God’s Gift to Australia

C.K. Stead

  • Woman of an Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 284 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 340 53148 7

Seen from London WCI, New Zealand looks to bear about the same physical relation to Australia as the British Isles to continental Europe – just offshore. In fact, although we are near-neighbours and natural partners in one of the world’s great emptinesses, there are 1200 miles of usually rough ocean between Sydney and Auckland, and even more of social, historical and climatic difference.

Australia at large is all drama and exaggeration, Two memories come to mind: one, a Fifties newsreel showing sheep dying of drought under dead trees high in the branches of which were the carcasses of animals left there by the last flood, the other, flying at 38,000 feet over the red central desert which seemed to go on hour after hour, away for ever in all directions, and seeing, on a long single straight line that must have been a road, a little cluster of minute silver squares set out in rows – the unpainted iron roofs of a mining town.

In their native state the Aborigines burrowed into a condition of identity with the land. The European mind, unable to achieve this coincidence with heat and dust, and in any case (quite reasonably) not wanting to, has had to struggle to give mythic expression to what it sees and feels, and more, to what it knows to exist beyond the coastal fringes where it has made itself at home. In the visual arts, Dobell’s red landscapes and ‘blackfellas’ among rickety wooden verandahs, Boyd’s eerie waterholes and ghostly figures, Nolan’s square Ned Kelly head like a prison out of which the eyes stare at barrenness, are examples.

In literature the mythic scale has been as courageous, though not always as successful. I find it hard to enjoy the florid extravagances of Patrick White’s Voss, while respecting the attempt to make word match fact. Xavier Herbert tried to meet size with size, insisting that his Poor Fellow My Country, close on a million words, be published in a single hardback volume which one day may kill a frail reader trying to manage it in bed – but a remarkable narrative, animated by an enormous will to do justice to its continental subject.

My First university job after graduating in New Zealand was a lectureship in Armidale on the northern tableland of NSW. The University there did all extra-mural work for the State, which meant going out to weekend schools. One of these was at Dubbo. There had been heavy rains, direct rail-links were cut, so to give a few classes to a few students I had to travel 350 miles to Sydney and then another 250 to Dubbo – all day through an unvarying blue-gum landscape. The rains continued and the Macquarie River rose 24 feet in the 24 hours I was in town. It was just running into the gutters of the main street as I got on my train to leave. The Macquarie, or its near neighbour the Bogan, must be the unnamed river that figures, and floods, in Thomas Keneally’s new novel.

Keneally, too, has mythic ambitions. His heroine, Kate, born Gaffney, married Kozinski, is escaping from a failed marriage and a consequent disaster so appalling we are not told what it is for fear that the disclosure might ‘unbalance the little tale with grief and fill the mouth with ash’. Since Kate is the mother of two children we have (and are meant to have) a fair notion of what it might be. The narrative strategy is to keep us waiting for the confirmation and the details.

Meanwhile Kate sheds her middle-class identity, leaves Sydney, and travels somewhere on that line through and beyond Dubbo to Narromine, Trangie, Nevertire, Mullengudgery and finally Myambagh, where she eats a great deal of white bread and steak, works as a barmaid, and becomes involved with the townsfolk and in the drama of the flood. She is brought back, in other words, to the heart of the old Australia – another (and equally serviceable) version of Les Murray’s bush-Romanticism. ‘She wanted to be back among those country faces ... She wanted to feed numbly on them. From the present, poisoned world, she wanted to track back with the help of those faces to the safer Australia ... where people called lunch dinner and dinner tea; where they referred to their suitcases as ports; called all dairyfarmers titstrippers and cowcockies; cooked on woodburning stoves which had belonged to their grandmothers, and might ... give you a comparative rundown of the drought or flood of 1964 as against the drought or flood of 1986.’ Kate’s adventures return her to something like sanity and equilibrium, despite the scars, literal and metaphorical, which remain. And what the catastrophe which sent her to the interior has been is not only revealed – it is also explained. By the end, the domestic drama has taken on the colour of a detective story in which villainy is exposed and punished.

Keneally has considerable narrative powers. His novels are like pieces of strong rough carpentry; and the meta-fictional apparatus of this one doesn’t alter that basic quality. There’s the tone of voice of a strong, confident, genial personality, an uncomplicated and outward-looking ego; and a brisk competence with language which does its colourful and energetic work while falling short of absolute precision or fineness.

His strategy is to address us in the opening sentence as ‘Dear bookbuyer’ (something we have to put up with 57 further times in 280 pages), and to speak in the role of author of a novel – though there is nothing in the text to say that the novelist is Keneally. This novelist has been told a story by a rich young woman in a foreign city, and for his own purposes has transferred it to Australia. Thus the primary fiction is that there was a reality which occurred somewhere else in the world and which our unidentified narrator has made over into an Australian story. I am willing to entertain this fiction, to suspend disbelief, but not for an instant to believe it. It is, in fact, a strategic cover for what is scarcely believable at the core of the novel Keneally (as distinct from his fictional novelist) has written.

All of this is confused by what I take to be an unwarranted intrusion by Keneally’s publisher, who has provided a blurb in which it is said that Keneally heard this story from a young woman ... etc – inviting, I suppose, a quite inappropriate comparison with the way Schindler’s Ark came into being.

