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Firing The Canon


an essay by Lyn Gallacher

Sometimes find myself thinking not just about the books but the connections between the books. Take Australian fiction for instance, what actually is the link between a handful of novels and the national subconscious?


ABC Radio National’s The Book Show is about to broadcast a series of programs called ‘Five Classic Australian Novels’. The novels are Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala, Thea Astley’s The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia. The selection of these five novels was a little bit random. It was based on the idea of what would make good radio, rather than what was or wasn’t a classic.


As soon as the list was announced there were complaints.


Where was Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet? Why not include My Brother Jack? How can you go ahead without Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead, M. Bernard Eldershaw and Henry Handel Richardson?


All good questions. But you have to start somewhere, and now in my more reflective couch-mode I can see that these books weren’t such a bad choice and that there are connections between them. Taken together they may even be trying to tell us something about the evolution of our national unconscious.


First, Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, is the book that more than any other has defined our perception of the Australian convict experience. As the Tasmanian historian James Boyce says, over time it’s become part of the national psyche. Its image of convict life is so pervasive that you see its motifs recurring again and again.


In the grand nineteenth century tradition of novel writing, Clarke was following a French literary model along the lines of Stendhal, Hugo and Balzac. He wanted to examine the human condition in literary terms, so he drew a picture of Australia as a prison and England as a paradise.


Of course the whole book is fiction and a thought experiment, but this could be the beginning of the ‘Great Australian Ugliness’.


Clarke had very strong ideas about the future of the Australian race because in those days it was all up for grabs. Memories of the utopian paradise we could have been were still fresh in the popular imagination and our national identity had not yet been settled.


Hume takes a shot at Marcus Clarke. In an essay called ‘The Future Australian Race’ Clarke famously suggests that we will all evolve into great swimmers with big noses and strong jawlines. Hume disagrees. In The Mystery of a Hansom Cab he specifically refutes Clarke, suggesting that when the climate is taken into account the future Australian is more likely to be akin to the luxurious Venetian than the ‘tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man’ that Clarke describes.


This Venetian vision is only possible because this novel is set in 1880s Melbourne, a precise moment in history when Melbourne was, per capita, the richest city in the world.


It was a place where the past could be left behind and identity could be reinvented. The characters in the book range from the respectable to the scurrilous, including a wealthy squatter with a hidden crime, a love-struck couple with a buried truth, and a slum princess with a secret identity.


It’s a classic formative text and in a sense it’s also the next chapter in this country’s writerly sense of self.


The ultimate happiness, however, is still going abroad, which is what the lovers eventually do, and we are left to imagine they most probably end up home in England. The book is said to have sold around half a million copies, and was the world’s first bestselling crime novel. The readers who made it so popular were English and they would have been fascinated by a country where anything was possible and questions such as who are we and what will we become were open for discussion.


The next book in the series is a big leap forward in time. It’s The Solid Mandala by Patrick White, which was published in 1966, a long time later yet here again is a book that can be seen as yet another stage in the development of our national psyche. Again the central question surrounds our future identity as the story maps out a particular psychological landscape. White challenges his characters – and therefore his readers – to develop or die.


The Solid Mandala is essentially the story of twins – one rational and intellectual, the other creative and intuitive – who destroy each other. What will we become if we do not reconcile the two? Dog food? There’s plenty of ugliness in the small town of Sarsaparilla, and in this instance, there’s no escape back to England. Here we have the option of either dying in the womb, or growing up.


Astley’s The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow faces the consequences of growing up. It’s a book that takes responsibility for questions surrounding the issue of race, meaning it forces white society to look at the cruelty they’ve imposed on Indigenous people. The book is set on Palm Island which Astley renames Doebin Island, and the incident at the centre of the novel is real.


In it, Astley retells the story of a white boss who goes on a shooting rampage and burns down the settlement’s hospital and murders his own children. The Aboriginal youth who stops him with a bullet, on orders from a cowardly, white authority figure, is unfairly tried for murder. It’s a trial that draws attention to a certain events that happened on Palm Island well after this book was written. And that’s the terrible, chilling thing; as Astley turns this actual historical incident into an extraordinarily powerful, despairing metaphor for race relations in this country, she is also predicting Palm Island’s future. She calls it the rainshadow.


Another effect of the rainshadow, however, that’s not so negative.


Astley used as her source a book called Straight From the Yudaman’s Mouth, the story of Peter Prior, who was the real-life Aboriginal boy tried for murder. Prior’s story was written by his daughter, Renarta Prior, who also made it into a film. Her brother is author Boori Monty Prior who, with Meme McDonald, has published several books. North Queensland has begun to establish a tradition of indigenous writing and scholarship of its own. The next ABC Radio National series of five classic novels will have to include an indigenous author; we are slowly growing up.


The final book in the series is Hebert’s great swirling, sprawling epic Capricornia. It contains, and negates, Herbert’s vision for the future of Australian and brings the series back to the beginning, back to the arguments of Clarke.


The protagonist, Norman Shillingsworth, is the product of a white father and a black mother. He learns of his Aboriginal heritage belatedly and finds out the hard way what that means in the violent world of Australia’s untamed 1930s north. Herbert uses Shillingsworth in order to propose a rainbow-coloured future for Australia, a theory diametrically opposed to that of Clarke and Hume, for whom the indigenous population was invisible and the idea of returning to England with the loot was ever present.


In Herbert’s collected letters there is one that particularly spells out his feelings about race. In June 1936, while he was the superintendant of Darwin’s Carlin Compound, he wrote this letter to his publisher, ‘Inky’ Stephenson:


These Euraustralians, or yeller fellas, as the transplanted Pommies call them, are a great race. There are something like 20000 already. Properly organised they should in a few years be able to wield some weight. We are not Australians, Inky, only those lucky people are. They are, I should say, the most vigorous race of people on the earth. I love them and envy their nationality. Curse the fates that arranged that I should be born a colonial Pommie. Will you work with me to organise this Euraustralian race that it will rise up and up and increase and multiply and eventually sweep the Pommies back into the sea?


Capricornia is not like this letter. Rather than being a story of a bright, multi-coloured future, this is a story of ongoing despair. As in Astley’s Rainshadow, the destructive forces finally win out over the creative ones and the last words of Capricornia are given to the crows after they’ve picked clean the bones of Norman’s lover, Tocky, and his unnamed child.


The two were hiding from white authorities in an old, empty water tank and were baked to death and readers are left to imagine that the child was actually born in the empty water tank, born, as it were, into a dead in womb. ‘Kah!-Kah!-Kaaaah!’ Herbert’s vision comes to nothing. It is probably not possible to generalise about the state of the nation’s soul from these five novels. But the challenges they lay down are pretty clear.


Although I would prefer a happier theory of the future Australian race, the trend contained in these books is towards national nihilism. The writers are trying to tell us something pretty grim about ourselves and we would do well to listen.


© 2009—Lyn Gallacher

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