April 2016

Noted
by Michael Lucy

‘The Diemenois’ by JW Clennett
Hunter Publishers; $39.95

In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte sent out an expedition to New Holland (as Australia was then called) under the command of Nicolas Baudin. The expedition was a great success; over the next four years the French sailors charted much of the south coast of the mainland, as well as twice visiting Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Meanwhile, back in Europe, France and Britain went to war. The British colonists in New South Wales, suspecting the French had left settlers in Van Diemen’s Land, decided to establish an outpost of their own.

In our timeline, the British colonists’ fears were unfounded, but in the illustrated and elaborately documented mock-history of The Diemenois (“a novel in pictures”, according to its overstuffed old-style title page), a small French settlement named Baudin is perched precariously on the north-west coast of Van Diemen’s Land (or Terre de Diemen Ouest, as it’s called here). And – to stretch credibility a little further – it seems that Napoleon did not die in 1821, exiled on the Atlantic isle of St Helena; it might be that he was spirited away to live on, incognito, keeping bees in Baudin.

It’s a strong premise, and from it the story proceeds in two directions at once. The adventures of the former emperor – sorry, Monsieur Claudet – and his fellow Diemenois are overlaid with the notes of a modern-day researcher who becomes obsessed with the idea that Claudet was indeed Napoleon.

Alternative histories, whether designed to right real-world wrongs or to answer forever-unresolvable what ifs, have a long history of their own. In the 1830s, for instance, the Frenchman Louis Geoffroy wrote a detailed counterfactual account of Napoleon’s conquest of the world. The conceit became ever more popular with the rise of sci-fi. In 1962 Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers win World War Two, was an off-kilter oddity; by 2004 Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh becomes US president, won near-universal acclaim. Perhaps in an ever more fictive-seeming present we want to be reminded of its contingent nature, of how easily things could have been otherwise.

Alternative history might also serve to highlight the strangeness of real history, and in this The Diemenois does not disappoint. The lonely gothic weirdness of early Tasmanian settlement is on full display: the isolation and displacement of the Europeans on foreign soil underpins everything, and violence is only ever just outside the frame.

Despite the unsettling atmospherics, The Diemenois rattles along very enjoyably as Monsieur Claudet’s past threatens to catch him up and the present-day historian closes in on his quarry. There’s a twist at the end that may or may not be played entirely fair, but checking the details will be as good an excuse as any to read the book again.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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