October 2013

Arts & Letters

Tim Winton’s ‘Eyrie’ and Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’

By Peter Conrad

Richard Flanagan.
© Matthew Newton

Light and shadow

Although each writer has his personal habitat, the largest state and the smallest, the distance between Tim Winton’s and Richard Flanagan’s opposite ends of the country is more than geographical. Winton sings the praises of sunburnt Australia; Flanagan broods about its hidden darkness. Diving into the Indian Ocean, Winton feels that he “understands the Christian mystics”. Tasmania denies Flanagan the beatitude Winton enjoys when afloat: its history prompts him to wonder, as he makes Sir John Franklin do in Wanting (2008), whether our world is run by God or the devil.

“Australia,” sighs Luther in Winton’s Dirt Music (2001) as he studies an atlas. He anthropomorphises the continent as a craggily frowning face; the frown, however, is dispelled by Winton’s faith in what he calls in Cloudstreet (1991) the “good world in the midst of our living”. Flanagan, a troubled national conscience, continues to scowl. “We’re Australia,” snarls a corrupt senator who suborns a journalist in Flanagan’s thriller, The Unknown Terrorist (2006). These rogues have annexed the country for their own benefit, as have the profiteers who elsewhere survey Sydney Harbour from a balcony: “Like reptiles waiting to strike, they gazed out on Australia, unable to see anything.” Georgie in Dirt Music gingerly tastes a sample of pink earth from Broome, then eats it. No such sacrament is possible in Flanagan’s Tasmania. He remembers his mother scooping up the rich red dirt of the north-west coast “as if it were an offering to God” and telling him to smell it – but this is soil into which the successive ordeals of blackfellas, convicts and herded migrant workers have soaked, making it bitter.

Winton is happily amphibious, like Poseidon in a wetsuit. Flanagan is closer to Pan, the goat-footed god who lurks in the undergrowth; in 2007 he defended Tasmania’s ancient trees against the timber company Gunns, which was menacing them with chainsaws, skidders and flaming showers of jellied petroleum. Nature persuades Winton – in the words of a poem by Robinson Jeffers, used as an epigraph in BlueBack (1998) – that we should “unhumanise our views a little”, but Flanagan has nightmares about a world dehumanised by greed, with “atomic bomb–like mushroom clouds” blotting out the sky above Tasmania’s incinerated timber. If Winton often sounds like a pantheistic priest, Flanagan can rail like an irate prophet.

“Australians,” says Winton, meaning Western Australians, “are surrounded by ocean and ambushed from behind by the desert.” The arid waste is a place of purgation and martyrdom; Winton prefers the hedonistic coast. Tasmania has no deserts and its seas are arctic, but with its saw-backed mountains, entangled forests and wild rivers, it constitutes, as Flanagan says, “a world total and full in itself”. Novelists love to feel themselves as owner-occupiers of such autonomous realms: Winton, with the same proud regionalism, describes Perth as “an island, a country unto itself”, almost an ersatz Tasmania. But noble savagery, like Winton’s recollections of his “windblown, half-naked” childhood on the beach, is not an option on Flanagan’s shadowy island. Rather than the friendly bottlenose dolphins Winton fondles in his 1993 memoir Land’s Edge, the chillier southern waters disgorge the monsters exhibited in Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) – a seahorse with a Falstaffian gut, a pink dragon, a porcupine with gills. This is no “new frontier”, like Winton’s pseudo-Texan west. Flanagan’s subject is what he has called “the tragedy of Tasmania”, which is Australia’s tragedy, too – the rape of natural resources in the present, genocide and penal brutality in the past.

In their new novels, Winton and Flanagan retell their accustomed stories in unexpected ways. Eyrie (Penguin; $45) is Cloudstreet upended. Instead of the chaotic mansion with its two mismatched families in Winton’s glorious earlier novel – Henry James’s “house of fiction” at its most raucously congested – the setting here is a gloomy high-rise, laughingly named the Mirador. The occupants of the tiered flats live in sullen, depressed isolation, shunning each other when they coincide in the lift, pondering suicide when they peer down from walkways decorated with “coralline aggregations of dove shit”. Other Winton novels regain paradise, usually in the water: characters in Breath (2008) and Shallows (1984) splash about in something like Jung’s “oceanic consciousness”. But the protagonist of Eyrie is beached, stranded ten storeys above Fremantle and unsure whether the society below, which he has quit in disgust, is worth rejoining.

“And to the north?” Luther asks himself when scrutinising the map in Dirt Music. “Well, it’s all north, isn’t it,” he replies – an extra thousand miles of Western Australia, obligingly empty, where he goes to ground. Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Random House; $32.95) starts in Tasmania, then moves far north in order to subject its characters to trials of physical and moral courage more excruciating than anything available at home. Its “dark, dreary jungle world” is not the rainforest through which the Franklin River runs but the monsoonal miasma of Burma and Thailand; the penitentiary of Port Arthur is replaced by a Japanese camp in which prisoners of war are worked to death on an absurd railway that is their sacrificial offering to the Emperor. The Tasmania of Death of a River Guide (1994) is uterine: the guide, dying, remembers “Mama’s womb” and wishes that he could have snugly stayed put in that “enclosing circle”. The hero of Flanagan’s new novel is ejected from that sanctuary by force, and his plight – in the prison camp, and afterwards back home – represents Australia’s blooding, its painful advance into adulthood as “a 19th-century world … staggered into the mid-20th century”.

An aerial perspective suits Winton, who often exhilaratingly surveys his section of Australia from above. Even when diving with a spear gun, he feels he is “gliding, flying, with the country unfolding below”. But the vantage point of Eyrie is not high enough to allow such sublimation: from his lookout, Tom Keely – a former environmental activist who has lost his job, his wife and his interest in living – stares down at a smattering of rowdy drunks, fractious kids and moping pensioners. Without binoculars, he can’t see faces; the distance suits his misanthropic mood, and he has to remind himself to “let them be people”, to imagine the stories they carry around with them as they circulate at random or condense in sinister conspiratorial groups.

His comment doubles as the novelist’s admonition to himself: although Winton believes that “everything that lives is holy”, the human beings in his books are often less holy than the trees or the livestock. After all, Luther in Dirt Music dry humps a full-bellied, matriarchal boab, and the household in Cloudstreet includes a Pentecostally gifted pig. In Eyrie, Winton’s poetic metaphors do their best to translate society into nature, and people into simpler, more innocent creatures. Keely views galahs as “the backpackers of the skies”, rowdy freeloaders, and adds “God love em” – but that love is conditional on their not reassuming human form, like the mooring bollard on a pier, which is “bovine, the size of Lang Hancock’s head”. In a cafeteria, Keely “crabbed his way to the cash register” to return with “a blueberry muffin like a bloated toadstool”: for Winton, a nondescript scene like this is only worth describing if he can transform a man into a crustacean, a cake into a fungus. The novel’s biblical epigraph – Isaiah’s prophetic account of the blessed, who “shall mount up with the wings of eagles” – voices Winton’s wish for characters who soar beyond our earthbound plodding. Or perhaps his people belong in the water, not aloft. “Remain a swimmer,” Keely’s mother tells him, aware that his problems begin when he scrambles onto dry land.

Keely is enticed back into membership of his own species when he befriends a neighbour, who is raising her grandson while the boy’s druggy mother is in prison. The boy is autistic, a wise child who stares at a Wandjina and may share the “storm-power” that radiates from the figure’s “owlish eyes”. Kai’s malapropisms make him an instinctive poet: he is “an island of self-possession”, and he challenges prosaic reality by looking at it with quizzical wonder. He corresponds to the angelic girl called Bird in Dirt Music; again the relationship is somehow “unhumanised”, since Keely bonds with Kai by teaching him about birds and taking him on a boating trip to spot an osprey. Crooks and thugs threaten Kai and his adult protectors with maiming and murder, but the ghastliest outrage in Eyrie is ornithological: it occurs when someone torches an aviary.

Keely lost his job because he was behaving like Flanagan: he raised the alarm about the re-zoning of a nature reserve (though when the bulldozers rumbled in, what dismayed him was not the felled trees, which would have been Flanagan’s priority, but a “little black cloud of birds”, violently unhoused). But Keely lacks the sacred rage that Flanagan vented when he attacked Gunns or described Australia’s erstwhile mineral boom as “the greatest environmental catastrophe since creatures even slower-witted than ourselves ruled the planet”. “Where was Jehovah when you needed him for a good old-fashioned punitive landslide?” asks Keely, but he grins as he does so. Flanagan, like the shaman in Peter Weir’s film The Last Wave, is able to summon up such eruptions of divine fury, or can at least co-opt them for his own purposes. The conclusion of The Unknown Terrorist coincides with the sudden hailstorm that pelted Sydney with shards of ice in the winter of 2004, and towards the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North Flanagan accelerates his plot with some assistance from the bushfire that closed in on Hobart in February 1967. When Winton deploys a natural disaster, like the cyclone in Dirt Music, it tends to be benign: as a force of nature, like Shelley’s west wind, how could it not be?

It’s revealing that Winton sends Keely, quite gratuitously, to a concert of English music, a reminder of a remote home where the pacified, daffodil-strewn land is alive with the sound of larks ascending. Keely sobs through the ‘Rondo pastorale’ of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto, while Winton’s description transplants the sweetly bucolic piece to his own marine world by imagining that the soloist is “surfing”. Because of this buoyant optimism, the ecological upsets in Eyrie remain marginal. Keely no longer cares, or idly jokes about Perth’s brash nouveaux riches, one of whom drives an Audi with personalised plates that shout MINE.

Distant voices report on geopolitical convulsions and the collapse of the global economy. Keely’s estranged wife, a lawyer, tells him that she makes monthly trips to China to pay homage to unnamed potentates. He expresses no curiosity about her missions, and is equally nonchalant when his sister, a financier in Singapore, telephones during a rushed trip to London, where she is dissuading bankers from jumping off skyscrapers. His lack of interest matches Winton’s. It’s a tactical error to have Keely liken himself to “a character in a Russian novel” or to make him recall Balzac’s comment on the crimes that lie behind great fortunes; confined to Fremantle, Eyrie doesn’t have the sprawling breadth of the great Russian novels, and it can hardly match Balzac’s minute analysis of the collusion between high society and the underworld. Near the end, while preparing for an implausible showdown with a gangster, the distracted Keely gazes out the window at the sunset. “It was unbearably beautiful,” Winton reports. On the next page he returns to this vanishing point on the burnished ocean and once more has Keely notice that “the sky was magnificent”. The adjectives are untypically leaden, but they serve the purpose of deflection: Winton, who should be concentrating on his plot, can’t stop his eye straying to a horizon where human muddle and novelistic complication melt away in the crimson glare.

At bedtime, Keely croakily chants Isaiah’s aquiline hymn to Kai, and says it is a song he remembers from childhood. The boy, discontented, asks, “But have you got a story?” Like Keely, Winton is better with lyrical rhapsodies – riffs about the “salty grace” of the evening air beside the ocean, or the east wind that tastes “of dust, of crops, the great country” – than with narrative and its messy imbroglios. By contrast, Flanagan, after talking us through his recipe for ciabatta in And What Do You Do, Mr Gable? (2011), makes storytelling the bedrock of conviviality, as essential as food and drink. “Find a kitchen table,” he recommends. “Fill it with friends. Bottles. Stories. And share.” Like Rastignac in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot shaking his fist at Paris from the heights of Montmartre, Winton wants to rail at Perth, the brassy citadel of “digging and dealing”. But he remains a pastoral poet – and a great one – who is ill at ease in the squalid or glossily affluent urban milieu where his novel is set.

While Eyrie potters round in circles on Winton’s habitual turf, The Narrow Road to the Deep North goes on a long and exhausting journey, which also proves to be a round trip. Covering the best part of a century, it follows the life of Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian lad who qualifies as a doctor, does his best to help and heal his agonised comrades in a Japanese prison camp in World War Two, and then in peacetime ages into a grandee, celebrated, by those who don’t know about his private qualms, as an exemplar of national virtue. It has to be called an epic – a study of arms and the man during a war in which “suffering and knowledge” harrowed callow Australians and made them “fully human”. Other writers may have fretted about modernising Australia, in the 1930s and later: in an amusing walk-on, Max Harris here declaims one of his nonsensical ‘Angry Penguin’ poems in an Adelaide bookshop. Flanagan is more concerned with the maturing of Australia than with such modish innovations, and his novel is about the ordeal that prepared the country, personified by those ingenuous POWs, for “an adult life”. He is shy, or perhaps sly, about acknowledging the literary heritage to which he contributes. His subject is Homeric, and at the start Dorrigo ponders the Trojans, the Greeks and the gods who incited and rewarded their violence. But instead of setting himself to measure up to The Iliad or The Odyssey, Flanagan approaches those archetypal poems of force and fatality indirectly, making Dorrigo read, reread and recurrently quote Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, in which a survivor of the war leaves home “to seek a newer world”. 

Virgil, another epic poet, and, like Homer, one of literature’s founding fathers, aimed to discover “the tears of things”. That, too, is one of Flanagan’s objectives. Redefining heroism, he begins The Narrow Road to the Deep North with the disconcerting sight of a grown man crying and, halfway through, after one of the grimmest acts of sadism in the prison camp, the victim shocks and embarrasses his mates by sobbing. These are moments of overwhelming emotional release, which makes Keely’s reaction to Vaughan Williams in Eyrie – “tiny, shaming huffs”, mopped up by a tissue that a woman slips into his hand – seem a little foolish. “No guts, no glory,” says the donor of the Kleenex, challenging Keely to stay for the following piece by Elgar, which he lacks the gumption to do. Flanagan’s characters have the guts and earn the glory. They are starved, tortured and debased, sickened by the stench of gangrene and disgusted by their own animal appetites when the stench from a funeral pyre makes them salivate. The outcome, in Dorrigo’s case, is a tragic reverence for the human spirit.

It’s no accident that Flanagan makes his protagonist a surgeon, just as the backstory of Georgie in Dirt Music describes her career as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, where she tended to a woman with a disfiguring sarcoma that ate up her face. Novels are traditionally an education in empathy and commiseration, and Winton and Flanagan belong, like their medical personnel, to one of the caring professions. But there’s a difference between the extremes to which they are prepared to push their characters. The dying utterance of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“The horror! The horror!”) echoes through The Narrow Road to the Deep North, provoking Flanagan to give a vividly grisly account of obscenities concealed by Conrad’s narrator. “Horror just is,” says Dorrigo, remembering the war: Kurtz’s exclamation becomes a philosophical shrug. Performing an operation in the camp, Dorrigo watches “with rising horror” as blood spews from his convulsed patient’s artery while he races to sew it up. His mind, decades later, is still “a prison camp of horrors”. But in Dirt Music Georgie picks up Luther’s copy of Conrad’s tale and mocks it: “The horror, the horror! she declaims. Is it a bloke-thing, you think?”

Although Winton’s Georgie derides the notion of “the heartless heart of nature”, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North it is nature, rankly fertile and forgetful, that effaces all evidence of our lives and deaths. When the Japanese lose the war and leave the Thai–Burma railway to rust, all that remains is “the heat and the clouds of rain”; the Tasmanian bushfire consumes a hop farm and buries some war medals – mementoes of unsung heroism – under the ashen residue. In both cases, Flanagan looks ahead to regeneration. All things want to live, he says of the resurgent jungle: bamboo will be bamboo, just as man will be man. In scorched Hobart, falling leaves and bark form compost, interring ash “under more layers of rot and peat and new life”.

The postwar world, through which Flanagan even-handedly tracks both the POWs and their Japanese tormenters, comes as an anti-climax: like Eyrie becalmed in pastoral, epic here settles down into romance. In the camp, the prisoners jokily re-enact scenes from the 1940 film Waterloo Bridge, a weepie with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, who meet on the bridge during World War One and fall in love. Believing he has been killed in action, she drifts into prostitution, and finally kills herself by walking in front of a truck on the bridge. Taylor of course is not dead at all, though he returns too late to save her, and during World War Two, grizzled and still grieving, he comes back to the bridge to recall the irretrievable past. Dorrigo’s private life is a variation on the film’s plot, and the climax comes when Flanagan – in a moment of fictional magic that looks at first like sentimental wishful thinking – restages the film’s conclusion on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. “No redemption, no resurrection,” decrees Flanagan when The Unknown Terrorist arrives at its abrupt, explosive end. Here, despite the disclosure of a final sad truth, he seems to be regretting his harshness.

The reasons for this clemency become clear when Dorrigo, dying, fancies that he is reading “a romance which he wanted to end well, with the hero and heroine finding love, with peace and joy and redemption”. No such comforting closure is possible in epic, since any victory will be followed by further wars and more piled-up corpses. But as writers with a national constituency, Flanagan and Winton have a responsibility, almost a political duty, to tell their readers the good news. In Eyrie, Keely’s sister prescribes “salvation without mercy” for the undeserving London bankers she rescues; the denouement that Winton organises omits the qualification, and – after a finale in which Keely gasps, “Thank you. I am well” – implicitly unfurls into something like Dorrigo’s fuzzy romance.

Winton, interviewed in 2008, said that when swimming or surfing he feels “at one with the world” – a state of bliss that makes drowning, as in Cloudstreet, a kind of homecoming. Flanagan can sense the appeal of that absolution, and in The Unknown Terrorist he allows the abused lap dancer to run a bath and treat herself to “the blessing of water”. But the mantra of Dorrigo in The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a more hard-bitten, stoical equivalent to Winton’s Wordsworthian formula: “The world is, he thought. It just is.” Dorrigo’s evidence for that obduracy is Mount Wellington, glimpsed through a porthole as his plane lands in Hobart: the ancestral rock has outlasted epochal schisms, so why shouldn’t we endure, at least for a while? In Flanagan’s Tasmania, this tragic wisdom compels us to accept the past. In Winton’s Western Australia, we can blithely launder our sins in the ocean. It all depends on who you are, where you live and which of these two novelists you adopt as your guide.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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