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Interview: Peter Carey

Carey discusses bad-boy characters and Australian identity.

Peter Carey doesn’t want to talk about Australia. “Christ,” he laughs, “I only gave you four mentions in this book and you’ve picked up on all of them already!” That’s because I do want to talk about it. My parents are Australian and I’m fascinated by the place – particularly by its fraught history and seeming inability to stem the cultural drainage. A distressingly high percentage of the country’s greatest minds, Carey among them, leaves. (He has lived in New York for over 20 years.) They may write about their homeland – both Carey’s Booker winners, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), focus on the colony in the 19th century – but from a distance and some of them, it appears, don’t even want to discuss why.

The book in question is The Chemistry of Tears, his 12th novel – or possibly his 13th, but I’ll get to that. It’s the many-layered story of a Victorian Englishman, Henry, pursuing a crazy idea: that a mechanical duck, an automated wonder capable of simulated life, might somehow save his consumptive son. He travels to Germany in search of a genius to build this contraption from plans Jacques de Vaucanson used a century before. Once there, he falls into the clutches of Sumper, who doesn’t so much agree to work for Henry as kidnap him. A hundred and fifty years later, the results of this peculiar partnership, plus the diaries that Henry writes throughout, will fall into the hands of Catherine, a horologist at a stuffy London museum, who takes on the bird’s reassembly to distract herself after the death of her lover.
Naturally, it’s all rather more complicated than that. (“I always pity people who have to write my plot synopses,” Carey says, and I agree, until I remember that I’ll have to do precisely that.) And it seems to have very little to do with an enormous former colony miles from anywhere. But let’s not be isolationist. Sumper, that garrulous, overbearing lunk, is the animating spirit of this novel (literally, since he is building the all-important automaton); he is also a convict manqué, who narrowly escaped deportation to New South Wales.
Why is Carey so fond of these lurid, self-aggrandising lawbreakers? Most of his novels contain at least one. “I have a bad character.” What, “Sumper, c’est moi”? He’s joking, I think, and anyway, all characters are partially “moi”. But this does seem an odd way to deflect my attention from his roots.
I can understand his reluctance: geographical stereotyping is reductive and Australians have suffered from this more than most. Until recently, white Australia was a fledgling, trying to emulate, overtake and detach itself from the mother country all at once; then there’s the fraught history of white Australia’s mistreatment of the original inhabitants. This book is partly about the difficulties we all have in seeing what we do not wish to see. Carey cites the New South Wales Aboriginals failing to register the incoming ships of the First Fleet “because they did not know such things existed”; a stunning piece of wilful blindness mirrored by the Englishmen, who then nearly died of starvation while surrounded by the indigenous notion of plenty. There is no tree of knowledge in the sunburned country – on the contrary. It occurs to me that if your homeland’s original sin is all about obfuscation and you have ideas you wish to present clearly, it makes sense to take to your heels. Still, only an Australian would turn coming from Australia into the conversational equivalent of a crime.
But then, Carey writes incessantly about crime. His second book of short stories is en­titled War Crimes; his first, The Fat Man in History, posits a post-Marxist world where being obese is a criminal activity. He invents thieves and liars and gambling addicts and, yes, convicts. As for Ned Kelly, Carey’s extraordinary act of ventriloquism had the dubious distinction of making Australia’s most notorious crim an international sensation. Of the central trio in The Chemistry of Tears, one, as we have seen, almost wound up a convict (he narrowly escaped becoming a parricide, too); another is a thieving, dipsomaniac horologist, and, while Henry seems the soul of probity, he might be said to be guilty of plagiarism – a favourite Carey sin.
The first time I interviewed Carey, he described his countrymen as experiencing “the rage of the periphery”. This is only partly geographical. Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River, told me that her university professor (in Australia) dismissed the idea of Australian literature as a contradiction in terms. Carey has said that “thinking of two countries is a colonial habit”: the real country is somewhere else, “a green place we had never visited, where our own success and failure would ultimately be judged”.
Sumper, too, looks longingly towards London, “the jewel of the world” – and he is far from the only character raging from the sidelines. Catherine was a married man’s mistress: there’s a fair amount of peripheral rage inherent in that job and her attempts to douse it with vodka are notably unsuccessful. Even Henry is a mere parody of that fulcrum of the family, the Victorian paterfamilias. He’s forced by his wife to abandon his loved ones for what is almost literally a wild goose chase.
But there’s another aspect to the rage of the periphery. This book, Carey says, came from “thinking about the Industrial Revolution, its wonders and benefits and where they have taken us – how polluted and calamitous it all is now”. There is grief here but also fury. “When they invented the internal combustion engine,” Carey writes, “it did not occur to anyone that we would not only change the temperature 
of the air but turn the oceans black as death.” 
Until the world sees what it can’t see and humanity engages its considerable capabilities to prevent its own destruction, those bewailing our current behaviour will remain peripheral Cassandras, raging at the oblivious centre.
Which invites another question: where is that centre? “I think I would originally have used the word to signify an Australian’s colonial response to the cultural might and judgement of England,” Carey says. “Now it’s harder to answer – I might think of the decaying US but given the fragmentation of nation states, I have a growing sense it’s really corporations that are the centre – yet corporations have no centre. That’s a confusing answer, I guess, but it’s honest.” Now, there’s a shameful admission for a self-declared man of bad character.
Carey is as uncategorisable as he is prolific. He has written modern and historical fiction, short stories, a children’s book and a travelogue, 30 Days in Sydney, so abrasively funny and inventive that I would throw it in with his novels, bringing the total to 13. (Carey says he rarely rereads his work but 30 Days is an exception: “I think I got away with it!” He did.) His next book runs from 1943 to the present and is set in Australia. Carey, too, began in the same year, same place. But he probably doesn’t want to talk about it.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis