Thursday, 30 October 2014

Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka

October's meeting was more adventurous than usual with a last minute venue failure that saw us, adaptable like the women of Eureka, retiring to Tilley's Cafe in Lyneham. We settled into a capacious booth, purchased the necessary comestibles, and hunkered down to a good old round table discussion of this month's book, Clare Wright's Stella Prize winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka. We discovered that while Victorians had studied this event in some depth throughout their education, those of us from other states had studied it more cursorily, mostly in primary school, so our memories and knowledge were not necessarily strong.

Our reading and her writing

We started by discussing the different experience of reading history versus historical fiction. We've read several historical fiction novels over the years, including Eleanor Catton's The luminaries (of which we were reminded as it is set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the same period) and Hilary Mantel's two Cromwell novels. Members were aware of having to consciously change their mindset from reading a story framed around a defined set of characters to a book in which multiple people appear who may or may not carry through to the end of the book. The opening chapters of Wright's book introduces a large number of people and some worried about managing to remember them all. The need to remember a lot of "stuff" was what turned some off history at school! Others decided to go with the flow, and focus on the "story" or thesis Wright was presenting. We'll remember what we can, we thought - and, there was always the extensive index to refer to if needed.

We liked the expressiveness of Wright's writing, such as this description of George Black:
Black represented diggers who would no longer submit to tyranny; men who were desperate to asset their legitimacy after months of humiliation. The new codes smacked up against the old like waves against a cliff face. (p. 398)
Her writing beautifully captures life on the diggings. We felt we were there - living in tents in the cold, the wet, and the dusty dry. In addition to expanding our understanding of the Eureka Stockade, we saw the book as good social history. Our members in the medical professions were particularly impressed by the realistic (and horrifying) description of childbirth in those times.

One member commented on the new (old) words Wright used, and liked the fact that she often explained their meaning and derivations. "Masher" is one example:
But at night, some men cast off their utilitarian duds and slipped into evening clothes: black pants, white shirt, a red sash, patent leather boots and a black plush hat. John Deegan describes such men as swells or mashers, and says they took their sartorial cues from the Californians in their midst. The outmoded term masher is a real gem. It derives from the Romani gypsy word masha, meaning to entice, allure, delude or fascinate, and was originally used in the theatre, although it is unclear who these diggers were setting out to delude. (p. 256)
However, we did have some concerns about the writing. We felt that at times Wright resorts to clichéd or "slogan" type writing. One example concerns the police on the goldfields. She writes:
The Victorian Government paid peanuts and got the inevitable monkeys". (p. 218) 
This comment irritated at least one member as a cheap shot. Although pay is often a valid concern, the real issue, she argued, usually involves factors like training, leadership and the appropriate support. Wright frequently uses throwaway lines - like "sometimes no news is the best news" - and aphorisms. Sometimes they work, but other times we felt they impeded real communication.

It's a long book and is sometimes repetitive. For example, Wright tells us several times that Jane and Stephen Cuming named their daughter Martineau for "women's rights campaigner, Harriet Martineau". Repetition can be useful to ensure readers get a point, but we didn't feel that this point was germane to Wright's main argument.

Good history

We felt the book exemplified well-written history. We appreciated Wright's evocative, narrative-oriented style and felt that she was targeting a general audience. One member commented on the Chapter titles - such as "The winter of their discontent" and "Parting with my sex" - describing them as "hip" and sometimes "raunchy". Her aim, we thought, was to enliven history as well as to present a new way of looking at things. We liked that the work is carefully footnoted, but that it's presented in a way that did not obstruct our reading. In other words, the evidence is there if the reader wants it.

Our member who had taught history her youth, admired Wright's good historical practice in the book, which involved always starting from the primary sources. When these sources are contradictory, Wright makes this clear, as she does in her reporting of the Bentleys and the fire that destroyed their hotel. We liked Wright's effective use of statistics to support her arguments. The book draws constantly on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and Wright regularly quotes directly from these sources, identifying them through italics.

Wright also looks at the wider global environment and how actions in other parts of the world may have played a role in what happened at Eureka, such as the Chartists, the 1848 revolutions, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's stand with other women at Seneca Falls in 1851. She provided evidence in most of these to show a direct relationship between them and people on the Ballarat goldfields.

However, several members said that Wright "lost me" when she gave the full moon, and the likelihood that women were ovulating, as a reason for why many men left the stockade on the fateful night! This pushed the group's credulity a little too far but was, most agreed, the only point where a conclusion wasn't effectively supported by good historical evidence (albeit Wright gave reasons for her theory).

Wright's thesis

We, of course, discussed Wright's thesis which involves demonstrating that women were there on the fields and they played a significant role in the Stockade (and all that led up to it). Wright's purpose, in other words, was to uncover the role of women and to give them a presence. This means that the book is not a comprehensive history of Eureka - but the title tells us that.

Wright is strong in her opinions, but we didn't see that as a negative. It's time, after all, that women's stories are told, and it's clear from her analysis that women were involved in the goldfields at all levels, besides the traditional domestic sphere. Some worked as diggers, some ran businesses which essentially supported their families while their husbands looked for the elusive strike. Many chronicled their experiences, either privately in letters and diaries or more publicly through newspaper articles and poetry. Wright names many women - such as the doctor-cum-digger-cum-doctor's wife Martha Clendinning, the poet Ellen Young, the publican Catherine Bentley, to name just a few. Their stories are fascinating.

We also touched on other ideas and themes Wright explores, including:
  • the philosophical difference between the British and their belief in law and order for the common good, and the Americans with their focus on individualism.
  • the fact that, unlike the Californian goldfields, women were actively encouraged to go to Ballarat (for their civilising influence!)
  • the idea that the Eureka rebellion was primarily a young people's movement, with most of the activists being 35 years or younger
  • the presence of indigenous people and their relationship with the diggers (though this wasn't fully developed, as it was not her focus)
We considered the term "digger" and whether there is a direct connection between its use for miners and its adoption in the First World War as a slang term for Australian soldiers. We felt that it probably did, both in terms of resenting inappropriate authority and belief in mateship and equality.

Finally, some wondered whether Wright had another, agenda in the book. Was she making a plea for a new Australian flag. We all agreed that Australia's flag is unfinished business.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north

We have had a lot of very lively discussions this year - perhaps we always do! Regardless, our discussion of Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the Thai-Burma Railway, The narrow road to the deep north, was another such discussion. I hope my report does it justice: there were so many conversations going on that it was a challenge to get all the ideas down! One member wondered whether Flanagan was emulating Patrick White with the "bigness" of the themes - love, war, mateship - and another suggested that it was reminiscent, in concept if not style, of the big 19th century novels with its multiple themes and many characters. Whatever it is, we all agreed that it was a good read.

This is not to say that we didn't have questions. We started by discussing its style and structure. Why, some wondered, did Flanagan time-shift so frequently, particularly in the beginning - before we'd worked out who everyone was. Others suggested that this is part of how we tell stories, that we often, in reality, don't tell stories in a simple linear fashion, but digress, jump forward and backwards in time as we try to explain not only what happened but why. Nonetheless, this structure did make it a complex read and most of us felt it could bear reading again in order to make sure we really did get all the connections between characters and events. A couple of members wondered whether it is a little "too" big, perhaps a little "over-stated", to win the Booker. Some thought the bush-fire scene pushed their credibility somewhat, reminding them of what they didn't like about Flanagan's The unknown terrorist.

Although it is written in third person, many felt it read a bit like a first-person novel. This could be because Flanagan uses a subjective (rather than omnipotent) third person voice. He also shifts the point-of-view between characters' "heads", making us feel we were "with" Dorrigo, Nakamura, Amy, etc.

We were interested in Flanagan's sources for the novel: Weary Dunlop's diaries, the knowledge and experience of Flanagan's POW father, Flanagan's trips to the site of the railway and to Japan. Flanagan has written about writing the novel, about how he'd been writing it for 12 years and had tried several different approaches before finally settling on "a love story", with a focus on the doctor in the POW camp. This doctor is not, he says, his father.

We thought the novel was well constructed - and enjoyed the parallels and paradoxes he uses to tell the story. We could see them - such as Amy being told by her husband that Dorrigo had died, and Dorrigo being told by his fiancé that Amy had died; the paralleling of Dorrigo who led the prisoners with Nakamura who ran the POW camp - but they didn't feel contrived.

"Powerful descriptions" (Minervan)

We all enjoyed Flanagan's writing. One member loved his description of dust motes in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy:
He pulled out a book here and there, but what kept catching his attention were the diagonal tunnels of sunlight rolling in through the dormer windows. All around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light ...
She was also deeply moved by the post-war scene in Hobart in which several of the ex-POWs end up spending an evening, eating and drinking with Nikitaris, the Greek owner of the fish shop that they had, the previous night, damaged in order to free fish imprisoned in a tank. A lovely scene about human connection and understanding.

Another member was moved by the profound ideas - and insights - Flanagan expresses about/into the relationships between men and women, particularly in terms of the meaning of intimacy, and of what love really is.

We discussed characterisation, and how well Flanagan individualises the different soldiers by their coping mechanisms - Darky Gardiner's choosing to look for the positive, Rooster McNiece's memorising Mein Kampf, Jimmy Bigelow's cheery "Rightio" and bugle playing. The Japanese are similarly individuated, such as Nakamura by his lice and desperation for shabu, and Colonel Kota by his fascination with necks. Later, post-war, we recognise Kota before he is named because he touches a character's neck.

We liked that Dorrigo is a complex, and paradoxical character. A strong leader in war and in crisis (as shown in a bushfire scene), he was also weak in allowing himself to go ahead with a marriage to a woman he knew he didn't love. Flanagan writes that "for the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty".

"A world of struggle" (Issa, cited in the novel)

Flanagan beautifully demonstrates the illogicality of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, that is, the fact that not caring for the welfare of the prisoners meant more would die which meant there would be fewer to work on the railway. But, Flanagan also shows very clearly the very different mindsets of the western versus Japanese soldiers. The Japanese didn't treat their own soldiers well, beating them severely for even minor failings, so their treatment of prisoners was not, to them, particularly cruel. We liked that Flanagan was prepared to understand the cultural differences that resulted in the Japanese soldiers behaving as they did.

One member suggested Flanagan was making a point about the sublimation of one into many. For the POWs, identifying as a group gave them strength, despite the tragedies and deaths of many individuals. As Dorrigo considers (Book 3, ch 5):
For if the living let go of the dead their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever.

The Japanese, on the other hand, sublimated their individuality to the orders of the Emperor: it was only as part of that whole that they had meaning and honour. The honour of serving the emperor and their country, enabled them to justify horrendous cruelty to the POW’s. She wondered whether at the bottom of great heroism and great cruelty lies this notion of sublimating your individuality for the sake of the greater group.

We were intrigued by how an unpleasant truth can damage a relationship. In his post-war life, Nakamura works with Dr Sato who admits that during the war he'd taken part in vivisection experiments. After this confession, their previously amicable relationship gradually, though not dramatically, fades away. Nakamura, troubled, starts to find Sato "who had formerly seemed such an interesting and genial companion - somehow dull and tedious". It's interesting that he's not repelled, he understands Satos' drive to do his duty, but he just loses interest in the man!

We also discussed the inequitable treatment of "war criminals" - of how the Korean guard, Goanna, was hanged, while many of the commanders were not charged. This we understood was largely due to General Macarthur's reconstruction policy and his desire to keep Japan strong. Flanagan makes points like these by showing, rather than by lecturing, to the reader.

"Love letter to literature" (Romy Ash's review in The Guardian)

A member read out parts of Ash's review in which she said the novel has a second love story - that of literature. We liked the haiku that Flanagan commences each "book" with. (Note: the e-version called the sections "books", but the print version didn't number or name them at all.)

Flanagan establishes both Dorrigo and the two most senior Japanese officers, Nakamura and Kota, as lovers of traditional/classical poetry. For Dorrigo, this includes Catullus, Dante and, particularly, Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses". For the Japanese soldiers, it's the traditional haiku poets like Bashō. The novel's title, in fact, comes from Bashō's haibun, The narrow road to the deep north.

Ash writes that the novel "does turn on the power of a poem or letter". Ella's letter, for example, tells Dorrigo that Amy was dead, which has a major impact on the course of his life.

There is a moving scene in which the bodies of prisoners who've died from cholera are being burnt on a pyre, along with their possessions. POW Bonox Baker suggests that the sketchbook of a prisoner not be burnt because it contains an important record of their experience so "the world would know". Dorrigo is not convinced, and quotes a Kipling poem about forgetting. Bonox replies:
A poem is not a law. It's not fate, Sir.
No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
We didn't explore this idea in detail - because we were running out of time! - but we did like Flanagan's use of haiku, and other poetry, to link experiences/characters in the book, to draw parallels between Australian and Japanese lives. We also discussed how elusive haiku can be, how we feel that as soon as we catch a glimmer of meaning, it disappears again.

Finally, we talked a little about the "memory industry" to which Flanagan refers a few times in the book. Several of us have certain reservations about how it's been playing out in Australia over the last decade or so, as it seems, does Flanagan. Yet we all enjoyed his contribution to it with this book! Just goes to show the power of literature!