National hero: reforming Australian politician Gough Whitlam and singer Little Pattie on the campaign trail in 1972. Photo: Getty
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Return to Oz: Peter Carey struggles with his country’s memory

Leo Robson reviews the double-Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel about Australian identity. 

“Amnesia seemed to be a condition of patriotism,” wrote the Australian-born, New York-dwelling Robert Hughes in the opening pages of The Fatal Shore. He was referring to modern Australia’s denial of its origins, a denial whose consequences he had experienced at first hand when, shooting a documentary in Port Arthur, Tasmania, he realised: “Like nearly all other Australians I knew little about the convict past of my own country.”

Years later, when he knew pretty much all there was to know, Hughes wrote confidently of the “convict stain”, which was repressed by Australia and formed the country’s estimation of itself. That only seems like a contradiction. In trying to forget where it came from, Australia also failed to notice that it had survived British rule and created a society of its own. Instead of taking pride in a genuine civic and national achievement, Australians held to the view that their history contained, Hughes wrote, no “great men” or “worthy sacrifices” or “stirring deeds” – nothing, in short, to give them a sense of pride or to make them abandon the “cultural cringe”, the peculiarly Australian feeling that the real action is going on elsewhere, at a distance of at least 10,000 miles.

When the great Australian writer Peter Carey, who was born in 1943, started devouring literature in his late teens, he didn’t bother with Australian authors: “I thought they were worthless, of course.” And although he found Australian painting “fun and wild and free”, he never had “the confidence to buy anything”. That’s the cultural cringe in action.

The destiny of Australia looked to be changing course in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Australian historians, prime among them Manning Clark, began to confront their nation’s traumas and celebrate its progress and members of the so-called Sydney Push made their presence felt abroad. If one element of the cultural cringe was artists’ and intellectuals’ feeling of despair that their work would never mean anything in the centres of cultural arbitration, this was the period when that fear lost its footing. Hughes was made the art critic of Time magazine. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch. Clive James launched his assault.

This new era of Australian identity was capped by the election, in 1972, of Gough Whitlam, a Labor Party leader who, as well as introducing a range of social reforms, set about dispelling the last vestiges of British rule and reversing the policy of deference shown towards Britain’s imperial successor, as embodied in Harold Holt’s policy on Vietnam: “All the way with LBJ”. If Carey’s generation was the last to experience the former British subject’s reflexive sense of inadequacy, it was also the first to witness Australia’s mutation into a different kind of poodle. As the Tasmanian scholar Peter Conrad, five years Carey’s junior, writes in his new book, How the World Was Won: the Americanisation of Everywhere, “I came to understand that Australia lived on sufferance, remotely dependent on the United States.”

Whitlam sought to end this dependency: calling troops back from Vietnam, threatening the closure of the “signals facility” at Alice Springs, resuming diplomatic and industrial relations with China. The politician Gordon Bilney recalled that he was one of thousands who had been “cringing culturally . . . who quickly found reason to take pride in what the new government
was doing”. Coinciding with the completion of the Sydney Opera House and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Patrick White, Whitlam’s first term signalled a change of posture. As Clive James put it: “The cringe became a snarl.”

Or, in the words of Felix Moore, the angry, dishevelled, pill-popping journalist in Peter Carey’s new novel: “After almost two centuries of grovelling, we grew some balls.” It didn’t last. Felix is writing in 2010, almost 35 years after the most important episode of Whitlam’s political career – his dismissal by the then governor general, John Kerr, officially a representative of British rule but in reality a puppet of the Americans. Felix, a Whitlam obsessive, doesn’t need an excuse to reflect on “the events of 1975” but he is given one anyway when a hacker, Gabrielle Baillieux, releases a computer worm into the US prison system, an attack he recognises as a “retaliation”.

In one of the book’s many strange moves, Felix makes the connection between the “Amnesia Worm” and the Whitlam coup before he realises that Gabrielle is the daughter of activist friends of his – and before he discovers that she was born on the day the government fell. Remembering his fervour, Gabrielle’s mother, Celine, promises him “sole access” if he consents to write an account of her daughter’s crimes that might prevent her extradition. As Felix conceives the assignment, somewhat exaltedly, he is being asked to “become a larger person”, a man who has it in his heart to “make a difficult character loveable”, or in more highfalutin terms, “to love our stinking human clay”. Footing the bill for this exercise in imaginative sympathy is the property developer Woody Townes, a one-time Maoist who is on suspiciously good terms with senior figures in the US government.

It is established early on that Felix is a mess but not a crank. His theories about CIA involvement in Whitlam’s unseating are shown to be grounded in a paper trail. But Felix and his creator are wrong-headed and self-aggrandising in their presentation of the coup’s afterlife. Sharing his view that the Amnesia Worm was revenge for 1975, Felix expects the reference to seem “confusing or enigmatic”. This presumption, central to the book’s agenda, is utterly false. The year 1975 is certainly worth writing about but not as a symptom of collective memory loss. Writing about Whitlam’s dismissal, the journalist Phillip Knightley claimed: “Every Australian of a certain age can remember where they were and what they were doing and how they felt when they heard . . .” And though there are readers elsewhere who don’t remember that it happened, let alone where they were, they hardly qualify as victims of “the Great Amnesia”.

At its best, Carey’s work delivers a glorious fusion of essay, poem and yarn. Amnesia, though not without its poetic flourishes and yarnish twists, is too much of an essay – at times, almost a harangue.

Carey gets himself in a particular bind over the question of amnesia, principally by constructing a fictional world at odds with Felix’s descriptions. References within the novel suggest that Australians have not forgotten their history. After accepting Celine’s offer and Woody’s money, Felix is put up in Eureka Tower, a Melbourne skyscraper named after a miners’ rebellion that took place in 1854. A librarian advises Felix to visit the body of Phar Lap, a great racehorse that was nobbled and died in the 1930s. The book’s central lesson is that Australia is in denial about the losses it has endured. But in order to allude to this submerged history, Carey depicts various ways in which it is remembered, even memorialised.

Carey found it similarly hard to answer the competing demands of lesson and drama in his last novel, The Chemistry of Tears, in which the main character is a stubborn rationalist who slowly recognises the narrowness of her mindset while serving all along as a mouthpiece for Carey’s thoughts on the overlap between the material and the metaphysical. When she reads the word “cure”, she corrects it in her mind to “endorphins”; she refuses to believe that a member of the Royal Society could also be a mystic. Yet, in her role as the author’s mouthpiece, she rhapsodises about the way that human beings, though “intricate chemical machines”, are capable of worshipping Monet.

Amnesia also shares with The Chemistry of Tears an unsatisfying approach to the demands of portraying now and then. In his earlier novels, mostly historical, all of them insisting on legacy and inheritance, Carey’s interpretation of William Faulkner’s much-used tag “The past is not dead. It’s not even past” was that there simply is no break. Put crudely, new events spring from old ones.

True History of the Kelly Gang – which takes Faulkner’s line as its epigraph – isn’t concerned with the Australia of today by means of allegory or analogy, in the way that a mini­series set in the Elizabethan court is “actually” about New Labour, but by causing the reader to reflect on what Carey has called “the nature of our heroes”. In this case the “hero” is a man who was hanged for stealing horses and killing policemen but is nevertheless remembered with affection (a feeling displayed dramatically and, to Carey, gallingly during the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, when hundreds of performers dressed as Kelly danced around the stadium).

In Carey’s inventive spin on de Tocque­ville’s reconnaissance trip, Parrot and Olivier in America, a similar historical dynamic is at work. Although it enjoys the odd wink towards recent events – “No matter what the equation,” Olivier tells a banker, “it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default” – the 1830s don’t stand in for the 2000s. Instead, they provide a stage for 21st-century processes at an earlier stage of development, or decay.

Where those books left the reader to deduce their topical resonances, Amnesia wants to construct a genealogy, another device carried over from The Chemistry of Tears, which takes as its starting point the 2010 BP oil spill – or rather as its end point, because the book’s dual narrative traces the history of the machine from Vaucanson’s duck via Stephenson’s railway and Babbage’s difference engine (renamed the “Cruickshank engine”) to Benz’s motor car and onwards, ending with the semi-submersible drilling rig. Amnesia works backwards from a female Assange and, despite calling 1975 “a first act”, Felix also remembers the Battle of Brisbane, a two-day street fight between Australian and American soldiers in 1942, during which, in another of the novel’s clunky touches, Gabrielle’s mother was conceived.

The trouble with telling stories in this way is that it reduces the past to a catalyst while treating the present as a site of culmination. Neither is treated as interesting in its own right, giving us little reason to invest in their detailed portrayal. The first half of Amnesia recalls 1942 and 1975 in relation to Gabrielle’s activism, while the second half explores Gabrielle’s activism in terms of
the events that preceded and created her, among them the battle and the coup. When Felix, making slow progress, explains to Woody, “I need background,” Woody replies, “It’s foreground I’m paying for, mate.” It’s what we’re paying for, too, but the way that Carey rigs the novel, everything feels like background.

As well as belonging to a strange, transitional period in Peter Carey’s writing in which he has been trying to accommodate historical imagination to political anger, Amnesia is also a prominent contribution to a new genre, the inverted CIA novel, concerned with describing US imperial misadventures from the victims’ point of view. Other recent examples include Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal (China), Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (Jamaica) and Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (Greece). The contents page of William Blum’s indispensable and newly updated study Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II suggests the genre has plenty of room for expansion: as well as “Australia 1973-75: another free election bites the dust”, “Jamaica 1976-80: Kissinger’s ultimatum” and “Greece 1947 to early 1950s: from cradle of democracy to client state”, there are potentially seed-sowing chapters on Indonesia, Angola and British Guiana, among about 50 others.

Carey came close to writing a novel in this vein 20 years ago, in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, but opted for the cover of fantasy, with the plucky, faraway Efica getting pushed about by the colony-turned-superpower Voorstand. He wasn’t yet ready to tell the story straight. And, on the evidence of Amnesia, he still isn’t there. His feelings are too raw to form the basis of good fiction. The “special relationship” is presented as a simple case of bully and victim and allegorised that way, too. Felix, the “naive” underdog, embodies his homeland – “Australia felix”, or the lucky country, is a well-known 19th-century tag – while his “patron” and “boss” is the “rich man” Woody. Felix is sufficiently detached from his native country to despise its forgetful ways and, throughout the novel, memory (and not just memory of what Felix calls “novelistic smells”, which Carey renders brilliantly) emerges as the strongest defence against corruption, cowardice and greed.

But whatever its record of censorship, Australia has not forgotten the things that Carey, through Felix, is trying to preserve. And even if it had, it is unlikely that Australian readers would have been persuaded to remember them afresh by a work of fiction teeming with bald contrivances and fluffed strategies that evokes Australia without curiosity or sympathy, to the extent of wasting its own title on calling it a name. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood