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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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror