, Henry Handel Richardson). Liszt introduces her to Frederic Chopin, and Sand and Chopin live together for the decade 1837-47, eventually separating when Chopin sides with Solange over Solange’s impetuous marriage to August Clésinger.

In 1848 Sand is an enthusiastic supporter of the February Revolution marking the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the (short-lived) Second Republic. I think though that with the return of Empire under Napoleon III she finds it politic to retire to the country. She continues to entertain and in later years becomes friends with the reclusive Flaubert, twenty years her junior. She dies at Nohant in 1876.

 

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover, Random House, 2015. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 2015, read by Emily Sutton-Smith

Google Books has some interesting critical studies of George Sand (here) including modern introductions to Story of my Life and Indiana.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has set up a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added.

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano (1952) was the first of Kurt Vonnegut’s 14 novels. His most famous, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) which includes an account of the fire bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut himself experienced as a POW, was, like Catch 22, an anti-war WWII novel taken up by the anti-Vietnam War movement. This one, however, ahead of its times, is anti-automation.

Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an important American author, writing Science Fiction mostly, though I think he is often claimed as a ‘cross-over’ into ordinary fiction Certainly he was no where near as prolific as some ‘pulp’ SF writers, but he was able to support himself and his young family after the War, writing short fiction for magazines.

I am reviewing Player Piano because I recently listened to it, and because its theme of man being replaced by machines is topical today – more topical today than when it was written probably. I had hoped I would find a paper copy on my shelves of old paperback SF, or failing that in one of my local libraries, but no luck. However, I did find that I owned a biography, or rather as I found when I began to read it, a ‘critical appreciation’, Peter J Reed’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1972).

The player piano of the title is coin operated and plays jazz tunes in a bar. It is incidental to the story but the fact that it plays itself – the keys are depressed by a rotating piano roll (wiki) – acts as a metaphor for workerless factories.

The novel is set not so much in a near future (future to 1952 that is) as in an alternative ‘present’. The society and technology are clearly of the 1950s. The difference is that after a major war in which tactical nuclear weapons were used, industry has been reorganized for the sake of efficiency on, although Vonnegut is at pains to ignore it, soviet central planning lines. Engineers are in charge and workers are progressively being replaced by machines. Consequently society is divided into well-off technocrats and a vast underclass who if they do not join the army, or invent little businesses for themselves, are given make-work in Reclamation and Re-construction (‘Reeks and Wrecks’).

All engineers and managers must have a PhD and school leavers are ruthlessly graded by machines into the few going on to College and the rest, though it helps to have a father in a position to ease your way through school and into plum positions. This is the 1950s, so it goes almost without saying that women PhD’s are in secretarial positions for that brief time until they become homemakers.

The story is located in (the fictitious) Illium, NY which Vonnegut used in a number of his novels (Wiki). Illium is probably based on Schenectady, NY, home of the General Electric plant where Vonnegut was at the time a PR writer, and which in turn was a model for the Illium Works. As Schenectady is divided by the Mohawk River so Illium is by the Iriquois, with the Illium Works and senior employees on one side and the underclass – mostly former workers – on the other, and one highly symbolic bridge separating rather than joining them.

Like much SF of this period Player Piano is bursting with ideas, but the characterisations and the writing are rather flat. The central character is Dr Paul Proteus, Illium Works Manager, whose father was “the nation’s first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States”. He is seemingly happily married to Anita, his former secretary, and in line at a young age for promotion to area manager, Pittsburgh. However, he is dissatisfied with his role in forcing out of their jobs men who were good at, and enjoyed, their work.

He starts going to a bar on the wrong side of the river where he meets out of work anthropologist James Lasher who is now a chaplain with Reeks and Wrecks. And he becomes interested in and eventually buys an old farm – no electricity, no plumbing – that has a preservation order on it and a grumpy old caretaker who turns out to be the last in line of the original owners.

His old friend and workmate Ed Finnerty, a hippyish heavy drinking bachelor, comes to stay just as Anita is planning a dinner with Paul’s boss (and friend of his late father). The dinner is a disaster. Finnerty disappears and is soon rumoured to be prominent in the Ghost Shirt Society of unemployed rebels (the idea of ‘Luddites‘ is all through this book though the word is never used). Dr Lawson Sheppard, Paul’s 2IC, is constantly attempting to undermine him and, as Paul spends more and more time at the bar and on his farm, Sheppard begins to visit Anita, until at a weekend retreat for senior managers from around the US, Sheppard is offered Pittsburgh, and has it off with Anita in the bushes, while Paul is shunted sideways on a special assignment to infiltrate the Ghost Shirts.

Paul soon finds himself on the national organizing committee, with Lasher and Finnerty, of an uprising to take back the factories. The uprising is initially successful in Illium and a couple of other cities, but Vonnegut is not a proponent of revolutions and has the uprisings descend into indiscriminate destruction and drunkenness, with the leadership group surrendering to the Army.

There is a subplot involving a ‘Shah’ being shown around America by Dr Halyard of the State Department, which acts as a device for describing this ‘future’ society where the minimum accommodation is an apartment with prefabricated steel walls and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners; and an amusing sub subplot where Dr Halyard incurs someone’s displeasure and loses his PhD and therefore his status because he can’t prove he completed the phys ed unit in his bachelors degree.

Reed takes four or five pages to get this far then another 27 pages analyzing Vonnegut’s style and issues that Player Piano raises. From:

The central conflict in the novel is between the machine and the human, between those forces which have brought about and espouse automation and those which affirm the dignity of man, the warmth and fallibility of his animal being.

Reed finally gets to:

Player Piano, for all its warnings and weariness and nostalgia, remains a funny book. but the mixture of pain and humour results in the kind of comedy which arises when people try to make light of frightening situations, so that here, too, the novel sustains its peculiar tension.

It is ironic that this book was written at a time when the industrial heart of America would go on for another half century employing millions of workers producing steel, automobiles, whitegoods, machinery of all types. Only now in this new century (already one sixth over) are automation and robotics taking over in a big way. Here in backwater WA, iron ore trains, 200 tonne dump trucks and loaders already operate without drivers  – which is why ongoing record iron ore exports are having no upward effect on wages; and the two biggest manufacturers, Mercedes and Volvo have driverless highway trucks well underway as well. However, Vonnegut’s idea of make-work and subsidised housing for all the displaced workers, the least that he thought a US government would provide, is these days not even considered. The Market will provide.

 

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, first pub. 1952. Audio version: Brilliance Audio, 2008, read by Christian Rummel

Peter J Reed, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Writers for the 70’s, Warner Books, New York, 1972

 

1788, Watkin Tench

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Watkin Tench, artist unknown

The Extraordinary Watkin Tench: Early in 1787 the First Fleet, eleven ships containing over 1,000 men, women and children, gathered off the coast of England for the voyage to Australia. 1788 is a reissue of Watkin Tench’s published writings on the voyage and subsequent settlement, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery.

According to Flannery, publishers wanting first-hand accounts “flocked to sign up the principals of the venture”. Tench, only a captain in the Marines, was almost an afterthought, but his A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay was the first out, in April 1789 – and probably the most readable. His A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson followed in 1793.

Tench was born in 1758 or ’59, in Chester where his parents ran a dancing academy and boarding school. He entered the marine corps (soldiers attached to the Royal Navy) at age 16 and saw immediate service in the American War of Independence where he was for three months a prisoner of war. After the war he was on half pay which may be why he signed up for a three year tour with the First Fleet and the new settlement. He subsequently returned to England, married, and died in Devonport on 7 May 1833.

Of utmost importance is Tench’s relations with the Indigenous people of the Sydney area. He learned their language, although he did not leave behind a dictionary or grammar as far as I can see, and was “a friend and confidante of the Aborigines who attached themselves to the settlement”.

The following accounts are familiar because so often relied on to form the bases of our histories and historical fictions, notably Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land. But they are also well worth reading in their own right.

A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: Tench begins

The marines and convicts having been previously embarked in the river at Portsmouth and Plymouth, the whole fleet destined for the expedition rendezvoused at the Mother Bank on the 16th of March 1787 and remained there until the 13th of May following.

Eight weeks doing nothing with 759 convicts, the men in leg irons, confined below deck. “Few complaints or lamentations were to be heard among them”. Eventually, finally, Governor Phillip comes on board and they set off.

