June 2018

by Helen Elliott

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin
This collection of bracing essays interrogates how we view the past

“Axiomatic” comes from the Greek axioma, meaning “that which is thought to fit”. It first appeared in English during the 18th century, the century of Reason and Enlightenment. Use of the word in our century – of rampant sentimentality and unreason – has declined, but it still serves for something being self-evident. The idea of self-evidence destabilises Maria Tumarkin, so she writes her way through it.

Writes? Too loose a term for what Tumarkin is doing in these essays (Brow Books; $34.95). You must be both ruthless and creative to excavate purpose behind the language the way she does. She strides (sometimes blasts) through the psychological landscape, picking up every detail, thought and person that catches her eye, examining them, turning them over in her hands to figure out what she is looking at. If she has any success in this arduous business, if a scrap of light flickers back at her, there will have been an exchange. Her understanding will have expanded. And she will feel obliged to pass whatever it is she has learnt to you, the reader. It is bracing.

Bracing can also be exhausting, so take these essays in small sips. Or gulps. And you’ll need a clear head because Tumarkin is argumentative. Her own mind is a panoramic demonstration of dialectical thinking. If the basic philosophical question is “How are we to live?”, Tumarkin filters out a sub-question: How are we to live after trauma? And there are degrees of trauma. When the soul of a child has been so traumatised, how does that child become a functioning adult? And what is “functioning”? Or even “adult”? Tumarkin is fantastically interested in her own childhood back in Ukraine – she came to Australia when she was 15 – but equally interested in the lives and experiences of others. They include her friend Vera, one of “the adults made as children to witness and endure things monstrous, intolerable”. Vera refers to herself as an “unresolved walking trauma”. Try to describe that. So Tumarkin tries.

Tumarkin is searching for words to give meaning – not reason – a starting place. If we know what some humans can do to others, how is it possible to be sanely human ourselves? She makes the terrible point that there could be a time when, in our desire for lightness and pleasure, for the fairytale ending to absolutely everything, the word “Holocaust” will be forgotten. Wilful forgetting is easier than wilful remembering.

Axiomatic is a series of open-ended essays about different people, as well as Tumarkin’s own intense experiences of love and friendship. Consoling pieties do not interest her. There is no resolution, no comfort. It is a bleak view of the world, but for many people, including Tumarkin’s friend Vera, “That’s how it goes.” This happened. That happened. I am here. You are here. Lucky for us Tumarkin is here, too. Trying.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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