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An Uneasy Entente Cordiale: on the Trail of Expo 58

 

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EXPO 58 by Jonathan Coe      Penguin     $23.95

As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d review something lighter and more amusing, in keeping with the forthcoming holiday season. Looking over my list this year, it’s been predominantly serious, with the exception of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which continues to do exceptionally well both in Australia and abroad.

Expo 58 was published earlier this year and is one of those books on my list to read for a while.  I hadn’t realised that Brussels had hosted an international exhibition in 1958. The Expo saw pavilions from all around the world erected to showcase the best of international design, art, and lifestyle.  Brussels’ famous Atomium was built to display contemporary engineering, science and creativity in the Exhibition Park. Mandarins, intellectuals and the media swarmed to Brussels to see what the post-war world had to offer.  With what’s described in the book as ‘an example of the Belgian sense of humour’, the US and Russian pavilions (remember, we’re at the height of the Cold War) nestled uncomfortably side by side in a public show of uneasy harmony.

Coe takes the Expo as a starting point for a farce on British mores and international relations. He blends elements of Ealing comedy and Le Carre (with more than a touch of David Lodge) to concoct an irresistible, fast-paced read that’s guaranteed to make you smile – if you appreciate an anglophile sense of the ridiculous.

Thomas is a lowly pen pusher in the Central Office of Information. He’s given the chance to escape his boring public service job and suburban marriage to travel to Brussels and be part of the British delegation at the Expo. His task is ostensibly to oversee the running of the Brittania, a replica of a British pub which takes pride of place near the British pavilion. However, he’s soon caught up in a network of hush-hush activity. Under the guise of camaraderie over a pint, the British, the Russians and the Americans are obviously spying on each other. Plus, there’s Anneke, the beautiful Flemish hostess, who soon captures his attention. Where, in more ways than one, do Thomas’ loyalties lie?

Reading this at a time when Indonesia and Australia are caught up in a “who spied on whom?” scandal, and the recent revelations of American and British phone tapping, Coe’s novel seems both prescient and topical. Plus ҫa change etc etc.  His novel doesn’t pretend to be anything more than lighthearted. And yet, it resonates with profound truths about Great Britain’s attitude to its neighbours  pre EU (usually condescending), a fact that’s particularly ironic considering Britain’s woeful state in 1958.

Having just emerged from rationing and a devastating war, Britain was struggling to get back on her feet. Riddled by a suffocating class system, insular, bridling with suspicion and prejudice against anything new and foreign, the country was stagnating. The liberation of the 60s was yet to occur. No wonder Thomas views a stint at the Expo as a chance to escape his stifling existence.  Here’s his (admittedly naïve) view of all the Expo has to offer, when he first arrives in Brussels: “Here for the next six months, would be thrown together all the nations whose complex relationships, whose conflicts and alliances, whose fraught, tangled histories, had shaped and would continue to shape the destiny of mankind.”

All this seems to be epitomised by the structure of the Atomium itself, which Coe describes as “this brilliant folly… a giant latticework of spheres, unperishable, interconnected, each one emblematic of that tiny mysterious unit man had so recently learned to divide and conquer: the atom. The very sight of it set his heart pounding”.

Of course, the novel is a gradual exploration of loss of innocence. And there are flashes of the real price countries had to pay after the Second World War. Here and there are reminiscences of villages pillaged, houses burned, friends deported, lives in ruin.  But the underpinning seriousness of the message is always deflated by farce and fun.

This is epitomised by the delicious cartoon characters, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford (we never learn their first names), two secret service men in black who recruit Thomas to the cause. With dialogue straight out of PG Wodehouse, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a penchant for tortuous language: “He had the sachet and the packet in the pocket of his jacket”, they’re a comedy duo, caricatured spies who come in from the cold with very English flair.

So if you’re lazing on a beach this summer digging into a raspberry Pav, or tucked up with a hot toddy and Christmas pud  and turkey leftovers near a blazing fire, Expo 58 is a good companion. Definitely recommended.

 

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A JOURNEY TO HELL: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

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Vintage: $32.95

I’m thrilled that Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize for this glorious novel, So well-deserved! I was puzzled he didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year, but no doubt this win will redress the balance. I republish my review here.

