Almost forty years after the first European settlers pitched their tents at Sydney Cove, two men spend the night in a bush hut beside a creek on the inland side of the coastal range. Between sleeping and dreaming, the men talk intermittently until dawn. One of them, Michael Adair, is an officer in the penal colony’s regimental corps, and has just spent 48 hours in the saddle, riding up from the coast at the express orders of the Governor of New South Wales in order to oversee the hanging of the other man at dawn. The prisoner, Daniel Carney, guarded by the three troopers who captured him, is an escaped convict turned bushranger, the last man of the legendary Dolan gang whose other four members were gunned down nine days earlier. There has been no trial. In order to avoid any possible stirring of Irish anger or rebellion, Carney has been sentenced by Government House fiat to a swift death, in secrecy. Both executioner and condemned man are Irish.
During the night, while officer and felon talk, the three troopers and their black-tracker Jonas, bivouacked a stone’s throw away, have discussions of their own; each of the six men also communes with his own private memories and demons, so that sundry pasts in the Old World are evoked, as well as the raw present in the New, and the nature of justice – and rough justice – in both worlds is pondered, as is the nature of love, the nature of male bonding, the meaning of life and death. All these deliberations, both shared and inward, constitute the conversations at Curlow Creek.
The year is 1827, by which time the population of New South Wales is somewhere around 25,000, of whom two-thirds are convicts. Executive power is in the hands of Sir Ralph Darling, seventh governor of the colony. These facts are not mentioned, but are historically relevant to the action of the novel, since Darling earned a reputation as a stickler for upholding the King’s authority, and therefore implemented harsh measures against escaped convicts and against the Irish in general, fearing as he did (and as the free settlers did) a repeat of the 1804 uprising at Toongabbie, when about three hundred Irish convicts screaming ‘Death or Liberty’ turned on the officers who guarded them. The leaders of that rebellion were tricked into surrender, and the uprising brutally suppressed by government troops, but a legacy of fear about escaped convicts – particularly Irish ones – continued, and went hand in hand with the burgeoning folk romance of the bushranger, the colony’s own mythicised hybrid hero, a cross between a thuggish highwayman and Robin Hood.
The bushranger, as a symbol of the idea of liberty and of the possibility of defiance against a harsh penal code, was eventually to settle into the more-or-less-actual gigantic contours of Ned Kelly, a genuine wild colonial boy of Irish stock. Kelly was hanged as a felon in Melbourne on 11 November 1880, but his soul has gone marching on into immortality and into folk songs, literature and art. Though he lived fifty years later than the fictional characters in this novel, it is nevertheless against the backdrop of his bulky shadow that Malouf’s Carney and his Fergus/Dolan and Adair/O’Dare move, and are, at book’s end, transfigured and assumed into myth.
Governor Darling, however, was not disposed to take the romantic view of either bushrangers or the Irish. Indeed, his interpretation of British justice was so rigid that when his term as governor ended in 1831, wild celebrations were held around Sydney Harbour as his ship sailed out between the heads. Malouf’s fictional Michael Adair, as an Irish officer (from the landed gentry, to be sure; but Irish nonetheless) in a British regiment, has of necessity internalised a received system of penal law and a received colonial attitude towards the Irish, and so perhaps finds it expedient to out-Darling the Governor. At any rate, his reputation precedes him. ‘Mister bloody punctilious’, the troopers mutter when he arrives, and Adair knows that even his fellow officers find him ‘iron-hard and indefatigable ... a devil for the rules’.
Burdened by the law, by self-discipline, by introspection, by a classical education and upper-class mores, Adair shuts himself into the dark hut with his opposite, bog-Irish riff-raff itself, the man of violent instinct who gives off a rank animal smell. This is an old and well-worked dichotomy for Malouf, all of whose novels, from his first, Johnno, in 1975, through to this, his eighth, explore and embroider the theme of an intense bonding between two men who are drawn to each other in spite of, or because of, radical differences in background and temperament. The relationship is never a sexual one, or never explicitly, though it is subtly eroticised in the powerful undercurrents of the imagery.
The paired men in Malouf’s novels represent polar opposites: reason and instinct, restraint and passion, Apollo and Dionysus, civilised man and unaccommodated man (the poor, bare, forked animal itself), superego and id. One pole feels that existence depends on reflection and analysis, on the observation of life (rather than life itself) recollected and transcribed in tranquillity; the other distrusts words but lives avidly. In Johnno, there is Dante, the bright student and budding writer, cautious, restrained, insipid and judgmental, a detached note-taker of life; and there is Johnno, his wild and risk-addicted friend, who gives him in high school – just to make the Apollo/Dionysus axis quite clear to the reader – The Birth of Tragedy. In An Imaginary Life, there is Ovid, the ageing poet in disgraced exile, led out of despondency and into enlightenment by a ‘wild child’, the mute wolf-boy. More recently, in The Great World, there are Digger and Vic, war mates, the man of introspection and the man of action, fellow survivors of the Japanese prison camps. And in Remembering Babylon, over against the cautious and rationalising British settlers of the Australian bush, and paired with the boy who first encounters him, there is once again the wild child, the creature of pure instinct: Gemmy Fairley, a shipwrecked youth who has lived with the Aborigines for 16 years, who has lost almost all European language, but who, in catching hold of a phrase from the dim past, announces a disorienting truth: ‘Don’t shoot. I am a British object.’
Over the years, various Australian critics have remarked astutely that in spite of these paired oppositions, Malouf’s works really contain only one character. Malouf himself, several novels back, endorsed this interpretation in an interview with the Melbourne literary magazine Meanjin. Dante and Johnno, he acknowledged, constitute more or less a single self engaged in an inner dialectic, and ‘the things Dante is trying to see about Johnno and the messages he gets back are really all things about the possibilities of himself.’ This conceptual principle gives rise both to the considerable strengths (the poetic language, the beauties of structure and form) and to the weaknesses (the solipsism, the sketchy characterisation, the narrative inertia) of Malouf’s novels.
In organisation, The Conversations at Curlow Creek is more akin to poetry or music – to a fugue, say – than to the usual structure of a novel. The well-worked binary oppositions are more complex here: they are triads now, with the pole of instinct/rashness/passion being subdivided and shared by two characters. There is Adair versus Carney, order versus chaos; but both are linked to the ghost of Dolan, legendary leader of the gang, whose absence constitutes a constant and potent presence for each of them. For Carney, Dolan is empowerment and consolation; for Adair, he is the object of government inquisition into the possible spread of sedition. Both Carney and Dolan, lithe as animals, represent the instinctual pole. ‘There was no horse in the world wouldn’t come to him,’ Carney reminisces.
But there is a secret agenda behind Adair’s official questions, for Dolan, he suspects, is actually his younger step-brother Fergus, who thus belongs in the triad of the past, of three linked childhoods in Ireland, the Adair/Virgilia/Fergus triad. Fergus was the wild one, the changeling who ‘wasn’t like a human child’ but was from ‘another order of beings, an angel maybe, maybe the opposite’. At puberty, he resembled a centaur, ‘half boy, half horse ... a child so deeply attuned to the nature and being of horses that his body at its time of change had taken a unique course’. And Virgilia, the girl next door, also represents passion to Adair’s restraint. She has ‘a flamey quality’ to which Adair is drawn like a moth, just as Dante was drawn to Johnno, who also had a penchant for fire, in particular for burning down churches and other such symbols of repression. Both Johnno and Virgilia are compulsive and wildly imaginative liars. The imagistic parallels seem intended as pointers back to that first novel. Just as Dante needed Johnno to liberate himself from a paralysis of the imagination into the bold telling of creative lies (the act of literary creation), so Adair/Dante needs his Virgilia/Virgil for the literal descent into the underworld of the Antipodes and the literary descent into the murk of the id.
The motif of these linked triads is sounded now in the present, now in memory, now in the echoes of earlier novels, now picked up again by the three troopers, by Langhurst, who ‘felt the pressure of words’, and by his opposite, Garrety, who ‘appeared to have no such need’ but who had ‘the nature of a clean quick animal’. Such haunting refrains of theme, of language, of image are exquisite formal pleasures.
They are not, however, unrelated to the novel’s weaknesses, chief of which is a sense – sometimes hypnotic, sometimes irritating – of being becalmed, of a lack of narrative energy and direction. The book works as poetic fable, not as realistic fiction: and this should not matter in the least, but occasionally does. Adair and Virgilia, we are told, are just weeks apart in age; and both are four years old when Fergus is born. Time and memory are fluid throughout, and are meant to be, but when both Adair and the author cannot keep track of the difference in age between Adair and Fergus, we are amused. Oddly, when Fergus is 13, Adair has slipped closer to him and is only 15. Similarly, we are asked to believe that Adair, at five and six years of age, is brother/mother/father to the infant Fergus, carrying him everywhere and even changing his soiled clothes: and this in a household swarming with bossy and mothering female servants. Realism is sacrificed to two tropes here, and the clockwork of the poetic intention shows (clocks and clockwork are much mentioned, as it happens). The clockwork requires an eroticised physical merging of the two boys (excrement and all) and a visual refrain, an imagistic circularity, in the physical link between Adair and Carney at the end:
I feel very close to the cold edge of [death], because I am close to him. No, not Fergus after all, whom I had hoped in one form or another to find here, but this stranger whose animal presence comes near to stifling me, I can smell so strongly the fearsome stink of his body. ... and in a bucket just feet away the foul voiding of his bowels. – There is nothing shameful in this.
No. But this is partly because we have an uneasy sense, by now, of slight glibness, of language and image floating free of any actual referent, of the presence of the poetic idea of shit, rather than shit itself.
Characters, especially the women represented in Malouf’s work, seem more schematic than real. Virgilia is never more than a slightly embodied voice, and a rather pompous and pedantic one at that. Adair, the central character engaged in such earnest deconstruction of himself, often seems really rather smug and affectless, and so terribly inert. ‘What is it in us, what is it in me, he thought, that we should be so divided against ourselves, wanting our life and at the same time afraid of it?’ Meanwhile Fergus, the part of Adair who does want life, is always slight and ungraspable, though of course he is meant to be. He is the fey Other, mutating into the uncontainable myth of the bushranger Dolan. If there is any energy of character which arrests the reader, it resides in the condemned man, but there is a most curious contradiction in the portrayal of Carney, a further binary split within a single pole. (One thinks of the endlessly diminishing, self-mirroring reproductions of fractal geometry and of the Mandelbrot set.)
Carney’s animal energy leaps from the page. He gives off a smell of goat, and his one eye has ‘a glint of malice in it, concealed like a blade in a sleeve’. Adair sees ‘a reserve of anger in the man, of settled savagery’. He has defied the harshest of systems, lived rough and free and is to die at dawn; he has nothing more to lose. And yet when he speaks, he suddenly sounds like a sermon illustration from a Victorian pulpit, a prettied-up, sugar-coated version of the sinner with the heart of gold. This is simply not convincing, not credible; but the startling contradiction continues throughout the novel, the vibrant physicality of rebellion almost comically – and certainly embarrassingly – tugging its forelock in speech.
‘I’m sorry, sir. I just thought, you bein’ Irish an’ that, you wouldn’ mind me askin’.’
‘You know, sir, there’s a lot of injustice in the world.’
‘I was going to ask you something, I hope you don’t mind ... Do you think, sir, there is such a thing as forgiveness?’
There is something dishonest about this, a violation of character in the service of a device, and it is this solipsism, this narcissism, that is the most seriously disappointing aspect of the novel: ‘There came then the first of the man’s awkward questions, each of which, Adair found, caught him on the raw, since they went straight to the centre of his own thoughts, his own confusions, as if this illiterate fellow had somehow dipped into the dark of his head and drawn up the very questions he had chosen not to find words for.’ But Carney as speaker is nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, and there is nothing to catch anyone on the raw in the questions. They are soft and sugary. They will rock no boats and call forth no hard answers. And yet, despite this softness at its core, the novel exerts such poetic power and such pleasures of form and such potency in the final dawn scene at Curlow Creek – where all the ambiguities are left floating in exquisite balance, brilliantly unresolved – that one must consider the work a flawed triumph.