The number of convicts was 565 men, 192 women, and eighteen children. The major part of the prisoners were mechanics and husbandmen, selected on purpose by order of government.

Crossing the Atlantic, they called first at Tenerife, then at Rio de Janeiro where they were well looked after, Governor Phillip having been “for many years a captain in their navy, and commanded a ship of war on this station.” We learn that Brazil had only just started growing its own coffee, having previously had to import it from Portugal; and that although their principal crop was sugar, their rum was less than palatable.

James Cook had written (in 1773) that the women would indicate their availability by throwing flowers at the visitors’ feet. Tench regrets that this appeared to be no longer the case:

We were so deplorably unfortunate as to walk every evening before their windows and balconies without being honoured with a single bouquet, though nymphs and flowers were in equal and great abundance.

In many ways this is a ‘Lonely Planet’ account, Tench telling his readers where they might stay, what there is to see, and what currency to use.

Next, and final, stop is Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. They top up their stores – enough for two years – and

on the 12th of November [1787] we weighed anchor and soon left far behind every scene of civilisation and humanised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries.

Sailing eastward across the Indian Ocean at around 40º of latitude, they sight the southern tip of “Van Diemen” on 7th January 1788 then loop out into the Tasman Sea, not sighting land again until “the 19th at only the distance of seventeen leagues [95 km] from our desired port”. By the morning of the 20th the whole fleet had cast anchor in Botany Bay. Only one marine and 24 convicts had perished en route.

Phillip in the Supply had arrived two days earlier. He found “the natives tolerably numerous” on the south shore “shouting and making many uncouth signs and gestures” so he landed a boat on the north shore where there were only six men “in order to take possession of his new territory and bring about an intercourse between its new and old masters.”

An interview commenced, in which the conduct of both parties pleased each other so much that the strangers returned to their ships with a much better opinion of the natives than they had landed with; and the latter seemed highly entertained with their new acquaintance …”

Botany Bay is too open and lacks potable water but before they can move to  neighbouring Port Jackson two more ships arrive, totally unexpectedly, under the command of the French Captain, la Perouse. The French stay some weeks anchored in Botany Bay and relations are amicable.

On 26th January 1788 the fleet moved from Botany Bay and settlement was commenced at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). “Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business … it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form until 7th of February” when the military and convicts assembled to hear His Majesty’s commission read, establishing the territory of New South Wales.

Relations between Aborigines and the British are mostly cordial but remote. Tench believes that contrary to Cook’s reports, “That celebrated navigator, we were willing to believe had somehow by his conduct offended them, which prevented the intercourse that would otherwise have taken place.” The following year Cook “offended” some Hawaiians and was killed.

Over the course of 1778, ships depart, the supply ships for China to load tea, others back to England, and a subsidiary settlement is commenced on Norfolk Island. The soldiers and convicts build huts to house themselves; courts are established and convicts are flogged and in a few cases executed; 17 whites are killed or seriously wounded by Aborigines. Existing food supplies are supplemented with fish (not plentiful) and kangaroo. Interestingly ‘kangaroo’ was a word unknown to the locals and they thought that the whites who used it meant any large animal.

This first account ends on the 1st of October with the Sirius set to return to England “by which conveyance the opportunity of writing to you is afforded to me.”

 

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Tench’s map of the Port Jackson area, 1793
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Sydney today

A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: I have already written too much and Tench too apologises for adding to the already (in 1793) considerable literature on the founding of New South Wales. I’ll be as brief as I can, but urge you to read this for yourselves.

No, on further consideration, I have already said less about first contact than I had planned, so I’ll put up a proper review of A Complete Account in a couple of weeks.

 

Watkin Tench, 1788, first pub. 1789,1793. This edition: Tim Flannery ed., Text, Melbourne, 1996

see also:

The Resident Judge on ‘the Foundational Orgy’ of 6 Feb, 1788 (here), and on Grace Karskens’ The Colony (here).

 

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

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The Spare Room is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is coincidental.” Except of course that this is an almost journalistic account of Helen Garner’s nursing of her friend, Jenya Osborne (Wiki), Nicola in this ‘novel’, who is dying of cancer.

Peter Carey, for the back cover blurb, calls this “A PERFECT NOVEL, imbued with all Garner’s usual clear-eyed grace …”. But Robert Dessaix writes in his review, “[Garner’s works] are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. ”

Let Garner have the last word, “She doesn’t want to define fiction, and the notion that it should be entirely made up is, of course, absurd.” [Interview in The Age, 29 Mar. 2008]

Garner, and her protagonist ‘Helen’, were about 60 when The Spare Room was written, living in an inner-northern Melbourne suburb within walking distance of the Broadmeadows train line, with her daughter’s family next door, when she accepted a request from an old friend, Nicola, to stay for three weeks while she underwent a course of ‘alternative’ therapy for her terminal cancer.

Before Nicola arrives Helen discusses her with her therapist friend, Leo:

‘You work with cancer patients,’ I said. ‘Does this sound bad?’
He shrugged. ‘Pretty bad. Stage four.’
‘How many stages are there?’
‘Four’
[…]
‘Maybe that’s why she’s coming to stay. Maybe she wants you to be the one.’
‘What one?’
‘The one to tell her she’s going to die.’

In Sydney, Nicola, an old hippy, has a house on the northern beaches accessible only by dinghy and a long clamber up from the beach. This involves an effort which for some time she has been too weak to make and so she has been staying with her niece and the niece’s boyfriend, Iris and Gab, in their one-bedroom flat closer to the city. Unbeknownst to Nicola, Helen and Iris have been discussing her via email.

The treatment that Nicola has chosen involves injections of huge doses of Vitamin C which incapacitate her and leave her in tremendous pain, which she attempts to deal with, initially at least, with aspirin, though Helen quickly gets her to a real doctor and a prescription for proper pain killers.

Garner’s writing is spare and to the point. For three weeks she takes us through the day to day struggle of getting Nicola to appointments; of edging her back to conventional medicine; of the sleepless nights spent removing and replacing bedding soaked with night sweats; Helen’s own life and work, even her relationship with her granddaughter, on hold for the duration.

The heart of this story is not the failure of alternative therapy; not the huge workload imposed on Helen, the long nights, the hours spent ferrying Nicola to and from appointments; nor even Nicola’s refusal to give up on alternative therapy in the face of all evidence to the contrary; but of Helen dealing with her anger – her anger with the venal and incompetent alternative therapists, with Nicola’s rictus of a smile in denial of her punishing pain, but most of all, with Nicola’s refusal to face up to her impending death.

Yet through it all, Helen maintains her love for Nicola and remains committed to caring for her for the whole three weeks. I don’t think Helen is ever angry at Nicola for asking this of her and I certainly don’t think she begins to hate her, although this was the impression I retained from listening to all those Radio National discussions of The Spare Room back in 2008.

Iris and Gab come for a short stay and they encourage Helen to confront Nicola with her anger:

The last of my self-control gave way.
‘Get that grin off your face. Get it off, or I’ll wipe it off for you.’
It faded of its own accord. She took two steps backwards, gaping at me. ‘Why are you so angry?’
‘This house is full of anger! Can’t you feel it? The rooms are stuffed with it. And a lot of it’s got to be yours.’
[…]
‘Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared,’ I shouted. ‘You’re angry and scared. But you won’t admit it. You want to keep up this masquerade, so you dump your shit on me. I’m sick with it. I can’t breathe.’

Nicola gets a new diagnosis which means an operation and then recuperation in Melbourne but Helen cannot face even one more day beyond the 21 requested. In a final chapter Garner fills us in on Nicola’s final weeks – she has the operation and recuperates in the Windsor Hotel (a fine old hotel and a Melbourne icon) with carers flown down from Sydney, then Helen flies to Sydney to join the women in Iris’s apartment seeing Nicola through to the end.

As seemingly with all Garner’s work, this is a story about Garner, about Garner’s reaction to the stress of having sole care of a dying, loved friend. We know this is the third time she has had to do this, first for her sister, then her mother, so perhaps its about her reaction to them dying too, despite her care for them. Garner’s utter honesty about her own reactions make The Spare Room unputdownable.

 

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Robert Dessaix’s review in The Monthly (here)
Jason Steger, The Age, Melbourne, 29 Mar 2008, Interview: It’s fiction and that’s a fact, (here)

Michelle at Adventures in Biography is a Garner fan and has posts on Garner’s This House of Grief (here and here)
Sue at Whispering Gums must be a fan too. A list of her Garner posts (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is not a fan but she has reviewed The Spare Room (here)
My review of Garner’s essay collection The Feel of Steel (here)

The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War (1990) is the fictional memoir of a young North Vietnamese man during and after the – from his point of view – American War. The author, Bào Ninh was actually born in 1952, but his protagonist Kien is 17 in 1965, so four years older, when the war starts and he goes straight from school to the North Vietnam Army. In the novel Kien is a famous novelist, 40 years old, writing The Destiny of Love, a story of the war which keeps getting mixed up with his own recollections of the war years, 1965-75, and the years since.

According to Wikipedia, in 1990 Bào Ninh published a roneoed version (who remembers Gestetners?) of this novel with the title The Destiny of Love after completing a creative writing course. “Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation.” This probably explains why The Sorrow of War sounds as though it were written in English by someone familiar with the war from the US point of view, as we are, rather than just translated.

I’m three years younger than Kien. I went up to university from my country high school in 1969 and was straight away involved in politics. Conscription had been introduced by the Liberal government to build up the army to help the Americans stop the supposed spread of Communism through South-East Asia. In 1971 I would have to register for ‘the ballot’, the lottery that chose 20 year olds to enlist, or face two years jail. As it happens I had no intention of killing the old men of the Liberal party’s enemies, or in helping them relive the glory days of World War II (in which of course very few of them had actually fought).

The first term of 1970 was spent in planning for the Moratorium on May 8. On the day, I marched down Swanston Street at the head of the Melb Uni contingent, bearing the pole for one end of our banner, to join up with the thousands already gathered in the Treasury Gardens. Then we marched out of the gardens and down Bourke Street to the GPO, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder across the street. From where we were, outside Myers you could see marchers back up the hill all the way to Spring Street.

After the Moratorium was the Socialist Scholar’s conference in Sydney, then a fiery July 4 demo, the second Moratorium in September, which I attended in Brisbane having by then started truck driving, and an afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for ‘publishing a document’ to incite a breach of the National Service Act – ie. handing out pamphlets. By the end of 1971 I had been served a warrant regarding my failure to register and so moved to Queensland to live, to be out of the way. In December 1972 Labor was elected and the National Service laws were repealed. It was all over, for me anyway. For Kien it was never over.

These ‘war years’ of mine are only a fraction of the ten years Kien loses in the NVA, and then he must spend ten years more, reclaiming and losing again his first and only love Phuong, compulsively writing out the horrors he cannot forget, living with the spirits of the dead and, when this story starts, beginning the post-war years by collecting and bagging the bodies of the MIA’s in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the battleground where he of all the 27th Battalion, was the only survivor.

Briefly, the novel is framed as a novel being written and then discarded, with the scattered pages recovered, out of order, and given to an editor. A standard writing school trope and hopefully now out of fashion again. But the result is a discontinuous narrative, with Kien fighting; Kien and Phuong graduating from high school, Kien too ‘honourable’ to follow up Phuong’s advances; rapes and battles and massacres; Phuong following Kien to the front; Kien and Phuong trying to live together, and failing, after Kien’s ten year absence.

If Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent anti-war novel by a soldier on the losing side of WWI, then The Sorrow of War reminds us that winning is no great shakes either for the soldiers doing the actual fighting. But the real clue to reading this book is the ‘battle’ over the titles. It is clear Western readers at least are most interested in the war, but that the author is in fact more concerned with Kien’s failure to love and protect Phuong. The Sorrow of War is a love story that breaks your heart over and over and over again.

This is a stunning book. The only Vietnam War book I have read, or will read probably. I’m only sorry I was unable to get hold of a paper copy to give you some examples of Ninh’s writing

 

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, originally self-published as The Destiny of Love in Vietnamese in 1990. English version, Frank Palmos, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. Audio version, Trantor, 2015, read by James Langton (no mention in the audio credits of Palmos or any translator)


Lisa at ANZLitLovers discussed The Sorrow of War a couple of years ago (here) and specifically the problem of English language counterfeit copies. This discussion takes a very interesting turn when Frank Palmos, now an Indonesia and Vietnam specialist at UWA (LinkedIn) joins in, at the time and again today (26/08/2017).