July 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Figurehead’ by Patrick Allington

By Alexandra Coghlan

“I was beside myself that he’d thanked me for saving his life. Not with rage exactly. Not guilt … grief maybe. It was as if I’d donated bone marrow to him and now I wanted it back.” When the Australian journalist Ted Whittlemore saves the life of Nhem Kiry, he cannot know that this man will become the mouthpiece of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, and a leading agent of the bloodiest of contemporary genocides. Tied to Kiry by this single moment, Whittlemore must resume his seat as journalistic voyeur and consider the actions with which he has written himself into history, and the words with which he might erase this mark.

Figurehead is the first novel by the Australian author Patrick Allington. It carves a narrative path through the recent political history of Cambodia, occupying the spaces between the monuments of official history; real events and people merge with their fictional counterparts, and both chronology and geography bend gently to accommodate their sometimes-unexpected encounters. Integrated into the very structure of the novel is the question: how do you tell the true history of people for whom “the truth changes every time the sun rises”?

Allington’s prose is elegantly spare, almost as ascetically lean as that of his mentor, JM Coetzee, as he recounts events in a deceptively dispassionate way. An exiled Cambodian prince playing his favourite Western pop song on the clarinet; an absent cathedral not ruined but “erased” from the landscape; a passing encounter in a restaurant between an elderly man, once a perpetrator of genocide, and two Australian tourists: such episodes accumulate to create a novel that wears its weighty intellectual agenda lightly. Allington’s characters are no straw men; in his hands the political figureheads of the title become inescapably and fleshily human, daring the reader to look them in the eyes.

The question of how to write a “new and true biography” besets Ted Whittlemore in his old age. His answer is 1009 pages of disjointed prose. Allington fares rather better with this wryly self-reflexive and shrewdly executed novel.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

Cover: July 2009

July 2009

From the front page

Dutton concedes nothing

The home affairs minister will not be held to account

Image of Blanche d’Alpuget and Sophie Taylor-Price

What Bob Hawke meant by aspiration

Last week’s memorial was a fitting send-off for an inspirational leader

Image of Julian Assange

The Assange project

The WikiLeaks founder faces life in prison due to the actions of the US and the UK, and the inaction of Australia

Cover image of Underland by Robert Macfarlane

The chthonic realms explored in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, mycelial networks, moulins and more


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Faith Bandler & Paul Robeson

View of Steels Creek from kitchen window, February 2009 © Daniel Cleaveley/Wikimedia Commons

Why we weren’t warned

The Victorian bushfires and the royal commission

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A gay old time

‘This Is How’ by MJ Hyland


More in Arts & Letters

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop

Cover image of Underland by Robert Macfarlane

The chthonic realms explored in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, mycelial networks, moulins and more

Still image from 'High Life'

A master’s misstep: Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’

The French auteur chooses a sci-fi film to start over-explaining things

Photo of Leonard French underneath his stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Leonard French’s Balzacian life

Reg MacDonald’s biography may return this Australian artist to the national imagination


More in Noted

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty

‘The Essential Duchamp’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

A comprehensive exhibition of the 20th century’s most influential artist

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

The medico-writer delivers a novel driven less by storyline than accumulated observation


Read on

Image of Blanche d’Alpuget and Sophie Taylor-Price

What Bob Hawke meant by aspiration

Last week’s memorial was a fitting send-off for an inspirational leader

Image of Julian Assange

The Assange project

The WikiLeaks founder faces life in prison due to the actions of the US and the UK, and the inaction of Australia

Image of Israel Folau

Testing faith

On Israel Folau, free speech and the problem with religious fundamentalism

Image of Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Australians

Where to for Indigenous recognition from here?

All eyes are on Ken Wyatt in Scott Morrison’s otherwise underwhelming ministry


×
×