In which Netty peers over the Wall into Stasiland …

October 25, 2014
The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

The view from West Berlin, circa 1986

“The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose … (but) the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. Between 1989 and 1990 it was turned inside out: Stalinist spy unit one day, museum the next.”

So writes Australian Anna Funder in the opening chapter of her 2002 non-fiction work Stasiland. It is an account of life in East Germany, behind the infamous Berlin Wall, in the latter half of the 20th century – after the end of World War II in 1945 and before the Wall was brought down in 1989, the Communist regime was uprooted, and Western democracy ushered in.

Having learned German – to the bemusement of her family – as a schoolgirl, Funder lived in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, in her early 20s. She first visited East Germany in 1987, and again in 1994 – five years after the fall of the Wall. She returned two years later, got a job in the television industry and started to collect the stories that would eventually make up Stasiland – the personal accounts of East Germans who stood up to regime, and/or were wrongfully imprisoned.

Funder examines both sides of life in East Germany under Communism and the Stasi, its notorious Ministry for State Security – from the viewpoints of its citizens and those who worked for the Stasi both officially and unofficially, whom she enlists from placing personal advertisements. And the latter was many – the country was teeming with Stasi agents and their informers. Funder is scathing in her assessment: “These obedient grey men doing it with their underpaid informers … seem at once more stupid and more sinister. Betrayal clearly has its own reward … and this regime used it as fuel.”

The book’s seeds were sown from the story of Miriam Weber, which Funder had first heard on her 1994 visit, and whose biography bookends Stasiland. In 1968, aged just 16, Miriam became an “enemy of the state” after she and a girlfriend distributed leaflets protesting against the police reaction to the Leipzig demonstrations, triggered by the demolition of a church and the next generation questioning its parents’ blind adherence to Communism. After being detained and interrogated, Miriam attempted, on New Year’s Eve of that year, to go over the Wall – and almost made it. Her failure resulted in further detainment, torture and eventual imprisonment.

After her release, Miriam was courted by sports teacher Charlie Weber, whom she eventually married. But Charlie, too, invoked the ire of the Stasi, was put under surveillance and eventually arrested and placed in a remand cell, where he ostensibly committed suicide and his funeral took place under the organisation’s foreboding shadow. Two decades later and Miriam was still trying to piece together the real story of what happened to her husband, of whom – if anyone – lay in his coffin. It is truly heartbreaking, but Miriam’s resilience shines like a beacon despite the obvious psychological damage she has endured.

Sadly but unsurprisingly there are stories like this everywhere in the old German Democratic Republic, some sitting right under Funder’s nose – such as her landlady Julia, whose slightly eccentric tics belie a history of petty injustices incurred by the state. A straight-A, multi-lingual student whose innocent relationship with an Italian man piqued the interest of the Stasi, she was consequently and repeatedly denied the opportunity to work in a country where officially there was no unemployment, and was continually under surveillance, effectively an exile in her own homeland, where she refused to join the informer ranks and was accordingly punished for doing so.

The Stasi was chillingly effective in severe psychological debasement and also a dab hand in the physical department. There is the unbelievably appalling case of Sigrid Paul and her son Torsten, whose breech birth was badly handled and whose ill health eventually forced doctors to spirit him across the border, where he remained in hospital for the next five years, basically brought up by nurses, whilst his parents were sequestered behind the Wall. Sigrid and her husband’s desperate plan to defect, with the help of a network of students who provided a safe passage across the border, was repeatedly thwarted. And Sigrid eventually made the heartrending decision not to betray the students at the expense of seeing her son, but was still imprisoned and shockingly, persistently tortured. You will find it almost impossible to believe that one human being can do such things to another – especially in the name of the state.

Like her countrywoman Helen Garner, Funder excels in this type of first-person reportage, removed only a few degrees from the “gonzo” style of journalism pioneered by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and his ilk. She emits a remarkable degree of humanity and empathy in the retelling of these tales, many of them so horrific and inhumane, nightmare Orwellian tales that are tragically all too true.

