Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Truth....by Peter Temple

Courtesy: Text Publishing
We decided to tackle, in August, the controversial Miles Franklin award winner Truth by Peter Temple, although none of us I think are crime genre readers as a rule. I think it took us all outside our comfort zone, and most found it somewhat cryptic and confusing to read. The main hero, Villani is somewhat stereotypical of the crime fiction/film noir character: a flawed and brooding character: good at his job, but somewhat stunted in his emotions and ability to form personal relationships. His outlook on life is pessimistic, and his personal life is coming apart. He is apparently attractive to women, has loyal colleagues, but with little time for the games and politics of the organisation.

Villani’s relationship with his father was one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, and gave some insight into his emotional limitations, his sense of responsibility and his somewhat terse communication style. A very male oriented book, it was interesting to see Villani and his dad, both fiercely independent, but with a respect for each other, and a shared love of the forest they had planted and nurtured. Villani’s doomed marriage, and his questioning of his immersion in his work were part of the self-reflections in the book, which focussed pretty squarely on this central character.

Two themes in our discussion resonated with me:
  1. How authentic is the language he uses? The clipped, cryptic dialogue in particular
  2. The pessimism in the book and the world it represents

The language
The language is deliberately brief with little background to set the scene or help the reader follow the action clearly. It seems intended as a challenge, to see if the reader can follow the many plot lines and shorthand references to other characters or situations. The question for me was: what was the purpose of this style? My husband who also read the book, and who likes thrillers did not find this one easy to follow. Was it intended as authentic speech for police officers, and the other tough characters in the book? Was it a version of the stylised language of the genre?

I admit to challenging its authenticity: it read like a pared down film script, almost a caricature of the style, not really naturalistic, but also something of a barrier for the reader to engage in the plot twists and turns. It was a relief when the first person narration took over as Villani reflected on his family life, as these were the main areas I could follow what was going on. Admittedly the language helped build the tension, and sense of small pieces of jigsaw being pieced together or sometimes not. However I question the effectiveness of this style of language in communicating with the readers..or with me at least.

The pessimism
The world of the book is quite dark, and his view on human nature quite pessimistic. From a police officer’s point of view this could be quite valid, as their focus is certainly on the darker side of human nature. Temple himself, South African born, comes across with a certain tough pessimism, and a sense of futility about society and those in power. The politicians, chief police officers, businessmen all exhibited a threatening air, and Villani was wary and sceptical of their motives.

Our discussion moved on to whether the group felt a deepening pessimism about the nature of society, the sense of personal safety and cynicism we have. This on the eve of a fascinating election, where the Australian voters have expressed a sense of cynicism in the major political parties, and a search for some more authenticity, or ‘truthfulness’ in their communication with the electorate.

I feel there is a developing ‘old fogeyism’ among my peers, which assumes society is becoming more violent, dangerous, and insecure. In this post 9/11 world my understanding is that the rate of murders is relatively stable per head of population. I made a case for an evidence based attitude, rather than hearsay and fear. In researching the crime rate in Australia, I noted that rates for many crimes have actually increased over the last 10 years for instance, but that our fear of crime has increased disproportionally, and not necessarily in line with our risk (eg those over 65 are most fearful of crime, but are least likely to be a victim of crime).

I did also notice that our murder rate which was reported as 321 deaths in 1995, is still around the same as the rate of 20 per million which was the case in 1916. Ah statistics....

Anyhow an interesting discussion, and Peter Temple’s Truth certainly took us to some new territory, and gave us fruit for discussion. Some group members felt that Truth was not as good as The Broken Shore, so I have put in a request to borrow Temple’s earlier work from the library to read next, and give him another go...