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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era