Remarkably, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s – barely a decade after the destruction of the Wall – Funder finds there is a certain amount of nostalgia amongst some East Berliners for the Stasi era. As several note, life under capitalism has more than its share of challenges – amongst them housing, food, social security, health. Time might not heal all wounds, but it does taint memories, and can skew a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

Stasiland is an important, must-read book, for no other reason than it is vital that we keep these atrocious stories alive in the hope that we, mankind, never repeats them. Although I fear that in a world that descends further into chaos with every passing day, this might prove a moot point. But I hope not – and the survival of hope is the overarching message behind Stasiland. We ignore it at our own peril.


Stasiland – Andy’s Berlin obsession detains him once again

October 21, 2014

When it comes to cities I’ve not visited that I want to visit New York trumps Berlin, but only just. In fact I have visited Berlin, once, sort of – I was on some dodgy semi-independent bus toury thing of Europe, Eurobus I think it was called, in the mid-nineties – independent in that you could choose where you wanted to stay and how long, semi-independent in that you could only go to the cities on the bus route. Berlin was towards the end of that route and I was uncertain about how much money I had left (this predates being able to check your bank balance from your sonic, sorry smartphone), and I assumed Berlin would be pricey, so having spent quite a few days in dirt-cheap Prague and Budapest I decided to give presumably outrageously expensive Berlin a miss. The bus drove through Berlin, , I looked out the window, we went on to Hamburg and I found an ATM that could give me a bank balance. My UK tax return had come through, and there was five thousand bucks in my account, and I could have spent days in Berlin, after all.

Oh well.

At that stage my fascination with Berlin was fuelled by my knowledge of the Weimar Republic and my reading of Christopher Isherwood. Pretty much everything I have learned about Berlin since has stoked my desire to visit that city. Anna Funder’s Stasiland stoked quite a bit more.

stasilandNetty wanted to read this. I wasn’t keen. I’m not sure why, although I guess maybe as an old if marginally reformed leftie I was expecting “everything about everything that the commies tried to do in the twentieth century was totally awful”. I wasn’t expecting nuance, slightly jaded sympathy for the aims of the communism, a preparedness to hear the voices of those who were determined to (mostly delusionally) defend the police state they helped maintain. But surprisingly Funder supplied pretty much all of those things.

Funder – who visited Germany, as recorded here anyway, just months before me – gets the profound decency of what communism was trying to achieve. She also gets the horror of the lengths communists were prepared to go to get there. The laughable adherence of the men (and they are all men, I think) who worked for the Stasi to the principles they were trained to uphold cannot stand the horror of what was inflicted on those (in Funder’s account, mostly women) who were found by the state to be in breach of its ideals.

There is commentary from Funder, of course, but it is measured and balanced. Mostly she is happy to simply allow those she interviewed to tell their stories. While it’s often grim reading there is plenty of (mostly dark) humour, especially in some of the system built-in idiocies.

East Germany did not kill people in the way Stalin’s Russia, or even Lenin’s Russia, did. But it killed people, and some of those stories are told here. It also blighted people’s lives, in unbelievable ways. And all in pursuit of a vision of society that was never going to be fulfilled. What’s particularly fascinating about Funder’s book is that it tells a story of a very specific society, constructed it seems almost overnight, that differed vastly from what it replaced – and which disappeared after less than half a century. Some of the people Funder interviewed may well be dead by now.

They’re horrified when people say it, but fundamentalists of all stripes – Muslim. Christian, Jew Nazi Fascist Commie Khmer Rough – have the same thing in common: the perfection of the human being. In godspeak perfection is unachievable, because “mankind” is stained forever by sin, but we’re expected to strive towards those unattainable ideals that god set us and (in its more extreme versions) kill those who transgress them: in the political fundamentalisms the belief is that perfection is actually achievable, here and now. East Germany was one of so many tragic failed experiments on that road.


In which Netty goes into the past to see the future – and why you need to read Don DeLillo’s Mao II right now

October 2, 2014

cover-maoiiWow. Just … wow.

Sometimes I wonder, as I make my way through Don DeLillo’s back catalogue, if the man isn’t half-clairvoyant. His 10th novel Mao II, published in 1992, is so eerily prescient of what is making headlines today – some 22 years later – that reading it feels almost like a warning sign (cue Talking Heads’ David Byrne, all the way back in 1978, singing: “Hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s not very nice”.)

So, Don, about the numbers for this week’s lotto draw …

But seriously, this is the book they should shoot into space, so that long after we are gone, many, many light years later, some alien life form will stumble upon it and go, “Aha. We get it. That’s why they’re not around any more.”

Mao II – named after American pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous mass-produced silkscreen print of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which appears and recurs as a motif throughout the novel – is also a literature teacher’s wet dream. It’s a compact guide to the modern global world, chock-full of contemporary themes and mores, name-checking the major events of the late 20th century, from mass Moonie weddings to the Hillsborough football tragedy to the death and funeral of Iran leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. The book’s prologue ends with the sentence, “The future belongs to crowds”, and it is its overarching theme – from the safety and sanctity of the crowd, to its potential for mayhem and absolute disaster.

The main character is a man who wants nothing whatsoever to do with crowds – and to that end has become a virtual recluse. Bill Gray is a sixtysomething novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon mode – many years ago he wrote a couple of books that became touchstones for a generation, and the fact that he has disappeared off the radar, not releasing any new material since, just makes him more of a magnet for the people he most wishes to eschew.

Scott, the personal assistant who has lived with Bill for eight years, is one such tenacious fan who seeks out his literary hero and manages to secure a position in Bill’s life and home in upstate New York. He lives there with his girlfriend Karen, who, in the book’s prologue, is one of the 13,000 brides being married at Yankee Stadium under the banner of the Unification Church. After being captured and deprogrammed by her family, she escapes and is later found by Scott wandering the streets of a small town in Kansas. While Scott oversees Bill’s archives, deals with his fan mail and proofreads his new work, Karen keeps house and surreptitiously sleeps with Bill – which, bizarrely, seems to receive Scott’s tacit approval.

In anticipation of the release of a new novel, Bill agrees to be photographed by New York snapper Brita Nilsson, who has devoted her life’s work to taking pictures of famous and important writers. It will be the first new photos of Bill published in three decades. Afterwards, Bill goes to New York City to meet with his long-time publisher Charlie Everson, who, in addition to pressing Bill about his new work, tells him about a Swiss UN worker and poet who is being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Beirut. Charlie, who also chairs a “high-minded committee on free expression”, has concocted a plan where Bill will appear at a press conference in London and read from the poet’s work before he is released. “Your group gets press, their new group gets press, the young man is sprung from his basement room, the journalists get a story,” Bill deadpans.

Without informing Scott, Bill jets off to London for the press conference, but bomb threats – and then an explosion on a London street – delay the event. Charlie and Bill meet with George Haddad, a representative of the Beirut group who later tracks down Bill and talks him into going to Athens, then Beirut, to negotiate the poet’s release without his publisher’s knowledge or intervention. Bill opines that novelists and terrorists are playing “a zero-sum game”. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” he says. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

Bill continues: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” When George chips in that terrorists are “the only possible heroes for our time”, Bill vehemently disagrees: “It’s pure myth, the terrorist as solitary outlaw. These groups are backed by repressive governments … they carry the old wild-eyed vision, total destruction and total order.”

Later, the photographer Brita, working as a freelancer, accepts an assignment in war-torn Beirut to take pictures of the organisation’s leader Abu Rashid, who says to her: “I will tell you why we put Westerners in locked rooms. So we don’t have to look at them. They remind us of the way we tried to mimic the West … which you now see exploded all around you.” And this: “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world … terror makes the new world possible.”

Read those words, written in 1992, and tell me you don’t have the chill of recognition. These scenarios, these words, could have been ripped out of yesterday’s newspapers. And, as has been said before, many times throughout the years, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

You need to read this book. Right now. It won’t always be a pleasant experience, and you won’t always enjoy it, but you will come away with the feeling that you can make just a little more sense of this convoluted, fucked-up, loony-toons crazy world we have created and continue to hone.

Wow. Just … wow.


The Nice and the Good – Andy and Iris go to Smuggler’s Top

September 24, 2014

“I am sunk in the wreck of myself, thought Theo. I live in myself like a mouse inside a ruin. I am huge, sprawling, corrupt and empty. The mouse moves, the ruin moulders. This is all.”

Well, look, I’m pretty sure we all felt that way the time we read our last Famous Five novel.

The Nice and the goodThe Blyton reference is slight. Iris Murdoch’s 1968 novel The Nice and the Good is set, mostly, by the sea (more about that in a bit). There’s a smuggler’s cave in there, not a smuggler’s top, but you get the connection. And there’s a mystery to solve – a murder mystery (did the Famous Five ever do murder mysteries, or was that a bit too Adults Only?), and a murder mystery embroidered with Satanic rituals and bureaucratic weirdness – Actually it’s not a murder mystery, it’s a suicide mystery – but then maybe it is a murder mystery – but then -

You get where I’m going, hopefully.

There is bureaucracy, anyway, and not all of it’s confined to the office. There is a Big House in the Country story, there is mystery and there is metaphysics – although, as the aforequoted Theo says, “All metaphysics is devilish, devilish.” Was this the view of Murdoch, novelist and philosopher? Or was it perhaps the view of Murdoch the one, but not the other?

No idea. Soz.

The Nice and the Good’s main character, essentially, is John Ducane. A middle-aged, middle-class bureaucrat, probably an atheist, certainly an agnostic, but with a strange Calvinist twist to his morality. He seems to believe in an ethics that is above the realm of existence, without actually believing in realms of any sort. He likes women, his age and younger, but he also likes his butler, although he is offended – deeply – by suggestions he might be “queer”. He is regarded by his friends, many of whom he congregates with at a family home on the coast, as a supreme moral arbiter. Except he’s not, and when he’s honest with himself he knows that. He’s called upon by his boss, who is also the owner of that coastal family home, to investigate a suicide by a bureaucratic odd bod who turns out to have had a side line in strange, demonic rituals, involving prostitutes and – er – pigeons.

Like A Severed Head before it, The Nice and the Good is regarded by many critics as one of Murdoch’s explorations of “the ’60s” and, like A Severed Head, I don’t swallow it. Buy it. Sorry. The Nice and the Good involves a crew as bourgeois if not more so than A Severed Head, and what they get up to is timid in comparison to what I am led to believe was par for the course in that Mythical Decade. Murdoch does, though, touch on (sorry!) gay sexuality in an interesting way, tangentially perhaps, but it’s there. At the end of chapter three Ducane feels, “not for the first time, a distinct impulse to lay his hand upon” his butler’s shoulder as they drive home. At the end of chapter 16 he just does it. “He even shifted it a little so that his fingers curved gently, without gripping, over the bone of the shoulder. The contact brought to Ducane the intense and immediate comfort which it now seemed to him he had been seeking for all day.” Ducane’s butler, for his part, “gazed impassively straight ahead.”

In the previous chapter something similar happens to the aforequoted Theo, “uncle” to the precocious Edward and Henrietta who read like the precursors to a couple of especially obnoxious Blyton characters. Theo spends all of chapter 15 philosophising with his friend Willy, a survivor of the Holocaust, and this is the chapter from which the “devilish” quote comes. Willy lives in a shack up the back of the country house’s garden, and is impotent (well…). A discussion about forgiveness and absolution towards the chapter’s end culminates as “Theo leaned down, until his brow was touching” Willy’s “silky white hair. He closed his eyes and let his arms slide forward over Willy’s shoulders to receive the comfort he had come to receive, the close caressing pressure of Willy’s hands upon his.”

Theo, it transpires, is definitely gay, and this is at the heart of his tragedy. Ducane almost certainly isn’t, although I suspect Murdoch was writing about him within a ’60s context where sexuality, to the more enlightened, was more fluid than most of us now understand it scientifically to be. These are not remotely important elements of the book but, me being a poof and all, they intrigue me.

The sea is almost a character itself in this book, as the Thames was in Under the Net and as the lake by the convent was in The Bell. I don’t remember there being an especially significant body of water in A Severed Head, but I might be wrong. The next Murdoch novel I’m planning to read is The Sea, The Sea. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about bodies of water after that.

Metaphysical discussions about this novel focus on the title, and the idea that “the nice” refers to sex, and “the good” refers to decency – well, that’s my word – but let’s say. living ethically. Ducane is a man who can get sex, or at least physical intimacy, but who also struggles to understand how he should behave in a moral sense. Most of the other characters don’t quite engage on the ethical level in quite the same way – Octavian and Kate, for example, owners of the country house and, initially, by Murdoch’s clever sleight of hand, the book’s moral centre, are actually kind of appalling, if slightly likable, human beings. The last chapter, though, seems to me perhaps a key to what Murdoch is saying.

It begins with sated teenage lust, and progresses through late middle-age compromise, early middle-age happiness (or possibly compromise), the hint of cross-generational sexual happiness, discussion of a divorced couple’s reconciliation, Theo’s remembrance of a boy he knew in India, when he was a boy himself; and finally Henrietta and Edward, brother and sister, fantasising about the flying saucer they bragged of in chapter two. “They never spoke when the saucer was present.” Murdoch’s depiction of the children and the flying saucer in the final scene is perfect. The flying saucer’s “real”, and the children really see it. And then: “Hand in hand the children began to run homeward through the soft warm drizzle.”

So, to outrageously misrepresent Ms Murdoch, is her final scene suggesting that the search for “ethics” is as meaningless as the search for flying saucers? That yes, we can all see them, if we want to, but they don’t actually exist? That the desire to understand the “nice” and the “good” and the difference between them is in fact “devilish, devilish”?

I don’t actually think so. The conclusion of this novel led me to think Murdoch was leaning towards a Buddhist understanding of morality.. But I’m probably wrong with that, too. What is more important than all that nonsense is that this is an awesome novel. The Bell is probably better, but only just. The Nice and the Good is terrific.

Although yes. I do realise I may have sprinkled some spoilers, here and there. Sorry about that.


The Songlines – Bruce and Andy aren’t quite in tune

September 19, 2014

“They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.”

songlinesSpoiler: That’s the last line of The Songlines. It’s not really a spoiler, but there are three dying Aboriginal guys on the last page of the book. You don’t find out about them until the last chapter so I’m not really spoiling anything. Among the countless stretches of Chatwin’s writing that impressed me, though, these final words, a magic combination of brevity and poetry, left me dumbstruck. You just don’t expect to find non-fiction this wondrous.

I put the book down, I swigged my beer, I picked up my iPad, and I wiki’d The Songlines. Arguably a bad move. Because apparently, as Netty mentioned, The Songlines isn’t non-fiction. It’s a combination of fiction and reportage. I’m not quite sure what that even means. I mean, as someone who has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and a reporter for some of that time, I think I know what reportage is. And as someone who has been writing stories since he could pick up a crayon I think I know what fiction is. And as a reader of fiction I think I know what autobiographical fiction is, and historical fiction, too. Contemporary fiction that involves current circumstances? Sure. Combinations of all of the above? OK.

But a book that presents itself as the record of a man who spends a significant amount of time in the Outback, among the Outback;s indigenous peoples, with many of those people’s friends and some of their enemies, that turns out to be partly fictitious? Err…

I could do my research. I am sure there are websites out there that sort out exactly what is reportage here and what is fiction. But I haven’t done my research. And I’m not saying The Songlines is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a pretty awesome book, actually. It’s just that it’s not what I thought it was. And if Netty is right, and you find it in the fiction section at bookshops, then perhaps what I thought it was is not what it was intended to be. (I found it in the fiction section of a secondhand bookshop, and simply assumed the staff at said secondhand bookshop were a bit shit at their jobs.)

There are so many people in this book, so many situations, to cherish. Arkady, the “Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals”, first and foremost. Or Enid Lacey, the hard-nosed, canny owner of an Alice bookshop, broker of indigenous artists; or Dan Flynn, Aboriginal apostate from the Benedictine brotherhood. There’s the unpleasantness of Chatwin’s visit to the Katherine pub, an unappetising desert fry-up with a crazed old commie; and a couple of quite funny scenes, one in which an Aboriginal painter calls out a dealer on the money she’s paying him, as opposed to what she’s selling for in Adelaide, and another where Bruce is taken on a kangaroo hunt, and yet another, where he goes for a not terribly successful mountain walk.

And this is all fascinating, and enthralling, and beautifully written – my god, he could write – but how much of it is true? And how much of it did Chatwin make up? I get, I really do, that there is a school of thought that says that questiojn is irrelevant. Hey, I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I get metafiction. I get post-modernism. I don’t agree, not remotely, with post-modernism’s philosophical underpinnings. But I get it.

Would that have been Chatwin’s excuse? There is no intellectual or philosophical distinction between fiction and non-fiction, therefore why should I make the distinction in my writing? Maybe. All I can say is a writer I was initially enamoured of is now I writer for whom I have a little suspicion. I was going to read something more of his in the very near future. I’m not so sure now.

PS: I read a big chunk of this in Vietnam, including the notebook sections, towards the end – and, like Netty, while I enjoyed them, I wonder if they needed to be edited back a bit. Anyhoo: In the notebook extracts that follow Chapter 31 Chatwin recounts a 1971 London dinner party attended by a “very tall American” who was on his way back to the US after a “fact-finding” mission in Vietnam that had included a bombing raid over Hanoi. “The North Vietnamese have lost between a half and a third of a generation of their young fighting men,” the very tall American smugly drawls at the dinner table, ” … which is why we anticipate a military victory, in Vietnam, in the course of 1972.” I’m not sure how Chatwin saw this relating to his narrative, or his thesis about human evolution and language and song. But I do know I have never visited a country as vibrant, a people as determined not just to make a go of it but to take that go into the stratosphere, as Vietnam. And so, verily, I say unto thee, O very tall American: Fuck You. Fuck You All All Your Kind.


In which Netty goes for a wander along the Songlines … and why you should, too. Like, right now.

September 13, 2014

songlines-coverSometimes someone on the outside looking in can tell a story better than those enmeshed in the very thick of it. Which may explain, in part, why the late English writer Bruce Chatwin is responsible for a book widely acknowledged as one of the finest on the uneasy truce between modern and ancient Australian indigenous culture – his 1987 fiction/non-fiction hybrid The Songlines.

More on that particular format later.

The widely travelled Chatwin visited central Australia, travelling between Alice Springs and Katherine, in the mid-1980s, specifically to explore an interest in our indigenous culture that had first been piqued in his boyhood and subsequently write about it. The Songlines recounts his time spent there, the people he met – both the indigenous and non-indigenous – and how he weaved what he learned into an over-arching theory, which he had been formulating for many years previously, about the nomadic nature of mankind.

His main guide to the red centre is thirtysomething Arkady Volchok, a first-generation Australian of Russian-Ukrainian immigrant parentage, who draws on a vast knowledge of, and empathy with, the local indigenous peoples to interpret tribal law within the context of the contentious Land Rights Act. He acts as a mediator between those who want to preserve the land and those who want to exploit it. A South Australian who has fallen in love with life in the desert, Arkady, an oft-victim of casual racism himself, bemoans the fact that “islanders” were the first to discover Australia – rather than land-bound Europeans such as Russians, Slavs, Hungarians or even Germans. “They never understood it,” he asserts. “They’re afraid of space. We could have been proud of it. Loved it for what it was. I don’t think we’d have sold it off so easily.”

