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.

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