Rewriting the self

Tiger's Eye

Inga Clendinnen <em>Jonathan Cape, 289pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0224061232

Intense pain cuts you away from your self a slice at a time; you think in fragments, and fragments are what you become. One of the experiences that Inga Clendinnen took away with her from acute liver failure was this crumbling of both the imperious ego and its demand that the universe we perceive around us have sense and sequence; after that experience, you never quite walk as confidently on a rationality proved thin and breakable.

Clendinnen was qualified to bring a fine-tuned discrimination to delirium and its aftermath. Her book Aztecs (Cambridge University Press) is one of the most intelligent accounts of a radically different civilisation and its sensibilities. Where revisionist historians tried to deny the sheer strangeness of the Aztecs, claiming that the Spanish had invented the cannibal priests dressed in human skins, Clendinnen argues convincingly for those rituals and a society built around them as just another way human beings lived, with its own common sense, its own daily structure.

Illness, she found, was another daily structure. Brought up by a repressed and unhappy mother to ignore the pains of the body as trivial excuses for idleness, she took her time, as many people do, in coming to accept that there was something seriously wrong. Sore gums, tiredness, regular nosebleeds, mysterious pains - these are things that creep up on you, to which you make accommodations and for which you become accustomed to apologising.

There are so many curious ways for the human body to fail. Clendinnen's was one of the rarer ways: liver failure caused by a syndrome more often occurring in teenage girls and usually quickly fatal. She was an interesting case, a text for doctors to study, a fascinating way for a person to be sick. And she was fortunate enough to live in a time and place where liver transplants were possible, where extended treatment was not equivalent to a lifetime of bankruptcy.

She is acute on the privilege that being a professional intellectual buys you in hospital, the possibility of retreating into the privacy of books and laptops; she is interesting on the different decorums of mixed, male and female wards, the areas that are open and closed to discussion. An elderly Greek man is surrounded by relatives for hours each day and, unable to cope with insomnia, pads solitarily around the corridors at night; another man makes himself loathed for his snobbish command of his symptoms. Serious illness forces us into association with others. Mortal illness locks us into our collapsing selves - Clendinnen is precise and evocative about the various hallucinations of toxicity and high-level pain control. Near-mortal illness makes it impossible to work; either side of it, you work to keep yourself occupied, and to monitor how your brain is holding up. A large part of Tiger's Eye consists of Clendinnen's writings while she was in hospital, sick and convalescent - fragments of memoir and short stories and attractively tricksterish narrations that blend the two.

In due course, without abandoning the new freedoms that memoir and short story have brought her, she returns to the work of history. The longest piece here is an extended essay on the journals of Mr Robinson, a bureaucrat who rode around 19th-century Tasmania, recording and intermittently halting the genocide of its native people. Robinson saw himself as the Tasmanians' protector, but his capacity to prevent or punish their murder was largely limited to polite expressions of disapproval and a determination to write down everything he could find out about their culture. He took it for granted that whites had the right to displace them from the land and to punish them for eating the sheep that had replaced them. Clendinnen is quietly lethal at his expense, without being a Pharisee about it; she is a recorder, not a prosecutor or judge.

She takes as read that she has discovered, through illness, the fictional nature of the self, and says she won't be fooled again. Yet the mere act of writing complicates her argument. Writing may not recreate in her a smooth sense of undivided self, but it re-establishes in her reader delight in that cool, rational, accepting voice at work.