The least convincing part of the novel is its mythic structure, drawing on the early belief that the continental interior contained the ‘inner sea’ of the title. When the river floods, a symbolic inland sea is created. Myambagh is threatened with inundation because its system of levees has been devised in large part to protect the pastures of the corrupt Shire President, McHugh. Insufficient to hold the waters back, the stop-banks let them into the town and then contain them on two sides, while the railway embankment and the road form two further sides of a huge enclosing parallelogram. Kate’s Myambagh friend Jelly (so-named because of his expertise with gelignite) attempts to repeat a success of years before when he saved the town by blowing a hole in the railway embankment, releasing the waters onto McHugh’s land. Jelly’s explosion does its job again, but this time kills him.

This fatality sets Kate wandering further inland with Jelly’s friend Gus, proprietor of a tame emu and a tame kangaroo, named Menzies and Chifley after the PM and Leader of the Opposition of the Fifties. She is being pursued by her rich husband’s hired thug, Burnside, intent on making her sign away some of her matrimonial rights. At the dénouement the peaceable Chifley’s powerful clawed kick will deal out a deserved and terrible, though not fatal, punishment to Burnside.

Most of this is highly implausible. Kate’s behaviour, which her personal loss is meant to explain, is to me only marginally more believable than Gus’s success in persuading a full-grown emu and a full-grown kangaroo to ride with him in a dinghy. And though its mythic pretensions invite us into the complicity of ‘interpretation’, these are blandishments at a rather low intellectual level. What keeps the novel alive is tone, its refusal of that undue solemnity which often afflicts national epics, an insouciance in the narrative voice, even conceding ‘the threadbare trickery of it all’, but reminding us, ‘dear bookbuyers’, that as readers of fiction we are accustomed to contrivance, and even contribute to it by an imaginative filling of gaps.

Less ambitious and more interesting in the structural framing is the contrast between two kinds of corruption – the good old cosy familiar Sydney Irish Catholic kind with which Keneally, the one-time novice priest, is entirely at home; and the post-war ‘New Australian’ European Catholic kind, which he, or rather his narrative, maligns so thoughtlessly and cheerfully that one takes that, too, as part of the contrivance. ‘History is everything. People will not in the end forgive you for not having shared theirs.’ That is Keneally speaking through his narrator-novelist, who is thus licensed to be unforgiving.

The simple system of good lawlessness and evil lawlessness which results is interesting not because it is ‘true’, or fair, but because it represents so precisely one local and secular point of view. It is something I recognise instantly as ‘Sydney’ – as particular as the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House; or as the Catholic cathedral with its statue of an archbishop inscribed ‘God’s Gift to Australia and a Worthy Son of Ireland’.

Kate, our heroine, is of an Australian-Irish Catholic Labour family. Her villainous and unfaithful husband, Paul, is Polish-Australian scion of Kozinski Constructions (their 72 foot-motor yacht is called the Vistula), ‘big developers’, destroyers of the old Sydney, under investigation by the National Securities Commission. Paul’s mother wants her granddaughter called Gosia or Danuta or Maja rather than Siobhan; and when her grandson is named Bernard instead of Casimir, remarks: ‘I never went along with Hitler. I bled under Hitler. It doesn’t mean you need to dance with Jews, or name your children after them.’

Kate’s favourite relative, her uncle Frank O’Brien, is a priest and (as the press describes him) a ‘well-known racing and sporting identity’, who in partnership with his mistress, Mrs Fiona Kearney, widow of a Sydney Alderman ‘named by the Independent Commission against Crime as a notable operator of SP bookmaking outlets’, has gone extensively into real estate. He is determined not to ‘let a load of Dago gobshites in some congregation in Rome force me out’; and when his Eminence Cardinal Fogarty takes legal action to remove him from his presbytery, O’Brien’s friend, mortician Patrick O’Toole, responds publicly: ‘Though I am a loyal son of the Church, I have to say that in this case Cardinal Fogarty has again shown that generosity of spirit is not his strong suit.’

This is High Church comedy, and needs no excuse; but late in the novel some twitch of conscience prompts Keneally to offer one. SP bookmaking ‘was as old as the anarchic island continent and as ancient as convictism’. (Acquitted by geography and history!) ‘It was harmless too, in some lights, part of the unofficial democratic rights of the Australian working men and women.’ (A form of social justice, even!) In Father O’Brien’s world ‘corruption ... did not exist if it were among the friendly and the loyal and was a token of love. He was not ashamed, in fact shamefully unashamed, to ask for favours.’ There must surely be a matching sentimentality, or special pleading, by which the Kozinskis and the Krinkovichs would justify even their murders. But this is a story, not a moral exploration; and stories go better, run faster, when we know who we are supposed to like and dislike.

Father O’Brien’s mortician friend O’Toole is not there just for local colour. When Kate, far inland, is in need of rescue, a blue helicopter with O’TOOLE painted on its side drops down out of the evening sky, and out steps Uncle Frank. It is another fine moment of comic extravagance; and if you are resisting it, wondering how a mortician comes to own such a machine, that, too, is explained. It was used ‘for rare ash-scatterings over the sea, now that Catholics were permitted to cremate themselves. This had enabled him to get the whole thing off tax.’

When I read Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda it seemed to me Carey had begun with an ambitious concluding image – the glass church floating down the Bellinger River – and worked backwards to contrive it. I have the same uneasy feeling about this novel: that Keneally has asked himself how he could contrive to have symbolic ‘Australian Woman’, flanked by those emblematic animals, marsupial and flightless bird, visit the mythical inland sea, and what might be made of it. In the course of contriving this he has written something probably remote from his intention – mote nearly, for all its meta-fictional levers and push-buttons, an old fashioned realist novel, in the line of, say, Dal Stivens.