Richard Flanagan says: “I feel as if I had written all my books in order to write this book”. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has finally surfaced after five years and numerous drafts. It is an intensely personal novel: as a boy, Flanagan absorbed the stories of his father, a former prisoner of war and one of ‘Weary Dunlop’s Thousand’ who constructed the so-called Thai-Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

These reminiscences bled into Flanagan’s very soul. The result is a novel that spans fifty years, covers war and peace, sweeps us up into an extraordinary love story, and examines both the good and evil in humanity.

At 467 pages, this is a mighty book with a big heart and I can honestly say it’s one of the most memorable I have read this year.

The title is taken from the Japanese haiku poet Basho, who is frequently quoted by the Japanese camp leaders, and as in any haiku, offers multi-layers of meaning. Ultimately, we’ll all travel the same narrow road and must pay the ferryman. Along the way, we’re moulded by memory and experience, and by shifting past and present, chapters that take place today with those from the 1940s, Flanagan builds up a picture of a singular man, and an infamous time in history.

Like Weary Dunlop, Dorrigo Evans is a surgeon. A fettler’s son who outgrows but cannot forget his working-class roots, part of the novel examines Dorrigo’s uneasiness with privilege after the war ends. He marries well, and as a war hero, lives a life of quiet celebrity after a TV documentary brings him to the nation’s attention. A regular after-dinner speaker and sought-after Board member, he feels a fraud– “his fame seemed to him a failure of perception on the parts of others.”

Flanagan contrasts Evans today –  womaniser, loner, doubter, revered public figure – with Evans in the POW camps, thrust unwillingly into the role of negotiator and intermediary with the Japanese camp officials because of his status as an officer. One of the most heart-stopping passages in the book is his plea for the sickest men to be allowed to rest, whilst having to choose 100 others – only marginally less ill – for slave labour the next day.  The haggling over numbers becomes increasingly desperate and Dorrigo knows that the men he sends off will probably never return. For Dorrigo, each man is precious, to the Japanese, each is simply a pawn for glorifying the Emperor by building the railway. Their different views of loyalty and honour make for powerful narrative parallels.

The atrocious and inhumane conditions of the camp are recreated in vivid detail, and the men themselves, with their varied backgrounds, are a microcosm of Australia, “bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards.” In protecting them as best he can, Dorrigo becomes the reluctant hero of legend.

This savage account is bookended by a love story, both erotic and tender, as flashbacks reveal how Dorrigo meets and falls in love with Amy, his uncle’s much younger wife. It’s a doomed passion that flowers, fades but never dies over the course of half a century, and Flanagan gives the reader gradual glimpses of the adulterous affair that build, after a carefully-plotted final reveal, to a truly devastating conclusion that turns him into the complex, tortured man we meet at the start of the novel.  However, the women are never as fully realised as the men and even Flanagan’s portrait of Amy appears token at times.

The Narrow Road’s main concerns remain male-focused. What is the nature of suffering and power, are men who commit evil redeemable through subsequent acts of mercy? Flanagan’s camp leader Major Nakamura is a case in point, a man who recites poetry while men are slaughtered, yet who turns over a new leaf after the war, attempting to do good. Flanagan remains non-judgmental. Dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is too simple. Even Dorrigo is deeply flawed. There is no objective history:  it is selective, malleable, twisted even, frequently by the minds of the men who were there. Everyone has to survive and overcome their past as best they can.

The Narrow Road has “prizewinner” and “film-ability” written all over it. It’s a memorable tribute to Flanagan’s father. Novels rarely make me weep – this one did. I cried for the POWs because Flanagan depicts them as fully-fleshed individuals, for the vicariousness of life, its injustices and disappointments. But the beauty of this novel also brought a lump to my throat. Flanagan’s prose is tessellated, honed with a silver knife. Such poetry in such desperation. Such anguish. Such love.

Read it: Because it’s one of the best Australian books published in 2013. No question.


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Literary time capsule: Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki    Published by Text, $32.99

Ruth Ozeki has always been a writer with a conscience. (It’s no accident that apart from being a novelist, she’s also a Buddhist priest.) In her first novel, My Year of Meats, she drew attention to the noxious additives and hormones used in raising livestock and meat processing; like Barbara Kingsolver and others, political agenda is deeply rooted in her fiction. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, blends fantasy and history with Ozeki’s concerns about pollution and the environment. And for good measure, there’s a big dose of quantum physics, Japanese pop culture and Zen Buddhism thrown in.

Confused? Go with the flow. This is a fairy tale for our time. Time being the operative word. But I’ll get to that. This review, rather like the novel itself, may meander. And what is time anyway? A series of collapsible portholes through which to view the present and the past. (Ozeki’s obviously got to me, I’m going all Zen.)

On a remote island on the Pacific coast of Canada, Ruth, a novelist, lives with her husband Oliver. A keen beachcomber, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up onshore. Inside, there’s a diary written in Japanese. Luckily Ruth, who is half-Japanese herself, can read it. She discovers it belongs to a 16 year-old schoolgirl called Nao (pronounced ‘now’). Bullied at school because she has spent much of her childhood in America and deeply miserable, Nao intends to kill herself, but before she does she wants to recount the life of her beloved grandmother, the 105-year old Buddhist nun and feminist, Jiko.

Ruth, who is herself trying to write a memoir of her mother, becomes fascinated with Nao. Did she perish in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake? If not, where is she? Ruth puts her own writing aside and embarks on a quest to find her. The novel interweaves Ruth’s Google searches and increasingly frantic emails to potential sources of information, with pages from Nao’s diary, which gradually reveal much about her family’s history. The reader finds out about Nao’s chronically depressed and suicidal father, and the uncle she never met, a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Part detective novel, part meditative Zen koān, the novel unfolds like a series of Chinese boxes, each theme opening up to the next.

Let’s look at “reality versus unreality” first.  The protagonist of the novel is called “Ruth”, like Ozeki herself, and the real Ruth Ozeki, like her fictitious counterpart, is married to a man called Oliver. Yet the fictional Ruth is not Ruth Ozeki, novelist. They look very different, and though they share a common half-American, half Japanese heritage, they are clearly not the same person.

So why does Ozeki call her leading character Ruth? Is it to draw attention to the novelist’s craft of fabrication and make-believe? Nao and her diary are clearly not “real” in a tangible sense, although they feel real in the time-zone of reading and the close bond forged between reader and writer through the pages of a novel. Yet Ozeki constantly pokes holes at this relationship by including copious footnotes painstakingly explaining references to Japanese culture, Buddhist practise and history – each time a footnote is looked up, suspension of disbelief is thwarted and the reader is jolted back to the present, becoming conscious that the work is one of fiction.

Another theme is that of time. The novel covers several time frames, Nao’s recent past, Ruth’s present, and even further back in history to the days of the Second World War where Nao’s uncle was a “sky soldier”. The preamble to the book is taken from a Zen Buddhist text saying that any Tom, Dick or Harry is: For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky.

This echoes the Buddhist belief that both the inanimate and the animate are inextricably intertwined. But it also introduces the theme of humans as “beings in time”. Nao (Now, get it?), Oliver, Ruth and all the characters in the book are “time beings”, who exist in their personal time zones and also elsewhere in the novelist and reader’s imaginations. Here, quantum physics comes in, in relation to the fact that particles can also behave like waves and can never be pinned down in time or space – the moment you try to do so, they behave like something else.

Nao’s diary is also – coincidentally or not – wrapped up in a faux cover – that of Proust’s epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past. Elusive, but potentially full of clues, one moment revealing its full text and then mysteriously showing Ruth blank pages, it behaves like a quantum physics particle, in, out and of its time.

Within this complex structure, Ozeki introduces themes of pollution and environmental catastrophe, as seen by the tsunami itself, oddly migrating bird species, unusual flotsam and jetsam, and the intricacy of global wave cycles.  It is also a critique of contemporary Japanese society, where the penalty for not being successful or fitting in with cultural norms has bred a generation of reclusives and a suicide rate among the under 25s that is three times higher than that of the USA. Yet within all this, Ruth herself seems little more than a catalyst for Nao’s overpowering story and cataclysmic life events. The more we get to know Nao, the less tangible Ruth seems, until she appears little more than a tangle of footnotes (163 to be exact), facts, emails and hypotheses.

It’s as if Ozeki were concentrating so hard on the novel’s many themes that she bypasses the narrative arc of one of her principle characters.  If A Tale for the Time Being leaves the reader up in the air, it is because the fictitious Ruth seems much less “real” than the fictitious Nao. But in the dynamics of quantum physics, that might be precisely Ozeki’s point.

LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI NEXT WEEK ON MY PAGETURNERS PODCAST: I’LL POST A LINK ON BOOKS NOW!