Chatwin’s particular area of interest – which he readily relates to his time living in and travelling through Africa – is the indigenous concept of the “songlines”. That is, back in the Dreamtime, the ancestors had created themselves, in the image of a specific totemic species (Wallaby, Kangaroo, Snake, etc), and then scattered a trail of songs along their travels – in effect, singing the country into existence and forging an invaluable map of survival across its rough and inhospitable terrain, a “document” to be handed down, word of mouth, to future generations.

The writer neatly surmises the relationship between the indigenous and the land: “Aboriginals … could not imagine territory as a block of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of ‘lines’ or ‘ways through’ … the definition of a man’s ‘own country’ was ‘the place in which I do not have to ask’ … Yet to feel ‘at home’ in that country depended on being able to leave it … “ It is fascinating stuff; it is the origins and the history of Australia’s first people, and it is a story I suspect very few of us immigrant Australians – that is, the vast majority of us who do not have indigenous ancestry – knows. Which is not just saddening, it’s an indictment, particularly on our political and educational sectors. End of soapboxing from me!

Chatwin relishes his time in the outback, and amongst the people, and finds parallels to the course of his own life in his learnings: “Man was born in the desert, in Africa. By returning to the desert he rediscovers himself,” he muses at one point. He digs out some notebooks he had started compiling in Africa: “What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm … that Natural Selection has designed us … for a career of seasonal journeys on foot (italics his) through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert”. A chunk of excerpts from the notebooks follows, and are periodically interspersed through the remaining 100 pages.

Just as interesting as Chatwin’s encounters with the indigenous are the Caucasians whom he meets – and their reasons and motivations for having relocated to the heart of the country, with all its assorted trials and tribulations, or being frequent visitors to the area. Arkady is a real gem – the heart and soul of the book – as is his (eventual) fiancée and female counterpart Marian; then there’s Cullen storeowner and caravan-dweller Rolf Niehart and his partner Wendy; comi-tragic old-timer Jim Hanlon; bookseller Enid Lacey and arts patron Eileen Houston; and the pastoral Fathers of the outback missionaries. Their stories overlap and intertwine and add to the book’s rich fabric of central Australian life in the latter part of the 20th century, of a sometimes tainted co-existence with its original tenants.

Now to my two quibbles: one minor, one not so. I felt the extracts from “the notebooks”, whilst interesting and providing both context and back story to Chatwin’s life and quests, were over-abundant, especially as they continued to pepper the latter pages of the book. I wanted more of the story itself – and here’s the rub. It turns out – and I am sort of glad I didn’t learn this until after I’d finished the book – that it is exactly that, in part: fiction.

To all intents and purpose The Songlines is presented as a non-fiction, so it was disappointing, and then some, to discover some of these characters may not have existed, might have been amalgamations, that some of the events portrayed may not have actually occurred. After heavily investing in the book, it was kind of like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. Although I suppose the fact it is housed in the fiction section might have been a bit of a giveaway …

As I said, it’s a quibble, of sorts. Because at the end of the day The Songlines is not only one of the books from which I’ve learned the most, but one of those I’ve most enjoyed reading. Chatwin was a renowned story-teller, and as a travel writer he is right up there with the likes of Paul Theroux, one of his peers and pals.

This is essential reading on so many levels, but with an added, especial resonance for Australians. If you haven’t yet made its acquaintance, get thee to a bookshop – stat. Or one of those newfangled Kindle-type whatsiemadoodles. Whatever floats your boat. Just read it, right? Right.


In which Netty delves into Lydia Davis’s politics of the personal – and finds it much more enticing than that dross they dish up in Canberra …

August 17, 2014

Another month, another volume of short stories written by an American woman …

Regular readers may recall that just last month I was particularly scathing of Mary Gaitskill’s Stories. Not long after I blogged I got a message from Andy opining that I was “harsh” and wondering if I’d reconsidered after reading his glowing appraisal. It took all of a nanosecond for me to realise that no, there was no reconsidering to be done. I stand by my verdict on Gaitskill, harsh or otherwise.


Lydia Davis seems to really like cats. I won’t hold this against her …

Lydia Davis, on the other hand …

While Gaitskill was my choice – mistaken identity or not – Andy has been pushing for Davis for a couple of years now. So it’s a pity that she did not live up to his expectations. Me, I went in thinking just about anything had to be better than ol’ Mary, so maybe that reflected in my extremely favourable reaction to Davis. Maybe. Or maybe she’s just the bomb.

What neither Andy nor me realised going in was Davis was once married to Paul Auster, a firm ANRC favourite. I am not sure how long the union lasted – they wed in 1974, but Auster was married to another novelist, Suri Hustvedt, by 1981, so presumably not long. Like her ex, Davis is also a proficient translator of French literature (most notably Proust and Flaubert); and their writing careers follow a similar timeframe and trajectory. I kept wondering as I read these stories, particularly the earlier ones, if the “ex” to whom Davis’s narrators referred was actually Auster. Possibly this somewhat interfered with my perceptions – Auster is certainly a formidable literary figure, but then so is Davis. Also, Auster doesn’t have a Man Booker International Prize (which Davis won in 2013). Not that this is a game of bookish tit-for-tat or anything like that!

I’ll keep the Gaitskill references to a minimum, because she and Davis, stylistically, are very different writers; the former is only my immediate touchstone because she is my most recently read. Although Davis was first published in the mid-1970s and has around a dozen collections to her name – some of which overlap – The Collected Stories (published in 2009) starts, somewhat confusingly, with the 1986 selection Break It Down and takes in 1997’s Almost No Memory, 2001’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and wraps up with 2007’s Varieties Of Disturbance (there have been a couple of post-2009 collections, the most recent of which was published just a couple of months ago).

As Andy noted, Collected Stories is more than 700 pages long, comprising 199 stories (I counted them!) You could argue that “stories” is a misnomer in a lot of cases – some of these stories are very short, a page, a half-page, even a sentence. I liked that a lot – I admire economy in writers, and sometimes a story can absolutely be finished in a sentence. To wit: the title story of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant.

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:

that Scotland has so few trees.

See? It’s perfect. It’s so simple, yet so perfect in its succinctness – and so funny. Davis is really funny a lot of the time, although it’s rarely obvious humour. It’s more the dry-and-wry variety. And that suits me just fine.

Another thing about Davis is she is an absolute master of what I call politics of the personal. She can cut to the core of any male-female relationship, from both sides of the equation, and distil its very essence in just a few words, sentences, pages. And that was, far and away, what impressed me most about her writing. It is chock-a-block full of fundamental truths of male-female dynamics that we rarely, if ever, admit to anyone else, including our partners – let alone ourselves. Trust me – you will laugh and cringe at the same time as you recognise yourself, your partners, your friends in these pages, in these tales.

From the opening story (called, uh “Story”), about a woman obsessing about the intricacies of her, possibly nascent, relationship, it is writ large, front and centre. The level of unnecessary miscommunication between the pair over the course of a few hours at night provides the comedy, but the underlying uncertainty and fear of mind games provides the uncomfortable recognition factor here: “The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out if it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often”.

Who among us hasn’t stayed up half the night twisting themselves in and out of knots as they grapple with the perceptions and misconceptions of and within a relationship? Davis gets this, and she nails it just about every time she steps into this territory. This is the sort of revelatory writing in which few authors really, rarely suceed. Davis does it effortlessly, time and again, with her incise and incendiary prose.

In his Gaitskill blog, Andy noted he had already ordered her other books on the strength of Stories. I will be doing the same with Davis. I can’t recommend her strongly enough, but I recognise that she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And certainly, not all of these stories work. But, oh boy, when they do … and much more often that not, they do – and in spades.

My literary find of the year, so far. What a smart, savvy, switched-on female voice – stunning stuff. Highly recommended. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?


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